The History of Tammany Hall

Tammany Under Absentee Direction

IN the municipal campaign of 1901 the anti-Tammany forces combined upon the nomination of Seth Low, a Republican, for Mayor, and upon the nominations of various other candidates for city offices.  Tammany’s candidate for Mayor was Edward M. Shepard.  Both Mr. Low and Mr. Shepard were acclaimed by their respective supporters as men of standing, prestige and public character.  Mr. Low was a man of wealth who had become president of Columbia University.  Mr. Shepard was a lawyer of note, although some critics pointed out that his practise was that of a corporation attorney, serving the great vested interests.  It may be remarked that Mr. Shepard was a son of the brilliant Lorenzo B. Shepard, who, as stated in Chapter XVI of this work, became a leader of Tammany Hall at so early an age and was chosen Grand Sachem of the Tammany Society.

The scandals of Mayor Van Wyck’s administration were conspicuous issues of the campaign of 1901.  But there were two particularly noteworthy features pressed by the reformers in their indictment of Tammany.  One of these issues, which made so deep an impression upon the public mind, especially in the densely populous East Side of New York City, was the flagrant immorality under which young girls of the tenderest age were often decoyed into lives of shame.  The question thus presented was neither that of the “suppression of vice” nor that of how people could be made virtuous by mandate of law.  The question, as put to voters, was whether a system under which a corrupt, money-making combination of vicious lawbreakers with police and other officials should be allowed to continue an abhorrent traffic.

A widely-circulated pamphlet published by the City Club for the Women’s Municipal League presented a series of facts as attested by court records, the statements of City Magistrates, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and others, and as reported by the Committee of Fifteen, composed of reformers, probing into the question.  The pamphlet declared that the facts justified the conclusion that the business of ruining young girls and forcing them into a life of shame, for the money there was in it for the dealers, had recently grown to considerable proportions;  that its existence was known to the police;  that the police made little or no effort to stop it;  that the police, or those for whom they acted, probably derived profit from the traffic;  and that a reasonably active and efficient Police Department could stop the traffic of a deliberate merchandizing of the virtue of women, usually young girls.  Details were given of numerous cases which had been passed upon in the courts, and a long description of the traffic was included from a statement made on October 21, 1901, by District Attorney Eugene A. Philbin of New York County.[1]

Justice William Travers Jerome, of the Court of Special Sessions, had already made a similar statement.  He was quoted in the New York Times, of June 27, 1901, as saying :

“ People are simply ignorant of conditions on the East Side [of New York City].  If those conditions existed in some other communities there would be a Vigilance Committee speedily organized, and somebody would get lynched.  The continued greed and extortion of the Police Captains who charge five hundred dollars for a disorderly resort to open in their precinct, and then collect fifty to a hundred [dollars] per month, has, however, made even vice unprofitable.  Details, I know, are revolting and not nice to read, but yet the people ought to know about them.  Just yesterday I sentenced to six months in the penitentiary the keepers of one of the most depraved houses of the East Side.  I firmly believe that they were merely the agents of the man who owns not one but many of such places.  He is well known as a politician in a certain notorious district.

“ That house is but one of hundreds within a radius of one mile of this building [the Criminal Court House] where criminals are sometimes brought to justice.  I will stake my reputation that there are scores within less than that distance from here in which there are an average of ten or twelve children from thirteen to eighteen years old.”[2]

Nominated for District Attorney of New York County by the anti-Tammany forces, Mr. Jerome’s speeches on these existing conditions made a keen impression and excited the deepest feeling, especially among the people of the East Side.  Intricate questions of taxation and arrays of figures proving an exorbitant budget and the waste of public funds could not make the same appeal to their indignation as the portrayal of conditions menacing their home life and polluting their environment.  The facts thus spread forth caused the most intense resentment against Tammany.

In reply Tammany Hall sought to represent that the traffic thus described was largely mythical — and that at all events it was greatly exaggerated.  It was no fiction, however, nor was police connivance and corruption a fiction, either.  So far as the open flaunting of vicious conditions was concerned, Tammany Hall had itself been forced to recognize them;  as a concession to public opinion Mr. Croker bad, in November, 1900, appointed an Anti-Vice Committee with orders to investigate vice conditions and “clean up” the “Red Light” district.  To impart a tone of good faith to the work of this committee, he had appointed Lewis Nixon, a naval academy graduate and a ship builder, its chairman.  It was generally understood that this committee had been created as a clever campaign move to offset in the public mind the growing indignation against Tammany, many of the leaders of which, it was notorious, had profited richly from the system of police “protection” of vice.

