The History of Tammany Hall

A Chapter of Disclosures

NOW came an appalling series of disclosures regarding public officials.  Acting on the affidavit of James E. Coulter, a lobbyist, charging that there was a private organization1 in the Board of Aldermen formed to receive and distribute bribes, the Grand Jury, after investigation, handed down a presentment, on February 26, 1853, together with a vast mass of testimony.

“It was clearly shown,” stated the presentment, “that enormous sums of money have been expended for and towards the procurement of railroad grants in the city, and that towards the decision and procurement of the Eighth Avenue Railroad grant a sum so large that would startle the most credulous was expended;  but in consequence of the voluntary absence of important witnesses, the Grand Jury was left without direct testimony of the particular recipients of the different amounts.”2

Solomon Kipp, one of the grantees of the Eighth and Ninth Avenue Railroad franchises, admitted frequently to a member of the Grand Jury that he had expended, in 1851, upwards of $50,000 in getting them.  Five grantees of the Third Avenue Railroad franchise swore that upwards of $30,000 was paid for it in 1852 in bribes to both boards.3  Of this sum Alderman Tweed received $3,000.  Chief among those who bribed the Aldermen were Elijah F. Purdy (one of the line of Grand Sachems) and Myndert Van Schaick, who only a few years before had been the Tammany candidate for Mayor.  A franchise for a surface railroad on Broadway, with scarcely any provision for compensation and with permission to charge a five-cent fare, was given to Jacob Sharp, over five profitable bids from responsible persons.  One applicant, Thomas E. Davies, had offered to give the city one cent for every fare charged.  In another application, Davies, D.H. Haight and others had offered $100,000 a year and the payment of a license fee of $1,000 on each car (the prevailing fee being $20) for a ten-years’ grant, on the agreement to charge a five-cent fare.  There were two other offers equally favorable.4  When Mayor Kingsland had vetoed the bill5 the Aldermen had repassed it, notwithstanding an injunction forbidding them to do so.6

Dr. William Cockroft had to pay, among other sums, $500 to Assistant Alderman Wesley Smith to get favorable action on his application for a lease of the Catherine Street Ferry.  After the passage of the grant, Smith demanded $3,000 more, which Cockroft refused to pay.7  Burtis Skidmore, a coal dealer, testified that in the Fall of 1851 James B. Taylor informed him that he had been an applicant for a ferry across the East River to Greenpoint, and that “he bribed members of the Common Council for the purpose of obtaining said grant, and that other applicants for the same ferry gave a larger bribe than he did, and obtained the grant, and that all members of the Common Council whom he had bribed returned to him the money he had paid them, with the exception of Alderman Wood, who kept the money from both parties.”8

John Morrell swore that one of the applicants for the lease of the ferry to Williamsburg applied to some of the Aldermen and was told that it would cost about $5,000 “to get the grant through.”  But a Mr. Hicks, another applicant, was so eager to “get it through” that he gave more than $20,000.9

The lease of the Wall Street Ferry was similarly disposed of Silas C. Herring testified that he with others was told he could secure it by paying a certain Alderman $5,000.  Herring declined.  James B. Taylor was another applicant, in 1852.  He was informed that it would cost him $15,000.  He offered $10,000, but on the same night “Jake” Sharp offered $20,000 and got the grant.  Taylor also testified that he additionally applied for the Grand Street Ferry lease.  Other parties, however, paid more bribe money and obtained it, whereat one Alderman said that “it was the damnedest fight that was ever had in the Common Council;  it cost them [Taylor’s rivals] from $20,000 to $25,000.”10

