Well, it’s certainly been busy in the lead up to shooting for TNT’s adaptation of The Alienist with lots of casting and production news coming out in recent weeks. As I mentioned in the previous update, it appears as though actors who have already been cast have been making their way to Budapest in preparation for filming, and the photo to the right shared on Luke Evans’ (playing John Moore) twitter feed on March 16 appears to indicate that shooting has now begun!
An additional photo has also appeared on twitter from Antonio Magro sharing his new look for his role as gangster Paul Kelly, with Falk Hentschel seen behind playing Biff Ellison. Meanwhile, Dakota Fanning commented recently in an interview with Collider on what prompted her to take the role of Sara Howard in the upcoming series:
The reason I wanted to do it was that, first of all, I loved the story. I love the other actors that I’m working with, and the character that I’m getting to play is a super strong woman, especially for the time in which she lives in. She’s the first woman to work at the New York City Police Department, and that’s really cool. And as for why I wanted to do TV, I think work is work, and telling stories is telling stories, no matter where they’re shown. I’m such a huge fan of television and what’s happening in television, right now. You are able to visit characters and visit a story, week to week, push things in a different way than you can in a film, and you are able to go deeper, simply because you have more time. I’m just excited to do that. It’s always good to do new things. It felt, for so many reasons, like the right time in my life and the right piece of material. I’m thrilled!
On the casting front, it was announced on March 9 that Sean Astin will be playing Theodore Roosevelt. Astin is perhaps best known for his role as Sam Gamgee in the Academy Award winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, but has also appeared in numerous TV and movie roles over the years ranging from The Goonies (1985), to Rudy (1993), to the TV series 24 (2006), and most recently Stranger Things (2017). TNT’s press release for Roosevelt describes the Police Commissioner as a “brilliant and ambitious yet principled … crusading reformist determined to clear up corruption in the police force he now heads. While usually inured to crime in New York, Roosevelt becomes outraged over the fact that children are being murdered in his city and develops a warlike zeal to find the perpetrator.” This is a fitting description of TR’s character, and Astin’s recent appearance in Bad Kids of Crestview Academy (2017) as pictured to the right certainly gives the impression that he will look the part of a younger TR at least.
Unfortunately, this is where the good news ends.Deadline reported on March 17 that a new character has been cast who is not in the novel. Emanuela Postacchini has been cast as Flora, “a beautiful young prostitute at the Frenchtown brothel who indulges in some twisted role playing and is a favorite of newspaper illustrator John Moore.” It should go without saying why this is a troubling piece of news. First, it is confirmation that John Moore’s profession has indeed been changed from crime reporter to newspaper illustrator, a change that — as I noted late last year — is concerning for several reasons, not least its connection to the disturbing audition recordings that surfaced in early 2016. Second, and more importantly, it suggests that John’s character has been changed. While we can all acknowledge that John has a weakness for a beautiful woman (or as Stevie puts it in The Angel of Darkness, “Mr. Moore’s always [been] an easy mark for a charming lady”), there is quite a far divide from that and engaging in “twisted role playing” at a Frenchtown brothel. Moreover, the wording of the character description appears to indicate that John is a frequent patron of this particular brothel. Given that, at its core, The Alienist is a story about the rescue of children from the sex industry — a cause that John is vocally passionate about at numerous points in the novel — the decision to change his character to someone who would engage in “twisted role playing” at a brothel undermines the entire message of the novel.
In addition to Flora, another character who doesn’t appear in the novel, Ernestine (played by Ezra Fieremans), has also now appeared on the cast list at IMDb. There is no word yet on what role this character will be playing in the adaptation. I suppose that only time will tell what direction the production team are taking this adaptation in. However, as Dakota herself suggested, the beauty of a television adaptation is that it allows us to get to know the characters in a deeper way than movies usually allow. Given this, my own question to the producers of this show is why not get to know the fascinating three-dimensional characters that long-time Alienist readers have come to know and love from the bestselling books themselves? After all, historical fiction can be wonderfully evocative and thrillers can be exciting, but the only reason to return to the same book time and again is because we find connection in the story through characters we come to know and love. That is the enduring legacy of these books — and that is what, one would hope, the production team should be aiming to capture on the screen.