In respect to the “white slave” traffic, however, it must be said, in justice to Tammany, that the factors attributed were not the only ones responsible, and such a traffic was far from being confined to New York City;  it went on in other cities under Republican and Reform as well as Democratic rule.  This was conclusively shown later by the necessity of the passage of a law passed by Congress aimed at the traffic (a law subsequently diverted somewhat from its original purpose), and by official investigations and court proceedings.  The large number of prosecutions in the Federal courts under that law showed the widespread character of the traffic.

Another important issue of the municipal campaign of 1901 was the scandal growing out of the charges that William C. Whitney, Thomas F. Ryan, W.L. Elkins, P.A.B. Widener, Thomas Dolan and associates had looted the stockholders of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company of New York City of tens of millions of dollars.  Whitney and Ryan were credited with being among the chief financial powers long controlling “Boss” Croker;  and by means of his control of Tammany Hall, and in turn New York City, securing franchises, privileges and rights of enormous value.  This control was often equally true of the New York State legislature;  subsequent developments, in fact, revealed that in years when the Legislature was dominantly Republican and therefore could not be ordered by Mr. Croker, both Republican and Democratic legislators were corrupted by the Metropolitan Street Railway Company, or by agents acting for it.

According to Mr. W.N. Amory,[3] who was thoroughly familiar with the affairs of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company, and who exposed its looting, Mr. Jerome knew, in 1901, “that the conduct of Metropolitan affairs was corrupt.  We had on numerous occasions discussed that point.”

Mr. Jerome made profuse public promises that if he were elected District Attorney he would press investigation.  “Let me tell you,” he said at the conclusion of a speech on October 26, 1901, “that if I am elected I shall make it my business to follow the trail of wrongdoing and corruption not only when they lead into tenement houses, but I shall follow them even if they lead into the office of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company.”  Mr. Jerome added :  “No one knows better than I do that when I am attacking the Metropolitan Street Railway Company, I am arraying myself against the most dangerous, the most vindictive and the most powerful influences at work in this community.”[4]

Mr. Jerome’s denunciations and promises aroused great enthusiasm and large expectations;  they had much effect in contributing to the result of the campaign, for it was popularly realized that while Tammany leaders accumulated their millions of dollars, yet back of these leaders, and secretly operating through them, were magnates of great financial power with their tens or hundreds of millions of dollars acquired largely by means of financial and industrial power conferred by legislation, permissory or statute, of various kinds.  The electorate well knew that comparatively small grafters were numerous, but now it had the promise that the large spoliators, hitherto immune, would be exposed and prosecuted, if possible.

The result of the election was that Mr. Low was elected Mayor by a plurality of 31,636.  Nearly all of the other anti-Tammany candidates for the large offices were also elected, although Tammany’s candidate for the Borough of the Bronx — Louis F. Haffen — was successful.  The total vote stood:  Low, 296,818;  Shepard, 265,177.  For other political parties a small vote was cast: Benjamin Hanford, candidate for Mayor of the Social Democratic party, received 9,834 votes;  Keinard, Socialist Labor candidate for Mayor, polled 6,218 votes, and Manierre, Prohibition candidate for Mayor, 1,264 votes.

That of a total vote of 561,990 votes cast for the two chief opposing candidates, Tammany and its allied organizations should have polled 265,177 votes, showed Tammany Hall’s enormous strength, even in the face of a combination of opponents, with all the strength of definite issues obviously putting Tammany on the defensive.

Realizing that the attacks upon him personally as the “boss” of Tammany Hall and of the city had been successful in a political sense, Mr. Croker wisely concluded, immediately after this defeat, to obscure himself and give an appearance of retiring from active participation in the affairs of Tammany Hall.  Conscious, too, of the public discredit attaching to Tammany methods and Tammany leaders, he saw that the time had come to inject some show of an element of respectability and reform into Tammany Hall.  He now underwent the formalities of an “abdication.”

On January 13, 1902, the astonishing news was made public that he had selected Lewis Nixon as his successor as the leader of Tammany Hall.  Mr. Nixon, at this time, was forty-one years old;  hailing from Leesburg, Virginia, he had been graduated from the United States Naval Academy, and had become a naval constructor, later owning his own naval ship plant at Elizabeth, New Jersey.  He was also connected with a number of private corporations.  In 1898 he had been appointed by Mayor Van Wyck to the office of President of the East River Bridge Commission, and in 1900-1901 had acted, as we have seen, as Chairman of Mr. Croker’s Anti-Vice Committee.

