The History of Tammany Hall

Rise and Progress of theGangs

ABOUT the year 1840 the change in the personnel and the policy of the Wigwam became distinctly evident.  After its absorption of the Equal Rights party, the organization had remained “purified” for a year or so, and then, as usual, had relapsed.  But a new power and new ideas prevailed.  No longer did the bankers and merchants who once held the Wigwam in their grasp, venture to meet in the secret chamber of the hall and order nominations, command policies or determine the punishment of refractory individuals.  Tammany from this time forward began to be ruled from the bottom of the social stratum, instead of from the top.

Something had to be done to offset the disclosures of 1838-40.  Accordingly, the policy of encouraging the foreigners, first rather mildly started in 1823, was now developed into a system.  The Whigs antagonized the entrance of foreign-born citizens into politics, and the Native American party was organized expressly to bar them almost entirely from the enjoyment of political rights.  The immigrant had no place to which to turn but Tammany Hall.  In part to assure to itself this vote the organization opened a bureau, a modest beginning of what became a colossal department.  An office was established in the Wigwam, to which specially paid agents or organization runners brought the immigrant, drilled into him the advantages of joining Tammany and furnished him with the means and legal machinery needed to take out his naturalization papers.  Between January 14 and April 1, 1840, 895 of these men were taken before Tammany Marine Court Judges and naturalized.  Judges of other courts helped to swell the total.  Nearly every one of these aliens became and remained an inveterate organization voter.  Tammany took the immigrant in charge, cared for him, made him feel that he was a human being with distinct political rights, and converted him into a citizen.  How sagacious this was, each year revealed.  Immigration soon poured in heavily, and there came a time when the foreign vote outnumbered that of the native-born citizens.1

The Whigs were bewildered at this systematic gathering in of the naturalized citizens.  After the election of April, 1840,2 when Tammany reelected Varian Mayor and carried the Common Council, the Committee of Whig Young Men3 issued a long address on the subject.  After specifically charging that prisoners had been marched from their cells in the City Prison by their jailers to the polls to vote the Tammany ticket, the address declared that during the week previous to, and on election day, naturalization papers had been granted at the Marine Court on tickets from Tammany Hall, under circumstances of great abuse.

In the campaign of 1840 the so-called best elements of the town were for General Harrison.  The Wigwam men had much at stake in Van Buren’s candidature and exerted themselves to reelect him.  Tammany now elaborated its naturalization bureau.  A committee sat daily at the Wigwam, assisting in the naturalization process, free of charge to the applicant.  The allegiance of foreign-born citizens was further assured by humoring their national pride in the holding of Irish, German and French meetings in the hall, where each nationality was addressed in its own language.  The more influential foreigners were rewarded with places on the Assembly or local ticket, and to the lesser workers of foreign birth were given petty jobs in the department offices, or contract work.

The outcome was, that in the face of especially strong opposition Tammany harvested 982 plurality in the city for Van Buren, though the vote of the Western counties gave Harrison the electoral vote of the State.  It was such instances as this — demonstrating its capacity of swaying New York City even if the rest of the State voted oppositely — that continued to give Tammany Hall a powerful hold on the Democratic party of the nation, notwithstanding the discredit that so often attached to Tammany men and measures.

Another example of the change in the personnel of Tammany was shown in the rise and progress of the “ward heeler” and his “gangs.”  The “gangs” were not conspicuous in 1841, when the organization elected Robert H. Morris Mayor.4  In April, 1842, when Morris was reelected,5 the “gangs” were still modestly in the background.  But in the Fall of that year they came forth in their might.