View Part One and Part Two of Following The Footsteps of Dr. Kreizler: A Travel Blog.
Coinciding with our author’s 60th birthday today (many happy returns, Mr. Carr!), I have something a little different to offer for 17th Street’s visitors this week. For the past three months, I have been away from my Australian home and hearth for work-related travel in Canada. Given my close proximity to New York during this trip, I decided to take the opportunity to add on two weeks of pleasure-related travel at the end of the trip for a holiday in New York City — my first ever visit to the city! The following two-part blog series documents the Alienist-related components of my travel. Although I have tried to focus these blogs on locations visited during the books, I have also included a few other historical attractions that might be of interest to readers of the Alienist books even though they are not directly relevant to the books. So, without further ado, I invite you to join me as I follow the footsteps of Dr. Kreizler and the rest of the team on my holiday in Canada and New York.
The Bata Shoe Museum
The first attraction that I want to document might be the only one not located in New York state, but it is also the only one that quite literally involves following the footsteps of Dr. Kreizler — or, at least, Sara Howard. Those of you who have ever visited the History section of 17th Street will know that I have long adored historical clothing, particularly 19th century clothing, so you can imagine my excitement when I saw, on my final day in Toronto, that the Bata Shoe Museum was featuring an exhibition (until June of 2016) on “the pleasures and perils of dress in the 19th century.” The “Fashion Victims” exhibition showcases the Bata Shoe Museum’s collection of 19th century footwear along with a smaller but no less stunning array of matching dresses and under garments, including a pair of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s impossibly narrow shoes and gloves, and a beautiful but deadly Emerald green ball gown containing arsenic.
Although the exhibition featured footwear and clothing from as early as 1820, the photos I have shown here are a small selection of my favourite footwear exhibited from the late 19th century, not unlike those Sara would have kept in her wardrobe for more formal occasions; she presumably would have also kept a wide selection of more practical footwear for her day to day and sporting activities — not to mention the nail-studded climber’s boots we see her don in Chapter 2 of The Angel of Darkness. From left to right, the photos shown below include: a pair of elegant embroidered boots created by the firm of the most famous French shoe manufacturer of the late 19th century, Jean-Louis Francois Pinet, from approximately 1885; a pair of calf-hugging handmade, bespoke Swedish or German boots designed to look like a stockinged leg from the 1890s; a pair of button boots made with brocaded fabric (an alternative to the embroidery seen on the other boots in these photos) from the 1870s; a mass-produced boot made by the Parisian shoe manufacturer L. P. Perchellet with its original shoe box from 1875; and a stunning embroidered boot also created by Jean-Louis Francois Pinet from the 1880s.
In addition to the Fashion Victims exhibition (worth the price of admission alone), while I was there the museum also featured exhibitions of footwear through the ages, “the curious history of men in heels,” footwear of famous individuals donated to the museum, and something that probably would have been of great interest to Franz Boas and Clark Wissler: an exhibition of native North American footwear. As enjoyable as those exhibitions all were, as they weren’t relevant to the Alienist books I haven’t included any photos here. However, if you happen to be in Toronto at any stage in the future and have an interest in historical clothing, I can highly recommend that you allocate half a day to visit the museum. It was, without question, one of the highlights of my three month trip.
A Journey Down The Hudson River
After departing Toronto, I travelled by train down to Niagara Falls where I spent a day and night (an amazing experience that I would highly recommend if you ever get the chance) before embarking on a nine hour rail journey via Amtrak’s Empire Line down through New York state to New York City. While the first half of the journey took us through several hours worth of pretty if somewhat unremarkable farming scenery along with the occasional (mostly industrial) view of cities like Buffalo and Syracuse, the second half of the journey — from Albany onwards — saw the train snake alongside the Hudson River until we reached New York City, and this was unquestionably another of the highlights of my trip. I had been utterly unprepared for the size and beauty of the Hudson and mountains that lay beyond, bringing to mind my all-time favourite quote from either of the two Alienist books, spoken by the ever insightful Stevie Taggert.
