The History of Tammany Hall

CHAPTER XXVII
The Dictatorship of John Kelly
1874-1886



THE history of the Tammany Society and of Tammany Hall during the period from 1874 onward embraces a vast and intricate web of influences, activities and consequences.  To present this period in the detail proportionate to that employed in the preceding chapters would require an amount of space inconsistent with the projected volume of this work.  It will, therefore, be presented in the manner of a Comprehensive Summary, in which the main movement will be outlined, and particular treatment given only to the more important features and events.

Toward the end of 1874 Kelly’s rule had become supreme.  Under the form of “requests” he assessed every office-holder, even calling upon men receiving only $1,000 a year to pay as much as $250.  To systematize these assessments, he established a regular collectorship, in charge of the society’s Wiskinskie, a city employee drawing $1,500 a year for apparent services.  Abundant charges, some of which were proved, were made as to corruption in many of the city departments.

During the next year (1875) a number of disaffected Wigwam men formed the “Irving Hall Democracy” and issued an address denouncing the Tammany General Committee as the creature of the society.  The effect of this defection and of the charges of public corruption were such that in the local elections Tammany lost many of the minor offices.

The friendship between Kelly and Tilden had already been broken.  Kelly organized a bitter opposition to Tilden at the St. Louis national convention, in 1876, but pledged himself to support the nominations, and kept his word.

The Presidential campaign of this year held the municipal struggle within strict party lines.  The various Democratic factions united on Smith Ely, electing him Mayor by a majority of 58,517 over John A. Dix, the Republican candidate.

From December, 1876, to December, 1880, Kelly filled the position of City Controller, and was credited with reducing the city debt.  Politics, however, rather than fiscal administration for the benefit of the city, continued to be his main business.  One of the numerous examples of his superior sagacity in bowing to the general public sentiment was his support, in 1878, of Edward Cooper, an anti-Tammany nominee for Mayor, a man of recognized independence of character, who was elected.  Tammany at this time was still largely influenced by the old Tweed conspirators, the assertion being made in 1877 that at least fifty former office-holders under Tweed were to be found in the general committee.[1]

In 1879 occurred the well-known fight of Tammany against the Democrats of the rest of the State.  The Democratic State convention had assembled at Syracuse.  The roll-call had barely begun when Augustus Schell, spokesman for the Tammany organization, stated that as there was every prospect that Gov. Lucius Robinson would be renominated, the delegates from New York City would withdraw, although they stood ready to support any other name.  This “suggestion,” as Schell afterwards called it, was unheeded, whereupon the entire Tammany delegation retired.  The delegation meeting elsewhere, Kelly, with the specific object of defeating Robinson, caused himself to be nominated for Governor.  The quarrel between Robinson and the Tammany chief was personal, arising from the fact that the Governor had removed Henry A. Gumbleton, a prominent Wigwam man, from the office of County Clerk.  Such was the discipline to which Kelly had reduced the organization that it obeyed his word without a single protest.

He succeeded in his ulterior object.  His 77,566 votes caused the defeat of Robinson, who received 875,790 votes, to 418,567 for Alonzo B. Cornell, the Republican candidate.  The significant lesson furnished by Kelly’s making good his threat, was one generally heeded thereafter by State and national politicians and candidates, who declined to invite the hostility of so great a power.  But for this secession, and the consequent demoralization of the Democratic party in the State, New York’s electoral vote, it is generally thought, would have gone to Gen. Hancock in 1880.  Mayor Cooper refused to reappoint Kelly to the office of Controller at the expiration of his term, in December, 1880, because of his supposed agency in the defeat of Hancock.

In 1880 the Democrats of the city were divided into the factions of Tammany Hall and Irving Hall, but laying aside differences till after the election, they agreed upon an apportionment of the local offices.  The Democratic candidate for Mayor, William R. Grace, was selected by the Tammany committee from a list of names submitted by Irving Hall.  Many of the members of the latter organization, however, were prejudiced against Mr. Grace because of his Roman Catholic faith, fearing that in case of his election the public school appropriations would be diverted to sectarian uses.  They joined with the Republicans in support of William Dowd.  The vote stood: Grace, 101,760;  Dowd, 98,715.

