on January 23, 2012
The New York of the 1890s was badly in need of reform. The poorest of the poor slept draped over ropes; underpaid police worked 110 hour weeks. Thousands of poor young (and not-so-young) women were forced into prostitution: the only option available to many. The corrupt Democratic machine of Tammany Hall ruled over all, providing essential services at the cost of a vote or a kickback. Graft money went into the hands of the beat cop and worked its way up the chain to captains and superintendents. New Yorkers had finally had enough and demanded reform.
Enter Theodore Roosevelt, the new Commissioner of Police. Along with his fellow board members, Roosevelt put the wheels of reform into motion. Richard Zack's vivid description of this time shows the conflict between men and culture, and ultimately serves as a cautionary tale. Roosevelt was an impatient man, with a priggish view of the world. A bag of contradictions and competing impulses, he's revealed as something of a martinet. He was convinced of his own virtue, and eventually came to believe that any competing or moderating view was corrupt. He served in his post for only a year and a half, turning the police department into a vice squad. He 'rambled' the city at night, searching for infractions. The violator might be a sleeping cop, an unaccompanied female (his views on single women would fit well in today's Riyadh) or a saloon open on Sunday. He campaigned tirelessly, forcing considerable--albeit short-lived--change.
It turns out that New York wanted reform, but not so much of it. Poor people lost a soothing cold beer on Sunday. The down-and-out lost the corner of the police barracks where they might sleep. Roosevelt's privileged upbringing left him no ability to see pain at the bottom. He felt that simple virtue would cure all. This inflexibility turned much of the population against him, and a dangerously wounded Tammany Hall soon found ways to fight back. Roosevelt's own impatience denied him the ability to play the long game, gradually instating a more permanent change. His inability to listen to counter-arguments turned allies into enemies and planted the seeds of failure in ground that would always be resistant. And his own restlessness took his eye off the ball and always on to the next green pasture. While New York tired of him, his demagogic speeches found purchase in other parts of the country. In short order, he moved on to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the army, Governor, Vice-President and finally the Presidency.
There's much to appreciate about Roosevelt the President, most especially the beginning of a national environmental movement. This younger version, while a fascinating human, is awfully hard to like. Most of us know that person, steadfastly rigid in received wisdom, that could stand to loosen up a little. That is Roosevelt. Richard Zacks has given us an intense read, leavened by his own wry wit and that of characters from the period. The city, removed from us by more than a century, still feels like New York. It's a dynamic, glorious mess that swings between poles. This little chunk of time comes right back to us.
"...the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders."
--Epilogue, Island of Vice
Richard Zacks presents a rollicking, yet thoroughly researched account of the year (or so) in the life of then-future president Theodore Roosevelt, as well as the city which (rather unwillingly) boosted him onto the national stage. New York in the mid-1890s was a vile yet vibrant dragon of a city and Roosevelt was the white knight born to tame, if not slay, it.
The book opens, fittingly enough, with a nude woman. Manhattanites in the Victorian Era were graced by a thirteen foot sculpture of Diana at the highest point of their skyline, just above Madison Square Garden. Diana was "the perfect symbol of New York in the 1890s, a city of silk top hats on Wall Street and sixteen-year-old prostitutes trawling Broadway." And so through this symbol Zacks sets up the contrasts and conflicts of a teeming city thronged with multi-cultural immigrants at the height of the morally "pure" Victorian Era. This is the story of the poor and working class masses of that city struggling to survive and thrive, the base and criminal elements which protected, entertained and exploited them, and the zealous noblesse oblige of the man who tried to "save" them.
Zacks spends the first sixty or so pages setting the stage for Roosevelt's grand entrance. Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, playing John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, decries the state of vice and corruption which has gripped the city - the prostitution, the gambling, the drinking. His passionate, although perhaps ill-advised sermon ruffles a few well-connected feathers, who charge Parkhurst with libel. Parkhurst and his agents set out to expose the rampant vice in the city and the ubiquitous corruption of the police and politicians who look the other way, for a price. The newspapers eat it up. The confrontation culminates with the historic Lexow Commission, a public eager for reform, and openings on a newly-revamped Police Commission Board. Enter Roosevelt, stage right.
