The History of Tammany Hall

CHAPTER XXXVII
Tammany’s Present Status
1914-1917



UPON the removal of Governor Sulzer from office, Martin Glynn, as has already been noted, had become Governor of New York State.  A Democrat, he consequently appointed men of the party to which he belonged to various offices.  Tammany and its auxiliaries now had control of the Public Service Commission, First District.

But this control was abruptly ended by the effect of the disclosures made in the testimony before the (Thompson) Joint Legislative Committee probing into the affairs of the Public Service Commissions.  Mr. Glynn was succeeded as Governor by Charles S. Whitman who had done such notable service as District Attorney of New York County.  During 1915 the Joint Legislative Committee held many hearings at which much testimony of an upheaving nature was given.

One result of this inquiry was a series of grave charges against Edward E. McCall, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, First District, and, as we have seen, recent candidate of Tammany Hall for Mayor.  Accompanied by a request for Mr. McCall’s removal from office, these charges were made to Governor Whitman by the Joint Legislative Committee on December 12, 1915, and were supplemented by a bill of particulars, specifying twenty charges, formally filed ten days later.

The charges declared that Mr. McCall’s acceptance of his appointment to the Public Service Commission was in violation of law;  that he was at the time the owner of stock in a corporation subject to the Public Service Commission’s supervision;  that thereafter he attempted to transfer this stock to his wife “which attempt was a mere subterfuge and a clumsy effort to evade the statute”;  and that as Chairman of the Public Service Commission he participated in the consideration of matters affecting the value of this stock.  Further, the charges accused Mr. McCall of accepting a retainer for legal services from a corporation, the chief owner of the stock of which was commonly reputed to be a controlling factor in the management of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company; and that in another case he accepted a retainer in an action then pending in the Supreme Court “ in which action the engineers in the employ of the Public Service Commission will be necessary as material witnesses.”  Other charges specified that he favored the public service corporations to the detriment of public interests.  The sixteenth charge particularized that in the matter of the third tracking of the elevated railroads in Manhattan he failed to reserve the power of supervision to the Commission “ and that as a result of such failure the lessee of the Manhattan Railway Company [the Interborough] has entered into extravagant and improvident contracts under which its stockholders and the people of the City of New York have suffered and will suffer large losses.”  The seventeenth charge arraigned McCall for having authorized the construction of connecting lines by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company “at an extravagant and exorbitant price and without competition to the disadvantage of the city of New York and its inhabitants.”  The eighteenth charge set forth that in the execution of the dual subway contracts “he permitted the inclusion of a provision under which the New York Municipal Railway Corporation will be permitted unwarrantedly to deduct from the earnings of that company, before the division of the net earnings between the company and the city can be accomplished, a sum aggregating more than $10,000,000.”  In brief, the charges declared that McCall showed misconduct in office, favoritism, neglect of duty, and inefficiency.

After consideration of the charges, Governor Whitman, on December 6, 1915, removed Mr. McCall from office as the Chairmah of the Public Service Commission, First District.  The particular charge substantiated was that McCall violated that section of the Public Service Commissions law forbidding a Commissioner to hold stock in a corporation subject to the Commission’s supervision.

McCall, however, was not the only Public Service Commissioner involved in the revelations before the Joint Legislative Committee.  At a session on December 16, 1915, Sidney G. Johnson, vice-president of the General Railway Signal Company, testified that Robert Colgate Wood, another Public Service Commissioner, demanded $5,000 from the Union Switch and Signal Company for using his influence as Commissioner to give that company a subway signal system contract.  The offer, it was testified, was refused.  On January 25, 1916, the Grand Jury in New York County indicted Mr. Wood for the alleged solicitation of a bribe.  Meanwhile, on December 27, 1915, George V.S. Williams, another Public Service Commissioner, resigned from office on the plea that for some time he had been contemplating this step, and now that he was no longer “under fire” he could retire in justice to himself.

Serious as these developments were, they did not have the damaging effect upon Tammany that might ordinarily be supposed.  Except in certain offices here and there Tammany was out of power, and therefore, not being prominently on the defensive, could not be effectively assailed.  Moreover, in view of the results of a recently tried libel suit, it was anything but a propitious time for Tammany’s Republican opponents to make capital from such incidents.

