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Robber Cops in New York’s Gilded Age

books and culture

Robber Cops in New York’s Gilded Age

A rollicking history of police corruption and urban reform July 29, 2016
Arts and Culture
Public safety
New York

New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era, by Daniel Czitrom (Oxford University Press, 416 pp., $27.95)

On February 14, 1892, the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, pastor of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church on Twenty-Fourth Street and Madison Avenue, harangued a packed congregation of 1,200 parishioners on the scriptural verse “Ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:12), charging that “the municipal life of our city is thoroughly rotten.” Far from upholding the Christian principles laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, New Yorkers had allowed their city to become a byword for official corruption, the plaything of “polluted harpies,” who, “under the pretense of governing this city, are feeding day and night on its quivering vitals.” What could justify such vitriolic language? Most of the city’s dance halls, saloons, gambling dens, and brothels, Parkhurst charged, were subject to “thoroughly systemized” police extortion. Only by exposing the betrayal of the public trust by the police department and its political cohorts could New York’s law-abiding citizens begin to reform the corruption of “this rum-besotted and Tammany debauched town.”

Thus does Daniel Czitrom open his well-researched history of the police scandal of 1892, which, as his subtitle attests, “launched the Progressive Era.” An historian of the NYPD, Czitrom shows not only how the exposure of Tammany Hall corruption led to the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, who was appointed police commissioner in 1895 and elected governor in 1898, but also how the Tammany political machine sought to mask its usual protection rackets by assuming the mantle of progressive reform. As Czitrom notes, it “shifted its politics from one defined by personal, service-based appeals and negative government toward one more centered on legislative achievements in social welfare.”

Czitrom makes good use of the 6,000-page transcript of the 1894 Lexow Committee hearings that aired the filthy linen of the Tammany bosses and their police conspirators. He also introduces his readers to a gallery of fascinating characters. Thomas F. Byrnes, the police superintendent, “filled the upper world with respect and the lower world with terror” and got off lightly when it became clear that he could provide useful cover for corrupt Democrats and Republicans alike. Alexander S. Williams, captain of the 29th Precinct, gave the Tenderloin district its name (“I have been living on rump steak in the Fourth Precinct,” he announced when transferred to a precinct rife with saloons and bawdy houses. “I will have some Tenderloin now.”) Known by colleagues as the “champion clubber” in honor of the zest with which he wielded his truncheon, Williams stonewalled the committee with inspired unflappability. And then there is Harry Hill, the famous vaudeville impresario and dance hall owner, who tried to play the extortionist game by the book, until he “went back on the buttons” and was put out of business.

After pointing out that Progressivism was not a unified movement but a collection of “reform communities,” Czitrom notes how Parkhurst’s personal outrage was taken up, first, by Republican senator Clarence Lexow and his committee, and then by reform-minded publications like McClure’s and Munsey’s, which appealed to the desire of New Yorkers and Americans generally for accountable, ethical government in an age when many were being defrauded by politicians. It’s also noteworthy that the legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens cut his teeth at the Evening Post covering the police scandal, though, like many progressives, he ended his days an unrepentant Stalinist.

The extent of the corruption can be gauged by the extraordinary personal wealth of its beneficiaries. Richard Croker, the boss who ran Tammany in the 1880s and 1890s, was a multimillionaire, even though a portion of his wealth came from real estate and horse breeding. Superintendent Byrnes had a personal fortune of $350,000 (or $9.6 million in today’s dollars). Inspector Williams was also a multimillionaire, owning a townhouse on East Tenth Street, a steam yacht, and a summer home in Cos Cob, Connecticut. When asked how a police inspector could afford such things on an annual salary of $3,000, Williams blithely replied, “I bought real estate in Japan and it has increased in value.”

Another measure of the scale of the corruption can be found in Harry Hill’s testimony to the committee, in which he described how Democratic and Republican police departments extorted payments from him when he ran his popular dance hall on Houston Street. For over 30 years, he made monthly payments of $50, Christmas gifts of $100, and intermittent payoffs of up to $1,000. Multiply these levies by all the saloons, dance halls, gambling dens, and brothels in the city, and you get a sense of how vast the vice economy was. Czitrom quotes the Morning Advertiser’s estimate that the police collected $600,000 every month and more than $7 million a year—or $196 million in 2016 dollars.

