New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Mayors & Bosses

Charles F. Murphy, Kingmaker

Until 1961 Tammany Hall dominated the New York County Democratic Committee. Tammany was among the oddest, most enduring, and most effective political machines in American history: a fraternal and patriotic society, with arcane initiations and ceremonies drawn from white legends of Chief Tamanend, a Delaware Indian. Its members were braves, its officers the Wiskinkie and the Sagamore, and its elders the Sachems. At times, Tammany resembled nothing so much as a Raccoon Lodge of ballot box stuffers. As one parodist wrote:

Tammany Hall’s a patriotic outfit,
Tammany Hall’s an old society.
Fourth of July it always waves the flag, boys,
But never will it waive immunity.

On Independence Day 1905, the braves gathered as usual at the Wigwam—located then at Fourteenth Street near Irving Place—to hear the Long Talk and then partake of the Great Feast and drink of the Waters of Life. On the stage sat the Council of Sachems, including the boss, Charles F. Murphy. All wore ceremonial sashes, medals, frock coats, stiff collars, and silk hats despite a room temperature of 105 degrees. After the Long Talk, all rose to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Off to the side, William Riordan, the New York Sun’s political reporter, observed Murphy closely. As the meeting broke, Riordan caught up with the Secretary of the Democratic County Committee. “What’s with Murphy?” Riordan asked. “He didn’t sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.'”

“Perhaps he didn’t want to commit himself,” the Secretary replied.

Charles Francis Murphy, Tammany’s chief from 1902 to 1924, was a legend, ominously shrouded in silence, mystery, and power. As a contemporary noted, only two local autocrats, New York Giants manager John McGraw and Charles F. Murphy, were universally addressed as “Mister.”

If silence can be flamboyant, then Mr. Murphy was an exhibitionist. Asked by a passerby for the time, Mr. Murphy would gaze back benignly, pull out his pocket watch, and hold it up to the questioner’s eyes, never opening his mouth. He left no records, formal speeches, or letters and granted no interviews of consequence. He once murmured, “Never write when you can speak; never speak when you can nod; never nod when you can blink.” Eighteen words was extravagance in Murphy’s taciturn world.

U30727INPHis motivations were inexplicable to his closest friends and one could only infer the obvious: politics was a road to success, honors, and wealth for an ambitious man who had been born poor.

The Murphys were so obscure that no one is sure of his father’s first name. The second of nine children, Charles F. Murphy was born in 1856. He became a manual laborer at the age of fourteen and then a horsecar driver. In 1876, he organized a baseball team. He was a good catcher and received several offers from professional clubs. But in 1880 he used his life savings of $500 to open a bar, Charlie’s Place, at 19th Street and Avenue A, where Stuyvesant Town now stands. He sold a beer and a cup of soup for five cents, frequently tended bar, and offered a sympathetic ear.

In 1892, he became district leader. He kept tabs on his voters, and if any Democrat in the district hadn’t voted by 3 PM, Mr. Murphy sent him a card by a messenger, respectfully inviting him to the polls. Mr. Murphy could be found standing under an old gas lamp every night outside his clubhouse, available to anyone who needed to see him. Hard work and accessibility piled up huge majorities for the Democratic ticket.

Then and later, conversations with Mr. Murphy were brief and one-sided. The supplicant spoke for a minute or two. Then Mr. Murphy nodded yes or no. His promises were carefully considered and conservatively granted.  Once made they were binding, no matter how circumstances might change.

Tammany was the intermediary between the poor—particularly the immigrant poor—and American society. The poor gave Tammany their votes. In return, Tammany provided jobs and handouts. The leadership used its power for profit. During the early nineteenth century, Tammanyites such as Samuel Swartout, U.S. Collector of Customs and embezzler, literally grabbed the money and ran. The Tweed Ring took kickbacks from contractors. Boss Croker extorted bribes from whorehouses, gambling halls, and illegal bars in exchange for protection from law enforcement.mr._murphy_at-tammany

The local reformers, then as now, were more interested in cutting expenses than in easing the lives of the common people. They often tried to enforce an arid Protestant morality requiring rigid observance of the Sunday closing laws (which, in the context of a six-day week, meant workers had no fun at all). By contrast, Tammany winked at Sunday openings, passed out free turkeys at Christmas, buckets of coal during the winter, and free ice during the summer, and maintained the personal contacts that gave and still give a sense of security to the poor. Reform offered justice. Tammany offered mercy. In a world of sinners, mercy wins every time.

In 1897, Charles F. Murphy was appointed a Dock Commissioner. Fiercely proud of the title, Mr. Murphy thereafter preferred to be addressed as “Commissioner.” The Commission offered opportunities for what Riordan—in his classic satire of machine politics, Plunkett of Tammany Hall—called “honest graft”: the then-legal use of inside information and influence to make money. One of Murphy’s brothers organized the New York Contracting and Trucking Corporation. The brother and two old friends each owned five shares. The remaining eighty-five shares were owned, according to M. A. Werner’s Tammany Hall, by “an unnamed person who was never identified.”

Whether the “unnamed person” was Charles F. Murphy was almost immaterial.  It was as if the city had given Murphy’s brother a four-color press with permission to print all the money he might need. New York Contracting suddenly gained wonderfully inexpensive leases for city-owned docks, which it then sublet to international shipping companies for enormous rents.  Later, when the Pennsylvania Railroad began building Penn Station and its tunnels beneath the Hudson and the East Rivers, the Board of Aldermen stopped blocking the building permits only after the Pennsy awarded New York Contracting a huge construction contract—despite a bid twenty-five percent above the lowest bid.

The Commissioner became friends with one of his colleagues, J. Sergeant Cram, a monocled aristocrat (Harvard Class of ’86) who served as Dock Commissioner and as Secretary of the Democratic County Committee, who was in politics for the fun of it.  Cram taught Murphy how to wear white tie and tails and eat peas with a fork. Their friendship gave Murphy insight into polite society, a side of life with which he had no previous contacts. It endured until Cram’s ambitions impaired his judgment. U.S. Senator is a reasonable ambition in a Harvard man, but delusional in a Dock Commissioner.

Richard Croker had been boss for nearly two decades when Tammany lost the 1901 Mayoral election. On May 14, 1902, power fell to a triumvirate: Daniel F. McMahon, a district leader/crooked contractor, Louis F. Haffen, the Bronx Borough President, and Charles F. Murphy. (“Abbe Sieyes, Roger Ducos, and Napoleon Bonaparte,” Cram murmured, alluding to the First Republic’s three-man Consulate.) Five months and five days later Murphy put the others aside and became the Chief.  He would wield power for a generation.