At first the four-member bipartisan board functions like a well-oiled machine, rooting out vice and prosecuting and dismissing the tainted officers who allowed it. Although the former Tammany Hal machine is still powerful and connected, it is no match for the four warriors of the Police Board, an irate public tired of shakedowns and police brutality, and the newspapers which cheer on the gallant reformers.
But then the board stops preaching and starts meddling. Roosevelt, backed by the Board at least initially, decides that all the laws must be equally enforced in the name of justice. These laws just happen to include Sunday "Blue Laws" forbidding the sale of alcohol on the Lord's Day. Until Roosevelt's time, such laws were routinely ignored in the decadent city, and the public generally seemed to like it that way. Sunday was the only non-working day and most working stiffs liked to spend it relaxing with a cold brew, especially among immigrant groups for whom drinking also held social and cultural meaning. Roosevelt, however, saw the Lord's Day as a day for rest and family picnics, even if they had to be forced.
The pressures created by Roosevelt's zealotry created many enemies, as well as ruptures within the board. Many of the newspapers, even those basically supporting reform, turned against Roosevelt on the issue of Sunday prohibition. They argued that if all laws had to be enforced, even poor ice sellers and flower peddlers should be imprisoned. They argued the economic damage to saloon owners, for whom Sunday was usually the busiest day of the week. They argued the hypocrisy of the fact that Roosevelt himself could drink as much as he wanted on Sundays at the Union Club because private clubs were exempt from the law.
Additionally, immigrant groups such as the Germans who formerly supported Roosevelt's reform efforts began to turn against him. Even the Republican Party was reluctant to allow him to speak on their behalf, especially after New York City voted to return Tammany Hall to power in protest of Sunday prohibition. Roosevelt's powerful personality and animated speaking style enraptured some, especially those who attended reform and temperance meetings and rallies, but nevertheless, public opinion, especially in New York, began to turn heavily against him.
Perhaps most painful for the rather naïve Roosevelt were the political machinations in which he got caught up, some of which turned personal. While Commissioner Andrews remained devoted to him, Commissioners Grant and Parker, along with Police Chief Conlin, had serious rifts with Roosevelt over different issues which set up a power struggle for control of the Board. Roosevelt, adamant that he was right, refused to back down or even compromise for the sake of harmony, but nonetheless he found the conflict intolerable. He began spending more and more time traveling the state and even the country giving stump speeches about reform and meeting contacts to lay the groundwork for his hoped elevation to Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
Zacks paints a marvelously detailed and witty picture of all aspects of the history he presents. He portrays New York City of the 1890s, both the high and the law, with such vibrancy that we feel we're there, whether slinking through the vice dens of the Bowery or sitting in on a court proceeding against corrupt officers. All the main characters (and many of the minor ones) are presented as real human beings with all their wonder, wit and warts. If I didn't know better, I'd almost think Zacks was a time traveler who actually lived the world he writes about.
But most of all Zacks paints an uncompromising picture of his main character. We all know Theodore Roosevelt as the Rough Rider, hero of the Spanish-American War. We know his love of the outdoors and his gift of the National Parks. We know his contribution to World War I and his famous saying about carrying a big stick. But this book delves deeper into Roosevelt's restless relentlessness, into his uncompromising convictions (which, for better or worse, reminded me a lot of George W. Bush) and even into his hypocrisy. At the same time he was crusading against saloons being open on Sundays for the poor man, Roosevelt and his elite cohort drank the night (and day) away at private clubs and in private homes. At the same time he prosecuted a theatre establishment in the Tenderloin for indecency (simulated nudity), he admitted much more could be seen at the opera. And perhaps worst of all, while he battled patronage jobs at the local level, he himself used every crony connection at his disposal to land his coveted position as Assistant Secretary to the Navy. None of such faults diminish his accomplishments, but they give a human perspective to the man himself, and remind us that hero worship can be a dangerous thing.
Although I came away from this book rather soured on the single-minded, unbending and hypocritical Roosevelt (in fact, I often found myself cheering for his opponents, even the clearly corrupted ones), the book itself is a masterpiece. Although it contains history enough for even the most avid history buff, it is more than just a history book. It is an engaging and witty narrative and an insightful profile of one of the most vivid figures in American history and the times that made him. Highly recommended for high school students and adults alike.
