Good Government

The Panic of 1893—unlike those of 1873, 1857, and 1837—did not come as a sudden shock. Americans had seen it brewing since 1890 when Baring Brothers, England’s (and the world’s) mightiest banking house, had crumpled, the victim of overoptimistic loans to Argentina. The Baring crisis had punctured the late 1880s boom and brought hard times to Western Europe. Americans watched anxiously for signs the financial storm was striking out across the Atlantic—rather as they had once scanned the horizon for cholera epidemics.

For three years, European crop failures buoyed up the U.S. economy, as America’s wheat farmers reaped bumper profits from overseas sales. But prosperity didn’t last. Hard-pressed Europeans cut back investments in American industry, and when their agriculture revived, the balance of payments reversed course. U.S. gold reserves began draining away, and the resulting capital stringency put intolerable pressure on an already vulnerable economy, which now began to crack at its weakest points.

In February 1893 the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad failed, a victim of reckless empire building. Its demise heightened fears that the entire overbuilt and shoddily financed rail network might topple too. In May the National Cordage Company went under. Known colloquially as the Twine Trust, its collapse exposed the precariousness of even the biggest American enterprises.

In June the credit system seized up. Over the summer stock prices scudded downward, drawing crowds to brokerage houses to watch their fortunes melt away. Banks, mainly in the South and West, began to founder. Calling home their reserves on deposit in New York City, they created near-insolvency in the nation’s money center. Before the summer was out 141 national banks had failed, and hundreds more state banks, private banks, savings banks, and loan, trust, or mortgage companies soon followed them into oblivion.

The sharp credit contraction sent debt-ridden or cash-strapped transportation and industrial corporations over the edge. During 1893 companies crashed with terrifying frequency. By year’s end nearly sixteen thousand businesses had gone belly-up, the worst-ever toll in U.S. history. Among the felled firms were institutions that controlled over a third of the nation’s rail system. J. P. Morgan and his fellow financiers worked mightily, and profitably, reorganizing failed lines and bringing them under banker control. Virtually every bankrupt road east of the Mississippi was eventually “Morganized,” and by decade’s end most of the country’s trackage would be combined into six huge systems controlled by Wall Streeters.

The panic raised the curtain on a five-year depression. Foreign and domestic investors sat on their funds, and the economy languished accordingly. With roughly 20 percent of the nonagricultural work force unemployed, class warfare broke out as some corporations sought worker givebacks and others seized the opportunity to crush unions altogether. Federal troops and state militias battled miners and railroad workers in uprisings spanning a score of states and involving hundreds of thousands.

In New York City, layoffs commenced during the summer of 1893 and reached fearsome levels during the freezing winter months. In January 1894 Mayor Thomas F. Gilroy ordered police to make a house-to-house canvass. They found about seventy thousand unemployed, of whom about 25 percent were female. An additional twentyfive thousand were reported down and out in Brooklyn. Destitution among African Americans was particularly terrible, and the Colored Mission reported people “were found actually dying of want.” The disaster was only partly mitigated by a collapse in prices—sensational ads proclaimed “slaughtered” prices and “sacrificed” goods—though deflation brought no joy to tradesmen or manufacturers.

The mayor’s report found that twenty thousand were homeless as well as jobless. People piled up in parks and squares, in the Salvation Army Hall, on Blackwell’s Island, and in Bowery lodging houses. In February 1894 Stephen Crane, impersonating a tramp, spent a night in a Bowery flophouse and reported, in “An Experiment in Misery,” on the men who lay there “in death-like silence, or heaving and snoring with tremendous effort, like stabbed fish.”

Some charitable and business groups estimated a lower total unemployment figure, some settlement houses a higher one, but few disputed the mayor’s conclusions that there were an “unprecedentedly large number of people unable to secure employment” and that “distressing destitution and hardship are imminent in thousands of homes among those worthy and willing to work.”


As early as August 1893, angry socialists and unionists (especially cigarmakers, carpenters, typographical workers, and the United Hebrew Trades) began collecting food, establishing soup kitchens, and organizing “hunger demonstrations” on the East Side and in Union Square. In addition, the Socialist Labor Party, the Central Labor Union, Gompers’s American Federation of Labor (AFL), and Barondess’s cloakmakers all petitioned the state and city to provide direct emergency relief and set up public works projects. “When the private employer cannot or will not give work, the municipality, state, or nation must,” the AFL declared.

Anarchists favored more direct action. During one August demonstration, Emma Goldman told a crowd of thousands that rather than tamely petitioning the authorities, they should march by the homes of the wealthy and demand relief. On another occasion she addressed a jobless audience (in German) at the Golden Rule Hall. According to one witness she told them: “If you are hungry and need bread, go and get it. The shops are plentiful and the doors are open.”


Meal lime at the Female Almshouse on Blackwell’s Island, c. 1897. (© Museum of the City of New York)

Such militancy provoked hysteria among the respectable. The New York Times, which preferred to leave depression relief to traditional charities, was terrified by the effect “the appalling nonsense of creatures like Goldman” had on the “hatchet-faced, pimply, sallow-cheeked, rat-eyed young men of the Russian-Jew colony.” The paper called for an immediate suspension of immigration (which they failed to get) and the immediate incarceration of Emma Goldman (which followed hard upon their demand). As usual, muzzling created a martyr. While in the Tombs awaiting trial, Goldman gave an interview to Nellie Bly of Pulitzer’s World. The anarchist leader’s sincerity and conviction enchanted Bly, who presented her to readers as a “little Joan of Arc.” This didn’t help Goldman at her October trial—she was found guilty of inciting a riot, which all agreed hadn’t happened—but after ten months in Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary, she was welcomed back to the Lower East Side by a crowd of thousands, besieged by reporters, and swamped with nationwide invitations to lecture.

The city, as per reigning policy, did next to nothing. The Department of Charities and Correction gave aid to the blind and free coal to the poor but ceased doling out food and clothing as the result of pressure from groups like the Charity Organization Society. The COS and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor were, however, shocked by the magnitude of the crisis, and admitted what they had denied in previous downturns: that the unemployed were not shiftless louts but simply unable to support themselves. Josephine Shaw Lowell now agreed that the plight of the poor was “not due usually to moral or intellectual defects on their own part, but to economic causes over which they could have had no control, and which were as much beyond their power to avert as if they had been natural calamities of fire, flood or storm.”

Lowell, aided by Lillian Wald and Jacob Ms, set up the East Side Relief Committee in cooperation with COS, settlement workers, unions, churches, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The committee, headquartered in the College Settlement on Rivington Street, established a “relief-by-work” program. Work tickets were given to trade unions, churches, and charities for distribution to known heads of families.

Under the supervision of trained social workers, recipients were given “continuous, hard and underpaid” work. Men received a dollar for a seven-hour day spent cleaning streets, removing garbage and carcasses from stables, lofts, and yards, and cleaning and whitewashing tenements. Women got seventy cents for eight hours of sewing clothes for the Red Cross. Nevertheless, demand for relief-work from desperate East Siders far exceeded the supply. Seldom were more than a thousand aided at any given time; and by the following spring no more than five thousand men and women had been helped, less than 10 percent of the unemployed.

The COS also chartered a Provident Loan Society, which made loans to the needy (when secured by personal property) at i percent a month, better terms than were available from pawn shops or moneylenders. And its Wayfarer’s Lodge on West 28th Street allowed the homeless to stay in facilities superior to Bowery flophouses for up to a week, in exchange for a stint of woodchopping.

Yet for all these new departures, Lowell and her COS colleagues were not prepared to abandon their opposition to public works or soup kitchen handouts. Such policies would only foster dependency in the recipients—“their souls must not be sacrificed in the efforts to save their bodies”—and the charity establishment feared attracting “an army of vagrants” to the city. There was, in fact, no sign of New York’s becoming a mendicant Mecca. Quite the opposite: as in most depressions, word spread swiftly in Europe that America and its leading metropolis were poor job prospects. Immigration plummeted from sixty-five thousand in 1892 to twenty-five thousand in 1893 to thirteen thousand in 1897—and among some groups more people left than arrived.