His leadership style was to keep abreast of developments throughout the city, consult with the lesser leaders, and test the views of others before advancing his own. His taciturnity led “the boys” to think, as Werner wrote, that “he [always] had something in reserve…It was the cards he was holding back that gave him command of the situation.” He had a facility for grasping even the most complicated political or legal issue. Every week, he met with his district leaders: they would talk about their problems. He listened, said a few words, and then acted. Politics was his vocation and avocation. He worked at it furiously and exclusively, and he invariably enjoyed the effort.

Mr. Murphy didn’t originate the machine as an informal welfare system, but he expanded the district clambakes, aid for widows, and food baskets for the poor. What made Mr. Murphy different was what former President George H.W. Bush once called the vision thing. He began developing a stable of great candidates.

In 1903, when Murphy defeated incumbent Mayor Seth Low, a reformer, with George McClellan Jr., a Congressman and the son of the Civil War general, the braves began referring to the Chief in their campaign songs:

Big Chief sits in his teepee
Cheering braves to victory
Tammany, Tammany,
Swamp ’em, swamp ’em,
Get the wampum,
Tammany!

Two years later, McClellan was opposed by William Randolph Hearst whose campaign for Mayor made Murphy the issue. Hearst’s campaigners sang:

Everybody woiks but Murphy;
He just rakes in the dough.

The braves sang back:

What’s the matter with Murphy?
He’s all right!

Mr. Murphy stopped all that: the last thing he wanted was to be conspicuous. He knew what needed to be done. Hearst won the 1905 election as the ballots went into the boxes, but McClellan won as they came out—by fewer than 3,500 votes, barely one-half of one percent. McClellan’s gratitude was short-lived.  He attempted to oust Mr. Murphy. McClellan failed.  He never held office again.

William Jay Gaynor, Murphy’s next choice, was unique among Mayors. He was scholarly, philosophical, witty, hot-tempered (his stunning second wife was rumored to have once ended an argument by firing a pistol at him)—and incorruptible. Gaynor provided no patronage to the organization. When a reporter asked, “What are you going to give Murphy?” Gaynor replied, “A few kind words.”

His official letters, which he dictated personally, are preserved in the Municipal Reference Library. Most read like this:

Dear Sir:
Thank you for your kind letter of the 24th instant. Very truly yours,

William J. Gaynor
MAYOR

But every once in a while, one will find something like:

Dear Sir:
I see by your letter that you are a scoundrel and a scamp. Nonetheless, I have often derived much profit from the writings of scoundrels and scamps. Very truly yours,

William J. Gaynor
MAYOR

Mr. Murphy elected his first governor, John A. Dix, in 1910. Werner notes that Dix won fame only “by designing for himself as chief of the National Guard a uniform of much gorgeousness which he wore on state occasions until laughed out of it by a disrespectful press.” His successor, William Sulzer, publicly broke with Murphy over patronage.  In a naked display of power, Murphy destroyed him: within eleven months of taking the oath Sulzer was impeached and removed from office on trumped-up charges involving campaign finance reports. The third time was a charm: he elected Alfred E. Smith, who went on to serve four terms.

Smith had gone from Speaker of the Assembly to New York County Sheriff to President of the Board of Aldermen. He initially turned down the shrievality. Sheriffs were then compensated by fees rather than a fixed salary, which meant that, in New York County, the incumbent could legitimately become a millionaire—without grafting or stealing—within a year.  Mr. Murphy finally had to call Smith in for a meeting at which he explained things: “Al, I’m making you sheriff so you can make some money.  Then you can afford to be an honest man.” When Smith became governor, Murphy said, “I shall be asking you for things, Al, but if I ever ask you for anything which you think would impair your record, just tell me so and that will be the end of it.” Richard Croker had never even elected a governor. Murphy hoped to make Smith President of the United States.  If he had lived, perhaps that might have happened.

In any event, Murphy elected three governors, three mayors, two United States Senators, and numerous proteges who bloomed after his death, including Mayor Jimmy Walker and U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr. By 1923, Tammany held the governorship, the mayoralty, and numerous other elected offices. No other Tammany leader ever had or would ever again enjoy such power.

On the morning of April 25, 1924, a doctor was summoned to Mr. Murphy’s house. The Chief was crumpled in pain on the sun-dappled floor of his bathroom. It was probably a heart attack. Three days later, he was buried out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Members of the political aristocracy filled every pew and, as Milton Mackaye wrote, “crowds of lesser satraps, freshly scrubbed and fumigated, stood…in the aisles and passageways.” Murphy went to his tomb along streets lined with over sixty thousand people. It was, according to one observer, New York’s most impressive funeral since the death of General Grant.

New York Press, October 28, 1998

October 28, 2015   No Comments

Will You Love Me in December?

The walls of City Hall are lined with formal portraits of former Mayors. But the magnificent official portrait of the 20th Century’s handsomest Mayor hangs where none save the Fine Art Commission’s staff can admire it, up beyond a chained doorway in the rotunda. Trim, slender, broad-shouldered—with not a hair out of place and just a hint of a smile—he stands, papers in hand, wearing a beautifully-cut bespoke suit of his own design. Even now, more than sixty years dead, James J. Walker still outclasses any guy in the joint.

Yet all he had wanted to be was a songwriter. After composing some songs for high school plays, he began turning them out for Tin Pan Alley: “Kiss All The Girls For Me,” “There’s Music in the Rustle of a Skirt,” “After They Gather the Hay,” and many more. None really took off.  Only after he had finally promised his father to attend New York Law School was he inspired to compose the smash hit of 1908, “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?”:

Now in the summer of life, sweetheart,
You say you love but me,
Gladly I’ll give my heart to you,
Throbbing with ecstasy.

But last night I saw, while a-dreaming,
The future, old and gray,
And I wondered if you’ll love me then, dear,
Just as you do today.

Will you love me in December as you do in May?
Will you love me in the same old-fashioned way?
When my hair has turned to gray
Will you kiss me then and say
That you love me in December as you did in May?

It was schmaltzy. It was blatantly sentimental. It sold over 300,000 copies and put $10,000 in his pocket. In 1908, this was real money, comparable to over a quarter of a million dollars today. For the rest of his life, bandleaders could extract $100 tips from him by striking up the song as he entered the room. In the meantime, he went to law school and, in 1909, to the State Assembly.