The Angel of Darkness, Chapter 13:
“But it wasn’t any attempt at being rational that finally mended my spirits; no, it was the sight of the river itself, which always made me feel, somehow, like there was hope. She has that quality, does the Hudson, as I imagine all great rivers do: the deep, abiding sense that those activities what take place on shore among human beings are of the moment, passing, and aren’t the stories by way of which the greater tale of this planet will, in the end, be told…”
Nevertheless, those of you who have read The Angel of Darkness will know that the majestic Hudson River plays far bigger role in the novel than the scene in which Stevie makes that observation. Indeed, during The Angel of Darkness the team are are drawn from their usual haunts around Manhattan to the small town of Ballston Spa in upstate New York where they stay for at least half the novel; and to get to Ballston Spa, Dr. Kreizler decides to travel up the Hudson River on a steamer, the Mary Powell, as far as Troy (a town near Albany), before taking the train to their final destination. On this scenic interlude in the novel, the book’s narrator, Stevie Taggert, spends a considerable portion of his time smoking on the promenade deck with various other characters, first taking in the beauty of the Palisades and then at the “manor houses of the old Dutch and English river families” that dotted the hillsides further upstream. However, for Stevie, as for me, it was the untamed beauty of the Catskills and other mountains on the route that struck most profoundly. | Continue reading →
With May 26th having marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Jacob Riis, the Danish social reformer and journalist of the late nineteenth century, it seemed appropriate to feature Riis’ most prominent work, How the Other Half Lives, as 17th Street’s first “book blog” for June. In the New York Times web chat Caleb Carr gave early last year, he cited How the Other Half Lives as one of his most important influences for The Alienist, stating that “very little can beat” it as a contemporary source of information about life in nineteenth century New York. Indeed, readers of The Alienist should already be at least vaguely familiar with Riis thanks to the cameo he received in the novel itself–even if our protagonist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, wasn’t terribly fond the crusading Dane.
The Alienist, Chapter 5:
Riis came huffing up behind Steffens, his hulking Danish frame not so lithe as that of the much younger Steffens. “Doctor,” he said, to which Kreizler only nodded. He had a positive dislike for Riis; the Dane’s pioneering work in revealing the evils of tenement life–most notably through his collection of essays and pictures called How the Other Half Lives–did not change the fact that he was a strident moralist and something of a bigot, so far as Kreizler was concerned. And I have to admit, I often saw Laszlo’s point.
What’s it about?
How the Other Half Lives, “Introduction”:
Long ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care.
These famous lines, referencing François Rabelais’ Pantagruel, open Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, a short but powerful piece written as an agent for change. In the Introduction to the 1997 Penguin edition, Luc Sante (the author of Low Life, another of Caleb Carr’s cited inspirations) wrote that, “How the Other Half Lives is one of those unusual books that changed history in a material way, directly affecting the lives of millions of people.” This pioneering work, first published in 1890, combined photography, narrative essays, and hard statistics to take the reader on a journey into the slums of New York City in the late 1880s. Although others had previously shed light on the conditions of the poor in New York City, by focusing on immediate, practical problems, and presenting solutions, Riis was able to make an impact in a way his predecessors had not. Notably, even Theodore Roosevelt would find Riis’ work a source of inspiration, and he went on to count Riis as his “main prop and comfort” during his tenure as Police Commissioner several years later; when TR first read How the Other Half Lives, he left his card for Riis at the latter’s Evening Sun offices with the words, “I have read your book and I have come to help.” written on the back.
How the Other Half Lives opens with a brief history of the tenement, ranging from its earliest days in the first half of the nineteenth century when once fashionable single-family dwellings on the East River front had their rooms partitioned to meet growing demands from the city’s steadily increasing workforce, to the multi-story tenements we associate today with New York City of the late nineteenth century; tenements that were built in such numbers that, according to Riis, “on the East Side, in what is still the most densely populated district in all the world, China not excluded, it was packed at the rate of 290,000 to the square mile, a state of affairs wholly unexampled.” Following this short history lesson, Riis takes his reader on a guided tour through the original downtown back alleys of New York City, focusing much of his attention on the notorious Mulberry Bend, before spending the bulk of his text describing the practices and lifestyles of the major ethnic groups that occupied the tenement districts of the late 1880s: the Irish, the Italians, the blacks, the Chinese, the Polish and Russian Jews, and the “Bohemians” (Czechs and Slovaks).
