Teddy Roosevelt's 'Doomed' War On New York Vice
New York in the gilded age was a city of epic contrasts. Top-hatted swells in glossy carriages promenaded uptown, while just a few blocks south, poverty, crime and overcrowding were the order of the day.
And vice, let's not forget vice. New York was what was called a "wide-open" town, with gambling, prostitution and liquor available on almost every corner. The cops and the Democratic machine politicians of Tammany Hall mostly looked the other way — when they weren't actively involved.
But in 1895, a new sheriff came to town. Literally. Voters threw out the corrupt Democratic administration in favor of reform-minded Republicans, and Theodore Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner.
Author Richard Zacks tells weekends on All Things Considered host Laura Sullivan that Roosevelt was a man on a mission: He was going to root out the corruption, and vice and clean up the city.
"In hindsight, what he was trying to do, it's like somebody going into Vegas and just saying, there's gonna be no more gambling," says Zacks, the author of the new book Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York.
The book's title pretty much says it all: While Roosevelt had the best of intentions, he faced a terribly uphill battle.
"It was mind-boggling," Zacks says. "This was the dirtiest city, policemen were taking bribes to let you do almost anything."
Roosevelt was up against adversaries like Capt. William "Big Bill" Devery, terror of the Eldridge Street precinct house. "Notorious for 'see, hear, say nothing; eat, drink, pay nothing,'" Zacks says. "He was one of the most corrupt cops in New York City history. Winds up becoming chief of police."
Roosevelt initially enjoyed great success and popularity for standing up to men like Devery, but he squandered that political capital on a hopeless crusade: enforcing the city's Sunday liquor sales ban.
"I think Roosevelt didn't see any gray areas," Zacks says. "He saw black and white, and this was illegal, it was conspicuous, everyone knew about it, and he went after it."
In his determination to enforce all the laws — even the unpopular ones — Roosevelt earned the anger of almost the entire city. Voters turned against the reforming Republicans, sweeping Tammany back into office in the next election. And Roosevelt went on to a much broader stage: national politics.
"I think the lasting impact was more for Roosevelt, frankly, than for the city," Zacks says. "He learned to make speeches ... he learned to handle an audience ... he found himself on the front pages of the newspapers and he had to deal with it. He also achieved a national reputation as a law-and-order reform Republican. And it worked very well for him."
LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.
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SULLIVAN: New York, in the gilded age, was a city of epic contrasts. Top-hatted swells in glossy carriages uptown, while just a few blocks south, poverty, crime and overcrowding were the order of the day. And vice, let's not forget vice. New York was called a wide-open town, with gambling, prostitution and liquor available on almost every corner. The cops and the Democratic machine politicians of Tammany Hall mostly looked the other way - when they weren't actively involved.
But in 1895, a new sheriff came to town, literally. Voters threw out the corrupt Democratic administration in favor of reform-minded Republicans, and Theodore Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner. Our book today is "Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York." And earlier this week, I met up with author Richard Zacks for a tour of Teddy Roosevelt's old stomping grounds.
All right. So where are we right now? Where?
RICHARD ZACKS: We're at 300 Mulberry Street...
SULLIVAN: 300 Mulberry. OK.
ZACKS: ...which used to be police headquarters. And this...
SULLIVAN: Is this? Right here?
ZACKS: This, yeah. I mean, this boring brick apartment building and this garage used to be police headquarters. And Teddy Roosevelt came in here like a hurricane to just clean up all the graft, all the corruption. It was mind-boggling. This was the dirtiest city. Policemen were taking bribes to do - let you do almost anything. And Roosevelt - in hindsight, what he was trying to do, it's like somebody going into Vegas and just saying there's going to be no more gambling.
SULLIVAN: Zacks leads me on a ramble around the Lower East Side, once one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York.
ZACKS: Delancey Street is, especially among Jewish people, is revered as, you know, Delancey Street, Lower East Side, push carts, all the rest of it. Well, Eight, 10, 12, 14 and 16 Delancey Street were all brothels. So anyhow, I'm walking along here, and I'm just kind of looking for - because I know Six, Eight, 10 and 12 are going to be former brothels, and what do I come on? The Bowery Ballroom...
SULLIVAN: You're kidding.
ZACKS: ...which is a club that, you know, has lots of performances. But at some point, this location was a brothel and the One Mile House next door as well.
SULLIVAN: And so it turns out it's still a bar today.
ZACKS: It's still in the entertainment business.
SULLIVAN: Still in the entertainment business.
ZACKS: No doubt.
SULLIVAN: And there were 150 more brothels within a mile of the street corner we're standing on. He leads me farther east on Delancey to the former site of a uniquely New York institution: a Raines law hotel. You see, liquor sales were illegal on Sundays, a fact that the cops ignored.
Teddy Roosevelt decided he was going to change that. He was going to enforce all the laws, even if they were unpopular. His Dry Sunday campaign earned him the ire of almost everyone in the city, but it was reasonably successful at first, until the state legislature decided to get involved.
ZACKS: John Raines, state senator, comes forward and decides he's going to give Roosevelt even more ammunition to shut down the saloons on Sundays. He's going to pass a law that includes the fact that the saloons must be - their front doors must be locked, side doors locked as well, and their curtains open so the police could look in and see whether the bars were operating on Sundays.