This libel action, which conspicuously held public attention, was one brought by William Barnes, Jr., Republican State leader, against Theodore Roosevelt.  In a published article, Colonel Roosevelt had practically charged that there was a corrupt alliance between Mr. Barnes and Charles F. Murphy, the Tammany leader, and that Mr. Barnes had worked through a corrupt alliance between crooked business and crooked politics.  The article did not charge personal corruption in the sense of bribery, but emphasized the nature of the political methods used.  The trial of this action resulted, on May 22, 1915, in the jury finding a verdict in favor of Roosevelt.

The proceedings of this trial directed general notice much more to the workings of the Republican machine system than to Tammany methods.  To the initiated it had long been known that the Republican machine, as the power usually controlling the Legislature, was the preferred instrument through which the powerful financial, industrial, utility, commercial and other corporations operated to get the legislation that they wanted.  This fact was now confirmed and disseminated by the outcome of the libel suit.  Long, too, had it been suspected that between the apparently hostile political machines there often existed secret understandings or alliances cloaked over by pretended political warfare which was merely mock opposition intended for credulous public consumption.  The court proceedings and the verdict showed that the stating of this fact was not a libel.

The effect upon public opinion of this libel action was far more injurious to the Republican State organization than to Tammany, a reaction naturally to be expected in judging an organization which had so long found campaign material in strong virtuous denunciations of “Tammany corruption.”  At the same time public disfavor of the Republican organization was increased by the bad record of the Republican Legislature in 1915 — a record that in many respects was worse than that of a Tammany Legislature.  These influences were to Tammany’s advantage.  Always rushing to excesses when in prosperity, Tammany in times of adversity moderated its action by observing prudence and deferring to public proprieties.  Its chief candidates in the 1915 election were men of accredited good character and reputed ability.  These conditions, together with the fact that the Republicans and the Progressives did not inite in opposition to Tammany, helped to bring a measure of success to Tammany.  For the first time in more than fifteen years Tammany managed to elect a District Attorney in the County of New York in the person of Judge Edward Swann, and it elected Alfred E. Smith to the office of Sheriff.

From the beginning of 1916 Tammany was thus in full control of the criminal machinery of the law in New York County.  District Attorney Swann showed such energy in the sustained prosecution of the infamous “white slavers,” that the formulating of charges against him came as a surprise to many citizens who had formed a good estimate of his activities in office.  These charges, made by Judge James A. Delehanty of the Court of General Sessions, on December 30, 1916, alleged misconduct in office in the matter of certain assault cases resulting from the garment trades strike of 1914.

In the list of charges forwarded to Governor Whitman Judge Delahanty accused District Attorney Swann of having deliberately presented a false recommendation to a Judge of General Sessions on the strength of which he obtained the discharge on bail of more than a score of defendants indicted in March, 1914, on various charges of assault, riots, and injuries to property occurring during the course of labor disputes on the East Side.  Judge Delahanty further charged that District Attorney Swann even sought to have the indictments against these men dismissed, although seven of them had offered to plead guilty.  Judge Delahanty had been an Assistant District Attorney when Mr. Whitman was District Attorney, and hence could claim an intimate familiarity with the details of those very cases.  Among the characters concerned in the clothing trades strike were such notorious gangsters as “Dopey Benny” Fein, “Waxy” Gordon, “Jew” Murphy and others such widely known for their activities in the section east of the Bowery.

Assistant District Attorney Lucian S. Breckinridge who had had charge of the preparation of many of these cases for trial, had resigned on March 23, 1916, on the ground that District Attorney Swann’s action in the cases was “a travesty on justice, and an outrage to decency,” and that he (Mr. Breckinridge) did not purpose to acquiesce in that action either actively or by silence.  In his letter of resignation Mr. Breckinridge asserted that the investigation of the strike “disclosed a tale of wrong and outrage, and a use of gangsters and thugs in labor troubles unparalleled in the history of this country.”  On the other hand, Morris Hillquit, chief counsel for the labor unions involved, asserted in an interview that “the indictments were based on evidence furnished by a combinations of notorious lawbreakers, who were known as such to the prosecuting officials.”  Mr. Hillquit denounced their story as “ a most clumsy concoction, bearing evidence of deliberate fabrication.”

