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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.


The Devil’s Money

THAT was what the women called it, and the name stuck and killed the looters. The young men of the East Side began it, and the women finished it. It was a campaign of decency against Tammany, that one of 1901 of which I am going to make the record brief as may be, for we all remember it; and also, thank God, that decency won the fight.

If ever inhuman robbery deserved the name, that which caused the downfall of Tammany surely did. Drunk with the power and plunder of four long unchallenged years, during which the honest name of democracy was pilloried in the sight of all men as the active partner of blackmail and the brothel, the monstrous malignity reached a point at last where it was no longer to be borne. Then came the crash. The pillory lied. Tammany is no more a political organization than it is the benevolent concern it is innocently supposed to be by some people who never learn. It neither knows nor cares for principles. “Koch?” said its President of the Health Department when mention was made in his hearing of the authority of the great German doctor, “who is that man Koch you are talking about?” And he was typical of the rest. His function was to collect the political revenue of the department, and the city was overrun with smallpox for the first time in thirty years. The police force, of whom Roosevelt had made heroes, became the tools of robbers. Robbery is the business of Tammany. For that, and for that only, is it organized. Politics are merely the convenient pretence. I do not mean that every Tammany man is a thief. Probably the great majority of its adherents honestly believe that it stands for something worth fighting for,—for personal freedom, for the people’s cause,—and their delusion is the opportunity of scoundrels. They have never understood its organization or read its history.

For a hundred years that has been an almost unbroken record of fraud and peculation. Its very founder, William Mooney, was charged with being a deserter from the patriot army to the British forces. He was later on removed from office as superintendent of the almshouse for swindling the city. Aaron Burr plotted treason within its councils. The briefest survey of the administration of the metropolis from his day down to that of Tweed shows a score of its conspicuous leaders removed, indicted, or tried, for default, bribe-taking, or theft; and the fewest were punished. The civic history of New York to the present day is one long struggle to free itself from its blighting grip. Its people’s parties, its committees of seventy, were ever emergency measures to that end, but they succeeded only for a season. There have been decent Tammany mayors, but not for long. There have been attempts to reform the organization from within, but they have been failures. You cannot reform an “organized appetite” except by reforming it away. And then there would be nothing left of the organization.

For whatever the rank and file have believed, the organization has never been anything else but the means of satisfying the appetite that never will be cloyed. Whatever principles it has professed, they have served the purpose only of filling the pockets of the handful of men who rule its inner councils and use it to their own enrichment and our loss and disgrace. We have heard its most successful leader testify brazenly before the Mazet legislative committee that he was in politics working for his own pocket all the time. That was his principle. And his followers applauded till the room rang.

That is the Tammany which has placed murderers and gamblers in its high seats. That is the Tammany which you have to fight at every step when battling with the slum; the Tammany which, unmasked and beaten by the Parkhurst and Lexow disclosures, came back with the Greater New York to exploit the opportunity reform had made for itself, and gave us a lesson we will not soon forget. For at last it dropped all pretence and showed its real face to us.

Civil service reform was thrown to the winds; the city departments were openly parcelled out among the district leaders: a $2000 office to one,—two $1000 to another to even up. That is the secret of the “organization” which politicians admire. It does make a strong body. How it served the city in one department, the smallpox epidemic bore witness. That department, the pride of the city and its mainstay in days of danger, was wrecked. The first duty of the new president, when the four years were over and Tammany out again, was to remove more than a hundred and fifty useless employees. Their only function had been to draw the salaries which the city paid. The streets that had been clean became dirty—the “voter” was back “behind the broom”—and they swarmed once more with children for whom there was no room in school. Officials who drew big salaries starved the inmates of the almshouse on weak tea and dry bread, and Bellevue, the poor people’s hospital, became a public scandal. In one night there were five drunken fights, one of them between two of the attendants who dropped the corpse they were carrying to the morgue and fought over it. The tenements were plunged back into the foulness of their worst day; the inspectors were answerable, not to the Health Board, but to the district leader, and the landlord who stood well with him thumbed his nose at them and at their orders to clean up. The neighborhood parks, acquired at such heavy sacrifice, lay waste. Tammany took no step toward improving them. One it did take up at Fort George; and though the property only cost the city $600,000, the bills for taking it were $127,467. That is the true Tammany style. In the Seward Park, where the need of relief was greatest, Tammany election district captains built booths, rent free, for the sale of dry goods and fish. That was “their share.” Wealthy corporations were made to pay heavily for “peace”; timid storekeepers were blackmailed. One, a Jew, told his story: he was ordered to pay five dollars a week for privilege of keeping open Sundays. He paid, and they asked ten. When he refused, he was told that it would be the worse for him. He closed up. The very next week he was sued for a hundred dollars by a man of whom he had never borrowed anything. He did not defend the suit, and it went against him. In three days the sheriff was in his store. He knew the hopelessness of it then, and went out and mortgaged his store and paid the bill. The next week another man sued him for a hundred dollars he did not owe. He went and threw himself on his mercy, and the man let him off for the costs.