Walker was a dandy. When he first visited Paris, he immediately went to Charvet’s, the foremost haberdasher of the time, for silk ties and scarves. Later in the same trip, while visiting London, he introduced himself to several Bond Street tailors. One refused to build a suit for him to Walker’s specifications: broad shoulders, narrow waist, and one button rather than three on the jacket. The tailor referred Walker, by then Majority Leader of the New York State Senate, to a theatrical costumer, and then asked whether he was an actor. Walker smilingly replied, “Most of the time.” To the astonishment of his companion, Walker then soft-shoed to the door, saying, “This is called, ‘Off to Buffalo,'” spun, twirled his cane, bowed, and left.

All his suits were tailor-made, usually closely cut, with broad shoulders and exaggeratedly narrow waists. His trousers never had cuffs: he believed them dust-catchers. He disliked belts and suspenders, believing that they constricted the body. Instead, he always wore vests. Inside the lower edge of his waistcoats were sewn two tabs with buttonholes in them, corresponding to buttons on his trousers’ waistbands. He wore thin ties without linings, arguing that thick knots became soiled after contact with one’s chin.

Charles F. Murphy, the boss of Tammany Hall, saw talent in the young clotheshorse and sent him to the State Senate in 1914. Even as Democratic leader he usually walked into the chamber unprepared, glanced at the agenda and at the bills, and rose to his feet with a fine speech. He proved a spectacular debater, conciliator, strategist, and showman. He seemed to thrive on late hours. Al Smith repeatedly tried to reform him, saying, “Why can’t you be like Jim Foley? His light is burning late, but he is studying.”

“At that hour, I’m lit up too,” Walker replied.  Some weeks later, while Smith and Walker were meeting in the Executive Chamber, there was a total eclipse of the sun.  Walker said, “No matter what they tell you, Al, I had nothing to do with this.”

With a quick wit and ready smile, Walker was much pursued by women; and such was his temperament that they never had to pursue him very far or very fast. His first wife, Janet Allen, found him generous, affectionate, and chronically unfaithful. He had a particular weakness for actresses. Once, during Walker’s long affair with Yvonne Shelton, a comedienne and dancer, she was fired for lateness from a show at the Century Theatre. She told the manager as she walked out, “Laddie, the license for the show walks out with me.” Once she called Walker, it had. She was hired back the next day for double the salary, with a chauffeured limousine to get her to the show on time. Mysteriously, the license was immediately restored.

He was the city’s symbol of the Jazz Age, the perfect master of ceremonies, the man to keep the tempo sweet and hot, relying on his eloquence, emotions, and improvisation to keep him aloft.

Probably his sensuality, reflected in his emotional life and even his love of clothing, affected his politics. Walker’s passion for his personal liberty made him an instinctive friend of individual freedom. He intensely disliked censorship and legislated morality. And, unlike many politicians who only passively support liberty, Walker put the full power of his skills in its service. Thus, Walker the statesman put through Governor Smith’s progressive legislation: workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and rudimentary social services. Walker the libertarian legalized prizefighting and Sunday professional baseball games, repealed the State prohibition laws and allowed motion picture houses to open on Sunday.

Among his finest moments was his defeat of the so-called Clean Books bill. Its sponsors read passages from D. H. Lawrence into the record, declaiming about protecting womanhood and the home from pornography. Walker’s speech, uttered without flourish or oratory, as a reasonable man speaking to other reasonable men, did what few speeches do. It changed men’s minds: “I have never yet heard of a girl being ruined by a book.”

In 1925, Walker entered the Democratic primaries against incumbent Mayor John F. “Red Mike” Hylan, not among the brightest bulbs in the municipal chandelier. Hylan published a pamphlet, “The ABCs of Hylanism.” Walker said, “What does it mean? At the Bottom of the Class.” Walker trounced Red Mike, 248,338 to 154,204. In November, he swept the general election to become the city’s 96th Mayor.

Thirty years or so ago, there were still a few old-timers around City Hall who had begun their careers in Walker’s time. One told me of how Walker, having spent a night shooting craps in some dive below Canal Street, strolled over to a greasy spoon on Broadway, near Chambers Street, around 7:00 a.m. (When I first hung out around City Hall, Ellen’s Restaurant was there; it’s now been replaced by a branch of Washington Mutual Bank.) The place had just opened for the day. The mayor walked in. He was the only customer in the place. The cook grumbled, “Whaddaya want?” Walker turned on the charm and said, “How about coffee, some scrambled eggs, and a few kind words?” The cook poured him some coffee, went to the stove, made the eggs, and silently put the plate before the mayor. “How about the kind words,” Walker said.

“Don’t eat the eggs,” the cook replied.

The greatest pageantry of the Walker years were the official welcomes, produced by Grover A. Whalen, described by journalist M. A. Werner as  “one of the most entertaining personages of the period…whose waxed and polished exterior concealed a considerable amount of real ability.” Perhaps Whalen’s masterpiece was the welcome given to Marie, Queen of Romania. Strikingly attractive, stylishly dressed, Her Majesty had America swooning at her feet. On a raw October morning, she disembarked at the Battery. From there, the parade marched up Broadway, with soldiers, sailors, buglers, cops, and the Department of Sanitation band.

As the open car bearing the Mayor and the Queen passed a construction site, the Queen’s lap robe slipped from her knees. Walker leaned over to adjust it. Some riveter, perched on a girder of the partly finished skyscraper, cupped his hands about his mouth, and boomed an inquiry that has been most politely translated as, “Hey! Jimmy! You make her yet?”

The Queen, smiling, said, “Everyone seems to know you in this great city.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Walker replied, “and some of them know me very well indeed.”

In 1927, he fell in love with Betty Compton. She was a musical comedy actress: a short, slender brunette with a great figure, good legs, and considerable temperament. He was forty-six, she was twenty-three. When they met, he offered her a ride in the limousine to get her through traffic. Although Walker hated fast driving and never used the siren, he told the chauffeur to do both. After a time, Compton turned her large brown eyes on Walker. “I’m impressed. Now you may stop the siren.”

Even with her, the charm worked its way. In 1928, Walker took his valet and wardrobe and left his wife. Not a whisper appeared in the press, which then felt that a public person’s private life was his own business.

In 1929, he defeated Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, his Republican opponent by nearly 2 ½ to 1. But the stock market had crashed the month before. Things soon fell apart. Patrick Cardinal Hayes, during a private meeting with Walker at the Residence, rebuked him for his personal life. Although Walker did not end his relationship with Compton, the reprimand weighed heavily on his mind. Judicial scandals led to a full scale investigation of city government by former judge Samuel Seabury, a cold, austere man of rigid integrity, aloof as Mount Everest, relentless as Javert, and completely unable to understand or forgive Walker’s political, financial, or moral lapses.