The Charity Organization Society’s stringent policy of giving direct aid only after rigorous investigation had weeded out “indolent vagrants” from worthy unemployed generated tremendous public animosity. One woman, enraged at the treatment given her mother, wrote asking, “When you get to the gates of Heaven how will you feel when God will say go down to hell for a week until the committee meets to see if you . . . are worthy enough to enter Heaven.” St. Vincent de Paul and the United Hebrew Charities rejected strict scrutiny of disaster-overwhelmed applicants as mean-spirited and gave relief on what the COS considered an indiscriminate basis. Indeed New Yorkers of various stripes, from a variety of motives, raised and distributed over three million dollars’ worth of “irresponsible relief,” making the metropolis the most generous of all U.S. cities in responding to the harsh depression.

Many businessmen gave unstintingly during the crisis—out of decency, Christian or Jewish conviction, a sense of richesse oblige, or a prudent desire to prevent a potentially explosive situation from deteriorating further. J. P. Morgan was particularly active. He served as treasurer of the forthrightly named Committee of Prominent and Wealthy Citizens and joined with others in forming a Business Men’s Relief Committee.

Nathan Straus, co-owner of Macy’s with his brother Isidor, was also partner with Abraham Abraham in Abraham and Straus, the largest dry-goods store in the city. The German-Jewish philanthropist established several depots where fuel and foodstuffs were bagged in bundles and sold, below cost, at five cents each. He also opened three apartment buildings that provided accommodations at five cents a night and established restaurants that offered five-cent meals.


The “breadline” at Fleischmann’s Model Vienna Bakery, Broadway at 9th Street, from E. Idell Zeisloft, The New Metropolis (1899). (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Yeast manufacturer Louis Fleischmann sold sweet rolls and coffee (by day) at his Model Vienna Bakery next to Grace Church on Broadway. At midnight, Fleischmann’s distributed a third of a loaf of bread to all comers—giving popular currency to the term “breadline.” Stephen Crane spent a night on the breadline during a blizzard in preparation for writing his classic story “Men in the Storm,” which Arena published in October 1894.

Businessmen’s generosity was spurred in part by the emergence of a new and competitive source of charity: the popular press, self-proclaimed tribunes of the people. In August 1893 Joseph Pulitzer’s World declared a well-publicized war on hunger. It established a Free Bread Fund, which sent wagons—emblazoned with the paper’s logo—rumbling through the tenement streets. These gave away free loaves (one and a quarter million by winter’s end) to long lines of the hungry, which formed each day—handing them out with no investigation whatever: “That you are hungry is credential enough.” To pay for the program, the World turned to the public, as it had during the Statue of Liberty fund drive. Pulitzer yoked sensational stories of individual distress with sentimental appeals for funds, and contributions rolled in from individuals, clubs, theater and ballgame benefits, and Bread Fund Boxes left on store counters. Colorful follow-up accounts (from a roving Nellie Bly, among others) recounted for readers the impact of their donations on recipients.

Not to be outdone, the Herald, in December, announced a Free Clothing Fund, and on New Year’s Day the Tribune, the city’s highest-priced and most conservative paper, established a Coal and Food Fund. Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid did assure his wealthy readers that his fund, unlike its profligate competitors, would work closely with existing charities and carefully investigate all recipients to be sure they were sober, devout, and thoroughly destitute (had pawned all their available household effects).

Mrs. Lowell, dismayed by the efforts of businessmen, was incensed at the philanthropy of the press (the Tribune’s effort excepted). Handing out “something for nothing” was bad enough, but far worse was the papers’ calculated commercialism, the way “a desire to help those in distress was blended with the advertising indulged in at their expense.” Lowell denounced the publicizing of recipients’ names as “a further degradation, a moral stripping naked of the suffering of the poor, which was cruel in the extreme.” The World, in rebuttal, chided the COS for its niggardly inhumaneness and bureaucratic pettifoggery and claimed the Bread Fund was the “most direct, simple, and useful of charities.”

While philanthropists squabbled, politicians heeded the demands of the distressed and established a program of public works—though with considerable reluctance and considerable debate. Democrats, longtime supporters of laissez-faire, backed away from the issue. Despite Mayor Gilroy’s call for a government jobs program, his administration did no more than solicit funds from municipal employees and saloonkeepers for distribution to traditional charities. During the first depression winter, Big Tim Sullivan—appointed District Leader of the Bowery area by Boss Croker in 1892—began a tradition of feeding thousands of poor people a free Christmas dinner (turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, bread, beer, pie, and coffee). As many as five thousand, mostly single men from neighborhood lodging houses, were feted at his Comanche Clubhouse headquarters, while local vaudeville singers offered entertainment.

At the state level, however, Democratic Governor Roswell P. Flower, a Wall Street banker in civilian life, flat-out rejected demands for public works. “It is not the province of the government to support the people,” he declared. That way lay “corruption, socialism, and anarchy.” In Washington, the Democratic Congress similarly ignored calls by Gompers’s AFL to hire the unemployed to construct a canal across Nicaragua, improve the Mississippi, and irrigate arid western lands. Democratic President Grover Cleveland concurred with Governor Flower that “while the people should support their Government its functions do not include the support of the people.”

But Flower came under tremendous pressure from the Central Labor Union and from social gospel reformers; twenty thousand attended a Madison Square Garden conference at which Felix Adler, William Rainsford, and Sam Gompers, among others, called for public works projects. Finally, facing looming electoral disaster—Republicans had capitalized on depression distress to capture the legislature in 1893—Governor Flower grudgingly signed a bill in February 1894 that authorized New York City’s Parks Department to spend up to one million dollars on public improvements. Soon hundreds of men were at work along Cathedral Parkway, in Morningside and Riverside parks, and at Manhattan Square, though the CLU complained that work tickets had been cornered by Tammany politicians and were being sold at a profit. Squabbles over patronage kept over half the funds from being expended.

With the return of good weather in spring 1894, nearly all the funds, relief programs, and work projects were dismantled, and for the remainder of the depression of the 1890s, New York City’s unemployed were left to the attentions of churches, conventional charities, and official public agencies.


The depression gave the heretofore stymied coalition of moral and political reformers its chance to win power. Democrats paid the traditional penalty of incumbency during hard times, and Republicans, in fusion with dissident Democrats, swept into office. Their sequence of triumphs began in 1893 in Brooklyn, where rebellious lawyers, professionals, and businessmen challenged Boss Hugh McLaughlin, still running the city and county from the back of Kerrigan’s Auction Rooms on Willoughby Street.

Peppery attorney and gadfly William Jay Gaynor took the lead. Of Irish and English descent, Gaynor had studied for the priesthood at De la Salle Institute and taught with the Christian Brothers but left the Church before taking his vows. Turning to the law, he was admitted to the bar in 1871 and got his start in Flatbush, where he represented with equal fervor the saloonkeepers of East New York and the bluenose opponents of roadhouses that catered to weekenders en route to Coney Island. By the mid-1880s, Gaynor’s firm, now housed in Montague Street near City Hall, was representing far more influential Brooklynites, like Abraham Abraham, whom he helped to set up Abraham and Straus, and William Ziegler, who ran the multimillion-dollar Baking Powder Trust. By 1886, worth nearly a million himself, the blue- and cold-eyed lawyer who parted his reddish-brown hair in the middle was comfortably ensconced in a Park Slope brownstone.

Though a Democrat, the cantankerous Gaynor had been repeatedly riled by Boss McLaughlin’s shadier activities. Backed by Ziegler’s zeal and money, Gaynor battled the padding of public payrolls and brought a variety of taxpayers’ suits to block giveaways of franchises for elevateds and streetcars. As the personification of honest government, Gaynor became an extremely popular man with Brooklyn’s respectable classes.