One of their leaders was “Mike” Walsh, who became a sort of example for the professional “ward heelers” that followed in his wake.  Walsh had no claim at all on the ruling politicians at the Wigwam, and would have been unnoticed by them.  But he was ambitious, did not lack ability of a certain kind, and had a retinue of devoted “plug-ugly” followers.  He spoke with a homely eloquence, which captivated the poor of his ward.  The turbulent he won over with his fists.  On November 1 the Tammany Nominating Committee reported to the great popular meeting.  Walsh, with the express purpose of forcing his-own nomination for the Assembly, went there with such a band of shouters and fighters as never before had been seen in the hall.  His “shoulder-hitters”— men, as a rule, of formidable appearance — did such hearty execution and so overawed the men assembled there, that upon the question being put to a vote the general committee decided in his favor and placed his name on the regular ticket.  While in the ensuing election he received not quite 8,000 votes to the nearly 20,000 cast for his opponent (the nominee first reported by the committee), he eventually was successful in his aim.  Seeing how easy it was to force nominations at the Wigwam if backed by force, other men began to imitate him and get together “gangs” of their own.

This was the kind of men who, with their “gangs,” superseded the former Democratic ward committees, nearly every member of which kept a shop or earned his living in some legitimate calling.  By helping one another in introducing “gangs” of repeaters from one ward to another at the primary elections, the “ward heelers” became the masters of the wards and were then graduated into leaders, whose support was sought by the most dignified and illustrious politicians.

In fact, the city was frequently in a state of turmoil.  Since 1834 there had been half a dozen riots.6  There were constant fights between rival volunteer engine companies, to which lawless and abandoned characters attached themselves.  Engines were stolen, clubs, pipes, wrenches and other weapons were used, and the affrays generally closed with stabbings and broken skulls.7  There was no police force to speak of;  even Mayor Morris, whom the “gangs” called “Bob” and tapped familiarly on the shoulder, described it as “lamentably defective.”8  One out of every twenty-one white persons in the city could not read and write.9  From so large a population of illiterates, the “ward heelers” easily recruited great numbers of followers.  Morris allowed the “gangs” full sway, and was popular accordingly.  Naturally, with this encouragement, the “gangs” grew and became ever bolder.

General disgust at the low character of politics was felt by the independents, who rightly held both Tammany and the Whigs responsible.  During the time each party held power affairs had gone from bad to worse.  A joint special committee of Aldermen, appointed under public pressure, reported, in 1842, that dishonest office-holders had recently robbed the city of little short of $100,000.10  A street cleaning contract was awarded for $64,500 a year, for five years, when other responsible persons offered to take it for not quite $25,000 a year.11  The fraudulent selling of city land to cover up the increasing debt was continued.12  The city office-holders sold real estate for unpaid assessments, frequently without giving notice to the owner, and bought it in themselves and so “possessed themselves of estates.”13  Heavy and oppressive assessments for improvements never actually made were laid on the taxpayers.14  Hundreds of thousands of dollars were expended uselessly and extravagantly.15  Mayor Morris complained that he had no power over expenditures;  that he knew nothing of legislative action on public works until the warrants for payment were sent to him.16  In violation of the charter, the Aldermen participated in all the profitable “jobs.”17

Convicts were allowed to escape from Blackwell’s Island on condition that they voted as their keepers ordered them.18  Prisoners whose terms had expired were kept at the public expense until election day, to get their votes.  The inmates of the Almshouse and the Penitentiary were forced to manufacture articles for the use and profit of the officers of those departments.  “It is a well-known fact to all who have been familiar with those establishments,” declared the Almshouse Commissioners, “that large quantities of cabinet furniture, clothing and sometimes elegant carriages, cut-glass decanters, punch-bowls, and other articles have been made at the expense of the city; and this has been carried on more or less for years.”19  It was the custom of the officers “to expend large sums in sumptuous and costly dinners for the entertainment of partizans.”  Persons confined in the City Prison were frequently swindled out of their money or effects by the officers, or by “shyster” lawyers, acting in connivance with the jailers;  and to get a mere note or message delivered to friends they had to pay an exorbitant price.20

