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Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York Hardcover – March 13, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 136 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2012: Those living in New York City today may be surprised (or not!) to read about the state of their city in the 1890’s; overrun with prostitution, gambling, boot liquor and Tammany Hall, NYC was known as the “Island of Vice.” Enter the ever-ambitious Theodore Roosevelt, years before he became president, who stepped-in as the NYC Police Commissioner and made it his mission to clean up the city. Richard Zacks’ enthusiastic account of this period is a fun read—an adjective rarely used to describe history books. It would be difficult to invent a cast of characters as exuberant and flawed as those involved here, and Zacks brings them all to life with ease. He clearly enjoys the subject, elevating this well-researched book into something memorable. --Caley Anderson

A Look Inside Island of Vice

Thompson Street Bar Photo:
Jacob Riis called this Thompson Street joint “a downtown morgue.”
(Jacob Riis. Museum of City of New York [90.13.4.165])
The Bowery Photo:
The Bowery, under the shadow of the elevated train tracks, bustled at night with colored lights and cane-swirling barkers in places such as the Lyceum Concert Garden. The joint then featured a minstrel show and cake walk.
(The New Metropolis by E. Idell Zeisloft (1899) p. 518.)
TR at desk Photo:
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), sworn in as police commissioner on May 6, 1895, soon decided to try to enforce every law on the books and every rule for police conduct. “New York has never been so shocked and surprised in all its two hundred and fifty years of existence,” commented one observer.
(Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library (560.22-001))

Review

Praise for ISLAND OF VICE:

"Excellent...A fish-out-of-water comedy, in that it tells the story of what happens when one of the virtuous clubmen--a square, incorruptible, 'law-and-order Republican'--is placed in charge of the New York Police Department." 
--The Wall Street Journal

"A fascinating narrative history of Theodore Roosevelt's doomed struggle to put a lid on crime in New York during his tenure as Police Commissioner starting in 1895...One of the achievements of Island of Vice is that Zacks penetrates beneath the bluster into the psychology of this strange, restless man."
--Maureen Corrigan, NPR

"In his delightful and often hilarious ode to Manhattan, Island of Vice, Richard Zacks makes a comparison to another famously wicked metropolis: "As in ancient Rome, the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders."
--USA Today

"Richard Zacks, in Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, tells the story of Roosevelt's two-year campaign with gusto and authority and the wry observations of an author who knows how it will all predictably turn out."
-- The New York Times Book Review

“Here is young Teddy Roosevelt as the reformist New York City Police Commissioner  confronted in 1895 with a cabal of  unaccountably wealthy police officials, whole neighborhoods of brothels, and the paws of the Tammany Tiger in everything. A delicious municipal history, impeccably researched, excitingly told.”
--E. L. Doctorow, award-winning author of Ragtime

"In the early 1890s, New York was America's vice capital, with thousands of prostitutes and countless all-night gambling halls. But then, in 1895, Teddy Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner. Richard Zacks paints an engagingly vivid picture of the rise of Roosevelt, the birth of the reform movement, and the creation of 20th century America. Roosevelt comes alive with all of his blustery and belligerent passion, and so does New York City."
--Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Steve Jobs and Einstein: His Life and Universe
 
“From the opening pages of his rousing new book, Island of Vice, Richard Zacks plunges readers into the filth, debauchery and corruption of 1890s New York. When an ambitious young Theodore Roosevelt strides in to clean up the mess, the story, already brimming with incredible characters and jaw-dropping details, only gets better. “
--Candice Millard, bestselling author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic
 
“Island of Vice is as thrilling as the low dives and wanton women it describes.  This is the real-life story of an American icon, Teddy Roosevelt, battling vice and as colorful an array of crooked politicians as Tammany ever assembled, in raucous old, gas-light New York.  Zacks does a superb job as both a historian and a storyteller.”
--Kevin Baker, bestselling author of Paradise Alley
 
“An irresistible force – young Theodore Roosevelt, the police commissioner, determined to wipe out vice – meets an immoveable object – the corrupt, pleasure-loving city of New York in the 1890s.  And the result is: a whole lot of fun.  What a marvelous time Richard Zacks must have had researching this story.  The information is fascinating, the amazing tale moves with a headlong pace. I'm sure ISLAND OF VICE will be a best-seller, and it deserves to be.” 
--Edward Rutherfurd, bestselling author of New York: The Novel   
 
“It’s been said that New York City politics were invented to scare young children. True, according to Richard Zacks whose riveting account lays bare the depravity and corruption of the Gilded Age – and the failed crusade of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to stop it. A must-read for any student of Gotham.” 
--Teresa Carpenter, author of New York Diaries, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing

"A lively and often entertaining portrayal of urban life at the close of the 19th century."
--The Chrstian Science Monitor

"Zacks probes this period of Roosevelt’s life with exhaustive details, drama, and intrigue. The 40 pages of bibliographic notes indicate the five years of research that went into this remarkable re-creation of fin-de-siècle New York. Writing with a prismatic, poetic slant, Zacks unveils a colorful portrait of a volcanic Roosevelt towering over the soul of the city."
--Publishers Weekly

“Set in gas-lit 1890s Manhattan, Zacks’ depiction of virtue versus vice pits Theodore Roosevelt against a gallery of antagonists...[TR’s] fight is a fascinating story that Zacks relays with zest. His pungent vignettes of sinful establishments and the police who ‘protected’ them hang on the main plot of TR’s campaigns to dismiss bad cops and enforce long-dormant alcohol and prostitution laws, which often resulted in proceedings showcasing TR at his most combatively indignant. His research artfully attired in active prose, Zacks writes a winner for TR and NYC buffs.”
--Booklist

"Zacks returns with a sharply focused look at Theodore Roosevelt's brief tenure as a New York City police commissioner...The author takes us inside fin-de-siecle brothels and bars, Tammany Hall and courtrooms, contentious commissioners' meetings and cops' barracks. A nuanced, comprehensive portrait of a unique man and the surrounding period, culture and political system."
--Kirkus Reviews