In the 1893 mayoral campaign, McLaughlin renominated the scandal-tainted David A. Boody for a second term. Gaynor, together with other dissident Democrats like Edward Shepard, endorsed the Republican candidate, businessman Charles A. Schieren, who was popular with the city’s Germans and the brewing interests, and Gaynor himself became a fusion candidate for justice of the state supreme court.

In the course of campaigning, Gaynor called attention to the fraudulent electoral practices of McLaughlin henchman John Y. McKane, boss of the independent town of Gravesend and its appendage, Coney Island. McKane routinely registered Coney’s large summertime population—cooks, waiters, barkeeps, stableboys—as permanent residents, then cast their votes for them. Out of a total Gravesend population of 8,418, 6,218 were registered to vote when, as Gaynor argued, the figure, after subtracting women and minors, should have been closer to 1,628. With the election less than two weeks away, Gaynor sent a crew of clerks to copy the registration books so the names could be checked. McKane denied them access. With five days to go, Gaynor got a writ ordering the list be made available, but when his representatives stepped off the train at Gravesend they were pounced on by a posse (led by the barrel-chested McKane himself), roughed up, and booked as vagrants. Finally, on election day, Gaynor sent six carriages’ worth of inspectors to monitor the vote counting, only to be knocked down by armed police and locked up in the jail’s privy, while McKane maintained a tight cordon around the town’s sole polling place all day.

A firestorm of outrage, fanned by the press of both cities, helped sweep fusion can­didates Schieren and Gaynor into office. The overwhelming victory—though due as much to hard times as to boss rule—spelled the beginning of the end for McLaughlin’s reign. Within weeks of Schieren’s accession it was noted that Remsen Street, where McLaughlin lived, had gone from being the cleanest street in Brooklyn to the one least visited by sanitation men. McKane suffered a far harsher fate. His enemies compelled Governor Flower to bypass the Kings County DA and appoint two special prosecutors (Edward Shepard and Benjamin F. Tracy, leaders of the Brooklyn bar), and in January 1894 McKane was convicted of election fraud and sentenced to six years’ hard labor in Sing Sing. To complete the overthrow of ring rule, the dissidents pushed for and won, in May 1894, the annexation of Gravesend by Brooklyn, transferring to central authorities control over its patronage and police—and jurisdiction over Coney Island, which reformers like St. Clair McKelway, editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, believed would bring an end to the “wholesale licensing of every form of bestial immorality.”

In Manhattan, too, machine Democrats would be driven from office by a Republican-dominated reform coalition, with an investigation of the New York City police department serving as the springboard to victory. Tammany had assumed that the Rev. Parkhurst’s spectacular challenge had been effectively squelched back in 1892. However, the dogged vice reformer, with the aid of powerful Chamber of Commerce supporters, got Republican party boss Thomas Platt (a regular attendant at Parkhurst’s Madison Square church) to launch a probe into Democratic municipal corruption. The work of the investigating committee, chaired by Republican State Senator Clarence Lexow of Nyack, was momentarily foiled when Tammanyite Governor Flower vetoed its funding appropriation, but the Chamber of Commerce rescued the inquiry by agreeing to cover its costs.

By March 1894 the Lexow Committee, operating out of the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street, was poring over evidence accumulated by Parkhurst’s City Vigilance League. It went on to dig up a good deal more dirt over the course of nearly a year’s rooting about in the city’s underworld. Eventually 10,576 pages of testimony compiled from 678 witnesses made clear the price Tammany had exacted for protecting outlawed interests. Politicians and police officers had been systematically shaking down saloons, brothels, abortionists, and gambling dens. Some policemen justified the practice as a way of making back the money they had been forced to ante up to buy their jobs in the first place. Others, like Clubber Williams, pointed to prevailing upper-class mores, cheerfully admitting he had made no attempt to close disorderly houses in the Tenderloin because, “well, they were fashionable.” Williams also admitted to having a halfdozen large bank accounts, a yacht, and a Cos Cob, Connecticut, estate; he told Lexow he’d made his money speculating in building lots in Japan. Not all police witnesses were so chattily cooperative. One police captain, the soon-to-be-notorious William S. Devery, turned aside most questions with the insouciant assertion that “touchin’ on and appertainin’ to that matter, I disremember.”

Police corruption was matched by police lawlessness: investigators turned up evidence of involvement in counterfeiting and confidence scams, pervasive election frauds, voter intimidation, and the systematic brutalizing of newer immigrants: clubbings of Eastern and Southern Europeans in Irish-American-dominated police stations were so routine they were known colloquially as “slaughterhouses.” The poor suffered additionally from police collaboration with landlords, strikebreaking employers, and assorted racketeers. The Lexow exposures received nationwide press coverage, sharing headlines with depression-era strikes and marches of the unemployed.

Parkhurst, who attended every session, was thrilled by his vindication. Now he longed to go farther and overthrow Tammany itself. He was seconded in this ambition by the mercantile and financial titans of the Chamber of Commerce. These gentlemen saw in the police scandals and the depression an opportunity to rid themselves of Tammany rule and take back control of the city.

In September, at a Madison Square Garden meeting called by the Council of Good Government Clubs, a constellation of Chamber of Commerce luminaries—including J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, William E. Dodge, Abram Hewitt, Jacob Schiff, James Speyer, Morris K. Jesup, Gustav Schwab, and Elihu Root—engineered the formation of a Committee of Seventy (so named to evoke the group that had toppled Tweed).

Under its banner the Committee of Seventy established a formidable campaign operation, run out of the Chamber of Commerce building, on behalf of their mayoral candidate, William L. Strong. A millionaire dry-goods merchant turned banker, Strong was a longtime member of the Union League Club and former president of the Business Men’s Republican Club. His inner core of supporters were similarly wealthy Yankee Protestant Republicans, most of whom were active in the City Club, Good Government Clubs, Civil Service Reform Association, and various moral reform agencies. In addition, Josephine Shaw Lowell, at Parkhurst’s suggestion, organized a Women’s Municipal League, which drew in the wives of many prominent reformers. University Settlement workers carried Strong’s campaign into immigrant and Tammany strongholds. The one hundred constituent organizations of the German American Reform Union signed on too, angered by the numerically inferior Irish Americans’ grip on Tammany.

Tammany countered by nominating German-Jewish dry-goods merchant Nathan Straus, philanthropic hero of the previous depression winter. But the reformers drove Straus from the field, threatening him with social ostracism for his disreputable affiliation with Boss Croker: nine days after his nomination he withdrew and embarked on an extended vacation to Europe. A desperate Tammany drafted former mayor Hugh Grant, a reluctant candidate, having been himself badly tarred by the Lexow exposes. Grant would run an apathetic campaign.

The reformers, on the other hand, launched an energetic effort built around their twin themes of moral and political reform. The Rev. Parkhurst bore the standard for purification. Hurling denunciations at Tammany’s Lexow-exposed connivance in vice and corruption, he summoned supporters to “fight the devil” with the “incisive edge of bare-bladed righteousness.” Parkhurst’s calls to reject cultural laissez-faire and embrace moral unity—or impose it, if necessary—rallied some but repelled others. Alarmed Catholics scented a revived nativism, and several priests would condemn the fusion ticket at preelection masses, echoing, albeit from a different perspective, the Church’s anti-George efforts of 1886.

Businessmen concentrated more on secular concerns. They promised a reform administration that would run the city government “solely in the interests of efficiency and economy.” Proponents of a “businessmen’s administration” stressed that ending extravagance and corruption would diminish the tax burden on property owners. They also offered inducements to working-class voters. A reformed city would be a cleaner city (with improved street sweeping, garbage disposal, and public baths), a pleasanter city (more small parks), a smarter city (more public schools), a healthier city (more TB prevention programs and a vigilant health board), and an efficient city (more use of experts, better rapid transit, an expanded civil service).