I can't help but be puzzled by the story that emerged from Island of Vice. After all, could there be a more compelling story to tell? Trying to clean up drinking and prostitution in a city like New York at the end of the Robber Baron era? When the main force for change was none other than Teddy Roosevelt? Shouldn't that story be captivating, moving at a brisk pace, with indelible, larger than life characters? Yes, it should, but in Island of Vice, it isn't.
The author, Richard Zacks, clearly researched his topic. If I can place my finger on what goes wrong in this book, it's that there's really no character or story line that one truly cares about. Roosevelt comes across as a self-righteous schoolboy, never understanding how his actions effect other people. Zacks provides too much emphasis on Roosevelt's fellow commisioners, especially Parker, who seems aligned to Roosevelt on the need to clean up New York, but who constantly thwarts his actions. Parker's reasons are never explained, and really never explored. We meet hordes of characters throughout the book, but grow to like or care about very few of them. Clearly a Quixotic task - closing the saloons on Sunday and reducing or eliminating prostitution seems to only create unintended consequences, like the small "hotels" that can obtain liquor licenses and which quickly morph into houses of prostitution based on a law meant to stamp out drinking.
There's plenty of deep research, some character development and a wealth of information about New York at the turn of the century. But the book fails to gain pace, to accelerate and to fully engage the reader or make the reader care about the characters or the outcome. In fact, I was left wondering if the real story isn't what an artificial environment Roosevelt attempted to thrust on a New York that neither wanted nor needed change. What drove Roosevelt to think that so many New Yorkers were ready to give up drinking? What reinforced the righteous anger and the demand that all the liquor laws be followed to the last degree, when certainly that wasn't the case for every law in New York?
The reader will certainly learn a lot as they work their way through this book, and as I've noted the research shines through. It's a shame the pacing and storytelling don't ignite more interest for the reader.
For as much as I have read about Theodore Roosevelt, I knew very little about his time as police commissioner of New York City. Despite what TR wrote in his autobiography, this was the one job in which he pretty much failed. Richard Zacks sets the record straight in the informative and often entertaining Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York.
New Yorkers were tired of Tammany Hall and finally voted in some reform candidates. Much of the push for reform in NYC came from the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, who formed the Society for the Prevention of Crime. Parkhurst went after illegal drinking, gambling, and prostitution, as well as the complete disregard for Blue Laws. In 1895, newly elected mayor William L. Strong appointed Roosevelt as one of four police commissioners for the city. TR and his fellow commissioners set out to clean up both wide-spread corruption in the police department, as well as the disregard for laws by her citizens. While he initially made some inroads in closing bars on Sundays and trying to rid the force of corrupt officers, after two years, the situation was almost as bad as when he started. Plus, the police commission became a totally dysfunctional and ineffective group as the four battled for control. Zacks gives us a very readable account of New York City in the mid1890s.
Although TR didn't always agree with the laws that he was enforcing, he claimed that it was his job to enforce laws, and not to interpret them. Yet, "Newspapers now delighted in unearthing every dead-letter law imaginable to show the absurdity of Roosevelt's doctrinaire enforcement of all laws: no barber poles taller than five feet; no kite-flying south of 14th Street; no boarding a streetcar in motion (arrest half the men in the city); no placing of flower pots on windowsills (arrest half the women); no fishing off docks on Sunday (arrest the boys);" etc. Yet, through his failure in NYC, Roosevelt learned many lessons that made him a good president later on. "His two years there launched him onto the national stage; he honed his speaking skills; he even learned to silence himself occasionally so he could carry the Republican banner another day. He developed thicker skin and an intermittent sense of humor about newspaper attacks; he learned the impracticality of bitter feuds, the dangers of impulsive crusades." He also surrounded himself with able advisors such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Elihu Root. These cautious men had the skill to restrain TR when he got carried away.
Island of Vice is a must for any fan of Theodore Roosevelt. But even those just interested in history will find much to like here.
Theodore Roosevelt takes on New York City. And what a tumultuous read!
Richard Zacks has written an interesting and well-written book about Roosevelt's stint as New York City Police commissioner under Mayor William Strong, who served one term in 1895-1897. Strong chose Roosevelt as a police chief who would rid the town of its many vices, from Sunday drinking, to voter fraud, gambling and prostitution.
The problem is that Zack spends too much time (almost half the book) describing in minute details all the antics Roosevelt did to rid the town of its Sunday-drinking clientele. The promising Prologue quickly meanders into repetitive rambllings of nightly missions to walk the beat undercover.