Walker had always lived beyond his means. There had always been some wealthy friend to help pick up the checks. Paul Block, a newspaper publisher, apparently gave Walker nearly a quarter of a million dollars in one year, paid his personal expenses, and even lent him a private railway car. Not even Seabury could prove that Block did this for any reason other than friendship. But Walker had also accepted money from persons with an interest in obtaining municipal contracts or franchises. He denied that any of these had been bribes. With the exception of Seabury, his political opponents privately believed him. Even Fiorello LaGuardia believed Walker at worst guilty of bad judgment.

Seabury examined the mayor in May 1932. Admission to the court room at 60 Centre Street was by special pass only. As Walker trotted up the stairs, one man got close enough to ask for his help in getting a seat. Walker replied, “I’ll gladly give you mine.” Seabury pounded away at the “benefices” given to Walker by his wealthy admirers and, on June 8, referred eighteen charges to Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Governor then grilled Walker over twelve sessions between August 11 and 27, 1932.

Roosevelt never had to decide whether to remove him. Walker resigned on September 1, 1932. A few days later he left for Europe where he remained for three years.

He married Compton, and eventually the two returned to the city. In 1940, LaGuardia appointed him an impartial arbitrator for industrial and labor relations in the garment industry. In 1945, the Daily News took a poll of potential mayoral candidates. LaGuardia, craving a fourth term, was a poor third. Walker, who was not even a candidate, had been included in the poll at the last moment.  He had come in first.

A year later, the man they once called Beau James died after a short illness. He will be remembered for his amiable vices long after we are forgotten for our admirable virtues.

New York Press, December 8, 1998

February 11, 2015   No Comments

W.R. Grace, the Businessman Mayor

Some years ago, New Yorkers chose a self-made billionaire businessman who had never held office to be the 108th mayor of the City of New York. His major opponent, a politician then apparently without business experience, argued that at least a decade at the public trough was a requirement for the office. Many commentators apparently shared this belief, or at least seemed to think that a businessman mayor was a new idea.

It wasn’t. Being mayor was once a lot less work than it is now. City government didn’t do very much. If the streets are cleaned by herds of pigs, you don’t need sanitation workers. If the law is enforced by elected sheriffs and ward constables, public order is not your responsibility. Cholera and riots, then, become acts of fate. (One early 19th-century mayor considered his a record of glorious achievement: he replaced the fence around City Hall Park. Period.) One could tend to business while dealing with public affairs in one’s spare time.

Once New Yorkers began electing their mayors, the chief executives tended to be men who could endure campaigning. As the elites found, more and more, that politics required time more profitably invested in their businesses, they abandoned the field, leaving it to Tammany and other scum who were interested in doing the day-to-day work of winning elections.

We still elected businessmen mayors. James Harper, elected in 1843 on the Know-Nothing ticket (an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, pro-slavery party), was a partner in Harper Brothers, Publishers. Edward Cooper, son of the philanthropist Peter Cooper, had inherited his father’s glue factories. William F. Havemeyer, wealthy sugar merchant, served three terms as mayor, 1845-’46, 1847-’48, and 1873-’74. Seth Low, mayor of Brooklyn before the city’s consolidation in 1898 and elected mayor of New York in 1901, was also a businessman. These men inherited money and status.

Another was a self-made man. Although his public service is nearly forgotten, his name is remembered because the company he founded still bears his name: W.R. Grace.

William Russell Grace, the 54th and 56th mayor of the City of New York, had been born in Ireland in 1832. His early adolescence coincided with the repeated failures of the Irish potato crop between 1845 and 1847 that caused the Great Famine. Along with the widespread starvation, disease, and emigration which followed the blight, there arose a hidden psychological consequence. Ambitious young men who had seen the collapse of the rudimentary social welfare system in Ireland were revolted by what they perceived as the failure of Irish society. Billy Grace was among them. At thirteen, he ran off to sea.

He first entered New York as a merchant seaman. Once ashore, he worked as a cobbler’s helper, printer’s apprentice, and clerk. He found that he liked business, and after he returned home in 1848, he became a broker. Three years later, he traveled to South America with his father, who was leading a colonization scheme involving a Peruvian sugar plantation. At twenty-two, Billy became a ship’s chandler in Callao, Peru.

W.R. Grace had arrived amidst a kind of gold rush, for the wealth of the world was being flung at Peru’s feet, all for a unique resource: guano, dried bird dung. Millions of birds interrupt their annual migrations by resting on the Guano Islands, off the Peruvian coast. Over time, they left behind mountains of dried excrement. In the 1840s, agricultural science rediscovered what the Incas had known before Pizarro: that guano is an amazingly rich fertilizer.

Thus Peru became the world’s largest and most accessible source of guano. World demand became a passion and then madness. Chinese immigrant workers shoveled the guano into wagons, which were dumped into barges, which lightered the cargo out to hundreds of waiting ships. Having gone around Cape Horn, the clippers and square-riggers were in immediate need of naval stores: sails, rope, spars, masts, ship’s blocks, turpentine, tar, pitch, oakum, nails, kerosene, hard tack, salt pork.

In 1854, Grace adopted an elemental rule of retailing: go where the customers are. He equipped a store ship, a floating warehouse, and had it towed to the Guano Islands. The customers found his store convenient, and Grace himself was brisk, well mannered, and a fun-loving charmer. New England captains often brought their families along on their voyages. Grace met Lillius Gilchrest, a captain’s daughter, aboard her father’s ship; on September 11, 1859, they married. She brought patience, good humor, and courage to an extraordinarily successful marriage.

By 1862, W.R. Grace was rich. He moved to New York, where he worked out of 47 Exchange Place and, later, India House, using a secondhand desk placed near the door so he might be handy to callers. He speculated in real estate. He dealt in sugar and rubber. He operated, chartered, and invested in ships to carry his cargoes and those of other merchants: sewing machine oil, shoe-pegs, grindstones, glassware, shoe nails, tacks, stoves, scales, wallpaper, cutlery, lamps, tools, files, flatware, machinery, and novelties, among many, many other things. His passion for sail never left him: he built up the last great fleet of sailing freighters and did not own a single steamship until 1893.

Grace was an independent Democrat who had never taken more than a layman’s interest in politics. Nonetheless, in 1878 he had been mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor. Two years later, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He favorably impressed several professional politicians, including John F. “Honest John” Kelly, the Tammany Hall boss. In September 1880, the Irving Hall and Tammany Hall factions of the Democratic Party began negotiating a single ticket for city office. Irving Hall suggested Grace for mayor; Kelly agreed. On October 22, 1880, with two weeks before the election, Grace was nominated.