The Aldermen extorted money in every possible way.  In defiance of the Mayor’s veto they gave a $600,000 contract for the “Russ” street pavement, afterward found to be worthless, and which had to be replaced at additional cost.  Russ had offered one Assistant Alderman $1,000 to help carry his election the next Fall if he voted favorably.11  Exorbitant prices were paid for land on Ward’s Island, several Aldermen and officials receiving for their influence and votes bribes of $10,000, and others even larger sums.12  The Common Council sold to Reuben Lovejoy the Gansevoort Market property for $160,000 in the face of other bids of $225,000 and $300,000.  Lovejoy, who, it was disclosed, was merely a dummy for James B. Taylor and others, testified “that it would cost from $40,000 to $75,000 to get this operation the purchase of the Gansevoort property through the city government.”13

A coal merchant had to pay money for a favorable vote on his application for a lease of the Jefferson Market property, and another merchant testified to having paid one Assistant Alderman about $1,700 to get a pier lease.14  The Aldermen demanded and received bribes not only for passing measures but for suppressing them, and even invented many “strikes,” as instanced by the case of Alderman Smith, who agreed for $250 to silence a resolution to reduce the Coroners’ fees.15  They demanded a share of every contract made by any city official, threatening, if it were not given, to stop his supplies and have his accounts investigated.16  If a contractor or lessee refused to meet a “request,” the Aldermen retaliated by imposing burdens-upon him and reporting hostile resolutions.17  Applicants for the police force paid the Police Captains $40, and more to the Aldermen who appointed them.  One man was reappointed Police Captain by Alderman Thomas J. Barr for $200, and another, assistant Captain for $100.18

Every city department was corrupt.  It was found that one hundred and sixty-three conveyances were deeded to the Chief of Police, George W. Matsell, and his partner, Capt. Norris, in about a year.19  Matsell was mentioned also as receiving money from about one hundred men who patronized the odious Madame Restell’s establishment in Greenwich street.20  Both the police and Aldermen collected money from saloons, though the Aldermen obtained the larger share, as they had the power of granting licenses.

Within three or four years William B. Reynolds received over $200,000 from the city, under a five-years’ contract for removing dead animals, offal and bones, though at the time the contract was made other persons had offered to remove them free of expense, and one had even offered to pay the city $50,000 a year for the exclusive privilege.21  It was owing to Controller Flagg’s action that a contract to index certain city records at a cost of between $200,000 and $300,000, despite the offer of a well-known publisher to do it for $59,000, was canceled.22  Flimsy tenement houses, causing later much fatality and disaster, were built in haste, there being no supervisory authority over their erection.23  The lighting of the city was insufficient, thousands of oil lamps still being used, and these, according to an old custom, not being lighted on moonlit nights.24

Both Tammany and Whig Aldermen and officials were implicated in these disclosures.  Such was the system of city government that, though twenty-nine Aldermen were at one time under judgment of contempt of court, and a part of the same number under indictment for bribery, yet under the law they continued acting as Judges in the criminal courts.  According to Judge Vanderpoel, bribery was considered a joke.

A new reform movement sprang up, which quickly developed into the City Reform party.  The reformers proposed, as a first step, to amend the charter.  The granting of leases for more than ten years was to be prohibited, and the highest bidder was to get them; A two-thirds vote was to be required to pass a bill over the Mayor’s veto.  Work to be done and supplies furnished costing more than $250 were to be arranged for oh contract to the lowest bidder.  Any person guilty of bribery, directly or indirectly, was to be sentenced, upon conviction, to not above ten years in prison and fined not over $5,000, or both.  The right to sit as Judges of the criminal courts was to be taken away from the Aldermen, as was also the power of appointing policemen.  The Board of Assistant Aldermen was to be abolished, and a Board of Councilmen, consisting of sixty members, was to be instituted in its place, the collective title of the two boards to be “the Common Council.”  The Aldermen were to be elected for two years (as determined in the charter of 1849) and the Councilmen for one year.  An efficient auditing of accounts and claims against the city was called for, and only the more popular branch of the Common Council was to originate appropriations of money.

