Everybody's Corrupt

You may not know that Theodore Roosevelt once served as police commissioner for the City of New York. As a student of muckraker Lincoln Steffens and a life-long fan of T.R. I knew a little about it. I knew he had trouble with the police culture of New York, the corrupt Democratic machine, and the way things were generally done in the city. But I didn't know the details, or how badly things went for him, until I read Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, by Richard Zacks.

It was the Protestant preachers, in particular the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, who first cast the light of general scrutiny on the sin that New York loved: prostitution, drink, and gambling. Parkhurst went out one night with a flash fellow of his acquaintance and took a tour of the low places of the city in order to denounce them from the pulpit. He was so horrified that he went out again the next night, and the night after. He soon roused the respectable people of the city, which is to say, the Republicans, to demand that the city be cleansed of sin. No illegal activity could take place without the complicity of the police. The Lexow commission hearings revealed them to be on the take, a great public scandal.

The aroused citizens voted out the Tammany mayor. The new mayor appointed the high-minded Theodore Roosevelt to the Police Commission to clean up the town. He started by creeping through the bad neighborhoods at night in disguise, getting the dirt on all the negligent cops he saw there. They began to shape up and look sharp. He forced them to raid all the brothels. No one was safe. He decreed that snitches were no longer to be paid for information, since they were criminals themselves and didn't deserve it. No undeserving person was to have a break. Homeless? Get a job. No longer would the homeless be allowed to sleep in the basements of police stations, on bare planks. They must report to the homeless shelter run by Protestant clergymen, where they would be forced to chop wood for three hours for their night's lodging.

Roosevelt closed all the bars on Sundays, because that was the law, handed down by the Republican legislators in Albany. Now in those days Sunday was the working man's only day off, his only solace a drink of beer. New Yorkers began to yearn for the return of Tammany. But Theodore Roosevelt was stiff-necked. Political expediency was never a part of his vocabulary. Right was right, and the law was the law. In vain did thirsty newspaper writers point out that the rich folks could drink at home on Sundays, or in their pricey hotels.

Then the wife of a prominent and powerful citizen was robbed of her jewels.

Without a stable of underworld informers to ferret out the thief, the police were helpless. Now it became apparent that virtue didn't work, not in New York City, perhaps not anywhere. Everyone, high and low, benefitted from the slimy network of corruption and bribery that the city ran on in ordinary times, and they wanted it back again. The rest is history. Roosevelt went on to become President of the United States, but that's a story for another day.

Kate Gallison