The New York Times immediately tossed the campaign into the mud. In its first attack editorial, the Times said, “Though neither his birth nor his religion can be held to be of itself a disqualification for the office of Mayor…” Thus the Establishment signaled its disfavor of an Irish-born Roman Catholic mayor. The Republicans chimed in, one orator claiming that Grace would “make this City subordinate to…the Holy Father in Rome.” Despite the outrageous anti-Catholicism of the Times, Grace squeaked in by 2,914 votes.

Tammany’s enduring power rested on social services. The poor don’t think of reform when the local boss immediately provides food, shelter, clothing, and jobs without endless questionnaires. John F. Kelly was called “Honest John” because, having been in Europe during most of the Tweed era, he had been unable to steal. Now he made up for lost opportunities.

Grace and Kelly were allies at best and the alliance did not survive Grace’s first month in office. The boss suggested a man for important office whom Grace found unfit. Grace did not understand that public office existed to support the organization. Kelly called on Grace at City Hall.  Voices were heard from inside the Mayor’s office. Then Grace barked, “No one can dictate to me, Mr. Kelly.” Honest John stomped out of City Hall. Some said he seemed cross. Thereafter it was war.

Grace’s great struggle during his first term was reorganizing the street-cleaning bureau, which was then part of the Police Department. Although vast sums were spent, no cleaning was done and the streets were filthy, with up to a foot of muck in the roadbed. The commissioners had hired an army of Tammany hacks who seemed to appear only to pick up their paychecks. This was unwise in the long run. Paying $10,000 for $1,000 worth of work is incompetence; paying $10,000 for no work at all is an indictment.

In early 1881, after comparing the increasing expenditures of the bureau with the increasingly bad condition of the streets, Grace preferred charges against the street-cleaning commissioners. Grace knew he was dealing with either corruption or incompetence. The legislature enacted a Tammany bill creating a separate street-cleaning department. Then the Governor dismissed Grace’s charges because the commissioners reverted to duty as police officers and were no longer street-cleaning commissioners. Yet because Grace had drawn so much attention to the issue, the streets became cleaner.

Businessmen, too, tried to raid the city treasury. In 1881, Jay Gould, the financier, used his control of the New York World to attack the management of the Manhattan Elevated Railway. He intended to drive down the price of its stock. His attacks were largely accurate, effective, and successful. In late 1881 or early 1882, Gould asked Grace for a meeting to discuss tax reduction. Grace declined the offer, simply stating that the Manhattan Elevated would have to pay its taxes. Gould had a bill written to his order and passed by the legislature. Under public pressure from Mayor Grace, the Governor vetoed the legislation.

The Mayor chose not to run in 1882. Instead, he concentrated on governing the city. Grace returned to business, praised by many who had criticized him during his first campaign. He did not entirely neglect his political fences: he developed a warm friendship with a young Republican assemblyman, Theodore Roosevelt, who shared his interest in municipal reform.

On October 20, 1884, reform-minded businessmen met at the Academy of Music on 14th Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place to choose a clean government slate at the upcoming city elections. They nominated Grace, creating a three-way race between Grace, the Tammanyite, and the Republican, who had agreed to take a dive in Tammany’s favor. Roosevelt, learning of the Tammany-GOP deal, came out for Grace. It was an amazingly dirty campaign. Tammany even called into question whether Grace had been lawfully naturalized. Most people thought Tammany’s violent attacks on Grace were a most powerful endorsement of his integrity, and so he won by 10,000 votes.

Grace’s second term was less dramatic. He understood the job now, and his appointments were generally strong. The legislature approved his bill to require that all city franchises be sold to the highest bidder. Surely, he must have allowed himself a moment of glee when he formally accepted the gift of the Statue of Liberty from the French Republic in the name of the United States.

After his second term Grace again returned to private life. In 1900, he dislocated his shoulder in a fall. Thereafter, he was never an entirely well man. Yet there were flashes of the old fire. Marquis James in Merchant Adventurer, his biography of Grace, writes that the former mayor sometimes rode the 3rd Avenue elevated from his home on 79th Street to his offices on Hanover Square, below Wall Street.  “One day in his seventieth year, he arose to give his seat to a lady. A young man dropped into the seat. Mr. Grace took the young man by the collar and lifted him to his feet.”

On December 7, 1903 W.R. Grace left his office and went straight home with a bad cold. Pneumonia developed in both lungs. He recovered enough to transact business from bed. On March 20, 1904, he asked about one of his steamships.  Then he slipped into a coma from which he never awoke.

New York Press, December 11, 2001

February 11, 2015   No Comments

The Primitive American

Shortly before 11 a.m. on January 1, 1910, William J. Gaynor, a slender, elegantly dressed man with a Van Dyke beard, left his brownstone at 20 Eighth Avenue, near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. About an hour later, having walked all the way, he strode up the front steps of City Hall, in which he had not before set foot. Within miinutes, Gaynor would become the 94th mayor of New York.

At noon precisely, Gaynor took the oath. He delivered one of the shortest inaugural addresses on record: “I enter upon this office with the intention of doing the very best I can for the City of New York. That will have to suffice; I can do no more.”

Gaynor was born in Whitesboro, New York, on February 2, 1848. He spent four years in the Christian Brothers as Brother Adrian Denys. The experience left him with a taste for the Stoics, particularly Epictetus; Don Quixote, which he ranked second only to The Bible; and the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Benvenuto Cellini. He read law for about two years and was admitted to the New York bar in 1871. Then he worked briefly as a reporter for the Brooklyn Argus before hanging out his shingle in Flatbush.

He married in 1874 and was divorced seven years later on the only grounds then available in New York: adultery. In 1886, he married Augusta C. Mayer, a beautiful woman, gracious, domestic and fond of society. The marriage endured despite Gaynor’s temper, although Philip Kohler, one of Gaynor’s secretaries, insisted there was a slug in the woodwork of the Gaynors’ front hall that she had fired at the judge in a moment of anger and missed. He represented such men as Shifty Hughie McCarthy who, as Lately Thomas wrote in The Mayor Who Mastered New York, was “always in trouble, suspected of everything, and usually guilty.” He also represented saloonkeepers accused of violating the Sunday opening laws. He became a superb trial lawyer, cutting quickly to the heart of a lawsuit through thorough preparation, cold logic, and terse, colloquial presentation.