Tammany had grown suddenly virtuous again, and responding to the public clamor over the disclosures, had declared its devotion to pure government.  At a “reform” meeting of the Young Men’s Union Club, John Cochrane, one of Wood’s lieutenants, who later announced that he would vote “for the devil incarnate if nominated by Tammany Hall,” declared:  “Reform is at home in Tammany Hall.  Its birthplace is Tammany Hall.”  The purification movement advanced so unmistakably that Tammany approved the amendments, and the legislative bill embodying some of them was supported by the Tammany delegation in the Senate and Assembly.

The bill passed, and upon being submitted to the people of the city, in June, 1858, was adopted by the significant vote of 36,000 to 3,000.

One of the benefits due to the City Reform party was the reorganization (1853) of the police under a separate department.  The police were compelled to wear a uniform against which there had been bitter prejudice,25 and the term of appointment was made dependent upon good behavior.

Fortunately for the City Reform party, the division between the “Hardshells” and “Softshells” extending throughout the State caused the nomination of separate Democratic tickets in the Fall of 1853.  There seemed less than ever any vital difference between the professed principles of the two.  Under the name of “National Democrats” the “Hardshells” met in City Hall Park on September 26, and resolved :

“We regret that the Democracy of the city are prevented from holding this meeting in their accustomed hall. ... The Democracy of the city waged in time past a successful war against a corporation which sought to control by money the political destinies of the country.  We now from this time forward commence a campaign against another corporation known as the Tammany Society-a secret, self-elected and irresponsible body of men who have dared to usurp the right of determining who shall and who shall not meet in Tammany Hall. ... The accidental ownership of a small equity of redemption of a small part of the ground upon which Tammany Hall stands may continue to enable the Sachems to prevent the Democracy from meeting within the hall, but we can meet in the park or in the open air or elsewhere.”

The City Reform party nominated acceptable Whigs and Democrats pledged to reform, and obtained a decisive majority in the next Common Council.

1 William H. Cornell, a sometime Sachem, was, according to the affidavit of Coulter, the head of this organization.

2 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XXI, part 2, No. 55.

3 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XXI, part 2, No. 55, pp. 1333-35, and p. 1573.  See also The History of Public Franchises in New York City by Gustavus Myers in which full details are given of the briberies attending the grants of the Eighth, Ninth and Third Avenue Railroad franchises, and other franchises.

4 Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XLVIII, pp. 530-37.

5 Ibid., p. 532.

6 For violating this injunction one Alderman — Oscar W. Sturtevant (a Whig) — was sentenced to a nominal fifteen days in prison and to pay a fine of $350, and the other offending Aldermen were merely fined.  The courts afterward annulled the Sharp franchise.

7 Document No. 55, p. 1219.

8 Ibid. p. 1310.

9 Ibid. p. 1403.

10 Ibid. pp. 1426-28.

11 Document No. 55, pp. 1575-76.

12 Ibid., p. 1282.

13 Ibid. p. 1445.  In 1862 the Council resolved to buy back this same property for $533,437.50 and repassed the resolution over Mayor Opdyke’s veto on January 3, 1863, thus, as the Mayor pointed out, entailing a new loss to the city of over $499,000, though the property had not increased in value.  Proceedings of the Board of Councilmen, Vol. LXXXVIII, pp. 723-25.

14 Document No. 55, p. 1572.

15 Document No. 55, p. 1219.

16 Ibid., pp. 1395-96.

17 Ibid., pp. 1397-98.

18 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XXII, No. 20, pp. 59-54.

19 Ibid., No. 43, p. 79.

20 Ibid.

21 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XX, No. 32 and Vol XXII, No. 41.

22 Ibid., Vol. XXX, part 1, No. 16.

23 Ibid., Vol. XX, No. 5.

24 Ibid., No. 6.

25 The general extent of this prejudice may be judged from the fact that at this time a number of suits were pending in the courts, seeking to restrain the city from enforcing an earlier order compelling uniforms to be worn.