There are a lot of characters in this book, many of whom were rabid anti-Roosevelt and part of the powerful Tammany Hall Irish society which ruled New York City after the Civil War. Elections were bought, police were bribed, and people learned to ignore the city's many vices.
Reverend Charles Parkhurst was Roosevelt's one big supporter in the quest to rid New York City of its drunken inhabitants. But in a city with two-thirds of the cops of Irish descent, and where German and Irish made up the majority of immigrants in Manhattan, trying to put a stop to drinking would scream of unpopular and rebellious protests.
The reading becomes more interesting and more focused by Chapter Nine, a short chapter in which Zacks describes' Roosevelt's deep grief over losing his younger brother Elliott to alcoholism. (The intimate boyhood of Theodore and Elliott is painstakingly illustrated in Douglas Brinkley's voluminous book on Roosevelt titled "The Wilderness Warrior"). Knowing about Elliott's condition helps the reader understand Roosevelt's motif for his staunch anti-alcohol stances, but it perhaps should have occurred earlier in the book.
So while the first half of the book drags a bit too much in the saloon vices of Manhattan, the rest of the book begins to fall into place. Roosevelt's Puritan character comes to light, a character that is perhaps part victim of his times when men were expected to be family providers, strong and resolute and women, lacking a legal voice, were expected to be submissive, chaste and pure...and were easily vilified if they went outside that norm. Manhattan was full of women who suffered from Victorian expectations, as the story of Lizzie Schauer in Chapter 12 demonstrates. Zacks shows that Roosevelt expected his women to be pure, and men were expected to be able to repel sinful urges.
Roosevelt was deservedly an arrogant and obstinate enforcer of the law, but the book ends showing two years of Roosevelt's development into a politician. After Strong leaves office in 1897, Roosevelt becomes Assistant Secretary to the Navy, then joins the fight in the Spanish-American war and the rest is popular American history. Life in vivacious New York City in the late 19th century was full of popular vice, but also full of new immigrants who fell easily prey to English laws and norms. Zacks paints the city as one filled with corrupt police happily enjoying their "French circus" shows (a term, I must admit, learned from reading this book!) and ruled by the powerful Tammany Hall. If anything, this book serves as a great example of how urban life was like back then, when horses and street lamps still reigned and when police not only enforced certain profitable laws, but also had to spend time inspecting various codes that took much of their beat time.
I recommend this book for any Roosevelt fan such as myself, for urban history fans or for anyone interested in late 19th-century American politics, as much of all this is in "Island of Vice." Filled with many statistics and primary quotes extracted from transcribed speeches and documents, this makes for an interesting read.
Before Eliot Ness there was Theodore Roosevelt, a young police commissioner who fought a losing battle against corruption and crime in late 19th century New York City.
Author Richard Zacks suggests the scars toughened Roosevelt's political skin and later shaped his presidency. Readers unfamiliar with the 26th President beyond his jingoisms and service in Leonard Wood's First Volunteer Cavalry during the Spanish-American War are provided a look at the human behind the myth: young, fallible and resolute in his righteousness.
The book's tagline reads, "For fans of DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY and THE ALIENIST." I knew better than to believe marketing like this but, on the heels of reading The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, I was susceptible to the idea of a sequel. Zacks' story is neither as fast-paced nor salacious as the marketing promises.
In summary, Richard Zacks' Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York is a well-researched examination of two, less-explored years of an American original. However, the rabbit trails of research and newspaper citations often interrupt the narrative.
Rating: Three stars.
DISCLOSURE: This review is courtesy of the Amazon Vine program, which provides products at no cost in exchange for my independent and unbiased feedback. My objective is to test and review products fairly, providing you with helpful information that improves your shopping experience. This product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf.
on July 15, 2013
People have not changed much since our country was founded; - "Do As I Say, Not As I Do." Zach's does a great job detailing and writing about one of the few failures of Teddy Roosevelt's career when he tried to get the men of turn-of-the century NYC to quit their whoring and around the clock drinking. He also worked to clean up police corruption under the in NYC Tammany Hall era. Roosevelt is a man so certain of his idealistic and moralistic view of society that he was certain he could bring the other 99% of males to his viewpoint through determination and insistence. But, as he discovered, it does not work that way in the real world of self-interest and just plain meanness. I expect this insight about failure was very valuable and helped him to be successful in later years as President.
on April 6, 2012
Absolutely fascinating account of New York politics at the turn of the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt may have been a hot-head, but he did a lot to clean up a police force and city that was rife with corruption. This was the time of Tammany Hall; where bribery and corruption was the norm. The book is very well written with loads of information. Much of the data comes directly from court cases going on at that time. The arrest records and court case testimony are amazing to read. Its a wonder the city made it through this period in its history.