Gaynor first came to public notice after investigating election frauds in Coney Island, when he jailed John Y. McKane, the local Democratic boss who had once elected himself Gravesend town supervisor, land commissioner, chairman of the water, tax and excise boards, and chief of police—all at the same time. Elected to the New York Supreme Court in 1893 and reelected in 1907, Gaynor proved an extreme libertarian; he was, as the New York Globe later wrote, “…a primitive American and really believed in the Bill of Rights…These things did not represent sentimental nonsense to him nor did he regard them as impractical abstractions.”

To Gaynor, government should not interfere with those who lived as they wanted without disturbing their neighbors. People should spend their Sundays as they wished, and he usually released boys and young men arrested for playing ball on the Christian Sabbath. He was tolerant of backsliding from the stricter moral codes. He sensed men would not  be transformed into angels, at least in his time, and lacked patience for those who insisted on its immediate possibility.

Among working men and women he was at ease, and he chatted easily with the uneducated about farming or work or politics. Among his intellectual equals, he was a genial and fascinating conversationalist. If a reporter caught him on a good day, as did a reporter from the World who met him at his summer home on Long Island, he would murmur, “Well, if you have to interview me, let’s step inside and go to work on it like mechanics.” Once they were in his office, he took out two tumblers and uncorked the “Old Senator.”

He loved dining with friends over a bottle of champagne, talking about history, politics, literature, the law, and whatever came to mind. His capacity for spirits was bottomless and seemed only to sharpen his tongue. Ira Bamberger, a lawyer and friend, spent such an evening with the judge. Their conversation went on for quite some time and “more than one cork was popped.” Bamberger had a case on Gaynor’s calendar the next morning. Bamberger missed the first call. He staggered late into court, evidencing the kind of hangover in which the growth of one’s hair is an agony. Judge Gaynor called Bamberger up to the bench and delivered a deadpan rebuke the the lawyer’s lateness, concluding, “From your appearance, you would seem to have fallen among bad companions.”

Yet all Gaynor’s philosophy could not bridle his bad temper. Years later, reporters who had covered City Hall during the administrations of Gaynor and La Guardia agreed hands-down that Gaynor’s capacity for sustained, epic, imaginative profanity, rich with allusion, imagery and metaphor, made the Little Flower’s tantrums look a little silly.

In 1909, Tammany boss Charles F. Murphy began figuring how the party might keep City Hall at that year’s elections. He chose Gaynor, somehow believing he could be controlled. This was a mistake. The Republicans nominated Otto Bannard, a wealthy, colorless banker, and a strong ticket with him. Then publisher William Randolph Hearst, who had unsuccessfully run for president in 1904, mayor in 1905 and governor in 1906, announced his independent candidacy.

Gaynor found his 30 years’ public service meant nothing. Only the World and the New York Press endorsed him. The Times deemed his nomination “a scandal.” Gaynor’s opponents called him “a symbol for everything that is indecent and disgusting,” “a poor, I will go further and say a bad judge,” “a hypocrite,” “a learned fraud,” “mentally cross-eyed,” “incapable of telling the truth.” Gaynor replied in kind, saying of one opponent, “Hearst’s face almost makes me want to puke.” The press said that no campaign had ever been fought on such low terms. (Then, as now, political reporters had no memory or sense of history).

On Election Day, Gaynor polled forty-three percent of the vote, Bannard thirty percent, and Hearst twenty-seven.

Gaynor’s marriage with Tammany was short-lived: he made the mistake of appointing qualified officials regardless of party ties. By contrast, for Tammany, party ties were often the highest qualification.  Besides, its men kicked back part of their salaries to the organization’s coffers.  Without patronage, Tammany was on a starvation diet.

“What do we have for Charlie Murphy?” a colleague once asked.

“A few kind words,” the Mayor replied.

During lulls in his office routine, Gaynor buzzed for a stenographer, took a basket of letters and began dictating. Most correspondents received such letters as:

Dear Sir: I thank you very much for your kind and encouraging letter of March 31.Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor

Others received more individual replies: “Dear Sir: I care nothing for common rumor, and I guess you made up the rumor in this case yourself. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor.”

“Dear Sir: Your letter is at hand and I have read enough of it to see that you are a mere scamp. Nonetheless, I sometimes derive profit from the sayings and doings of scamps. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor.”

“Dear Madam: I regret to say that I do not know anyone I can recommend to you as a husband. You can doubtless make a better selection than I can, as you know the kind of man you want. Of course, it may be very hard to find him, but no harder for you than for me. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor.”

“Dear Sir: I am very glad to receive your letter and your poem. The poem is very fine but your advice is very bad. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor.”

“Dear Sir: No, I do not want a bear. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor.”

His most famous photograph was taken in August 1910 by a photographer for the New York World who had shown up late.  The Mayor was leaving for a European vacation.  He had boarded the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and was chatting on the deck when an unkempt man, James Gallagher, rushed up behind him, shouting, “You have taken away my bread and butter.” Gallagher, who had been fired from the city’s Docks Department some three weeks before, put put a pistol to Gaynor’s neck and fired. The photographer just kept snapping pictures. Andy Logan, in Against the Evidence, notes that Charles Chapin, the Evening World’s renowned and sadistic editor, later rejoiced at the photographs: “Blood all over him, and an exclusive, too!”

The bullet lodged in the vault of Gaynor’s larynx.  On doctors’ advice, it was not removed. One result was frequent fits of exhausting coughing. His temper became still shorter, his tongue sharper.

The city’s better element had long since decided vice and its companion, police corruption, were New York’s great problems. To professional reformers like the Rev. Charles Parkhurst, this meant eradicating prostitution and gambling. Somehow, it also meant rigidly enforcing Sunday closing laws, which meant denying most working people  any entertainments on their one day off. To Gaynor, Parkhurst and his ilk were self-righteous busybodies. Once, when Gaynor was introduced to William Sheafe Chase, a Sunday law enforcement fanatic who affected the ecclesiastical title of Canon, Gaynor refused his extended hand, saying, “You’re no canon. You’re only a popgun.”

Gaynor’s view of the police was molded by his passion for personal liberty and the rule of law.  He stopped warrantless raids.  He disciplined officers for casual brutality, such as using clubs on children and innocent passersby to clear the streets. Nonetheless, graft and corruption permeated the Department and led to repeated scandals.

Gaynor’s police commissioner, Rhinelander Waldo, was a gentleman descended from the earliest Dutch settlers, a wealthy 34-year-old  West Pointer who had fought bravely in the Philippines.  He was honest, energetic and enthusiastic.  He had beautiful manners.  And, unlike the character based on him in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, he was clueless. His three senior deputies were grafters.  His chief of staff, Winfield Sheehan, was one of the three men controlling illegal gambling in the city. The lieutenant commanding the vice squad, Charles Becker, was a brutal, corrupt thug, a slugger and grafter throughout his career, who would die in the electric chair.

