Island of Vice by Richard Zacks

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?

Island of ViceIn 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.

My thoughts

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.

"Big Bill" DeveryWe 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.”

Theodore Roosevelt in his Police Headquarters OfficeTR 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.

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Theodore Roosevelt on Film (1898-1919)

While I continue to work on new content for 17th Street, I am featuring another collection of short films today that were collated by the Library of Congress into a playlist entitled Theodore Roosevelt – His Life and Times on Film. The films in this collection were described by the Library of Congress as follows:

Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to have his career and life chronicled on a large scale by motion picture companies (even though his predecessors, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, were the first to be filmed). This presentation features films which record events in Roosevelt’s life from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to his death in 1919. The majority of films are from the Theodore Roosevelt Association Collection, while the remainder are from the Paper Print Collection. Besides containing scenes of Roosevelt, these films include views of world figures, politicians, monarchs, and friends and family members of Roosevelt who influenced his life and the era in which he lived. Commemorative events up to 1921 are also included as well as silent documentaries compiled from earlier footage by the Theodore Roosevelt Association between 1919 and 1928.

As with the New York early films playlist featured last week, you can view all the films in this playlist by clicking “Play”. Alternatively, you can view individual films by clicking the word “Playlist” in the top left hand corner of the film box and selecting a specific film after clicking the “Play” button.

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The Education of Sara Howard – Part Three

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of the Education of Sara Howard series.

Today’s final installment in the Education of Sara Howard series moves beyond our hypothetical Sara’s college years to focus on the career choices a young woman of Sara’s social class in New York had available to her in the 1880s and 1890s. As indicated at the conclusion of Part Two, the life choices female college graduates faced in the years immediately following college during the late 19th century could be stressful, with many young women forced to make difficult choices between the family claim and the social claim, the choice between marriage and a career, and the limited number of professions open to women if they did decide to pursue a career. However, a determined minority — of which Sara was one — pushed beyond societal expectations and made choices women earlier in the century would never have dared dream about. These college graduates were known collectively, in America and abroad, as “the new women”, and this is their story.

The Post-College Years

In 1896, a manual for young women was published that discussed common problems faced by female college graduates in America. Entitled “After College, What?“, the manual explained that most young women faced a “blank nothingness” at the conclusion of their college degree that left them feeling a “deep and perplexing unhappiness” until they either got married or were able to find “something [useful] to do”. Having spent four years immersed in an environment that fostered the development of independence and autonomy that was not encouraged in the typical patriarchal family home, these young women completed their college degree with a yearning to go out into the world at large and fulfill their “social claim” — a calling to use their advanced education in the same way that their brothers could; as an independent citizen with a role beyond that of wife and mother. However, upon returning to the family home following graduation, the majority of women found their parents in direct opposition, asserting the “family claim”.

marion-talbotAlthough these middle- and upper-class families had permitted — and even encouraged — their daughter to pursue self-improvement in the form of advanced education, by the time their daughter reached her early-to-mid-20s, she was expected to turn her attention to domestic responsibilities, devoting herself to taking care of parents and siblings until she could find a suitable husband, and filling any spare hours with charity work and sewing circles. For many young women who had for the first time started to think of a world beyond the home being made possible by her four years away at college, these conditions were stifling. Their girlhood friends who saw marriage as the only possible step once they returned from finishing schools, trips abroad to the continent, and formal debuts, did not want to mix with the young college graduate “whose aims were so different from their own”, and the college women faced “what was almost social ostracism”. One young graduate lamented, “We college girls are made to feel that we are different, we feel our separation.” Another, Marion Talbot, who would eventually become Dean of Women at the University of Chicago in 1895 recalled of her own difficult years immediately post-college in the early 1880s, “Here, then, was Marion Talbot with a college degree and an absorbing desire to make herself and her education useful, but with as barren an outlook for such a future as one can imagine.”

However, not all parents during this period were unsupportive or asserted the family claim. As a result of her daughter’s negative experiences, Marion Talbot’s mother founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae in 1882 for graduates from Oberlin, Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley Colleges, and Michigan, Wisconsin, Cornell, and Boston Universities to provide support that young women often lacked following graduation, and to help them through the anxiety and depression that frequently resulted from their feelings of isolation. In another example, Hilda Worthington Smith’s mother encouraged her daughter to volunteer for mission work following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College in 1910 as she felt that life as a homemaker was “too much to ask” of Hilda, and she went on to encourage her daughter to find a paying position a few years later. On the subject of her mother’s atypically supportive attitude toward entering the workforce, Hilda commented:

This I knew was a great concession, as several of her friends had warned her against letting me venture into the untried world of women’s work. Those women who did it were still thought very “advanced.” Any such excursions from home might lead to a daughter wanting her own apartment and becoming alienated from her family.

Mrs. Smith’s “advanced” views served her daughter well. Hilda went on to become Acting Dean and Dean of Bryn Mawr College from 1919 until 1922, and then Director of Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers from 1921 until 1933. Fortunately for the clever and independent Sara, it appears as though her parents views were as similarly “advanced” as Hilda’s mother’s, which we get a glimpse of in The Alienist, 78, when John Moore relates one of her post-college activities:

…right after Sara’s graduation from college, her family had gotten the idea that her education might be fully balanced by some firsthand experience of life in places other than Rhinebeck (where the Howards’ country estate was located) and Gramercy Park. So she put on a starched white blouse, a dreary black skirt, and a rather ridiculous boater and spent the summer assisting a visiting nurse in the Tenth Ward.

However, perhaps the most important thing to note, regardless of how supportive or unsupportive families were, is that for almost all of the young women who belonged to the pioneering generation of female college graduates in the late 19th century, parental attitudes and family ties were the key factor in the decisions they made about what to do following graduation. Although there were rare college graduates who decided to find a means of supporting themselves in order to live completely independently immediately following graduating in order to avoid the need to consider the family claim at all, these women were the exception rather than the rule — and given her supportive family and the influence they had on her decision to gain firsthand experience as a visiting nurse in the Tenth Ward, it seems safe to say that Sara would not have been one of them. | Continue reading →

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Happy 155th Birthday, Theodore!

The 27th of October, 2013 marks the 155th birthday of Theodore Roosevelt. One year on from the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial reopening at the American Museum of Natural History, why not celebrate the occasion by learning more about Theodore’s conservation efforts — a passion shared by the Alienist books’ author, Caleb Carr — at the Museum’s YouTube channel.


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