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Teddy Roosevelt's 'Doomed' War On New York Vice

Richard Zacks is the author of <em>The Pirate Hunter</em>, <em>An Underground Education</em> and <em>History Laid Bare</em>.
Kristine Y. Dahl / Courtesy Doubleday
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Richard Zacks is the author of <em>The Pirate Hunter</em>, <em>An Underground Education</em> and <em>History Laid Bare</em>.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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