In the final third of the book, Riis introduces his readers to the children of the street, taking us from their infancy as abandoned or cast out “street waifs”, through their middle years as “street arabs”, before presenting a warning about the adult career they are destined to pursue if they receive no intervention during their youth: becoming the “toughs” of New York’s street gangs. Riis then devotes a chapter to the evils of the saloon, another to the dreadful working conditions of females that would make “almost any door … seem to offer welcome escape from such slavery as this” (a subtle insinuation regarding the “opportunity and danger that prostitution presents to poor girls”, as Luc Sante more bluntly put it in his Introduction), the relative merits and problems charitable solutions pose to the problem of poverty, and finally to the possibilities presented by both simple solutions to the problems of the tenements (e.g., having landlords or competent janitors living in the properties at all times to enforce rules of conduct) and more complex solutions (e.g., the construction of “model” tenements that have proper light and ventilation in place of razed tenements).
Throughout my reading, I didn’t find it difficult to understand why How the Other Half Lives became such a powerful impetus for change in the 1890s, nor did I find it difficult to see why Caleb Carr considered it a valuable reference work while writing the Alienist books. Nevertheless, on more than one occasion I found myself agreeing with Dr. Kreizler about Riis during my reading. As easy as much of the book is to read, I found chapters like “Chinatown”, where Riis’ pious missionary zeal and condescending racial prejudices were apparent on almost every page, particularly hard-going, and I needed to give myself frequent breaks. Take the following excerpt as an example.
How the Other Half Lives, “Chinatown”:
At the risk of distressing some well-meaning, but, I fear, too trustful people, I state it in advance as my opinion, based on the steady observation of years, that all attempts to make an effective Christian of John Chinaman will remain abortive in this generation; of the next I have, if anything, less hope. Ages of senseless idolatry, a mere grub-worship, have left him without the essential qualities for appreciating the gentle teachings of a faith whose motive and unselfish spirit are alike beyond his grasp.
Although one might argue that in holding such opinions Riis was simply a man of his time, as Luc Sante pointed out in his Introduction to the text, “it is noteworthy that one anonymous reviewer, writing in The Critic of December 27, 1890, judiciously expressed the book’s shortcomings:”
His book is literally a photograph and as such has its value and lesson, but also its serious limitations. There is a lack of broad and penetrative vision, a singularly warped sense of justice at times, and a roughness amounting almost to brutality. The “Heathen Chinese” and the Russian Jew fleeing from persecution in his own land, find no mercy in Mr. Riis’ creed.
“This blunt summary shows that Riis’ myopia in regard to cultures more foreign than his own origins was not strictly a function of the times in which he lived.” Moreover, as John explains a little further on in The Alienist, there were noteworthy aspects of slum life, such as homosexual and child prostitution, that were completely missing from Riis’ text; aspects John claims Riis “could not accept” despite “all the horrors he had witnessed”. However, do not suppose by these criticisms that I didn’t find the book an interesting or worthwhile read. I found the sections of the text in which Riis takes his reader on guided tours of the slums, employing a conversational tone that relays sights, smells, and sounds in such a way that the reader is almost there beside him, invaluable; Riis’ prose is not florid or sensationalist in nature, and as such he provides a vivid and realistic snapshot of life in the tenements that is fascinating to read, as the following excerpt from a chapter about life in the Jewtown sweater district demonstrates.
How the Other Half Lives, “The Sweaters of Jewtown”:
It is Sunday evening west of the Bowery … Men stagger along the sidewalk groaning under heavy burdens of unsewn garments, or enormous black bags stuffed full of finished coats and trousers. Let us follow one to his home and see how Sunday passes in a Ludlow Street tenement.