The scandal had real human effects, too, best illustrated by the story of Caela Urchittel, a Russian Jewish widow who owned a cigar store on Broome and Ridge Streets. After she opened her shop, the police accused her of running a disorderly house and told her that unless she forked over $50, they would arrest her. When she refused, Max Hochstim, a Tammany saloon owner and “fixer” among immigrant Jews, extracted the required $50 (which he divvied up with two patrolmen), though this did not prevent her arrest. Once released, Urchittel returned to her home behind the cigar store only to be met with another patrolman demanding another $50. When she refused this payment, the patrolman threw her into the Tombs for three days on a trumped-up charge of prostitution, and her three children were dispatched to the Hebrew Benevolent Orphan Society on 136th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Having sold her cigar store to pay the $50 fine imposed by the court, Urchittel begged the Society to return her children, but it refused. Falling ill after this phantasmagoric ordeal, she spent six months in the hospital, after which she opened a candy store on Lower Broadway. When she testified before the Lexow Committee, she had not seen her three young children for 17 months. “No story told before the committee,” Czitrom quotes the New York Sun as reporting, “has so deeply affected the senators who heard it.” Here was a side of police extortion that no one could confuse with amiable roguery.

Another aspect of the scandal was the sheer scope of the city’s prostitution. When Rudyard Kipling visited London in the 1890s, he wrote verses that would have resonated with New York reformers. “And when I take my nightly prowl/‘Tis passing good to meet/The pious Briton lugging home/His wife and daughter sweet/Through four packed miles of seething vice/Thrust upon the street.” New York’s sex trade was no less extensive. Yet, as Czitrom shows, few New Yorkers had any idea of just how wretched the approximately 25,000 to 50,000 prostitutes were who supplied the trade. Parkhurst, for all his reformist ardor, was indifferent to the houseless heads and unfed sides of these desperate women, telling the New York Times that he did not care whether they “starve or freeze on the streets” so long as he could “keep them moving” and “hunt them out of the city.” In the Calvinist scheme of charity, compassion never predominated. Still, Parkhurst’s hard-heartedness points up an inveterate trait among Progressives. With Lionel Trilling, they must always avow: “We who are liberal and progressive know that the poor are our equals in every sense except that of being equal to us.”

Tammany leaders used the language and tactics of Progressive reform to stifle the outcry against their corruption. Czitrom portrays a New York pullulating with anti-Tammany groups, from the City Vigilance League and Charity Organization Society to the Good Government Clubs and the Society for the Prevention of Crime, all of which came to define Progressive reform before Tammany co-opted it. Indeed, the real heroes of this history are not the reformers and their allies—who were always engaged in a Sisyphean crusade—but the Tammany bosses who usurped progressivism for their own ends. The Tammany Tiger never lost its spots; Czitrom notes how Parkhurst went to his grave in 1933, a spry 91, “insisting that Tammany corruption was no different than it had been forty years ago.”

Czitrom does his best to put the Tammany pioneers of what he calls “urban liberalism” in a respectable light. Accordingly, he cites how the Tammany boss “Big Tim” Sullivan joined with the National Consumer League to demand legislation limiting the legal work hours of more than 400,000 women employed in textile shops, canneries, candy factories, and other workplaces to 54 hours a week—but only after 147 immigrant women had lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. He cites the initiatives that Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith and State Senator Robert F. Wagner undertook to attain tougher laws for workplace safety, fire regulations, and building codes, though he is predictably mum on the Byzantine regulations that current-day progressives have imposed to aggrandize government and stultify private business. Instead, Czitrom contends: “A crucial transformation of the Democratic Party was underway. By the 1920s, under Smith’s governorship, and through the New Deal era, ‘machine politics’ helped define and provide the social base for an urban liberalism that looked to the state and federal government for improving conditions of everyday life.” This sounds plausible enough but also raises questions. What is the true record of “urban liberalism”? How, specifically, have state and federal government improved the conditions of everyday life in our cities? Czitrom doesn’t say.

Quibbles aside, Czitrom’s knowledge of his subject is encyclopedic, and he writes with commendable brio. New York Exposed is an impressive study that anyone with serious interest in New York or American history will find instructive and engaging.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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