After the filing of the charges against him, District Attorney Swann declared that the charges were actuated by politics.  He made a bitter personal attack upon Mr. Breckinridge, and retaliated later by causing Mr. Breckinridge to be indicted upon the allegation that he had received a bribe from manufacturers.  On January 14, 1917, the City Club presented charges to Governor Whitman and asked for District Attorney Swann’s removal from office.  The first charge included Judge Delehanty’s statements, and declared that District Attorney Swann’s efforts to procure the dismissal of indictments against labor union men charged with assault constituted an attempt to perpetrate a fraud on the Court of General Sessions, and that its object was to pay a Tammany election debt to East Side labor unionists.  The second charge asserted that by various means Mr. Swann had sought to coerce and intimidate Mr. Breckinridge, who was a valuable witness into any inquiry into the charges against the District Attorney.

At this writing (March, 1917), it is not possible to give the outcome of these charges; the determination of them and the decision are still to be forthcoming from Governor Whitman when sufficient time shall have been allowed for adequate inquiry.

By the end of 1916 the municipal administration headed by Mayor John Purroy Mitchel had been in power for three years with another year to serve.  Usually in past times after a fusion administration had been in office for a year or two its unwise repressive acts only the more strengthened Tammany, which always put forth the boast that it was the real democratic bulwark against aristocratic property rule and that it was the genuine representative of the masses.  On this claim it generally had succeeded in elections for nearly two decades, returning a majority of from 75,000 to 100,000 for the Democratic candidates, especially in State and National elections.  In the 1916 election Tammany was able to give Wilson a plurality of only about 40,000 over Hughes.  To accept the results of any one particular election would be unsafe.  Nevertheless, it would seem to be the case that as compared with its past Tammany is in a moribund condition; its only large hold, the decline of which is relieved by but an occasional victory, is in Manhattan Borough.  The population of Manhattan is not growing nearly as rapidly as some of the other boroughs which at the same time show an increasing anti-Tammany or Republican tendency.

While Tammany has been clinging to outworn tactics and aims out of keeping with the rising standards of the times, the anti-Tammany forces have learned much from the experiences of previous movements.  Likewise they have proved responsive to the broadening currents of the age.  Whatever their minor mistakes they have not regarded New York City as an object of low political tyranny and brutal spoliation.  They have, in the main, applied constructive ability to administration, and have evinced a keen sense not merely of the cleanly appearance and well-ordered functions of the great city but of its architectural and other aesthetic values as well, as shown by several measures recently adopted.  This is a very different condition from that prevailing during the times when the city’s affairs were dictated by ignorant politicians whose sole aim was to enrich themselves quickly and satisfy the predatory desires of their followers.

The anti-Tammany forces have learned, too, that repression only nullifies in the popular mind the good effects of other accomplishments.  In the last few years New York City officials have allowed absolute freedom of speech and freedom of assemblage on the public streets, designating certain places for the purpose, and qualifying this liberty only by the salutary proviso that the speakers be held responsible for any unlawful utterances.  An instructively different attitude, this, from that in days not so long gone by when assemblages of citizens were forbidden to use streets and were mauled and clubbed by the police, and when they were prohibited from holding discussions in public buildings.

Judged by the performances of many exploiting administrations that have ruled and robbed New York City, Mayor Mitchel’s administration has been one of wholesome tendencies and accomplishments.  Its opponents have bitterly attacked some of its policies, but however of a debatable nature these may have been or are, the antagonists of this administration have not been able to assail it on the score of endorsed graft and incompetence as has been the case with so many other city administrations.  It is not contended that evils have entirely disappeared, but at any rate the base, ignoble practices and the repellant incompetence characteristic of past “boss” rule have been much supplanted by improved methods, expert judgment, technical experience, a higher tone, and good spirit.

The police department, so long tle special canker, has been placed on a different basis.  A recent report of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, which has closely investigated that department, does not claim that graft has been entirely eliminated but it points out that “tremendous gains have been made.”  The “vice ring,” it reports, has been broken up; the gambling evil has been greatly reduced; organized graft is no longer the sinister and secure system that it was.  “Collusion between exploiters of vice and officials in the Police Department has ceased.  Petty grafting still occurs.  The man on the beat may take a small bribe to overlook a breach of the law, but protection can no longer be purchased.”  The Committee of Fourteen gives credit for this transformation largely to the “clean-up” movement started by Police Commissioner Cropsey under Mayor Gaynor, and continued and elaborated by Police Commissioner Arthur Woods under Mayor Mitchel’s administration.  Some survivals of old standards still remain, particularly in the selection of policemen too much for physical capacity and not enough for technical intelligence as applied to detective work.  From these continuing old standards serious incapacity has often resulted in the unearthing of crimes.