In November 1894 New Yorkers voted at sites monitored by the over two thousand poll watchers put in the field by the now twenty-four Good Government Clubs. Strong won decisively, reaping nearly three votes for every two cast for Grant. The bulk of his support came from uptown silk-stocking wards and from the Yorkville, Harlem, and Upper West Side preserves of middle-class Germans. Strong also made some inroads in downtown, depression-disaffected, working-class districts, racking up substantial backing from Jewish voters (though many Jewish protest votes went to socialist candidates). The bulk of the Irish stayed loyal to Tammany. On the state level, Republican Levi Morton (a millionaire Manhattan banker) won the governorship, and Republicans completed their sweep, begun the previous year, of the legislature and virtually all state elective offices. The same electoral upheaval cost Democrats control of both houses of Congress.

Announcing he would run the city on purely “business principles,” Strong embarked on a three-year term that would span the remainder of the depression. The twin goals of the new mayor’s reform administration—efficiency and moral order—were soon apparent in the work of his appointees.


Strong handed command of the Department of Street Cleaning to Colonel George Edwin Waring Jr., a Civil War veteran. It was a brilliant choice. Waring was a sanitation engineer of high repute; he had directed the drainage of Central Park and had helped design and construct sewer systems in cities all over the United States. Waring was also of impeccable social standing, well known in the clubs and social circles of New York and Newport. Finally, he had long evidenced a steely determination that appealed to the new administration.

Waring inherited a department notorious for its inefficiency. Created in 1881, it had coped poorly with dirt, ashes, garbage, snow, and the 2.5 million pounds of manure and sixty thousand gallons of urine the city’s horses deposited each and every day along New York’s 250-plus miles of paved streets. Its problems stemmed from insufficient funding, inadequate authority, and intermittent public cooperation. It didn’t help that sweepers were primarily Tammany patronage appointees—hired and fired on the whims of politicians—and reportedly spent much of their workday in saloons.

Waring decided that before cleaning the streets he would clean up his men. A longtime devotee of martial virtues, Waring insisted employees purchase and don white duck uniforms and caps. He then paraded them down Fifth Avenue, twenty-seven hundred strong, in strict military order, their new commissioner prancing ahead on horseback. Waring posted rigorous new regulations—no entering saloons, no foul language, no neglecting of horses—and carried out personal inspection tours to see they were obeyed. He rallied his troops, honoring them as “soldiers of the public” who were “defending the health of the whole people,” then led them into battle.

Not all troopers were thrilled. Some sanitation workers denounced their uniforms as badges of servitude; it was embarrassing to be caricatured as a “Waring White Angel.” More to the point, they resented Waring’s arbitrary and dictatorial ways, notably his wage cuts. One of his earliest acts was to chop sweepers’ annual salaries from $720 to $600 a year, feasible enough given that Italian laborers were readily available in the open market for $350 a year. (Waring marveled at how well suited Italians were for garbage work, calling them “a race with a genius for rag-and-bone-picking and for subsisting on rejected trifles of food.”) Nor were workers pleased by his ruthless suppression of Knights of Labor resistance to such cuts. (“Strikes will not be tolerated for one moment.”) But Waring’s war on Tammany also brought workers benefits: they no longer had to contribute time, labor, and money to the machine. And Waring established an arbitration scheme—a joint management-labor board—which, though clearly an antiunion device, worked to the reasonable satisfaction of most employees.

The results were spectacular. Obstructions, particularly unharnessed vehicles, were briskly removed. Waring forced city trucking firms to stop leaving wagons on the streets for days or weeks; he objected to them because “thieves and highwaymen made them their dens, toughs caroused in them, both sexes resorted to them, and they were used for the vilest purposes.” Streets were scoured—those on the East Side as well as Fifth Avenue. Violators of the sanitary code were promptly arrested. Snow, once left to pile into mountains of grunge, was shoveled away. Harper’s proudly published beforeand-after photos.

Waring also imposed a recycling program, something hitherto sabotaged by municipal lethargy and political corruption. Since 1882 the garbage collected by cartmen had been taken to riverside dumps, where it was loaded or “trimmed” on scows by private operators who paid for the privilege of picking out old shoes, carpets, paper, rugs, rags, and bones, which they sorted, baled, and sold—rags and paper to paper mills, bones to soda makers, iron to junk dealers and on to foundries. The remainder was hauled out into the harbor and dumped. Since 1871, it had been against state law to offload into the Harlem or East rivers or the Upper Bay, but south of the Narrows was still acceptable. By the late 1880s, however, ocean-dumped garbage was killing oyster and clam beds and drifting back to beaches. Redirecting the refuse to Hiker’s Island’s landfills brought furious complaints from Queens, Manhattan, and Bronx residents sickened by the terrible odors.


“Specimens of Colonel Waring’s splendid work in street cleaning, before and after he began, 1898-95,” Harper’s Weekly, June 22, 1896. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

To solve all these problems at once, Waring in 1896 required that householders put out their ashes, their garbage (organic animal and vegetable wastes), and their rubbish (drystuffs such as paper, cardboard, tin cans, bottles, shoes, carpets) in separate containers. Mayor Strong assigned him forty policemen to ensure compliance. Department employees then sent ashes—along with street sweepings (mainly dirt)—to be dumped at Riker’s Island rather than at sea, along with rubbish, once it had been scavenged by scow trimmers for salable items. Finally, Waring contracted with the New York Sanitary Utilization Company to pick up garbage and take it to a plant on Barren Island in Jamaica Bay. There “digestors” cooked and stewed it until oil and grease were separated out for sale to manufacturers, and the residue was dried and ground into fertilizer.

Though ocean dumping was thus cut to a minimum, Waring did nothing to tackle the growing problem of industrial pollution. Hunter’s Point chemical plants continued to pour toxic by-products into Dutch Kills and Newtown Creek. Oil leaks and spills created a constant danger of petroleum vapor conflagration there, and in Newark Bay as well, but as one Queens newspaper noted, “the petroleum industry is of such overwhelming magnitude and importance and is operated by such heavy combinations of capital that it is doubtful whether even by an appeal to the State Legislature” the practice could be halted.

Nevertheless, reformers adored Waring: he was their first star. He demonstrated that despite Tammany taunts about goo-goo ineffectiveness, reformers could deliver. The man provided businesslike nonpolitical efficiency, fostered civic pride, advanced a godly cleanliness, and, via a ruthless paternalism, kept labor in line and productive. For having so thoroughly proved there were viable alternatives to machine rule, they would in 1898 elect him president of the City Club.


A less dazzling star in the reform firmament, but one of arguably even greater importance, was Dr. Hermann Biggs, a holdover from the Tammany regime whom Strong and company had the good sense to retain and encourage. Biggs, who had studied at Bellevue Hospital Medical College and in German laboratories, was by 1885 running Bellevue’s new Carnegie Lab, working as the hospital’s (and city’s) pathologist, and serving as visiting physician at the workhouse and almshouse while maintaining a sizable private practice.

In 1889, after reviewing the work of German bacteriologist Robert Koch, Biggs wrote a landmark report for the Health Department concluding that tuberculosis was communicable and thus preventable. As the disease was acquired by direct transmission of bacilli, usually by dried and pulverized sputum floating dustlike in air, regular disinfection of wards and houses with tubercular patients, as well as rigorous inspections of the city’s meat and milk supply, might make serious inroads against a disease that killed more than six thousand New Yorkers each year but was largely ignored because it was endemic rather than epidemic. Many doctors resisted this view, however, and by the early 1890s virtually the only health workers acting on the theory were the women at the Nurses’ Settlement.

Biggs hammered away at the idea that given Koch’s and French chemist Louis Pasteur’s breakthroughs in microbiology, and the new ability to isolate infectious organisms, “public health is purchasable.” The city could, within natural limits, determine its own death rate. New York authorities were slow to react until the summer of 1892, when cholera again stalked its way westward from Persia and Russia to the ports of Europe. By August it reached Hamburg, killing thousands. On August 30 the steamship Moraviaarrived in New York. Twenty-two passengers had died en route. Ten days later another steamer reported thirty-two deaths at sea.