Up two flights of dark stairs, three, four, with new smells of cabbage, of onions, of frying fish, on every landing, whirring sewing machines behind closed doors betraying what goes on within, to the door that opens to admit the bundle and the man. A sweater, this, in a small way. Five men and a woman, two young girls, not fifteen, and a boy who says unasked that he is fifteen, and lies in saying it, are at the machines sewing knickerbockers, “knee-pants” in the Ludlow Street dialect. The floor is littered ankle-deep with half-sewn garments. In the alcove, on a couch of many dozens of “pants” ready for the finisher, a bare-legged baby with pinched face is asleep. A fence of piled-up clothing keeps him from rolling off on the floor. The faces, hands, and arms to the elbows of everyone in the room are black with the colour of the cloth on which they are working. The boy and the woman alone look up at our entrance. The girls shoot sidelong glances, but at a warning look from the man with the bundle they treat their machines more energetically than ever. The men do not appear to be aware even of the presence of a stranger.
Other sections relay distressing accounts of children Riis witnessed dying of starvation, babies abandoned on fire-escapes (reminiscent of the scene in The Alienist where John and Sara nearly step on a baby in a dark tenement hallway), and tales of suicides from immigrants too “tired” to go on. Riis introduces us to workers who developed diseases such as lead poisoning that prevented them from providing for their families, and told bittersweet stories such as that of a young boy who was excited to spend a night in Police Headquarters because he was given a bed to sleep in (he was used to sleeping on “a heap of dirty straw on the floor”) and one egg and three slices of bread for breakfast (“his daily diet [consisted of] a crust in the morning, nothing else”). On top of these snapshots of human life, the overcrowding, pay rate, and death rate statistics Riis provided throughout the text were nothing short of staggering.
Considering the racial prejudices that pervade How the Other Half Lives, it is somewhat ironic that perhaps the most important aspect of Riis’ work was his willingness to tackle another common nineteenth century prejudice held by many in the middle and upper classes; that those who lived in the shocking conditions of the tenements deserved or, worse still, chose their fate. Instead, Riis made it clear how, through no fault of their own, many hard-working immigrants found their way into the tenements and lacked means of escape, as well as stressing the importance of the role of the environment in the creation and perpetuation of problems (e.g., crime) that arose out of the tenements. Granted, as a result of Riis’ unwillingness to enquire with any depth into the origins of the social conditions in the tenements, some of his pronouncements were over-simplistic and lack insight (e.g., he occasionally makes unfounded sweeping statements such as “only the poor abandon their children”). However, it was through his willingness to at least accept a role for the environment that How the Other Half Lives proved to be an effective impetus for change in the years following its publication.
Ultimately, How the Other Half Lives is an essential read for anyone interested in learning more about the “other half” (actually closer to three-quarters) of New York’s population at the turn of the century. The limitations of the work notwithstanding, this is an enlightening, if saddening, piece of nonfiction that deserves a place on any Alienist reader’s bookshelf.
I had originally intended to spend the first few months of “book blogs” on 17th Street overviewing the works Caleb Carr has cited as inspirations for his novels. However, this month I would like to deviate from Carr’s inspirations to feature Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, a nonfiction work by Richard Zacks that details Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as police commissioner of New York from 1895 to early 1897. Island of Vice is the closest to a “companion book” for The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness I have read to date, offering a no-holds-barred, humorous, and fastidiously researched behind-the-scenes look at old New York, Theodore Roosevelt, and the New York City police department during the period in which the Alienist books were set.
What’s it about?
In February of 1892, Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, president of the Society for the Prevention of Crime, shocked the 800 parishioners of Madison Square Presbyterian Church by delivering a sermon that accused the Tammany-dominated New York City police force, district attorney, and even the mayor of “licensing crime”. Claiming that disorderly houses, illegal casinos, and vendors of illegal liquor had their “immunity secured to [them] by a scale of police taxation”, he went on to tell his law-abiding parishioners that “your average police captain is not going to disturb a criminal if the criminal has means”. Tammany Hall officials responded to these accusations with outrage, and Parkhurst was called before a grand jury on charges of libel. He was found guilty, with the grand jury concluding that he had “no evidence” for his accusations; however, the reforming minister would not be deterred. In March of 1892, he hired a young private detective to “take him on the ultimate sin tour of New York City”. The sights he witnessed on their multi-night tour of saloons, dives, and disorderly houses resulted in Parkhurst providing the district attorney with 284 addresses of illegal gaming houses, disorderly houses, and after-hours saloons, and charges being laid against four brothel madams. This time, Parkhurst won. This series of events marked the beginning of a fight that would go on to last for the whole of the 1890s between New York reformers and the corrupt sectors of society; a fight that an up-and-coming Theodore Roosevelt would find himself headlining.