When the educated Mr. Nixon assumed what he styled the leadership of Tammany Hall, not only seasoned politicians of all grades but also the sophisticated smiled skeptically.  Tammany district leaders maintained in public an air of profound gravity and obedient acquiescence which caused general amusement.  And when Mr. Nixon solemnly discussed his plans for the improvement of Tammany Hall, he was popularly regarded as an innocent.  Even when Mr. Croker, as an apparent token of good faith, made Mr. Nixon chairman of the Tammany Finance Committee, few considered his appointment seriously;  he was generally dubbed “the phantom leader.”  Having attended to Mr. Nixon’s installation, Mr. Croker sailed abroad to his estate at Wantage;  to all nominal appearances he had severed himself from Tammany politics.

This comedy lasted but a few months.  On May 14, 1902, Mr. Nixon sent his resignation as leader to the Tammany Hall Executive Committee.  He accompanied his resignation with a speech in which he declared that since he had become chairman of the Tammany Hall Finance Committee, he had found himself so hampered by a “kitchen cabinet” headed by Andrew Freedman (Mr. Croker’s business partner) and by the continued interference of the absent Mr. Croker, that he could no longer lead Tammany Hall and retain his self-respect in the circumstances.

“Every important act of mine,” Mr. Nixon announced, “has been cabled to England before it became effective.  Mr. Freedman and his party interfered with me at every turn, and at last sought to dictate to me whom I ought to place on the Board of Sachems.

“Then a cablegram came from Wantage [Mr. Croker’s estate] direct to me to place certain men on the Board of Sachems, and when I rebelled I found that at every turn I would be opposed by this coterie of interferers.

“I found that nearly all my important acts had to be viséd before they became effective.  Many of the district leaders would accept my orders, but before carrying them out, they would get advice from Mr. Croker.”[5]

With this announcement Mr. Nixon vanished from the scene of Tammany politics.  As a matter of fact, certain Tammany district leaders were already planning to bring about a change of actual leadership.

On May 22, 1902, the Executive Committee of Tammany Hall took steps which tended to sever the relation that Mr. Crocker retained with the organization.  It voted to recommend the abolition of the Sub-Committee on Finance which had always been presided over by the various “bosses” of Tammany Hall, thus eliminating from the chairmanship of that committee Andrew Freedman, who was the representative and mouthpiece of the absentee Mr. Croker.

At the same time the Executive Committee chose a triumvirate of leaders to guide the organization.  The regency of three thus selected were Charles F. Murphy, Daniel F. McMahon and Louis F. Haffen.  All three, of course, were Tammany district leaders.  Mr. Murphy’s career is described hereafter.  Mr. McMahon was chairman of Tammany’s Executive Committee and head of the contracting firm of Naughton & Company.  It was this company that made a fortune from the contract for changing the motive power of the Third Avenue Railway, regarding which there was so much scandal.  With nothing more than powerful political “pull,” this concern obtained large contracts.  It was charged by John C. Sheehan that Richard Croker secured 50 per cent of the profits of this company, and that he pocketed $1,500,000 from this source;  this assertion, however, depended merely upon Mr. Sheehan’s word;  it was not established in any official investigation.  The third member of the triumvirate, Mr. Haffen, was now president of the Borough of the Bronx.

But this triumvirate did not last long.  On September 19, 1902, it was effaced, and Charles F. Murphy became the boss of Tammany.  This action was taken at a meeting of the Executive Committee.  At this meeting former Chief of Police Devery, holding that he had been elected at the primaries, tried to have himself recognized as a district leader, but his claims were speedily disposed of and he was shut out.  Mr. Haffen handed in this resolution :

“ Whereas, the experiment of the Committee of Three having proved the desirability of individual responsibility, in leadership,

“ Resolved, That the powers and duties heretofore exercised and performed by the Committee of Three be hereafter exercised and performed by Charles F. Murphy.”

Nine Tammany district leaders, headed by John F. Carroll, who evidently aimed at power himself, opposed the resolution, but twenty-seven other district leaders voted it through.  One of the leaders immediately sent a cablegram to Mr. Croker announcing the result.  Now that Mr. Murphy was chosen leader, he also became the treasurer of Tammany Hall.

1 Facts for New York Parents, etc., Published for the Women’s Municipal League by the City Club of New York, October, 1901.

2 Ibid.

3 From 1895 to 1900 Mr. Amory was connected in an official capacity with the Third Avenue Railway Company.

4 Report of speech in the New York Herald, October 27, 1901.

5 This speech was published in the New York Sun and other newspapers on the following day.