Now—in addition to imposing a rigorous quarantine, readying a floating hospital, and placing a corps of physicians and nurses on alert—the Health Department established a Division of Pathology, Bacteriology, and Disinfection under the direction of Dr. Biggs. When the disease struck, his laboratory examined the feces of suspected infectees for traces of the cholera spirillum, confirming or denying questionable diagnoses. Once a case was confirmed in the lab, Health Department crews were dispatched to the lodgings of the stricken, which were scrubbed and fumigated, and the patient’s clothes and bedding treated or burned. The department also marched a small army into the tenement districts to clean streets and vacant lots, scour thirty-nine thousand tenements, flush water pipes with disinfectant, and pass out circulars on prevention and treatment in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Yiddish.

Only nine people died. The epidemic—which had killed twenty-five hundred a day in Russia for weeks at a time—had been completely defeated. Never again would this particular scourge gain a foothold in New York City. But the mobilization was even more significant for what it kicked off: a series of pioneering municipal efforts at preventive medicine.

Biggs declared war on diphtheria, a massive child killer whose victims often died a lingering death from suffocation. Using new methods of diagnosis he proved that nearly half the cases thought to be diphtheria weren’t—a crucial discovery, because quarantining such patients with the really diseased could kill them. Biggs now established a system of mass diagnosis. The division supplied culture tubes free and picked them up by messenger each evening; doctors could phone the lab next day for results.

In 1894 Biggs, while in Europe, learned of a new diphtheria antitoxin. Using first his own money, then proceeds from a Herald fund drive, and finally a substantial appropriation from the Board of Estimate, Biggs began producing the antitoxin from horses; he was the first to do so outside Europe. In 1895 the antitoxin halted an epidemic at the New York Infant Asylum. Biggs began giving it away free to doctors for use with poor patients and sold the surplus to drugstores to fund continued research. The serum brought an immediate and sharp decline in mortality rates, gaining an international reputation for New York City’s Health Department.

Biggs also won acceptance for a more aggressive campaign against tuberculosis. The Health Department put out multilingual educational leaflets. It launched an antispitting campaign, instituted inspections for tubercular meat, and required dispensaries and public institutions to report the names of patients with TB (and requested doctors do so voluntarily). It was the beginning of a drive that in ensuing years would eliminate the “great white plague” as a major cause of death in New York City.

The city made great gains against typhoid, too, after investigations confirmed that a major culprit was the city’s milk supply. Since the anti-swill milk campaigns of the 1850s and 1860s, producers and wholesalers had invented more subtle ways to adulterate their product. Filthy conditions, warm temperatures, and the lengthy trip from cow to consumer rendered the product lethal. In the 1890s, philanthropist Nathan Straus halved the death rate in the city’s infant asylum on Randall’s Island by using pasteurized milk. He and the Henry Street Settlement went on to establish pure milk stations for needy infants, further helping bring down the whopping infant mortality rate. After 1893, the city also experimented with chlorinating the water supply, a procedure that would slowly win favor in coming decades.

The Strong administration took steps as well to implement the establishment of public baths, for which reformers had long been calling. In 1888 the Department of Public Works’s fifteen outdoor baths were tremendously popular with the poor, drawing an average 2.5 million males and 1.5 million females during the limited season (June 10—October 1) they were open. The baths afforded youthful patrons recreational relief from broiling summers, though as the city’s goal was promotion of cleanliness it imposed a twentyminute time limit on their use, leading boys to travel from one to the other, dirtying themselves on the way to gain access. But as river water grew ever more polluted by sewage—despite Waring’s garbage reforms, liquid effluvia was still channeled into surrounding waterways—and as the baths were hi any event closed most of the year, calls were raised for indoor, all-weather washing facilities stocked with filtered and purified water.

The most vigorous proponent of public baths was Simon Baruch (father of Bernard)—a German immigrant, surgeon, and professor of hydrotherapy at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. After visiting the impressive German municipal bath systems in the late 1880s, Baruch began a campaign stressing that baths, in addition to benefiting the poor and helping create “civic civilization” out of “urban barbarism,” were in the interest of “the better situated classes”: no longer unwashed, the employees, servants, laborers, and tradespeople next to whom they sat on crowded cars would not carry so many deadly germs. At Baruch’s urging, the AICP, long interested in such programs, erected a People’s Baths in 1891, charging a five-cent fee for use of the twentythree showers and three bathtubs (the Colgate Company donated free soap samples). Though the program was well patronized, Tammany governments proved uninterested in expanding it. It was not until 1895 that the state legislature mandated a campaign, and Mayor Strong constituted a committee to press ahead.


In housing, the reform administration moved to enact recommendations of a stateestablished Tenement House Committee chaired by Century editor Richard Watson Gilder. During 1894, with Gilder’s close friend Jacob Riis serving as unofficial adviser and settlement house workers acting as investigators, the committee examined dwelling places and took public testimony from housing experts, health inspectors, landlords, and residents. They discovered that over 70 percent of the city’s population of roughly 1,800,000 now lived in multifamily domiciles, four-fifths of which were tenement houses, vast numbers of which were experiencing the familiar litany of housing ills, includ­ing high rates of disease, terrific overcrowding, and a lack of accessible parks and playgrounds.

The Gilder Committee debated a variety of potential solutions. Felix Adler, picking up where Henry George had left off, recommended the municipality purchase lowcost land in still undeveloped outlying areas, then lease it cheaply to individuals or companies, who would in turn provide low-income housing. European cities were moving in this direction, as the researches of Elgin Ralston Lovell Gould made clear. Gould, a professor of political science at Columbia, made a thorough survey of domestic and overseas approaches (which he would publish in 1895 as The Housing of the Working People). Gould reported that many English, Scottish, German, and Belgian cities were either building low-cost worker housing themselves or providing loans to cooperatives pledged to do so. Some cities, like Frankfurt, had planned their own deconcentration by buying up undeveloped peripheral land to forestall its acquisition by speculators.

Gould himself rejected such efforts as “bad principle and worse policy.” The state should set standards below which no housing could fall but leave its provision to market forces. Chairman Gilder agreed that municipal housing initiatives would be an “unjustifiable interference with private enterprise,” as did Jacob Riis, who was also squarely in the entrepreneurial tradition. Gilder did embrace a policy of reform through demolition, urging that bad buildings, especially rear tenements, be destroyed, thus creating open spaces for neighborhood parks. Felix Adler counterargued that the committee was focusing too much on destruction and not enough on building new housing, without which slum clearance would amount to depriving poor people of desperately needed shelter. In addition, the value of new parks would be swiftly neutralized by crowding spawned by new tenements.

Gilder’s approach dominated the committee’s report of January 1895, as well as the Tenement House Act of 1895, passed to implement its proposals. The new law increased the Board of Health’s power to vacate and demolish and streamlined the process for implementing condemnation orders. When the board actually attempted a campaign against rear tenements, however, landlords and developers challenged its new powers and won court decisions affirming that renters had no right to light and air.

Demolition too made little headway. The 1895 law authorized the razing of tenements and the issuance of three million dollars in bonds toward building parks and playgrounds in their stead. But only in the case of Mulberry Bend—thanks to Jacob Riis’s impassioned and persistent denunciation of it as “the foul core of New York’s slums”—did Mayor Strong order buildings vacated and destroyed (their owners were paid a total of $1.5 million). Even then it took two more years of Riis’s nudging before Columbus Park opened on the site.

Mayor Strong did put the Building Department in charge of a professional architect, Stevenson Constable, who began subjecting plans of builders and contractors to thorough examination before issuing permits. Under Tammany, the department had been a plum for party faithful, as building tradesmen routinely paid inspectors bribes to get around vexing requirements. Constable, like Waring, demanded inspectors don uniforms, stay out of saloons during working hours, and crack down on slipshod construction methods. Wrathful builders, architects, and contractors managed to bog down the campaign, and the results proved negligible.

Public approaches floundered in part because housing reformers, pursuant to their analysis and inclinations, put most of their energy into private programs. Made aware, from the limited follow-up to model housing initiatives like those of White and Adler, that small builders were unlikely ever to house the poor and laboring classes, many in the Strong administration believed that corporate philanthropy was the answer. Concentrated capital could work on the grand scale required and could afford to settle for moderate profits.