Island of Vice documents the period between 1892 and 1898 when New York’s reform movement tried in vain to “clean up” the corrupt American capital of finance, manufacturing, entertainment, and sin. This was a period when it would be difficult for any of New York’s two million residents to find themselves far from one of the city’s 8,000 saloons, hundreds of hotels, dives, and illegal casinos, or the hundreds of brothels that proffered an estimated 40,000 prostitutes to the men of the city. It was a hard-drinking city, with an estimated 460,000 eight gallon quarter-kegs of beer served each week, amounting to approximately “twenty pints per week for every man and woman over the age of sixteen in the city” — and that didn’t count the wine, whiskey, or other forms of liquor available at the time. When reform-minded Republican, William L. Strong, was elected major in 1895, he swore in a new four-man Police Board of Commissioners, of which young, energetic, and headstrong Theodore Roosevelt would go on to become President. The first order of business for the new reform police commissioners was to remove the corrupt old guard of the New York police force, starting at the top with Chief of Police Thomas Byrnes, and then to get to work enforcing laws the police force had been turning a blind eye to for years.
The City of New York, however, had other ideas.
Published in 2012, Island of Vice is Richard Zacks’ fifth book, and was met with well-deserved critical acclaim upon its publication. A native New Yorker, Zacks paints a vivid picture of the people and places that made up New York at the turn of the 20th century. Taking his readers on a colourful tour of old New York’s saloons, dives, and disorderly houses, Zacks describes what life as a New York cop was like in the 1890s, and introduces readers to both the well-to-do and seedier elements of society. Fastidiously researched, Zacks lets these characters speak for themselves through direct quotes from trial transcripts, letters, memoirs, interviews, and newspaper reports.
Throughout the book, we meet a number of historical figures familiar to any Alienist reader including (of course) Theodore Roosevelt himself, Thomas Byrnes, Anthony Comstock, Lincoln Steffens, and Jacob Riis, along with one or two other figures who may have served as inspiration to Caleb Carr when creating the original characters that appear in the Alienist books. Minnie G. Kelly, for example, was the first female police secretary who had been controversially hired by TR upon becoming police commissioner. Described as “young, small and comely, with raven black hair”, the bespectacled Kelly was hired by TR at $1,700 a year to replace two male secretaries who had cost the department a combined $2,900 a year. Although her hiring saved the department $1,200 a year, her presence in male-dominated Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street was not well received. TR, on the other hand, reported himself happy with her performance during his time as commissioner, although he did concede that “she made her share of mistakes”, as described in the following humorous excerpt from the book, pg. 74:
He recalled dictating a letter about an overly aggressive officer. “I was obliged to restrain the virtuous ardor of Sergeant Murphy, who, in his efforts to bring about a state of quiet on the street, would frequently commit some assaults himself.” That’s what he said aloud; when Miss Kelly handed him the sheet, he read on the page: “I was obliged to restrain the virtuous ardor of Sergeant Murphy, who, in his efforts to bring about a state of quiet on the street, would frequently commit somersaults himself.” TR later wrote his sister that he couldn’t stop laughing long enough to reprimand her as he couldn’t banish the mental image of the rotund sergeant rolling down the street.
We also meet a number of other figures in Island of Vice who were not featured in The Alienist or The Angel of Darkness, but whose importance to the world of 1890s New York was unquestionable. One such figure who features prominently in Island of Vice is William “Big Bill” Devery, a Police Captain with strong ties to Tammany Hall who was taken to trial over allegations of corruption several times during the course of his career. “Big Bill” is presented as a nemesis of TR during his tenure on the Police Board, with the latter — working alongside his fellow police commissioners and Reverend Parkhurst — attempting to stop “Big Bill” from returning to the force in May of 1896 after he was acquitted of his charges of extorting a bribe during his most recent corruption trial. Unfortunately for TR and the rest of the Police Board, history did not go their way. “Big Bill” not only returned to the force, but only fourteen months after TR left the Police Board and New York itself, “Big Bill” was promoted to Chief of Police by the new Tammany-dominated Police Board; a fact that should give you a hint as to how long-lasting the 1890s attempts at reform lasted in the city.