Through a stroke of good timing and the generosity of two publishers, I had the opportunity to read two books about late 19th century efforts to restore Puritanical values in the booming metropolises of Boston and New York. This near side-by-side study allowed for increased contextual history and insight into social mores of the time.
Banned in Boston, by Tufts University journalism instructor Neil Miller, is a decades-long survey of the Watch and Ward Society's campaign to rid Boston of perceived social evils, while Island of Vice, by contrarian historian Richard Zacks, focuses on Theodore Roosevelt's two-year effort to root out corruption as New York City Police Commissioner.
Zacks' book has a release date of March 13, 2012; Miller's book was published in 2010 but released in paperback last fall. Extensive bibliographic details reflecting the requisite heavy research are included in both books.
My review of Island of Vice follows, along with a cross reference to Banned in Boston. In the interest of fair reporting, I must admit that I read Banned in Boston first. I enjoyed it. Then I read Island of Vice. And I couldn't put it down. I often cringe when reading professional reviews because of their liberal overuse of superlatives. At the risk of creating my own sound bite, Island of Vice presents a rollicking ride through the Big Apple circa 1895/6.
The focus here is on Theodore Roosevelt, a scant half dozen years before he became President. TR--never Teddy, at least not in his presence--is still the youngest President of the United States, ever. His youthful enthusiasm is on full exhibit here, as Richard Zacks spins yarn after yarn about TR's often overzealous attempts to fight the corruption that had tainted (and would soon taint again) the New York City Police Department.
Roosevelt's high morals and inexhaustible energy resulted in some wins for Puritanical values, at least in the short term. But it was always a losing battle: against a political machine (Tammany Hall), and more importantly, against the will of the people. New York City in the waning years of the 19th century boasted its share of demimonde. But in large part, NYC was full of regular folk who simply wanted to enjoy a beer after a long six-day work week. The Sun proclaimed, "So dry a Sunday and so dull a Sunday as yesterday has not been known in New York for years, if indeed such a day was ever known here."
Policemen, too, were expected to walk the walk. TR once scolded an officer caught lounging against the wall and talking loudly: "Officer, good manners are of importance." The image of crusading reformers--TR marching front and center--recalls The Untouchables. And yet in the imperfect world that was New York City at the turn of the 20th century, I daresay there was something to be said for regulating vice, instead of attempting to eradicate it entirely.
To clean up Sin City was to bite off more than even TR's famously large teeth could chew, though his failed experiment did set the stage for greater national prominence. Locally, and with Tammany candidates back in power after the 1895 election, a period weekly proclaimed, "New Yorkers prefer to be crazy and reckless' than 'crazy and religious.'" Like Afghanistan for the Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Soviets, and even the Americans, New York City was unreformable for decades, until Giuliani and later Bloomberg succeeded in swinging the pendulum too far, turning the city into a tourism magnet and Times Square into a theme park.
Zacks does not shed light on Commissioner Parker's true motivations, and I would have liked to know where Chief Conlin wound up, but the book succeeds brilliantly overall and I am intrigued enough to do my own research. Social reformer Parkhurst's ultimate sin tour would probably fill an hourly tour bus in New York City today.
[The reviewer was provided with complimentary copies of both books from different publishers.]
Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York
Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil
This is a gripping tale of Teddy Roosevelt trying to storm the hill of vice that New York City had become in the 1890s. The writer's style is engaging and the narrative moves along at a brisk pace. My only complaint is that at times he writes the story as if we already know the ending, when of course only a person who would have researched this period of history in details would know about the results of the attempts to crack down on corruption throughout the city. He captures life at the turn of the century well and makes us gain an appreciation of how Theodore Roosevelt, a native New Yorker, was able to move his vision of a better world onto the national stage by eventually becoming president. Anyone interested in the 1890s, Teddy Roosevelt, or the history of New York City will enjoy this solid, if occasionally salacious, history.