But by the time Becker took the hot squat in 1915, Gaynor’s career was long over. Understandably, Tammany Hall did not renominate him in 1913. The Republicans and reformers nominated John Purroy Mitchel, a dashingly handsome social climber barely 30 years old. Rejected by all parties, Gaynor ran as an independent. In a massive demonstration and parade at City Hall, he picked up a shovel and said he would “shovel all these grafters into the ground.”

But it would not happen. Shortly after the rally, an exhausted Gaynor left for a brief vacation in Europe. On September 12, 1913, as RMS Baltic approached Ireland, Gaynor’s son walked up to his father’s deck chair.  He bent down, touched the huddled old man, and realized death had preceded him.

Eight days later, Gaynor’s body lay in state on a bier in the City Hall rotunda, where Lincoln’s body had lain nearly 50 years before. At 8 a.m., the doors were opened. Five hundred were waiting to pay their respects. By 9 a.m., 15,000 men and women were standing in a line two miles long to honor the mayor who, whether right or wrong, had always been on their side. Throughout the day, the people filed past him. At midnight, when the doors were closed, 20,000 were still in line. The next morning, more than 100,000 people lined Broadway as a horse-drawn caisson bore the coffin down Broadway to Trinity Church.

His official portrait in City Hall is hidden behind the door to Room 9, the Press Room.

New York Press, December 26, 2000

January 29, 2015   No Comments

Mr. Wood Is Mayor

December 20, 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. “Poor South Carolina,” exclaimed James L. Petigru, one of the Palmetto state’s few Unionists. “Too small for a republic, too large for a lunatic asylum.”

On January 6, 1861, as other Southern states followed suit, Fernando Wood, mayor of the City of New York, issued an official message to the Common Council, a body sometimes called “The Forty Thieves.” Calling secession “a fixed and certain fact,” the Mayor proposed the City secede too, becoming an independent city-state. This, as Abraham Lincoln commented, was like the front doorstep setting up housekeeping on its own.

Wood was born in Philadelphia on June 14, 1812. His mother named her son after the swashbuckling hero of The Three Spaniards, a novel she read during her pregnancy. [In Tweed’s New York, Leo Hershkowitz cites a story that Wood was “reported to have entered New York as the leg of an artificial elephant in a travelling show,” [if this is still Hershk. then either quote it straight or find a way to recast it; this is too termpapery…]and became the manager of a “low groggery” on the waterfront, dealing in liquor and “segars.” In 1839, his business partner, Edward E. Marvine, sued him for fraud, but Wood successfully pled the statute of limitations, which Marvine had missed by a day.

Wood was slender, erect, about six feet tall, and strikingly good-looking, with dark blue eyes and coal black hair. (In later years, he dyed it.) He was dignified, eloquent, and self-possessed: he seems never to have lost his temper. At the age of twenty-eight, he was elected to Congress for one term. Defeated for reelection, Wood went back into business. M.R. Werner, in Tammany Hall, reports that his merchant barque, the John W. Cater, was the first supply ship into San Francisco after the discovery of gold on Sutter’s farm. When its cargo sold at an immense profit, Wood kept it all by cheating a new partner of his fair share. Wood then retired from business and became a statesman.

In 1850, he narrowly lost his first campaign for mayor. Four years later, he ran again. This time, Wood was supported by old toughs from Tammany Hall and young toughs like the Dead Rabbits. These last, a band of thugs who loved fighting for its own sake, had been part of an informal militia, the Roach Guards, named after a prominent liquor dealer. Someone had enlivened a meeting by throwing a dead rabbit into their midst. “Dead rabbit” was then slang for “really tough guy.” [was the term current before? or did the incident create the slant? not clear]The incident was an inspiration.

Today, a politician might reflect for some time before openly accepting support from the Crips or Bloods. [or you could point out that NY pols were following in a noble tradition; Roman elections couldnt’ ahve existed without similar gangs of thugs] Wood had no qualms. After all, the campaign proved violent, and their support was useful. Wood was sanguine: he claimed the people “will elect me Mayor though I should commit a murder in my family between this and the Election.” He was elected by 1,456 votes, receiving 400 more votes in the “Bloody Sixth” ward than there were voters. Some argued this was merely a clerical error.

When Wood was elected[if all his misdeeds had been of a private and eprsonal nature, how did they know he was a baddun? why were they vilifying him?], the Morning Courier and Enquirer wrote:

Well, it now appears that Mr. Wood is Mayor… Supported by none but ignorant foreigners and the most degraded class of Americans, Mr. Wood is Mayor. In spite of the most overwhelming proofs that he is a base defrauder, Mr. Wood is Mayor. Contrary to every precedent in the allotment of honor through a municipal history of nearly two hundred years, Mr. Wood is Mayor. His assertion to us that a murder by his own hands could not prevent his election had reason in it; Mr. Wood is Mayor.

Yet, during his first term of office, Wood proved efficient and hardworking, often personally leading the police in breaking up riots and closing down illegal bars. He maintained a complaint book at City Hall, and often personally investigated entries.

His second term was different. He won by 10,000 votes in 1856, and probably his entire margin of victory was fraudulent. Election Day riots broke out in the First, Sixth, and Seventeenth wards, with the Dead Rabbits battling the Bowery Boys, smashing ballot boxes and terrifying opposition voters. Wood apparently foresaw the advantages of chaos: he had furloughed the police for the day.

Wood now realized his opportunities and he took them. [Isn’t that “Plunkett?”] He sold appointment as corporation counsel, the city’s lawyer, to two different men at the same time, for cash. He sold the police commissionership for $50,000. He sold the street cleaning contract to a high bidder after arranging a $40,000 bribe to the Common Council and a twenty-five percent interest in the profits for his beloved brother Ben. Most memorably, Wood allowed City Hall to be sold at auction to satisfy a judgment against the City. [what does that mean?]

The Legislature in Albany now shortened Wood’s term to one year. They created a state-controlled Metropolitan Police Force and ordered the Municipal Police dissolved. Wood had none of it. Do you mean he “was having none of it?” On June 16, 1857 when the state tried taking over the Street Cleaning Department, Wood ordered the Municipal Police to physically remove the state appointees from their offices, and this was done. The state authorities obtained an order to arrest Wood for inciting a riot. Capt. George Walling, a redoubtable ex-Municipal turned Metropolitan, went into City Hall alone to arrest Wood. The Mayor greeted him cordially, learned of his mission, turned to his Municipals and said, “Men, put that man out.” Walling seized Wood, according to Luc Sante, and began dragging him toward the door. Then the Municipals laid hands upon Walling, freed the Mayor and tossed Walling down the front steps.