Had New York City a homogeneous population the movement for a general elevation of civic standards would have proceeded faster.  But New York City’s conglomerate population with its polyglot diversities has naturally presented great difficulties in the solid formation of a unity of understanding and purposes.  Nevertheless the progress has been very considerable.  In spreading its educational measures for the conservation of health, the Health Department of New York City for example, has obviously encountered serious obstacles, in dealing with a heterogeneous and in many quarters a congested population.  Yet by intelligent perseverance it has succeeded so well that in 1916, notwithstanding an infantile paralysis epidemic, the death rate was only 13.82 per 1000 -lowest death rate in New York City’s history.  The notable improvements brought about by these and other departments attest ever-increasing proficiency.  Where formerly the traditional conception of politics in New York City was one cynically regarding office as a legitimate means of spoils, graft, corruption and corporation pillaging, new traditions have been gradually substituted.  The old influences may here and there persist, but they are no longer accepted by masses of voters as a fixed creed.  The stage has been passed when the open venality of politics can be successfully flaunted; it is now the subtle influences often seeking surreptitiously to use government for their own invidious ends that require the watching.

The supporters of Mayor Mitchel’s administration hold that by eradicating partisan politics it has been able to concentrate its whole attention upon the one duty of providing efficient government for the city.  They point out, that contrary to the careless methods of some former administrations, the Mitchel administration has, by prudent supervision of finances reduced the budget annually by several million dollars, and yet has made notable extensions in service.  They further call attention to the fact that the Mitchel administration has put a stop to the ruinous practice of mortgaging the credit of the city for generations in advance.  For the first time, they also tell, New York City has protested against the old arbitrary practice of making enormous State appropriations for objects in which New York City had no share;  that as result of this protest the State has already made partial restitution;  and that the program of city relief in this direction should eventually mean an annual reduction of $12,000,000 in New York City’s tax burdens.  The Mitchel administration forces emphasize the great increase in the collections from taxes, assessments, water rates, docks, ferries, subway and miscellaneous revenue.  These are some of the financial improvements enumerated.

In the line of departmental progress Mayor Mitchel’s administration is credited with a large list of reforms and innovations:  The transformed morale of the Police Department; the efficiency of the Fire Department in greatly curtailing the number of fires while at the same time that department has cost $200,000 less a year than formerly;  the humanizing of the activities of the Charities Department and of the correctional system;  the progressive work of the Health, Education and other departments;  the enterprise of the Dock Department in adding seven miles of wharfage and vast areas of dock space to New York harbor’s piers.  This is but the merest synopsis of the abundant details set forth showing what Mayor Mitchel’s administration has done.

So attractive is this record that the description may possibly seem open to the suspicion of being one-sided, if not effusive.  Recalling how often New York City has suffered from flagrant maladministration, the skeptic may be tempted to regard these attributed deeds as being too good to be true.  Besides, campaign documents are to be scrutinized not so much for their assertions as for their omissions.

It is true that the great bulk of the accomplishments of Mayor Mitchel’s administration may be justly claimed by his supporters as genuine services which are bound to become fixed standards any overthrow of which will not be easily tolerated by the educated public.  These Administration annalists, however, have not separated the reforms essentially enduring from those which by their nature are merely experimental, as, for example, certain educational policies.  But experiments have their distinct value;  better that they should be tried than inertia should prevail.

One of the few specific charges brought against Mayor Mitchel’s administration is the assertion that a coterie of real estate speculators has profited unduly by the sale of park sites and other real estate to the city and State during recent years.  In reply the supporters of Mayor Mitchel’s administration say that the acquisition of these properties was indispensable to great public improvements planned;  that whatever payments have been made have been paid by the regularly determined award of the courts;  and that there is not the slightest evidence of collusion on the part of city officials.

Thus far the opponents of Mayor Mitchel’s administration have devoted much of their energy to attempts at personal onslaughts.  This line of action has called forth the comment that it is because of the very absence of administrative scandals that the administration’s adversaries resort to vague personal attacks.  From these opponents has come the persistent innuendo that because of Mayor Mitchel’s occasional social associations with rich and powerful personages, his official activities must necessarily be influenced by that contact.  It is aptly pointed out that the hypocrisy and demagogery of such an aspersion may be properly estimated when it is recalled that the elements mainly concerned in spreading it have been the identical organized forces that year after year were the tools of designing men and corporations that by the adroit use of corrupt politics vested in themselves huge corporate privileges and powers and enormous wealth.



THE END