He was one of the many thousands of toilers who look with fear to the approaching summer because it is then the hot tenement kills their babies. Their one chance of life then depends upon the supply of ice that is hawked from door to door in small pieces, since tenements have rarely other refrigerator than the draughty airshaft. The greed of politicians plotted to deprive them of even this chance. They had control of docks and means of transportation and they cornered the supply, raising the price from thirty to sixty cents a hundred pounds and suppressing the five-cent piece. Some of them that sat in high official station grew rich, but the poor man’s babies died and he saw at last the quality of the friendship Tammany professed for him. The push-cart pedlers, blackmailed and driven from pillar to post, saw it. They had escaped from unbearable tyranny in their old home to find a worse where they thought to be free; for to their oppressors yonder at least their women were sacred.

It is difficult to approach calmly what is left of the diabolical recital. The police, set once more to collecting blackmail from saloon keepers, gambling hells, policy shops, and houses of ill fame, under a chief who on a policeman’s pay became in a few short years fairly bloated with wealth, sank to the level of their occupation or into helpless or hopeless compliance with the apparently inevitable. The East Side, where the home struggled against such heavy odds, became a sinkhole of undreamt-of corruption. The tenements were overrun with lewd women who paid the police for protection and received it. Back of them the politician who controlled all and took the profits. This newspaper arraignment published in January, 1901, tells the bald truth:

  • “Imagine, if you can, a section of the city territory completely dominated by one man, without whose permission neither legitimate nor illegitimate business can be conducted; where illegitimate business is encouraged and legitimate business discouraged; where the respectable residents have to fasten their doors and windows summer nights and sit in their rooms with asphyxiating air and one hundred degrees temperature, rather than try to catch the faint whiff of breeze in their natural breathing places—the stoops of their homes; where naked women dance by night in the streets, and unsexed men prowl like vultures through the darkness on “business” not only permitted, but encouraged, by the police; where the education of infants begins with the knowledge of prostitution and the training of little girls is training in the arts of Phryne; where American girls brought up with the refinements of American homes are imported from small towns up-state, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and kept as virtually prisoners as if they were locked up behind jail bars until they have lost all semblance of womanhood; where small boys are taught to solicit for the women of disorderly houses; where there is an organized society of young men whose sole business in life is to corrupt young girls and turn them over to bawdy houses; where men walking with their wives along the street are openly insulted; where children that have adult diseases are the chief patrons of the hospitals and dispensaries; where it is the rule, rather than the exception, that murder, rape, robbery, and theft go unpunished—in short, where the premium of the most awful forms of vice is the profit of the politicians.
  • “There is no ‘wine, woman, and song’ over there. The ‘wine’ is stale beer, the ‘woman’ is a degraded money-making machine, and the ‘song’ is the wail of the outraged innocent. The political backers have got it down to what has been called a ‘cash-register, commutation-ticket basis,’ called so from the fact that in some of these places they issued tickets, on the plan of a commutation mealticket, and had cash registers at the entries.”
  • Lest some one think the newspaper exaggerating after all, let me add Bishop Potter’s comment before his Diocesan Convention. He will not be suspected of sensationalism:

  • “The corrupt system, whose infamous details have been steadily uncovered to our increasing horror and humiliation, was brazenly ignored by those who were fattening on its spoils; and the world was presented with the astounding spectacle of a great municipality whose civic mechanism was largely employed in trading in the bodies and souls of the innocent and defenceless. What has been published in this connection is but the merest hint of what exists—and exists, most appalling of all, as the evidence has come to me under the seal of confidence in overwhelming volume and force to demonstrate—under a system of terrorism which compels its victims to recognize that to denounce it means the utter ruin, so far as all their worldly interests are concerned, of those who dare to do so. This infamous organization for making merchandise of girls and boys, and defenceless men and women, has adroitly sought to obscure a situation concerning which all honest people are entirely clear, by saying that vice cannot be wholly suppressed. Nobody has made upon the authorities of New York any such grotesque demand. All that our citizens have asked is that the government of the city shall not be employed to protect a trade in vice, which is carried on for the benefit of a political organization. The case is entirely clear. No Mephistophelian cunning can obscure it, and I thank God that there is abundant evidence that the end of such a condition of things is not far off.”
  • It was, indeed, coming. But Tammany, gorged with power and the lust of it, neither saw nor heeded. At a meeting of young men on the East Side, one of them, responding to an address by Felix Adler, drew such a heart-rending picture of the conditions prevailing there that the echoes of the meeting found its way into the farthest places: “Now you go,” he said, “to your quiet home in a decent street where no harm comes to you or your wife or children in the night, for it is their home. And we—we go with our high resolves, the noble ambitions you have stirred, to our tenements where evil lurks in the darkness at every step, where innocence is murdered in babyhood, where mothers bemoan the birth of a daughter as the last misfortune, where virtue is sold into a worse slavery than ever our fathers knew, and our sisters betrayed by paid panders; where the name of home is as a bitter mockery, for alas! we have none. These are the standards to which we go from here.” And then followed the whole amazing story of damning conspiracy between power and vice in those tenements before which a whole city stood aghast.

    A meeting was called the following day by Dr. Adler, of men and women who had the welfare of their city at heart, and when they had heard the story, they resolved that they would not rest till those things were no longer true. One of their number was the Rev. Robert Paddock, the priest in charge of Bishop Potter’s Pro-Cathedral, right in the heart of it all in Stanton Street. He set about gathering evidence that would warrant the arraignment of the evil-doers in his district; but when he brought it to the police he was treated with scorn and called liar.

    The measure was nearly full. Bishop Potter came back from the East, where he had been travelling, and met his people. Out of that meeting came the most awful arraignment of a city government which the world has ever heard. “Nowhere else on earth,” the Bishop wrote to the Mayor of New York, “certainly not in any civilized or Christian community, does there exist such a situation as defiles and dishonors New York to-day.”

    “In the name of these little ones,” his letter ran, “these weak and defenceless ones, Christian and Hebrew alike, of many races and tongues, but homes in which God is feared and His law revered, and virtue and decency honored and exemplified, I call upon you, sir, to save these people, who are in a very real way committed to your charge, from a living hell, defiling, deadly, damning, to which the criminal supineness of the constituted authorities set for the defence of decency and good order, threatens to doom them.”

    The Mayor’s virtual response was to put the corrupt Chief of Police in practically complete and irresponsible charge of the force. Richard Croker, the boss of Tammany Hall, had openly counselled violence at the election then pending (1900), and the Chief in a general order to the force repeated the threat. But they had reckoned without Governor Roosevelt. He compelled the Mayor to have the order rescinded, and removed the District Attorney who had been elected on the compact platform “to hell with reform.” The whole city was aroused. The Chamber of Commerce formed a Committee of Fifteen which soon furnished evidence without stint of the corruption that was abroad. The connection between the police and the gambling dens was demonstrated, and also that the police were the mere tools of “politics.” In 237 tenements that were investigated 290 flats were found harboring prostitutes in defiance of law. The police were compelled to act. The “Cadets,” who lived by seducing young girls and selling them to their employer at $25 a head, were arrested and sent to jail for long terms. They showed fight, and it developed that they had a regular organization with political affiliations.

    The campaign of 1901 approached. Judge Jerome went upon the stump and rattled the brass checks from the cash-register that paid for the virtue of innocent girls, the daughters of his hearers. The mothers of the East Side, the very Tammany women themselves, rose and denounced the devil’s money, and made their husbands and brothers go to the polls and vote their anger. The world knows the rest. The “Red Light” of the East Side damned Tammany to defeat. Seth Low was elected mayor. Decency once more moved into the City Hall and into the homes of the poor. Croker abdicated and went away, and a new day broke for our harassed city.

    That, in brief, is the story of the campaign that discharged the devil as paymaster, and put his money out of circulation—for good, let us all hope.