The History of Tammany Hall

Charles F. Murphy’s Autocracy

Charles Francis Murphy, supreme leader of the Tammany organization from 1902 to this present writing, was born in New York City on June 20, 1858.  He was a son of Dennis Murphy, an Irishman whose eight children all were born in the same district in New York City, and all of whom obtained the rudiments at least of a public school education.  Dennis Murphy, it may be here said, lived to the remarkably hale age of eighty-eight years, dying in 1902.

As a youth, “Charlie” Murphy worked in an East Side shipyard, by no means a genteel schooling for a boy, although affording a forceful kind of experience of much value in his later career.  Having to fight his way among rough youths, he developed both physical prowess and a sort of domineering ascendency which gave him marked leadership qualities among the virile youths overrunning what was then a district noted for its gangs.  It was a section of the city filled with vacant lots and was long called the “Gas House District”;  here it was that the notorious “Gas House Gang” achieved local reputation.

Tradition has it that when a very young man “Charlie” Murphy organized the Sylvan Social Club, a species of Tammany Hall juvenile auxiliary, composed of boys and youths ranging from fifteen to twenty years of age of whom he became the recognized leader.  Later, through political influence, he obtained a job as driver on a cross-town horse car line.  In his later career his enemies invidiously related how jobs of that kind were much coveted at the time because of the fact that as there were no bell punches or car fare registers, the conductors could easily help themselves to a proportion of the fares and divide with the drivers.  True, this practise was prevalent, but the implication thus cast upon Mr. Murphy has been simply a gratuitous one, lacking even the elements of proof;  it can therefore be dismissed from consideration.

He was a manly youth noted for his filial care, a solicitous son, turning in most of his earnings to his mother;  he was, in fact, the main support of the family.  At the same time he put by enough money — said to have been $500 — to establish himself in the saloon business.

In 1879 he became owner of a diminutive saloon on Nineteenth street, east of Avenue A.  Four years later, he opened another saloon, larger and better equipped than the first, at the corner of Twenty-third street and Avenue A.  He was already a pushful, resourceful Tammany worker in his district, in which he was a district captain.  Of the underground methods and diversified influences of district politics he had a good knowledge, and no less so the application of campaign funds in the most effective ways for producing votes.  Shortly before 1886, Mr. Murphy opened another saloon, this time at Nineteenth street and First avenue.  Subsequently he opened still another saloon at Twentieth street and Second avenue, which was the headquarters of the Anawanda Club, the Tammany district organization.  Selling out the original saloon in which he had started business, he now opened a saloon at the northwest corner of First avenue and Twenty-third street.  By 1890 he was the owner of four prosperous saloons.  It was said of him that he never tolerated a woman in his saloons, although all of his saloons were situated in a district where the admission of women was a commonplace.

In 1892, at the age of thirty-two years, he was chosen Tammany leader of the “Gas-House” district.  He was popular with the generality of people there;  however reserved was his talk, he was always credited with being generous with his cash;  no poor person was turned away empty-handed.  It was narrated of him that during the blizzard of 1888 the Tammany General Committee, at his prompting, voted $4,000 for the relief of the poor, and that a large part of it came from Mr. Murphy’s own pocket.  Of the $4,000, the sum of $1,500 was given to the Rev. Dr. Rainsford’s mission for distribution.  Such personal acts of human warmth (irrespective of motive) counted more with masses of voters than tons of formal polemics on civic virtue, nor did the recipients care as to what source the funds came from.  Even Dr. Rainsford was so impressed that he was moved to say from the pulpit of St. George’s Church that if all the Tammany leaders were like the leader of the Eighteenth Assembly District (Mr. Murphy), Tammany would be an admirable organization.

As a district leader, Mr. Murphy carried on politics and saloons systematically as a combined business.  One of his brothers had long been on the police force;  another brother was an Alderman;  still another brother became an Alderman and Councilman.

When Mr. Van Wyck was elected Mayor, Charles F. Murphy was appointed a Dock Commissioner.  Report had it that when he went into the Dock Board Mr. Murphy “was worth” perhaps $400,000, accumulated in the saloon business and politics in eighteen years.  He had long been known as “Silent Charlie.”  Within a few years after his appointment as Dock Commissioner, his fortune, it was said, reached at least $1,000,000.  When he became Dock Commissioner, Mr. Murphy nominally assigned his four saloons to a brother and three old friends.

