Island of Vice and More Powerful Than Dynamite

  • Richard Zacks
  • Doubleday
  • 448 pp.

New York City takes a central role in two historical accounts dealing with vice and anarchy at the turn of the 20th century.

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

Two recent histories offer their readers a vivid view of life in New York City around the turn of the 20th century, and the city itself is the star of both. Lewd, crude, hustling, shabby and frequently hilarious, the city housed millions of souls, many of them immigrants, scrambling to make a life any way they could, struggling against inequities in wealth distribution and the iniquities of the people sworn to uphold the law. Each of these books is set in a time when social reformers had wrested control, however briefly, from the Tammany Hall machine, which held power off and on in New York City from 1790 until the early 1960s.

Island of Vice is about Theodore Roosevelt’s two years (1895-1897) as police commissioner for New York City, a jurisdiction covering only the island of Manhattan. The subtitle, Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, gives the reader an excellent précis of the book. Of course, the sin is much more fun to read about than any reform, and unforgettable characters abound. Wealthy tavern keeper Michael Callahan tossed the keys to his saloon into the East River, saying he wouldn’t need them, even though the law required him not to serve liquor on Sundays. Callahan didn’t need his keys for 25 years, until Teddy Roosevelt became police commissioner.

Reverend Charles Parkhurst gave an earnest sermon about vice at his upscale Presbyterian church, denouncing the city’s vice and the “lying, perjured, rum-soaked and libidinous” police who let it run rampant. When Tammany officials told reporters that Parkhurst’s charges were unsubstantiated, the minister did extensive research, heading into the brothels and saloons of the Tenderloin, Chinatown and Little Italy, even to a “French” brothel, where the prostitutes would provide oral sex, also illegal in New York and more expensive than many other services.

Roosevelt walked the nighttime city himself, often in the company of muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, catching police officers slacking off and discovering things about human life and the city that his sheltered upbringing had never hinted at. The images of Roosevelt striding around the city with the energy and enthusiasm he showed in every other aspect of his life, catching officers at such activity as accepting a contraband beer from a hand thrust through a back window, make some of the most entertaining reading in Zacks’ account.

It should be no surprise that Roosevelt did not succeed in cleaning up vice in New York. Such efforts rarely succeed completely, and one problem with his campaign is that the laws were so unfairly enforced. A German working man couldn’t have a beer with his sandwich on a Sunday, but a gentleman at the private Union Club could have as much alcohol as he wanted. Prohibiting liquor sales on Sunday was particularly onerous for a working class who had only that day off, if they had any at all.

Roosevelt became a hero outside New York City for his efforts, but he remained unpopular in the city for the rest of his life. Even so, it’s clear that Roosevelt, although only in his 30s, was already a star who could turn a difficult situation to his advantage. Zacks tells the story of Roosevelt at a German parade and rally opposing the Sunday closings. Not only did he have the nerve to attend, not only did he shout Prosit! whenever anyone raised a glass or bottle in his direction (the parade took place on a Wednesday), but also, when someone from the crowd shouted, “Wo is der Roosevelt? he shouted back, “Hier bin ich,” since he’d learned a little German as a teenager visiting Dresden. The crowd loved it. He had completely charmed them, even though he insisted he would enforce the law.

Roosevelt departed New York City after two years, mostly because his own Republican party wanted to get rid of him, but kept going on his trajectory to fame with his charge up San Juan Hill and winning the governorship of New York. Zacks shows that one reason he became vice president was that New York State wanted to get rid of him again; then William McKinley was assassinated and, suddenly, Roosevelt was president.

In the last few years of the 19th century and the first few years of the 20th, anarchists not only assassinated McKinley, but also the tsar of Russia, the president of France, the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria and the king of Italy. By 1914, the year covered in Thai Jones’s More Powerful Than Dynamite, anarchists were an important fact of political life in New York City, pushing the United States toward revolution.