Some say they merely escorted him out, for old-time’s sake. [Don’t get it]

The Metropolitans now marched fifty strong from their White Street headquarters to find City Hall held in force by the Municipals. They charged up the front steps as the Municipals issued forth with a cheer to meet them, and the air was filled with the sound of locustwood clubs, which “emitted a sound like a bell”[???source???] on hitting human skulls. The Municipals outnumbered the Metropolitans, and drove them back. The state forces rallied, however, and charged City Hall once more. At this moment, the Dead Rabbits and “a miscellaneous assortment of suckers, soaplocks, Irishmen, and plug-uglies, officiating in a guerrilla capacity,” [???source???] rushed the Metropolitans from the rear.

“The scene was a terrible one,” wrote The New York Times. “Blows upon naked heads fell thick and fast, and men rolled helpless down the steps, to be leaped upon and beaten until life seemed extinct.”

The day was saved by the 7th Regiment, then marching down Broadway to embark for Boston. The Metropolitans requested help. The gallant 7th, drums rolling, flags flying, turned toward City Hall. The Mayor capitulated.

For several weeks the city was patrolled by two police forces working at cross purposes. A Municipal might arrest some thug only to have a Metropolitan set him free. Each side freely raided the other’s precinct houses to liberate prisoners en masse. The gangs found this stimulating: on July 4, 1857 the Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys started a two-day battle in the area around Mott, Mulberry, Bayard and Elizabeth Streets, leaving eight dead and 100 wounded in a whirl of stones, brickbats, clubs, and gunfire. In the fall, the courts determined that the City’s ancient royal charters were meaningless and the City was no more than a creature of the State. The Municipals hung up their clubs and badges.

Tammany’s 1857 convention nominated Wood by a vote of 100 to five for his only opponent, William M. Tweed, who would be heard from again. Nonetheless, in the fall elections, Wood proved that not even Wood could survive financial panics, police riots, and the foreclosure sale of City Hall. Within a year, however, the Model Mayor defeated his successor for reelection and returned to power. In common with most Democrats, Wood opposed the abolition of slavery out of both personal racism and belief in the City’s dependence on the cotton trade. [the logic of this paragraph is giving me whiplash]

To be sure, he did not publicly dwell upon the lottery concession that his brother Ben and he held in Louisiana, which someone once described as akin to being given a color offset lithographic machine by the Federal Reserve with the injunction: “Now go ahead and print all the one hundred dollar bills you need.” [again, I don’t get this, or how what comes next follows from it] In a speech at New Rochelle in 1859, Wood argued that the city’s prosperity depended on Southern trade, “the wealth which is now annually accumulated by the people…of New York, out of the labor of slavery—the profit, the luxury, the comforts, the necessity, nay, even the very physical existence depending upon products only to be obtained by the continuance of slave labor and the prosperity of the slave master.”

This was not oratory. By 1860, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the city’s largest industry was garment production, with 398 factories employing 26,857 workers to create clothing worth $22,420,769—largely from Southern cotton. Sugar-refining, the second largest, also depended on Southern cane to refine sugar products worth $19,312,500. These two industries created more than a quarter of the city’s gross industrial product.

Losing Southern raw materials might devastate the city’s economy. As Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace note in Gotham, “the city’s key economic actors—the shipowners who hauled cotton, the bankers who accepted slave property as collateral for loans, the brokers of southern railroad and state bonds, the wholesalers who sent goods south, the editors with large southern subscription bases, the dealers in tobacco, rice and cotton—all had come to profitable terms with its slave economy.” They feared that secession would mean massive Southern defaults: the nonpayment of bills due and owing to New York merchants. Thus, they pressed for conciliation with the South at all costs.

Even in 1860, decades after the United States had abolished the slave trade, ships launched from New York shipyards and financed by New York investors, though flying foreign flags and manned by foreign crews, carried slaves from Africa to Cuba, where the slave trade was still legal, yielding profits as high as $175,000 for a single voyage. Moreover, although New York State abolished slavery on July 4, 1827, the Tammany city government tolerated “blackbirders,” illegal slave importers who operated out of New York. Apparently, District Attorney James Roosevelt refused to prosecute them, believing their activities did not constitute piracy, although federal law defined it as such. Some blackbirders were professional bounty hunters searching for runaway slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act. A few even kidnapped free blacks for sale in the South. It is no wonder that Dan Emmett, a minstrel show composer, premiered “Dixie,” the Southern national anthem, in New York City on April 4, 1859.

The Mayor’s 1861 message argued, based on the effect of the secession crisis on New York City’s trade, the city fathers should anticipate the Union’s collapse with a policy of neutrality among the Northern and Southern states, noting that “With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States we have friendly relations and a common sympathy.” He said New York City should strike for independence, “peaceably if we can, forcefully if we must.”

Wood was probably the first politician to show New York City provided far more tax revenue to the federal government than it received in public expenditure.

Finally, the Mayor suggested that New York, as a free city, financed through a nominal tariff on imported goods, could abolish all direct taxation on its citizens. Theodore Roosevelt noted in his History of the City of New York that the Common Council “received the message enthusiastically, and had it printed and circulated wholesale.”

While Wood may have contemplated the common good, he surely considered the vast possibilities inherent in running one’s own country. According to Luc Sante, the Common Council approved a plan for merging the three islands of Long, Manhattan and Staten into a new nation, to be called Tri-Insula. Three months later, after the rebels fired on Fort Sumter, the plan was quietly rescinded. The city survived despite more than $300 million in defaulted Southern trade debts and more than 30,000 suddenly unemployed workers. Within months, the Union’s demands for uniforms, rifles, artillery, and warships restored full employment.

Fernando Wood lost the mayoralty in 1861. Realizing the rise of William M. Tweed and his Ring to power was irresistible, he made peace. Wood was nominated to a safe congressional seat and other persons who had paid him approximately $100,000 to $200,000 for various appointments and nominations received them. Wood, aging gracefully, remained in Congress for the rest of his life. Although censured by the 40th Congress for “use of unparliamentary language” and defeated for the speakership in 1875, Wood became chairman of House Ways and Means in 1877. He died in 1881. Wood is buried in Trinity churchyard, at the head of Wall Street. As always, he is near the money.

New York Press, January 9, 2001

January 29, 2015   No Comments