Before leaving the office of Dock Commissioner, John J. Murphy (Charles F. Murphy’s brother), James E. Gaffney and Richard J. Crouch (one of Charles F. Murphy’s political district lieutenants) had incorporated the New York Contracting and Trucking Company.  Gaffney was an Alderman.  These three men were credited with holding only five shares each of the hundred shares of the company;  just who held the remaining eighty-five shares has never been definitely explained.  When quizzed later by a legislative committee, Charles F. Murphy denied that he had any ownership or financial interest in the New York Contracting and Trucking Company, and no records could be found proving that he did have any interest.

One of the transactions of this company was as follows: In July, 1901, the company leased a dock at West Ninety-sixth Street, and it leased another dock at East Seventy-ninth Street, paying the city a total rent of $4,800 a year for the two properties.  It would appear from a report subsequently made by Commissioner of Accounts William Hepburn Russell to Mayor Low that the average profit from the two dock properties was $200 a day, making a rate of 5,000 per cent. on the investment.  This particular transaction of the New York Contracting and Trucking Company, lucrative as it was, nevertheless was modest compared to the company’s subsequent transactions which we shall duly describe.

Certainly by the year 1902, Mr. Murphy showed the most visible evidences of some sizable degree of wealth;  he acquired a suburban estate at Good Ground, Long Island, owning, too, in time, among other possessions denoting wealth, a string of automobiles.

This millionaire leader of Tammany Hall was by no means an unpleasant man to meet.  He had a certain diffidence and he was not a good talker;  his old habit of attentively listening was too strongly fixed.  Physically strong, his deep voice and direct, concise manner when he did speak were impressive and always concentrated on the business at hand.  He had none of the ordinary vices;  he drank liquor occasionally, it was true, but his drinks were sparse and the times far separated.  In smoking he did not indulge, neither did he swear, nor gamble at cards, although he was not a stranger to stock market speculations.  A communicant of the Epiphany Roman Catholic Church, he attended mass every Sunday, and gave liberal donations to the church.  Unlike Mr. Croker, Mr. Murphy never cared to make the Democratic Club his headquarters;  every night, when a district leader, Mr. Murphy could be found, from 7:0 to 10 o’clock, leaning against a lamp post at the northwest corner of Twentieth Street and Second Avenue.  Everybody in the district knew that he would be there, accessible to anybody who wanted to talk to him.  Such were the career and characteristics of the new leader of Tammany Hall — a dictator in fact, yet preserving all of the tokens of democratic accessibility.

Mayor Low’s administration failed to make an impression calculated to influence a majority of voters to reelect him.  Quite true, most of his appointees to head the various departments were men of character, administrative capacity and sincerity of purpose - radically different types, indeed, from the Tammany district leaders who were usually appointed to those offices under Tammany administrations.

But in appointing Colonel John N. Partridge as commissioner of police, Mayor Low chose a weak and inefficient man.  The demoralized condition of the police administration under Tammany had long been the special target of the reformers’ attacks, and people had expected a wholesome overhauling of that department under Mayor Low.  Colonel Partridge’s administration, however, was so disappointing that the City Club was moved to demand his resignation.  It criticized Commissioner Partridge for taking no adequate measures to break up the alliance between the police and crime, or to get a proper understanding of the underlying conditions in the police department, and further criticized him for surrounding himself at headquarters with notoriously corrupt officers, one of whom, in fact, was made his principal uniformed adviser.

The City Club’s criticism did not charge that Partridge was personally corrupt, but that he was weak and gullible and was ignorant of real conditions.  “Commissioner Partridge and his deputies adopted the idea of ruling the police force according to military ideas.  The word of a superior officer was accepted absolutely as against that of a subordinate.  In a force where the superior officers had, for the most part, secured their promotions by bribery;  where the superior officers were the beneficiaries of blackmailing;  and where the honest men, as a rule, remained subordinates — the attempt to instil a spirit of respect among the men for their superiors excited only ridicule, and added to the prevalent demoralization....”[1]

True as such a general statement was, it has been equally true, as experience has shown, that various other reform police commissioners have vainly tried “to break the system”;  temporary figures, commissioners come and go, but “The System” has remained more or less intact.  Even General Francis V. Greene, appointed by Mayor Low January 1, 1903, to succeed Colonel Partridge (who resigned the day before the trustees of the City Club’s demand for his resignation was handed in), found this to be a fact, notwithstanding his earnest, conscientious efforts to correct conditions in the police department.