In 1896, accordingly, an independent Committee on Improved Housing was set up—with Richard Watson Gilder as chair—to sponsor an architectural competition for structures covering large lots (two hundred by four hundred feet, rather than the tiny twenty-five by a hundred specified in the dumbbell competition). Then a City and Suburban Homes Company was established to provide wage-earners with “improved, wholesome homes at current rates.” It counted among its directors and officers both leading housing activists (such as Gould, Gilder, Riis, Adler, White, and Rainsford) and wealthy philanthropists (among them Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Isaac N. Seligman, Darius Ogden Mills, and the brothers W. Bayard Cutting and Robert Fulton Cutting), and received additional financial support from the Astor, Low, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Schiff families.

City and Suburban Homes was capitalized at a million dollars (J. P. Morgan helped issue its stock), and its dividends were limited to 5 percent. For its first venture the company had architect Ernest Flagg design the Clark Estate, a complex of six-story buildings on a site given by Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark, heir to the Singer fortune, in exchange for shares in the company. When completed in 1898, its 373 apartments, at West End Avenue and Amsterdam between 68th and 69th streets, each had its own toilet, laundry, and tubs.

Yet where City and Suburban led, few followed, as big capital had many investment outlets far less troublesome and more lucrative than low-rent housing. By the end of the 1890s the model tenement movement had built only two thousand units, which housed no more than ten thousand people. In the same period, the housing industry built twenty thousand units into which 750,000 people were crammed.


Mayor Strong’s police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, would achieve a notoriety that equalled Waring’s, but his accomplishments would be more problematic. Since his defeat in the 1886 mayoral election, Roosevelt had kept busy. He toured Europe with his new wife, Edith, then came home to set up his Sagamore Hill estate at Oyster Bay. He took up duties as a federal civil service commissioner. He wrote history prolifically, turning out a celebratory volume entitled The Winning of the West, a biography of Gouverneur Morris, and, in 1891, a History of New York City.

Roosevelt’s municipal biography, a scholarly potboiler, was enlivened by enthusiastic “bullys” for historic virtue and stern condemnations of historic vice (the “unscrupulous rich” and the “vicious and ignorant poor” garnering almost equal opprobrium). He applauded with particular vigor the efforts of the police and troops who had attacked the Civil War draft rioters “with the most wholesome desire to do them harm,” professing his delight that “over 1200 rioters were slain—an admirable object lesson to the remainder.”

In 1895 Roosevelt added a late-breaking postscript to the second edition of his city history hailing the resurgence of the reform movement he had helped foster. If this was his way of indicating a desire to return to the metropolitan fray, his wish was swiftly granted. Mayor Strong, determined to put a strong hand at the police department tiller, summoned Roosevelt back from his long exile. He would never leave the spotlight again.

Roosevelt soon discovered his authority was nowhere near as clear-cut as Waring’s. The major legislative upshot of the Lexow exposes had been a Platt-dictated law requiring the four-man Police Board to be composed equally of Democrats and Republicans (giving Platt assured access to police patronage and the election machinery). Roosevelt was thus only one of four commissioners, though his colleagues promptly elected him president. To the public eye, however, Roosevelt seemed totally in charge, an impression the publicity-conscious politician eagerly cultivated.

Roosevelt lunged into action. First he arranged for the resignation of Lexow-disgraced Superintendent Byrnes and Inspector “Clubber” Williams. (Byrnes would launch a detective agency on Wall Street; Clubber entered the insurance business and would die a multimillionaire). Roosevelt and his colleagues established a merit system for appointments and promotions and added two thousand new recruits to the force—many from out of town, few of them Irish Catholics. In 1897 he would announce—prematurely, as it turned out—that “the old system of blackmail and corruption has been almost entirely broken up.” Roosevelt also raised morale and encouraged excellence by handing out medals for heroism and partially modernizing the department: telephone call boxes on streets allowed cops to communicate with station houses; a Bicycle Squad added mobility.

Like Waring, TR set out to exercise personal authority over a refractory workforce. He delighted in making surreptitious nocturnal tours of the city, accompanied only by his friend (and publicist) Jacob Riis (whom Roosevelt had sought out after reading his Other Half). Dressed in black cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, the duo crept up on errant bluecoats sneaking beers in saloons, nabbing them while their mustaches were still drenched with incriminating foam.

In 1896 Roosevelt ordered an investigation of the decades-old practice of police stations offering shelter to the homeless—urged on by Riis, who had unpleasant memories of his experiences in them when still a penniless immigrant. The filthy condition of the lodgings was apparent. And his chief of police swore that 98 percent of the more than sixty thousand homeless people who had resorted to them during the past year were the “lazy, dissipated, filthy, vermin-covered, disease-breeding and disease-scattering scum of the city’s population.” So Roosevelt adopted the Charity Organization Society’s long-standing position that the lodgings were “a fruitful encouragement to vagrancy” and shut them down. After the pitching of thousands into homelessness in mid-depression generated cartoons in the popular press of hearthless men shivering outside closed police stations, the city set up a Municipal Lodging House in a rented factory, but it sheltered only two hundred men. In the meantime, Roosevelt had established “tramp and beggar squads” to harry habitual mendicants.

Roosevelt also kept a close rein on labor activists as part of his determination to “keep in order the turbulent portion of the population.” Lincoln Steffens reported on “brutal clubbings of East Side strikers,” and Roosevelt himself applauded his police for “clubbing right and left” in the course of breaking up a horsecar strike. Compared to Byrnes-era attacks on strikers, however, the Strong regime was relatively mild. TR was willing to hold discussions with labor leaders, an openness that won him points.

Roosevelt and Strong’s comparative evenhandedness was glaringly underscored by the actions of the reform regime across the East River, where Mayor Schieren presided over the most violent labor conflict in Brooklyn’s history, the closest the metropolitan area came to such gunslinging affairs as Homestead, Pullman, and Coeur d’Alene.

Brooklyn’s notorious trolley companies had long imposed execrable pay and working conditions, in part to wring out enough profits to pay dividends on mountains of watered stock, in part to recoup the massive investments they’d made converting from horsepower to electricity. Finally, in January 1895, Knights of Labor motormen and conductors walked out, bringing passenger service to a complete halt. The companies advertised for replacement workers in cities across the country. Soon men made desperate for work by hard times flocked to Brooklyn, and a few cars began running. Now thousands of strike supporters in working-class communities came forward—the trolley firms were widely hated—and crowds began sabotaging the newly vulnerable electric lines. The mayor deployed the police, who protected scabs and raided union headquarters, but they didn’t act quickly enough to suit the companies, in part because many policemen sympathized with the Knights, in part because protecting the far-flung operations stretched them thin.

Strike supporters went to court to demand the companies be required to resume full service, on pain of having their charters revoked. Judge Gaynor, who had often denounced the trolley firms for greed and corruption, issued the requested writ. Public service corporations, he ruled, had a duty to the people that transcended their obligation to stockholders. “If they can not get labor to perform those duties at what they offer to pay, then they must pay more, and as much as is necessary to get it.” The strikers were overjoyed; the New York Times denounced Gaynor’s decision as “anarchistic”; and the Brooklyn City Council moved to revoke the charters. But Mayor Schieren—whose company, it was noted, supplied the trolleys with electric belts—vetoed the measure.

He also called in the militia, for the first time in Brooklyn’s history, and then drew in the First Brigade from New York City, amassing seventy-five hundred soldiers in all. Confronted by angry stone-throwing crowds, the militiamen responded with bayonet charges in which at least two civilians were killed and many wounded. In February the strike was called off. Many clergymen bitterly denounced calling out the militia—including William Rainsford, despite J. P. Morgan’s heavy investments in trolley companies.

