The History of Tammany Hall

Tammany Rises from the Ashes

AFTER the disclosures of 1871, the name of Tammany Hall became a by-word throughout the civilized world, and the enemies of corruption assured themselves that the organization was shorn of political power for a long time to come.  But the wonderful instinct of self-preservation which had always characterized Tammany, joined with the remarkable sagacity which its chiefs almost invariably displayed in critical times, now conspired to keep the organization alive despite every antagonistic influence.  The Tammany Society still had its charter, and while that charter remained intact, Tammany retained strong potentialities for regaining power.  The reformers neglected to ask for its annulment — though it is doubtful if they could have obtained it, since the Governor, John T. Hoffman, was a creation of the Tammany organization.

The urgent need of the Wigwam was a leader.  In response to the demand, two men, John Kelly and John Morrissey, stepped to the front.  Both of them were the product of local politics, and having made a science of their experience, they knew that the Tammany Hall that now lay prostrate and reviled could be raised and again made a political factor, and eventually the ruler of the city.  The few men of fair character in the organization were undesirous of appearing too prominently in its councils;  but despite the general odium attached to it, Kelly and Morrissey found that a large part of the thoughtless mass of the Democratic voters were still willing to follow its leadership.

Kelly had been in Europe from 1868 to late in 1871, and had not been directly implicated in the Tweed frauds.  He had a strong personality, and was popular among the largest and most energetic part of the voting population — the Irish.  He was called “Honest John Kelly,” and he took care to strengthen the belief implied in that name, surrounding himself at all times with a glamour of political probity.  Born April 20, 1822, in New York City, of poor parents, his early life was divided between hard work and fighting, though he never appeared in the prize-ring.  His trade was that of a grate-setter and mason.  His early education was defective, but he later improved his natural talents by study at the parochial and evening schools.

The district in which he lived was the roughest in the city.  Being a man of aggressive ways and popular enough to control the turbulent elements, the politicians in 1853 had him elected an Alderman, a post which he retained during 1854 and 1855.  In this body he was known as a “bench-warmer” — that is, a member who kept his seat and followed the orders of his political masters without question.  Giving satisfaction, he was selected to run for Congress in the district then represented by “Mike” Walsh — who was regarded in Washington as the leader of the rowdy element of New York City.  Walsh ran independently, but Kelly beat him by 18 votes in a total vote of 7,598.  It was generally charged then and long after that Kelly was “counted in.”  Later he was reelected.  During his terms in Congress, Kelly controlled most of the Federal patronage in New York City, and it was through his influence especially that Isaac V. Fowler — who, as we have mentioned, was afterward found to have embezzled over $155,000 from the Government-was reappointed Postmaster by Buchanan.

In 1863 Kelly, disgruntled at not being appointed a Police Commissioner, led a portion of the Irish vote from the Wigwam over to the Germans, helping in the election of Gunther as Mayor.  Having proved his influence, Tweed, in order to gain him over, gave him the nomination for Sheriff, to which office he was elected.  His nomination for Mayor and his sudden withdrawal we have already related.

At the time of his flight to Europe he was a rich man.  Mayor Havemeyer charged, in 1874, as we shall see, that some, at least, of Kelly’s wealth was obtained by anything but proper methods.

This was the successor of Tweed as the “boss” of Tammany Hall.  His coadjutor for a time, John Morrissey, was a professional prize-fighter and gambler, whose boast was that he “had never fought foul nor turned a card.”[1]  When these men assumed control of the Wigwam, few persons believed it could outlive the “ring” revelations and regain power.

Then occurred an extraordinary happening, though quite in keeping with Tammany shrewdness.  At the society’s annual election, in April, 1872, Kelly and Augustus Schell (who had been elected Grand Sachem after Tweed was forced to resign) caused to be selected as Sachems some of the identical men who had been most conspicuous in the reform movement, such as Samuel J. Tilden, Charles O’Conor, Horatio Seymour, Sanford E. Church and August Belmont.  The best proof that the non-partizan movement of 1871 was already dissolving was, the readiness with which these men accepted these elections.  Their acceptance may have been due to a mixed desire to make of the organization a real reform body as well as to advance their political fortunes.