The vote of the body of the police force themselves showed, in 1902, their complete dissatisfaction with conditions.  At least 75 per cent. of the police force voted for Low in 1901;  a year later fully 90 per cent. voted for Bird S. Coler, Tammany’s candidate for Governor.[2]

This was only one of many indications of a forthcoming Tammany victory.  Even some reformers criticized Mayor Low as at all times ready to denounce the Tammany leader from whom he could expect nothing, while refraining from saying anything against Senator Thomas C. Platt, the Republican “boss” who represented and headed a political machine element not materially different from that of Tammany.  Mayor Low, it was also critically pointed out, was not of a type to hold the goodwill of a large body of the proletarian voters;  his views, manner and leanings were of an aristocratic order;  and in a city where class distinctions were so notoriously and effectively exploited by Tammany Hall, nothing could be more destructive to the endurance of an administration than the popular belief that its head, however honest personally, embodied the interests and smug views of the people of wealth — that he was, in the expressive phrase of politics, “a silk-stocking.”  Various acts of Mayor Low’s were cited against him and deepened this impression in the popular mind.[3]  Mayor Low’s supporters pointed out energetically that he had reduced the city’s debt by $7,000,000;  that he had reformed the system of tax collection;  that he had secured for the city adequate payments for public franchise grants;  that he had defeated corrupt “jobs”;  that he had reformed the public school system — that in every way he had been a thorough reform Mayor.  These representations, the election result showed, were in vain.

With conditions favorable to its return to power, Tammany Hall took measures to make its ticket in the municipal campaign of 1903 headed by a candidate whose name stood for prestige and respectability.

Tammany’s candidate for Mayor was George B. McClellan, whose father of the same name, after serving as Commanding General in the Union Army during part of the Civil War, had been the Democratic candidate for President of the United States in 1864.  A political protége of Charles F. Murphy, George B. McClellan had seen service in Congress and had been selected by Mr. Murphy as Tammany’s candidate for Mayor a considerable time before the campaign opened.  Jealousy antagonistic to Tammany’s domination and assertion of supreme power, the Brooklyn Democratic organization, then under control of “Boss” Hugh McLaughlin, opposed McClellan’s nomination, but Mr. Murphy carried his point.

To the amazement and chagrin of the Republicans and Fusionists, Tammany Hall then consummated a bold and astute political stroke by appropriating two of the three principal nominees of its opponents’ ticket, and nominating them as Tammany candidates.  These two men were Edward M. Grout and Charles V. Fornes, respectively occupying the offices of Controller and President of the Board of Aldermen under Mayor Low’s administration.  With Mayor Low they had been renominated, Thus did Tammany shrewdly weaken the other side and present itself as having two chief candidates of the same identity and capacity as those of the reformers.  Mayor low and his supporters did not accept this unhumorous situation complacently;  they indignantly forced Grout and Fornes off their ticket.  But the effect sought by Tammany had been produced.

Mr. McClellan was elected Mayor by a plurality of 62,696.  The vote resulted :  McClellan, 814,782;  Low, 252,086.  Furman, candidate for Mayor of the Social Democratic party, received 16,596 votes;  Hunter, the Socialist Labor party’s candidate for Mayor, 5,205 votes.  For the Prohibition ticket 869 votes were cast.  In this election Tammany also elected its candidates, including Grout and Fornes, to all of the other important city offices, except the Presidency of the Borough of Richmond.  The results of the election practically gave Tammany Hall full control of the city.

1 The Police Department of the City of New York — A Statement of Facts, published by the City Club of New York, October, 1903, pp. 52-55, etc.

2 Ibid., p. 58.

3 See a long letter from a leading reformer published in the New York Herald, April 1, 1903.