Commissioner Roosevelt won plaudits for avoiding such ferocity, but he drew furious condemnation for his efforts at enforcing Parkhurstian levels of social purity. Convinced, appropriately enough, that the core of police corruption lay in the system of extorting payments from illicit entrepreneurs for the privilege of noninterference, Roosevelt, though not himself a prohibitionist, declared war on Sunday sin. Beginning in June 1895, saloons, brothels, and gambling dens doing business on the Lord’s Day were raided, shut down, boarded up. Sabbatarians, whose campaigns since the 1850s had come to nought, were thrilled, and the Parkhurst-led wing of the Strong coalition cheered Roosevelt on.

But the campaign incensed the German community. They had not voted for Good Government to have their “Continental Sunday” afternoons—spent in beer gardens listening to Strauss waltzes—branded as immoral and banned. Labor unions noted pointedly that while there were over eight thousand arrests annually for excise violadons, only 104 violators of the factory laws were hauled off to jail in 1895, shrinking to twenty-one in 1896. The popular press, meanwhile, complained of Roosevelt’s shutting off the poor man’s recreation while allowing champagne suppers at the Union League Club. Teddy delighted in facing down “the wrath of the asinine herd.” On one occasion, having accepted an invitation to personally review a mammoth protest parade of outraged Germans, he bantered good-naturedly with the marching legions, who shook empty beer steins at him as they passed by.

Strong’s Jewish supporters were also outraged. Strict enforcement of blue laws penalized the thousands of sabbath observers who chose to work on Sundays, and Roosevelt’s insistence on cracking down on those who violated anti-pushcart laws generated much talk of abandoning reform and going back to corruptible Tammanyites.

The person most dismayed by TR’s vigorous efforts was Mayor Strong. Never an ardent moralist, he had led the city’s liquor dealers to believe he would accept a halfdry Sunday as a compromise. Now, fearing the destruction of his electoral coalition, Strong tried to rein in his appointee, only to find Roosevelt had the bit firmly between his formidable teeth. The best Strong could do, given the then-limited authority of a mayor, was to distance himself publicly from his rogue commissioner. “I found,” he told one gathering, “that the Dutchman whom I had appointed meant to turn all New Yorkers into Puritans.” Roosevelt’s response was to raid Sherry’s, a watering hole of the wealthy, thus alienating the rich as well as the poor.

In the end, the courts (deliberately) and the legislature (inadvertently) rode to the rescue of Sunday drinkers. Magistrates began interpreting very broadly indeed a statute that allowed liquor to be served if it accompanied a meal; one judge ruled that seventeen beers and a pretzel satisfied the law. The legislature, intent on shutting down this loophole, opened up a far bigger one. Senator John W. Raines achieved passage in 1896 of a bill that permitted Sunday sale of liquor with meals, but only in “hotels,” defined as establishments with at least ten bedrooms. Saloons swiftly added the requisite number of rooms and then, to cover remodeling costs, rented the cubicles out to prostitutes or unmarried couples. Roosevelt, indirectly, had managed to engineer a quantum leap forward in the city’s quotient of sin.

Denounced now from all sides—apart from the loyal Parkhurst—with a forced removal from office in the offing, the ever practical Roosevelt decided it was time to move on. In April 1897 he gratefully accepted the offer of an assistant secretaryship of the navy from newly elected President William McKinley, and bounded off to glory.


TR’s job switch was made possible by the Republican Party’s having emerged victorious from a titanic struggle with populism, a triumph that owed much to Teddy and his New York City colleagues.

The depression had provided an opportunity for Republicans to take on the regnant Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland. But the presidential election of 1896 proved to be far more than a conventional political contest. To contemporaries it seemed a cosmic clash, worthy of the Book of Revelation, pitting West against East, silver against gold, and populists against plutocrats in a battle for the soul of the republic.

Over the previous decade, as the world marketplace flooded with agricultural products, farmers in the South and West found that wheat, which had sold for a dollar a bushel in 1870, now fetched anywhere from sixty cents to a dime. Loath to blame the market itself, they attacked those they believed took unfair advantage of them: the great railroad companies, mercantile middlemen, land speculators, commodity brokers, local bankers, and behind and above all these the “Money Kings of Wall Street” who controlled the nation’s credit and currency systems.

In the 1880s and early 1890s, agriculturalists in the cotton South and wheatfield Midwest established a cooperative movement—the Farmers Alliance—dedicated to bypassing the corporate world headquartered in New York City. Pushing to develop alternative systems of distribution, credit, and exchange, the farmers called for government ownership of the railroads, granaries, banks, and telegraph companies and demanded that government regulate privately owned companies to outlaw monopoly, collusion, and price-fixing. Seeking nothing less than to transform the United States into a “cooperative commonwealth,” the mass movement entered politics in 1892 and organized the People’s Party (becoming known as “populists”).

In response, the western wing of the Democratic Party, while sidestepping most People’s Party demands as too radical, fastened on one small piece of the populists’ currency program: the call for “free silver.” A global shortage of gold, coupled with a rising demand for its use, had driven up its value and that of currencies pegged to it. This forced borrowers to repay loans in ever more valuable currency. Debtors reasoned that if silver were made an official U.S. currency alongside gold and coined in unlimited quantities, the resulting inflation would raise depressed prices and profits. Rocky Mountain silver-mine owners liked this idea and backed Democratic politicians who promoted it—men like the silver-tongued Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan.

New York City became the stronghold of the opposing “goldbug” forces. When the Panic of 1893 led holders of greenbacks and bonds to cash in their paper for gold, draining the federal government’s specie reserves, Wall Streeters got newly reelected President Cleveland, whose campaign J. P. Morgan and others had funded, to replenish the federal strongbox by repeatedly selling bonds for fresh supplies of gold. Syndicates organized by Morgan and August Belmont Jr. sold the bonds to European investors (notably the English Rothschilds) and to local capitalists (notably New York banks, trust companies, and life insurance companies). In each case, however, the treasury’s gold swiftly flowed right back out again, sometimes to be used again in the next round of bond purchases, a highly profitable loop.

Populists and western Democrats denounced the bond sales as short-term ripoffs—“A Wicked Deal. Rothschilds, Morgan, and Belmont Skin the Country,” squawked the Atlanta Constitution—and as part of a long-term conspiracy to prop up the gold standard. At the 1896 Democratic convention in Chicago, silverites challenged New York goldbug control of the party. Bryan denounced the attempt to crucify Americans on a cross of gold and issued his famous antiurban philippic: “You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard; we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Delegates cheered, Cleveland and his New York backers were overthrown, and the Democratic Party rallied behind Bryan and free silver. The People’s Party, despite concerns that Bryan was insufficiently radi­cal, backed the Democrats, and a grand climactic showdown between “the People” and “Wall Street” got underway.

Wealthy New Yorkers too saw 1896 as an electoral Armageddon. From their perspective, the inflationary proposals of agrarian primitives, antimodern provincials, crackpot economists, and hayseed cranks were dangerous, immoral, little short of theft. Currency panaceas took no account of the realities of life in a gold-standard world—only Latin Americans and other backward peoples used silver—and thus imperiled international trade. Worse, by striking at the heart of the credit superstructure, they threatened to abort modern capitalism—and with it, modern civilization.

Hatred of Bryan and silver reached acrid levels. The Rev. Parkhurst called on the “solid intelligent integrity of the country” to “grind its heel relentlessly and unpityingly into the viperous head that is lifting itself up in venomous antagonism not only to this Government, but in venomous antagonism to all government.”

Horrified by the silver hordes sweeping in out of the West, Wall Street erected golden barricades. Abandoning the Democrats, they piled into the Republican Party and met candidate William McKinley’s campaign manager with open wallets. Morgan dined with him on board the Corsairand pledged a quarter-million dollars. Standard Oil matched this, and contributions from New York-based corporations and insurance companies helped swell the GOP’s war chest to an unprecedented and astronomical three-million-plus dollars (Bryan managed a mere three hundred thousand).