Mayor Grace’s official power was considerably limited by the action of the Legislature, which had made the tenure of office of executives of departments longer than his own — a law which in effect put the department heads in a position independent of the Mayor.  In frequent messages, Mayor Grace expressed himself, as had Mayor Havemeyer, pointedly, though vainly, on the evils of legislative interference with the local government.

In December, 1880, a new organization, called the “New York County Democracy,” was formed by Abram S. Hewitt and others, to oppose both Tammany Hall and Irving Hall.  This body soon had a large enrolled membership, and was joined later by a number of Democrats who had unsuccessfully attempted to bring about reform in Tammany.  To that end they had made an effort, at the society’s annual election in April, 1881, to elect their candidates for Sachems, when the ticket headed by Kelly won by an average majority of 50 in about 775 votes.  The fact, or belief, that the result was secured through repeating and other unfair means, caused a considerable defection from Tammany.

In the State convention of October, 1881, the Tammany delegation was ruled out, and the County Democracy was declared “regular.”  At an earlier period this adverse decision might have entailed serious, if not fatal, consequences to the Wigwam.  But now that the organization was in a state of absolute discipline, ruled by one hard-headed, tireless “boss,” with each member understanding that his self-interest required his “standing by” the organization in times of trouble, as well as in times of triumph, the blow had no lasting effect.

Holding the balance of power in the Legislature of 1882, the Tammany members resolved to force the “regular” Democracy to make terms with them.  To that end they attended no party caucuses, and refused to support men nominated by the “regular” Democrats.  At Kelly’s order they demanded, as the price of their cooperation, certain chairmanships of important committees.  Not getting them, they continued for weeks their stubborn opposition.  Finally the two houses were organized, the Tammany men voting for the Republican candidate for clerk.  Charges were freely made of a political bargain between Kelly and Gov. Cornell.

There were three Democratic factions in the city in 1882 — Tammany Hall, Irving Hall and the County Democracy.  A movement to obtain non-partizan government caused the independent nomination of Allan Campbell for Mayor.  The Republicans indorsed him, but their support was greatly weakened by their nomination of a spoils politician, John J. O’Brien, for County Clerk.  The three Democratic factions agreed on Franklin Edson, who was elected by a majority of 21,417, the vote being: Edson, 97,802;  Campbell, 76,385.

In the Chicago national convention of 1884 the Tammany delegation bitterly opposed the nomination of Grover Cleveland, its orators virulently assailing his private and public character.  Though professing afterward to support him as the Democratic candidate, the Wigwam refused to unite with other Democratic organizations in any political demonstration.  The reason seems to have been Mr. Cleveland’s publicly expressed independence of Kelly and his machine.  After the ensuing election, Tammany was generally charged with treachery.  The Wigwam nominated a separate city and county ticket, naming Hugh J. Grant for Mayor.  The County Democracy and Irving Hall agreed upon the nomination of former Mayor William R. Grace, and elected him with the rest of the fusion ticket, the vote being: Grace, 96,288;  Grant, 86,361;  Frederick S. Gibbs (Republican), 45,386.

In these years the control of the city offices was frequently divided among the various parties and factions.  In the Board of Aldermen, as in the departments, were Tammany and County Democracy men and Republicans, so that no one faction or party completely swayed the city.  Much of their former power had been restored to the Aldermen by the charter amendments of 1878, by the State constitution of 1874 and various legislative acts.  Reports arose from time to time that money was used to secure confirmation of appointments by the Aldermen, but the nearest approach to detail was the testimony of Patrick H. McCann before the “Fassett Committee” in 1890.

Mr. McCann testified that Richard Croker, a brother-in-law, came to his store in 1884, with a bag containing $180,000, which, he said, was to be used in obtaining Aldermanic votes to secure the confirmation, in case of his appointment, of Hugh J. Grant as Public Works Commissioner, and that he (Mr. Croker) was to get ten cents a barrel on all cement used by that department.[2]  Mr. McCann further testified that Mr. Croker had told him that $80,000 of this sum was furnished by Mr. Grant, and the remainder by the organization.  Mr. Croker, according to the same testimony, opened negotiations through Thomas D. Adams for the purchase of two Republican Aldermen, whose votes were needed.  The alleged “deal,” however, was not consummated, and the money was returned.  Mr. Croker and Mr. Grant both swore that these statements were untrue.[3]

But the extraordinary corruption of the Board of Aldermen of 1884 is a matter of public record.  Twenty-one members — the exceptions among those present and voting being Aldermen Grant and O’Connor — voted to give the franchise for a surface railway on Broadway to the Broadway Surface Railroad Company.[4]  The rival road, the Broadway Railroad Company, sought to bribe the Aldermen with $750,000, half cash and half bonds, but the Aldermen thought the bonds might be traced, and considered it wiser to accept the $500,000 cash offered by the former,[5] each Alderman receiving $22,000.[6]  Mayor Edson vetoed the resolution,[7] but it was repassed.