As for the central character — TR himself — Zacks clearly attempted to paint a balanced portrait of the future President, hiding neither his faults nor his virtues. At the outset of Island of Vice, we meet a young Roosevelt who had spent the preceding six years holding a relatively obscure post on the Civil Service Commission in Washington D.C. He returned to New York with a desire to make a difference, and the energy to do so. He went on innumerable “midnight rambles” through the streets of the city with Jacob Riis and various other friends or colleages at his side to witness the city’s corruption and dissolution first-hand, earning him the newspaper nickname “Haroun el-Roosevelt” after the Thousand and One Nights’ caliph who explored Baghdad in disguise after dark. TR would describe these rambles as “great fun”, and they proved to be a highlight of both his tenure as police commissioner and of Zacks’ Island of Vice itself, with some of the amusing incidents that took place when he ventured out on the streets sounding more like vaudeville comedy acts than serious police work (pg. 268):
Roosevelt and his party alighted from the carriage just as the [saloon side door] cracked open and an arm suddenly emerged holding an oversized schooner of amber liquid. The policeman took the tankard, lifted it to his lips, and began drinking. Roosevelt, in a kind of racing tiptoe, sped across the street, reached the policeman, and tapped him roughly on the shoulder, sternly saying, “Officer, give me that beer.” The startled bluecoat, in mid-gulp, spritzed a geyser of foam and looked at the squat bespectacled man accosting him. Just then, a hand emerged from inside the bar, yanked the glass, and slammed the door shut. The patrolman took one look at Roosevelt, teeth and spectacles glinting in the moonlight, as one paper put it, and the man sprinted off without saying a word. [Police Commissioner] Andrews by now had reached the scene and the two commissioners raced after the bluecoat. “Stop running, you fool!” shouted Roosevelt. About fifty yards away, near the corner, they caught him. Roosevelt demanded his name. “Ginger ale,” he replied, gasping for air. “Ginger ale.”
TR threw himself enthusiastically into all aspects of his new post at Police Headquarters, and made some important strides forward during his two year tenure including overseeing fairer political elections. However, even though the President of the Police Board’s reforming zeal was initially well-received, when he set his sights on the city’s hard-drinking culture and began enforcing old excise laws that forbade liquor from being sold or consumed in saloons and other public watering holes between midnight on Saturday until early Monday morning, thereby banning alcohol on the one day per week working class men had off — in the middle of a long, hot summer, to boot — the tide of public opinion took a sharp turn. (It didn’t help that with a loophole allowing hotel restaurants to sell drinks to guests with meals, and exclusive private clubs not being mentioned in the law, affluent New Yorkers were effectively exempt.) Later, when cracks in the bipartisan Police Board began to show as a result of disagreements over hirings and promotions, things went from bad to worse for the crusading reformer. Within Island of Vice, we see a TR “with a reputation for absolute integrity” who publicly pursued his reform agenda in terms of black and white — good and evil — even while privately acknowledging to family members that some of the laws he was insisting be enforced were too harsh (pg. 122):
“I have now run up against an ugly snag, the Sunday Excise Law. It is altogether too strict but I have no honorable alternative save to enforce it and I am enforcing it to the furious rage of the saloon keepers and of many good people too; for which I am sorry.”
Even though Island of Vice’s focus was on TR’s tenure as police commissioner, Zacks devotes as much of the text to describing New York’s saloons, dives, disorderly houses, and court rooms, and I came away from the book feeling that the City of New York was, in fact, the most colourful character of all. Zacks clearly admires his city’s spirit of rebellion and survival despite the odds, as he demonstrates in his concluding statement in the epilogue of the book (pg. 365): “As in ancient Rome, the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders.” Although Island of Vice’s no-holds-barred approach results in an uneven read at times, with perhaps too much detail provided for a few seemingly irrelevant or repetitive episodes, it is ultimately a worthy addition to the library of any Caleb Carr reader interested in getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life in the city during the years in which The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness were set.