The Republican millions bankrolled a political advertising campaign that sent hundreds of speakers into the field, coordinated the work of metropolitan papers and churches, and printed and distributed millions of pamphlets, broadsides, and booklets. Employers formed sound-money clubs and pressured workers into attending “educational” meetings. Republicans wrapped themselves in the flag too. On the Saturday before the November election, New York was swathed in patriotic bunting and festooned with Old Glories. While 750,000 looked on, a huge column of a hundred thousand professionals, businessmen, and their employees (volunteered or dragooned), each holding aloft a flag, marched in a monster parade organized by the Sound Money Association. Children, their chests covered with badges attesting allegiance to the gold standard, sang derisive songs about greenbacks.

Bryan carried the fight to the temple of the moneychangers. Though he was reviled from press and pulpit with unprecedented ferocity, working people packed Madison Square Garden hoping to hear the great orator give a stem-winding speech. Bryan disappointed them, reading a prepared, “statesmanlike,” two-hour address to the packed and sweltering house; many in the audience melted away.

Bryan’s problems went beyond the heat. The populist vision of a republic of small freeholders had little to offer the mass of metropolitan wage-laborers in the mid-1890s. German and Jewish socialists and anarchists were put off by the populists’ evangelical convictions and prohibitionist culture. Unionists like Gompers reasoned that the farmers were themselves employers of wage-labor and so unworthy of support. Tammany did endorse the national ticket and turned out such (largely Irish working-class) support as Bryan got. Gold Democrats of course bolted the party; even Pulitzer’s World refused to back the Nebraskan.

Bryan lost both New York and Brooklyn, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1848. So thorough was McKinley’s triumph that the greenback critique of finance capitalism dropped out of the national discourse (aided by the discov­ery of gold in the Yukon and South Africa, which increased the money supply and relieved the currency stringency). Once in power, the Republicans passed a tariff, wrote the gold standard into law, and gathered Theodore Roosevelt to their collective bosom.


What McKinley’s victory did not do was restore prosperity. The depression dragged on. So did class tensions, as was evidenced in the winter of 1897 when Mrs. Bradley Martin, having read of the sufferings of the poor, decided to throw a ball “to give an impetus to trade.” With colossal symbolic ineptitude—and at a cost of $370,000—the Bradley Martins rented the ballroom of the Waldorf Hotel and transformed it into a replica of Versailles. Mr. Bradley Martin dressed up as Louis XV, and Mrs. Bradley Martin—attired as Mary Queen of Scots (replete with a massive ruby necklace once worn by Marie Antoinette)—perched herself on a throne while liveried lackeys announced the seven hundred moneyed guests who incautiously flocked to the affair. With anarchists rumored to be planting bombs, the windows were boarded up, and the police kept massed spectators at bay. Editors, clergymen, college debating societies, and Democratic politicians denounced the heartless extravagance. New York authorities doubled the Bradley Martins’ tax assessment. Hounded out of town by the storm of notoriety, the couple moved permanently to England after receiving a sendoff by a dinner of unrepentant multimillionaires.

The Bradley Martin fiasco helped usher New York City Republicans out of power, though the problems confronting the Good Government coalition in 1897 were manifold. Just as the Henry George coalition, having failed to win office in 1886, had flown apart in 1887, the reformers discovered that victory could be equally problematic, and their alliance fissured into its component parts.

Roosevelt’s liquor policy drove the Germans back to the Democrats, and his rigorous Sabbatarianism alienated Jewish supporters. Strong’s disbursal of patronage to Republicans enraged purist nonpartisans, and his handouts to independent Democrats enraged Boss Platt. The former sat out the 1897 campaign in high-minded disgust. The latter decided to run as the Republican candidate, fatally splitting the anti-Tammany forces (possibly in collusion with Boss Croker, as they had a mutual interest in getting rid of pesky reformers). Mayor Strong himself declined a bid for reelection; his own business having failed, he was eager to refurbish his private affairs.

The reform enterprise did not disintegrate completely, however. With the upcoming mayoral election as spur, the hard core of the coalition decided to build a permanent third party devoted to the pursuit of municipal power. They named their vehicle the Citizens Union. The new organization included the leaders of organized charity, with Robert Fulton Cutting as the party’s chair. Businessmen and professionals occupied leadership and financial backer positions, with Morgan, Speyer, Dodge, Schiff, and Hewitt, and such luminaries of the Bar as Joseph Choate and Elihu Root, in prominent positions. The Good Government Clubs were converted into Citizens Union district headquarters. And around this nucleus clustered crucial auxiliaries: Protestant clergymen, reform-minded women, and settlement house workers, with James Reynolds of University Settlement serving as executive director.

For a standard bearer the Citizens Union chose Seth Low. The stout and stolid burgher—a former two-term mayor of Brooklyn and currently president of Columbia University—seemed an ideal choice. Low took a leaf from George’s 1886 campaign and demanded the Citizens Union gather a convincing number of preelection pledges of support. This done, he accepted the nomination, as had George, at a Cooper Union rally, only in this case the frock-coated candidate was escorted to the podium by the president of the Bar Association, and his audience consisted of wealthy, respectable, and welleducated bankers and lawyers, merchants and professionals, ladies and clergymen.

To their central plank of opposition to bossism, Citizens Union leaders, aware of the need for outreach, held out an olive branch to respectable laborers (a group its City Club predecessors had ignored in 1894) by gingerly supporting an eight-hour law for city workers and for employees in private businesses with city contracts. Low was chosen in part for his work with the Church Association for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor—he had won plaudits as a labor mediator—and his chairmanship of the board of trustees of the University Settlement Society, which had developed close connections with East Side labor organizations.

The Citizens Union’s chances were given an unexpected lift by the startling return to politics of Henry George. Nominated by a coalition of dissident Democrats, union leaders, single taxers, and social reformers, the old warrior, despite a recent heart attack, launched a wrathful campaign, promising to throw Croker in jail if he won. Low’s backers were thrilled, thinking the maverick effort might siphon off Tammany support; George himself admitted he would be satisfied if he threw the election to Low.

This possibility was torpedoed by George’s death. With less than a week to go in the campaign, the fragile reformer had maintained a strenuous pace. One night he spoke four times; the next day he succumbed to a stroke. One hundred thousand filed past his bier in Grand Central Palace, while an equal number thronged outside. The World described the massive crowds as comparable only to those for Lincoln. Father McGlynn gave the eulogy, to tumultuous applause, and then a catafalque drawn by sixteen blackdraped horses drew the coffin down Madison Avenue to City Hall, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and on to burial in Green-Wood Cemetery. Over him would be erected, by popular subscription, a granite monument engraved with a quote from Progress and Pover-ty.George’s son picked up his father’s fallen banner, but he lacked dynamism and would garner few votes.

Labor had nowhere to turn but to Tammany, and Boss Croker made it easy for them. He nudged the Democratic Party slightly to the left, pledging not to use the police or courts against strikers, agreeing to grant the eight-hour day to city workers, promising fair treatment for municipal employees (in lieu of Waring’s paternalism), and guaranteeing opportunities for local boys to work their way up in city jobs (unlike TR’s reliance on out-of-towners). Croker also affirmed the Democrats’ long-standing commitment to moral laissez-faire and proclaimed the common people’s ability to run New York City without the aid of the “better element.”

As its candidate, Tammany chose Robert A. Van Wyck, an obscure municipal court judge. With no independent base, no money, no personal pizazz, indeed nothing much more going for him than a venerable city name, Van Wyck was a perfect Croker creature. District leaders rallied their troops behind him at a rousing ratification meeting to fireworks and the strains of a band booming out “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town To-Night.”

Tammany swept Van Wyck into office, outpolling the other three candidates combined. Still, Low and the Citizens Union did creditably well on the Upper East and West sides and in Central Harlem. Low remained hopeful about the future. “If 10 right­eous men could save Sodom,” he argued, the thousands in his corner “will yet bring about good government in the City of New York.” For now, however, the day belonged, as it had back in 1886, to Tammany Hall, and its partisans marched through the streets joyously chanting, “Well, well, well, Reform has gone to Hell!”

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