Despite the disclosures, Tammany again elected Morris, in April, 1843, by nearly 5,000 plurality, he receiving 24,395 votes to 19,516 for Robert Smith, the Whig candidate.  The storm, however, was gathering, both in and out of Tammany.  Inside the organization, charges were common of monstrous frauds in the primaries.  Frauds against the Whigs were acceptable enough, but by Democrats against Democrats were intolerable.  So pronounced was the outcry over these frauds that the Tammany General Committee, in the Fall of 1843, directed that in future the ward meetings should be held on the same night and that only those whose names appeared on the poll lists should be allowed to vote.21

Outside criticism materialized in an independent reform movement.  It found a rallying point in the Native American or American Republican party, which previously had polled about 9,000 votes.  It resented the intrusion of foreigners into politics, large numbers of whom had secured office.  It was partially industrial in its character and following;  numbers of American workingmen believed that with 100,000 immigrants22 pouring into this country every year they would soon have to be satisfied with a shilling or twenty cents a day for their labor, instead of $1.50 they were receiving.  The native element also complained of the organization of the Irish into a distinct and separate element, with a high Roman Catholic prelate at its head, in order to get part of the public school funds.  The discussion of the public school question only the more accentuated hatreds, bringing to the surface the most delicate questions touching the religious feelings and prejudices of the major part of the community.

Tammany nominated Jonathan I. Coddington for Mayor, and placed very few naturalized citizens on its ticket.  The Native American candidate was James Harper, and the Whig, Morris Franklin.

Mayor Morris called a meeting in Tammany Hall at which resolutions were passed denouncing the Common Council for its corruption and its failure to carry out reform.  The advocates of the new party declared that they were not to be deceived.  Their campaign was carried on with vigor.  Honest men generally were roused against both Tammany and the Whigs.  Religious and racial vituperation were partially cast aside and forgotten for the time when the reform men took hold of the movement;  not wholly so, however, for we find one of the chief native orators declaring in a campaign speech that “the American Republicans will not be found with Roman Catholics in the same ranks.”  This bigotry was overlooked, inasmuch as the Native Americans promised city reform, good police, reductions in taxes, clean streets and economical expenditure of the public money.  The community was pervaded by a profound sense of the corruption and inefficiency of the old parties, and ordinary political lines were forgotten.

Tammany made desperate efforts to carry the election.  On the preceding night, convicts in batches of twenty and thirty were taken from Blackwell’s Island to New York, where they were lodged, and the next day given Democratic ballots, free lunch and in some instances were employed to electioneer.23

The Native Americans won, however, the vote standing:  Harper, 24,606; Coddington, 20,726;  Franklin, 5,207.  The new administration was a distinct disappointment.  Though it had a majority in the Common Council, it accomplished few or none of the reforms its supporters had promised.  The scramble for office continued as before;  municipal improvements progressed slowly, and though salaries and appropriations were cut to some extent, taxes and expenditures increased.  A part of this increase was doubtless justified, but the people had been promised reduction, and they refused to take into account the fiscal needs of a rapidly growing city.  The administration further weakened its hold by passing and enforcing stringent “blue laws.” Not only were the unfortunate women of the streets warred upon and quiet drinking places raided, but irritating measures, such as the prohibiting of fireworks on the Fourth of July and the driving of apple women and other vendors from the streets, were taken.  The result was a public reaction.

Mayor Harper was a quaint character, and his odd rulings when presiding in Special Sessions were the talk of the town.  If a shoemaker, for instance, was arraigned before him, he would say:  Well, we want shoemakers on the island, so we’ll send you up for three months, and be smart while you last, John, be smart.”  Or, in the instance of a man who claimed to be “a sort of carpenter”:  “Well, we’ll send you up for two months to round your apprenticeship, and the city will take care of your lodging and board, Matthew.”