And it also had a clause that said hotels, if they had 10 bedrooms or more, could serve liquor 24/7 with a meal. And at first, when it passed April - when it went into affect April 1, 1896, New York thought it was going to become just dead dry on Sundays.
People were appalled. The headlines all said that. And then about a week later, all - more than 1,000 saloon keepers began converting their saloons to hotels, to Raines law hotels. And no one knew if it would work. They just started converting. One guy converted an attic, and he said that only a midget could stand up in one of my 10 rooms, you know?
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SULLIVAN: So they made 10 little closets upstairs.
ZACKS: Right. One guy used a coal bin. They made 10 little closets. But you know who the building inspectors were? They were Tammany Hall guys, and they wanted to let everybody drink and have a good time. So they OK'd these 10 rooms, and not only could they serve on Sundays, they could serve all night long. New York really became the city that never sleeps because you had over 1,000 Raines law hotels open all night long.
SULLIVAN: All night long.
SULLIVAN: Were they actually selling food?
ZACKS: Oh, that's the funny part. They - Eugene O'Neill wrote in one of his plays about seeing a mummified ham and cheese sandwich. Nobody wanted to eat the sandwiches. And there were like all these jokes about that sort of thing. When the bartender yells to the owner, we've got to stop serving, the owner says, why? Did we run out of beer? The bartender says, no. Some yokel ate the sandwich. There's not another one on the whole East Side.
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SULLIVAN: As nasty as that sandwich sounds, Raines law hotels were almost respectable compared to other New York drinking establishments.
ZACKS: Thirty-nine Mulberry was one of the stale beer dives, one of the really raunchiest most derelict bottom of the food chain joints to go have a drink.
SULLIVAN: They called them stale beer dives.
ZACKS: Yeah. The stuff was the leavings of the bars around the rest of the city. The guys would go and beg the leftover, buy the leftover stuff. Literally, they'd wipe the bar down, and then have the rag, wring out the rag into a bucket, and that would be the kind of swill that they were selling for like a penny a can. And this was one of the most derelict parts of the city. This was Falvalli's(ph) stale beer dive.
SULLIVAN: So what were the cops doing when all this was going on? Part of the answer lies here on Eldridge Street, one of the most notorious streets on the lower East Side.
ZACKS: They had a police precinct house at 107 Eldridge, and that's where Captain "Big Bill" Devery, who was, you know, notorious for "see, hear, say nothing, eat, drink, pay nothing." He was the - one of the most corrupt cops in New York City history, winds up becoming chief of police. And...
SULLIVAN: He became the chief of police?
ZACKS: Yeah. He was indicted four times, beats the wrap four times, becomes the chief of police.
SULLIVAN: Well, that worked out pretty well for him, then.
ZACKS: And it worked out even better. He co-founded the New York Yankees. True story.
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SULLIVAN: When Teddy Roosevelt first went after corrupt cops like Big Bill Devery, Roosevelt was enormously popular. But back in the studio, Zacks tells me that Roosevelt's inability to bend on enforcing even the most minor laws eventually did him in.
ZACKS: It played much better outside the city than inside the city. But he tried so hard. The city was so corrupt. And the idea of a man standing up and trying to enforce the law against drinking in saloons on Sundays, it's mind-boggling. Or the law against all the little petty briberies that went on that the police shook down bootblacks and push cart guys and all that. Roosevelt wanted an absolutely clean city. And this was Sodom, and Roosevelt didn't back down.
SULLIVAN: Why would he push so hard for something that was so unpopular? I mean, he was doing so well. And then he went for the one thing. It seems like, from your book, that most people wanted to get rid of some of the corruption. But he started targeting the thing that they enjoyed the most.
ZACKS: He did. I think Roosevelt had - didn't see any gray areas. He saw black and white. And this was illegal, it was conspicuous, everyone knew about it, and he went after it. And there's another reason that could come into play, although Roosevelt didn't bring up this reason, but his brother had died of alcohol-related causes eight or nine month earlier.
So it was fresh in his mind. He - when he went to his brother's house after his brother died, there were dozens of empty liquor bottles in the rooms. So Roosevelt had been personally hurt by this experience.
SULLIVAN: Was he always so inflexible?
ZACKS: I limited myself to 1895 to 1897. He was very rigid during that period. When he got an idea, he stuck with it. And A, he admitted a little regret to his sister in a private note. He said he hit an ugly snag, the Sunday saloon law, and he said that he had harmed - the saloon owner he didn't mind harming, but also some good people for which I am sorry. But New Yorkers would never hear the word sorry from Roosevelt's mouth.
SULLIVAN: What was the impact of those two years of slogging it out, day in and day out, fighting with everybody, pushing so hard? Did it have any sort of lasting impact?
ZACKS: I think the lasting impact was more for Roosevelt, frankly, than for the city. The lasting impact for Roosevelt was he learned to make speeches, more aggressive speeches. He learned to handle an audience. He learned to handle criticism. He found himself on the front page of newspapers and he had to deal with it. He also achieved a national reputation as a law and order reform Republican, and it worked very well for him.
SULLIVAN: That's Richard Zacks. He's the author of "Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York." Richard, thank you so much for joining us.
ZACKS: Oh, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.