The Tammany Society now stood before the public as a reform body, with the boast that all the thieves had been cast out.  Next it appointed a reorganization committee to reconstruct the Tammany Hall political organization.  Under its direction the general committee was enlarged to nearly five hundred members, and a new general committee, of unquestionably better quality than its predecessor, was elected.  In the case of disputing district delegations, the Tammany Society’s committee decided by selecting the best men for both.[2]  Out of chaos, within a few months of the “ring’s” overthrow, Kelly created a strong organization, so deftly composed as to place itself before the people as an entirely distinct set of men from the “ring” thieves — as a really Democratic body, quite as heartily in favor of good government as the most exacting reformer.

Kelly acted with great shrewdness, executive force, knowledge of men, and apparent regard for the public interests and proprieties.  He affected extreme modesty, and made it appear that the delegates chose nominees by their own uninfluenced will.  At the Judiciary convention in Tammany Hall, in October, 1872, he insisted that each delegate vote;  in his speech he said that Tammany should have no more of the times when tickets were made up outside of conventions.  Some delegates shouting for the nomination of a man of dubious character, he declared, with the air of a man exerting himself for the good of his party only, that it was time that Tammany Hall should put such a ticket in the field that no man could hold up the finger of scorn at any individual on it.  He furthermore caused the appointment of a committee to cooperate in the work of reform with the Bar Association, the Committee of Seventy, the Municipal Taxpayers’ Association and the Liberal Republicans.

At Kelly’s suggestion the Wigwam, in the Fall of 1872, nominated for Mayor, Abraham R. Lawrence, a member of the Committee of Seventy and its counsel, and for Judges of the Supreme and Superior Courts, men of ability and unimpeachable name.  Altogether, Tammany took on such a new guise that thousands of voters returned to its support.  But the anti-Tammany movement had not yet dissipated its strength, even though it presented a divided front.  One wing of this opposition was the new “reform” organization, the “Apollo Hall Democracy,” founded by James O’Brien, who now stood forth as its candidate for Mayor.  The other wing, composed of the individuals and associations centering about the Committee of Seventy, nominated William F. Havemeyer.

Tammany had the advantage of a Presidential year, when the obligation of “regularity” could be imposed upon a goodly share of the Democratic voters, and the further advantage of a high order of personal character in its nominees.  Nevertheless, Havemeyer won, the vote standing approximately: Havemeyer, 53,806;  Lawrence, 45,398;  O’Brien, 81,121.  The results from several election districts were missing and were never canvassed by the Board of Canvassers.  For Horace Greeley, the Democratic Presidential candidate, Tammany Hall carried the city by 28,000 majority.

Mayor Havemeyer’s administration differed greatly from most of the “reform” administrations that had preceded it.  Never since the year 1800 had the city revenue been distributed with such great care.  The utmost regard was paid to the ordinances dealing with public health and security, and the streets were kept cleaner than ever before.  The rowdy and criminal classes were deprived of the free sway they had so long enjoyed.  The public school system was improved, and the standard of official character was of a higher type than had been known in many a decade.  The city expenditures in 1873 were about $82,000,000, as compared with $36,262,589.41 in 1871, and notwithstanding the tremendous legacy of debt left by the Tweed “ring” to be shouldered by later administrations, Mayor Havemeyer’s administration reduced the city expenses about $8,000,000 in reality, though the bare figures on their face did not show that result.

Mayor Havemeyer complained, as so many of his predecessors had done, of the perverse interference of the Legislature in city affairs — an interference which constantly embarrassed his plans and set back the cause of reform.

The Mayor was not destined to serve his full term.  In September, 1874, a bitter quarrel sprang up between him on the one hand and John Kelly and John Morrissey on the other, apparently over the appointment, at Kelly’s request, of Richard Croker to be a Marshal.  “When Croker’s appointment was announced,” wrote the Mayor, “I was overwhelmed with a torrent of indignation.”  In a public letter addressed to Kelly, Mayor Havemeyer charged that the former, while Sheriff, had obtained $84,482 by fraudulent and illegal receipts, adding this further characterization :

“I think that you were worse than Tweed, except that he was a larger operator.  The public knew that Tweed was a bold, reckless man, making no pretensions to purity.  You, on the contrary, were always avowing your honesty and wrapped yourself in the mantle of piety.  Men who go about with the prefix of ‘honest’ to their names are often rogues.”