Other street railway franchises were passed by the same board.  Mr. McCann testified in 1890 that Mr. Grant had told him that Mr. Croker strongly advised him [Grant] not to have anything to do with “that Broadway matter,” as “they [the other Aldermen] would be caught.”[8]  Mr. Grant denied having said so.[9]  The fact remains that Mr. Grant was the only Tammany Alderman free of suspicion.  Many of the accused Tammany city fathers were members of the organization’s executive committee, which was composed almost exclusively of leaders, and which was supposed to direct the Wigwam’s affairs.[10]

One Alderman, Henry W. Jaehne, was sentenced to penal servitude at hard labor for the term of nine years and ten months;  and another, “Honest” John O’Neill, to four years and a half, and to pay a fine of $2,000;  a third, Arthur J. McQuade, was sentenced to seven years and ordered to return $5,000 of the bribe money to the city, but on July 20, 1889, at a new trial at Ballston, he was acquitted.  Six other Aldermen fled to Canada, and three turned State’s evidence.  Ten others were indicted, but were never brought to trial.  As Col. John R. Fellows, the District Attorney who tried the cases, stated to the Fassett Committee, convictions could not then (1890) be secured, because public sentiment had changed;  the storm had subsided;  people had grown tired of the subject, and many former opponents of the franchise had come to look upon it as a benefit.[11]

But there were strong hints that political influence had saved many persons from prison.  Though the facts did not come out until the trials in 1886, public indignation and suspicion were so strong in 1884 that Kelly insisted that the Tammany Aldermen who had voted for the franchise should not be renominated.[12]

Kelly broke down with nervous and physical prostration after the Presidential campaign of 1884.  Grover Cleveland’s election, which falsified his predictions, deeply disappointed him.  He kept to his house, No. 34 East Sixty-ninth street, but still issued his orders to the Tammany organization.  Towards the end, he could not sleep except by the use of opiates.  He died on June 1, 1886.

Thus passed away the second absolute “boss” of Tammany Hall.  For more than ten years 50,000 voters obeyed his commands, and it was he and not the people to whom a host of office-holders, contractors, and all who profited directly or indirectly from politics, looked as the source of their appointment, employment or emolument.  On more than one occasion Kelly complained of his onerous duty of providing government for New York City.  The secret of his control was the same as that of Tweed and of the previous cliques: he knew that a large part of the voting mass cared nothing for good government, but looked upon politics solely as a means of livelihood;  that another large part were satisfied to vote the “regular” ticket under any and all circumstances;  and, with a keen understanding of human nature, he knew how to harmonize conflicting interests, to allay personal differences, and to soothe with large promises of future rewards his disaffected followers.  Profiting by Tweed’s fate, he knew the value of moderation;  and he earned the praise, not only of his interested followers, but also of a tolerant and easy-going class in the community, through the fact that under his rule the stealing, compared to that of the Tweed régime, was kept at a comparatively respectable minimum.  It was pointed out to his credit that the fortune he left — reputed to be $500,000 — was very reasonable for one who so long had held real control of a great city.




1 Document No. 8, p. 102.

2 Testimony, Senate Committee on Cities, 1890, Vol. I, pp. 689-98.

3 Ibid., 733, and Ibid., Vol. II, p. 1693.

4 Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. CLXXV, pp. 237-39.

5 Alderman Arthur J. McQuade’s testimony before Recorder Smythe, November 19, 1886.

6 Alderman Fullgraff’s additional testimony before Recorder Smythe.

7 Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. CLXXVI, pp. 777-84.

8 Testimony, Senate Committee on Cities, 1890, Vol. I, pp. 706-7.

9 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 752.

10 Ibid., p. 74.

11 Testimony, Senate Committee on Cities, 1890, Vol. III, pp. 2667-68.

12 Testimony of Hugh J. Grant, Ibid., Vol. I, p. 739.