In the reaction that set in, many voters swung back to Tammany on the general belief that it was no worse than the other parties.  This change of sentiment put the organization in good form to carry the city for James K. Polk in November, 1844.  A short time before this there had come into distinction one of the most effective auxiliaries of the Wigwam.  This was the Empire Club,24 of No. 28 Park Row.  Its chief was Captain Isaiah Rynders, and its membership was made up of a choice variety of picked worthies who could argue a mooted point to a finish with knuckles.  Rynders had a most varied career before entering New York politics.  A gambler in New Orleans, he mixed in some bowie and pistol fights there in which he was cut severely on the head and elsewhere, and his hat was perforated by a bullet.  On a Mississippi steamboat he drove O’Rourke, a pugilist, out of the saloon with a red-hot poker, after O’Rourke had lost at faro and had attempted to kill the winner.  These were but a few of his many diversions.  In Washington he was arrested with Breedlove and Jewell on suspicion of being connected with the theft of a large sum in Treasury notes, though no proof was found against him.  He was a very considerable power in the Wigwam for over twenty years, frequently officiating at meetings there.  Chief among the club’s other members of like proclivities were such noted fighters and “unterrified Democrats” as “Country McCleester” (McClusky), “Bill” Ford, “Manny” Kelly, John Ling, “Mike” Phillips, “Bill” Miner, “Denny” McGuire, “Ike” Austin, “Tom” McGuire, “Tom” Freeman and “Dave” Scandlin.  After the nomination of Henry Clay, “Johnny” Austin — a common report of the day had it — was offered the sum of $2,000 to bring himself and five of his associates — McClusky, Kelly, Ford, Scandlin and Phillips — into the Unionist Club (a Whig organization) with the hope that they could secure success to the Whigs in the city.  Offices also were promised, but the offers were refused;  whether because the Wigwam held forth greater inducements is not clear.

Aided by these worthies, and by the popular indignation against the reform administration, the Wigwam men grew confident.  They were now heard boasting that they intended electing their entire ticket.  There being no longer fear of the Registry law (which the Wigwam had recently influenced a friendly Legislature to repeal on the ground of its discriminative application to New York City alone), fraud was open and general.  The vote on its face proved this;  since, while New York City could claim a legitimate vote of only 45,000, the Polk electors were credited with 28,216, and the Clay electors with 26,870 votes.  For James G. Birney, the Abolition candidate, but 118 votes,were polled, or at least counted.

The Tammany General Committee, on January 13, 1845, passed resolutions favoring the annexation of Texas and calling a public meeting.  With a view of glorifying John Tyler — to whom they owed their positions — and at the same time of winning the good will of the incoming administration, the Custom House officers tried to anticipate the committee’s action, but were not allowed to use the hall.  Resolved, at any rate, to control the meeting regularly called, they crowded two thousand of their creatures, under the leadership of Rynders, into the Wigwam.  The meeting was soon one of uproar, turbulence and some fighting.  Rynders had his resolutions adopted “amid yells, shouts, screams, oaths, cheers, blasphemy, hisses and an uproar never before known in the pandemonium of politics.”  It was the generally expressed opinion that the time had come when the proceedings of a meeting at Tammany Hall were no longer to be considered as any certain indication of the opinions of the Democratic party;  that a class of men who chose to organize themselves for the purpose, by being early on the ground, acting in concert and clamoring according to certain understood signals, could carry any set of resolutions they pleased, in the very teeth of the large majority of the Democratic party.

In the local campaign of 1845 Tammany acted sagaciously.  It nominated William F. Havemeyer for Mayor, laying stress on the fact that he was a “native New Yorker.”  The Native Americans renominated Harper, and the Whigs, Dudley Selden.  The vote stood:  Havemeyer, 24,183;  Harper, 17,472;  Selden, 7,082.  Tammany secured a majority of 26 on joint ballot in the Common Council — the real power.

Mayor Havemeyer sincerely tried to effect reforms.  In the beginning of his term he urged the fact that the Common Council united in itself nearly all the executive with all the legislative power, and declared that its main business was to collect and distribute, through the various forms of patronage, nearly a million and a half dollars a year.25  His attacks upon the arbitrary powers and corrupt practises of the Common Council made so little impression upon that body that on May 13, the very first day of convening, the Aldermen, immediately after the reading of the Mayor’s message, removed not-less than seventy officials, from the heads of departments to Street Inspectors;26  and on subsequent days the process was continued until every post was filled with a Tammany man.