There were excellent reasons for unrest. Jones describes conditions for the poor as desperate and demoralizing, with such details as homeless people paying a penny a night for a “penny hang,” the privilege of sleeping standing with one arm draped over a board. These conditions had clearly not changed for the better by 1914, and graft took a heavy toll. Jones describes the fate of unemployed men who were hired to shovel snow after a massive snowstorm and paid 35 cents an hour. “Each person sent from the unemployment bureau was directed to a private contractor who took twenty-five cents off the top plus a dime to hire the shovel. After an eight-hour day, and another nickel for the foreman, a man might have a dollar left. But he didn’t get a dollar, he got a ticket, which he could use only at a particular saloon. There he was charged 20 percent to cash the thing and was forced to buy a drink.”

New York in 1914 was the second-largest city in the world, and by far the fastest-growing. Jones chooses to focus his narrative on a few of the actors in a sprawling drama: anarchists Frank Tannenbaum, Alexander Berkman and Arthur Caron; reformist mayor John Purroy Mitchel and his police commissioner Arthur Woods; and industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

In early 1914, Tannenbaum was gathering demonstrations of homeless and unemployed in New York, marching them to churches, and asking for shelter for the night. Police met these demonstrations with force, clubbing and arresting demonstrators until Woods decided that police violence was gaining the demonstrators too much sympathy, so he had his officers stand by peaceably. It worked. Public attention wandered from the demonstrators, and the police quietly arrested Tannenbaum.

Anarchists couldn’t attract public attention with events in New York City, so they focused on the Ludlow miners’ strike in Colorado, where National Guard troops had recently machine-gunned miners and their families and burned their tents, killing women and children. One of the mine owners was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., an earnest, well-meaning man living in the shadow of his famous father. Berkman and Caron focused on Rockefeller for their work, demonstrating in front of Standard Oil and at the Rockefeller home in Tarrytown. Caron and some co-conspirators gathered dynamite in a tenement, probably to build a bomb, but the dynamite blew up the tenement, killing Caron and three other people.

Was this a bomb meant for the Rockefeller family? It is likely, but not certain, and Jones does not give the reaction of the Rockefeller family, although he does outline Rockefeller’s transformation in the wake of the Ludlow strike. Rockefeller comes to realize that his subordinates lied to him, and that the miners really did have good reason to complain. While he never came around to admitting unions to his mines, Rockefeller reformed operations drastically after the strike was broken, granting every one of the miners’ demands except for a union, and building pensions for his workers. (They lost most of those advances in the Depression, partly because they had no independent union to protect them.) What was more powerful than dynamite, as referenced in the title? It may have been the drive to overthrow the capitalist system, but it may also be the force of decency and conscience that made Rockefeller such a wide-ranging and generous philanthropist for the rest of his life.

More Powerful Than Dynamite stems from Thai Jones’ doctoral work at Columbia University. Jones is a former reporter and the child of parents who, as members of the Weather Underground, were fugitives from justice when he was born. Richard Zacks is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including History Laid Bare: Love, Sex, and Perversity from the Age of the Etruscans to Warren G. Harding and The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd.

Leo Rosten once quipped, “Truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” History has to make sense, too, and it is the historian’s job to see that it does, to make sense of the tangle of truth. Both of these books suffer from a lack of focus, so that the historical narrative they are writing is not entirely clear; however, lack of focus is hardly surprising, given the breadth and untidiness of the subjects these authors tackled. The strength of each of them is the vivid storytelling, the memorable vignettes, the thought-provoking conflicts and characters. Individually or together, they illuminate a fascinating time and place in American history, with human beings as real as ourselves.

Susan Storer Clark, a frequent contributor to the Independent, is a former broadcast journalist and retired civil servant. She has recently completed The Monk Woman’s Daughter, a historical novel set in 19th-century America. Ms. Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years. She and her husband, Rich, live in Silver Spring.

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