Kelly replied that he had acted in the Sheriffs office as had his predecessors, and brought a libel suit against the Mayor, in the answer to which the latter embodied his charges in full.  But on the day the suit was to come to trial Havemeyer fell dead of apoplexy in his office.

During the two years (1872-74) various forces combined to restore Tammany to the old power.  The two great parties were struggling for partizan advantage for future State and national elections.  This brought about the old party alignment, the reform Democrats, as a rule, acting with the Wigwam, and the reform Republicans drifting to the Republican side.  The disreputable classes issued forth in greater force than ever to help replace in power the Tammany that meant to them free sway.  The panic of 1873, with the consequent “hard times,” turned great bodies of voters against the dominant party.  The “ring” had so thoroughly looted the city that Havemeyer’s administration was forced to practise economy in the public works.  The working classes either did not understand the motive of this retrenchment, or did not appreciate it.  Out of the 24,500 mechanics in the city during the Winter of 1873-74, 15,000, it was estimated, were unemployed.  Tammany now adroitly declared itself in favor of giving public employment to the workers.  The Wigwam agents scoured the poorer districts during the campaign of 1874, giving aid to the needy, and gained their support.  The agitation against a third term for President Grant;  the demand for a low tariff and the denunciation of the Washington “ring,” all had their effect, while the impression which naturally might have been expected from Havemeyer’s charges against Kelly was entirely lost by the former’s slurring allusions to Kelly’s humble birth and early occupation — allusions which threw the sympathy and support of the masses strongly to Kelly and his ticket.

The astonishing consequence was that in November, 1874, Tammany Hall which, in 1871, seemed buried beneath obloquy, elected its candidate for Mayor, William H. Wickham (a diamond merchant and an anti-“ring” Democrat and a member of the Committee of Seventy) by nearly 9,000 majority over all, his vote being 70,071, against 24,226 for Oswald Ottendorfer, the Independent Democratic candidate, and 36,953 for Salem H. Wales, the Republican.  At the same election, Tilden, who had also contributed to the downfall of the “ring,” received the solid support of Tammany, and was elected to the Governorship.

Tammany Hall under the surface was rapidly becoming its old self.  Its candidate for Register, “Jim” Hayes, had made, it was charged, $500,000 during the Tweed regime.  Fully three-fourths of the office-seekers in this election were connected with the liquor interests;  and as many of these were keepers of low groggeries, they were in constant conflict with the law.  Nine of the fifteen Tammany candidates for Aldermen were former creatures or beneficiaries of the “ring,” one of them being under two indictments for fraud.  Yet the partizan currents at work again swept almost all of them into office.

Well realizing the value of appearances, Kelly lectured the new members of the Common Council,[3] telling them that “there must be no bad measures, no ‘rings,’ no getting together of a few men for the purpose of making money and controlling patronage.”  Yet Kelly himself at this time absolutely controlled the strongest and probably the most corrupt political organization in the Union.  He dictated State, Judicial, Congressional, Legislative and municipal nominations at will, and continued to be the absolute “boss” until his death in 1886.

1 In Tweed’s confession (1877) Morrissey is mentioned as having introduced a system of repeating from Philadelphia, and also as having acted as paymaster of the fund of $65,000 distributed among the Aldermen to secure the confirmation of Sweeny as Chamberlain.

2 The reorganization committee reached the understanding that the society should thereafter keep in the background and that it should not prominently interfere in the organization’s affairs.

3 Amendments to the charter, passed in 1873, vested local powers in a Board of Aldermen and a Board of Assistant Aldermen — the latter to be abolished on and after January 1, 1875, and the Board of Aldermen to form thenceforth the Common Council.  The Common Council was not to pass any measure over the Mayor’s veto without the vote of two-thirds of all its members.  A part of the former Aldermanic powers was restored to this board by the amendments of 1873 and later years.