But the effect upon the public mind was such that in 1846 a new charter was drafted and adopted, which deprived the Common Council of the power which it hitherto had enjoyed of appointing the heads of departments, and gave their election direct to the people.

Mayor Havemeyer not being pliable enough for the Wigwam leaders, they nominated and elected, in the Spring of 1846, Andrew H. Mickle, by a vote of 21,675, the Whigs receiving 15,111, and the Native Americans 8,301.27  Mayor Mickle was regarded as “one of the people.”  He was born in a shanty in the “bloody ould Sixth,” in the attic of which a dozen pigs made their habitation.  Marrying the daughter of the owner of a large tobacco house, he later became its proprietor.  He improved his opportunities, business and official, so well that he died worth over a million dollars.

1 The statement was made at a reform meeting in City Hall Park on April 11, 1844, that from 1841 to 1844 not less than 11,000 foreigners had been naturalized at $1 a head, though the legal fee was $5.  The Judges, the speaker said on the authority of Judge Vanderpoel, signed their names to the papers without asking questions.

2 This was the first election in the city occupying only one day.  Before 1840 three days were used.  The vote stood:  Varian, 21,243;  J. Phillips Phoenix (Whig), 19,622;  scattering, 36;  total, 40,901.

3 The Whigs had formed committees in imitation of the Tammany organization.

4 Election of 1841:  Robert H. Morris (Tammany), 18,605;  J. Phillips Phoenix (Whig), 18,206;  Samuel F.B. Morse, 77;  scattering, 45;  total, 36,933.

5 Election of 1842;  Morris, 20,633;  Phoenix, 18,755;  total, 39,388.

6 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, 1839, No. 29.  The Weekly Herald, February 15, 1840, stated that official documents showed, for the previous ten months, a total of nineteen riots, twenty-three murders and nearly 150 fires, the latter involving a loss of about $7,000,000.

7 See Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. VIII, No. 35, and No. 41, 1843-44, for extended accounts.

8 Mayor Morris’s Message, July, 1842.

9 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. VIII, No. 22.

10 Ibid., 1842-43, No. 5.

11 Ibid., Vol. IX, No. 69.

12 Ibid., Vol. X, part 1, No. 46.

13 Senate Documents, 1842, Vol. IV, No. 100.

14 Ibid.

15 Message of Mayor Morris, 1843.

16 Message of Mayor Morris, 1843.

17 Ibid.

18 Report of Commissioners of the Almshouse, Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XI, No. 40.

19 Ibid.; 400.

20 Ibid.; see also Presentment of Grand Jury, Ibid., Vol. X, part I, No. 53.

21 About this time the general committee was enlarged.  Until now the delegates had been selected from each ward.  In 1843 the practise was begun of sending them from each election district.

22 Sixty thousand of these entered the port of New York yearly.  The total immigration rose to 154,000 in 1846 and to 427,000 in 1854.

23 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, 1844-45, Vol. XI, No. 40.

24 Within a few months after its organization the Empire Club had thirty-three parades and had been hired to go to Albany, Trenton, Tarrytown and other cities to help the Democracy.  Whenever the Empire Club met a rival political club, a fight was sure to follow.

25 Annual Message, 1845.

26 Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XXIX, pp. 1-55.

27 Tammany won by a minority vote both in 1845 and in 1846.  That neither Tammany nor the Native Americans had enacted any competent reforms in the matter of the taxation of property was conclusively shown in an Aldermanic report of 1846.  It appeared from this report that thirty million dollars’ worth of assessable property escaped taxation every year, and that no bona fide efforts were being made by the officials to remedy this state of affairs.  Proceedings of the Board of Assistant Aldermen, Vol. XXIX, Document No. 24.