October 27, 1871 Tammany Hall

The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization

Before the first Europeans arrived in the “new world”, descendants of the Nanticoke inhabited a region from Delaware north through New Jersey and southern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania. The Europeans called them “Delaware”.  These indigenous Americans called themselves “Lenni-Lenape” which literally means “Men of Men”, but is translated to mean “Original People.” (Hat tip, http://www.nanticoke-lenape.info).

In the early 1680s, Chief Tammamend (“The Affable”) of the Lenni-Lenape nation took part in a meeting with the English colonists, where he is supposed to have said that his people and the newcomers would “live in peace as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure.”

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Treaty of Penn with Indians, by Benjamin West

“Tammany” to the settlers, Chief Tammamend became a living symbol of peace and friendship, between the two peoples. He died in 1701, but his legend lived on. In the next one-hundred years Tammany societies were established from Georgia to Rhode Island.

8-22-TamanendTammany Societies adopted a number of native terms, with leaders calling themselves Grand Sachem, and meeting in halls called “Wigwams”. The most famous of these was incorporated in New York on May 12, 1789.

Within ten years, what had begun as a social club had morphed into a political machine. Tammany helped Aaron Burr counter Alexander Hamilton’s Society of the Cincinnati, and Burr went on to win New York’s two electoral votes in 1800. Without help from “Tammany Hall”, many historians believe that John Adams would have been re-elected to a second term.

Tammany Hall expanded its connections within New York Democrat party politics. After Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828, the Tammany machine all but owned the government in New York city and state, alike.

Fun fact: On December 20, 1860, the Secession convention of South Carolina unanimously asserted an end to Union, proclaiming that “We…have solemnly declared that the union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State…” In the following days, the world waited to see who would follow. The next governing entity to actually do so was the state of Mississippi, but the first to discuss the idea (after South Carolina) was New York, in the person of Tammany Hall’s own mayor, Fernando Wood.

The 19th century was a time of massive immigration, providing an ever-expanding base of political and financial support for urban politicians. Political machines helped new arrivals with jobs, housing and citizenship, providing a patina of “constituent service” and hiding a dark under-belly of graft and corruption.

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Boss Tweed

In the 1860s, Tammany Hall politician William Magear Tweed established a new standard in public self-dealing. Biographer Kenneth Ackerman wrote: “The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization“.

New York contractors were instructed to multiply invoices. Checks were cashed through a go-between, settling with the contractor and dividing the rest between “Boss” Tweed and his cronies. This system of corruption inflated the cost of the New York County Courthouse to nearly $13 million, more than the Alaska purchase. One carpenter billed $360,751 (equivalent to $4.9 million today), for one month’s work. A plasterer got $133,187 for two days.

New York Corruption - New York Under Tweed's ThumbSome among the self-styled “Uppertens”, the top 10,000 amid New York’s socioeconomic strata, fell in with the self-dealing and corruption of the Tammany Hall machine. Others counted on an endless supply of cheap immigrant labor.

The system worked while Tweed’s Machine kept “his people” in line, until the “Orange Riots” of 1870-71 broke out between Irish Catholics and Protestants, killing 70.

Harper’s Weekly editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the modern American Santa Claus and the Republican Elephant, was the scourge of Tammany Hall. Following the Orange riots, the New York Times added its voice to that of the cartoonist.

Boss Tweed, the third-largest landowner in New York City, Director of the Erie Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, and the New York Printing Company, Proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, former State Senator and former Member of the United States Congress, was arrested on October 27, 1871, and tried on charges of public corruption. An 1877 aldermen’s committee estimated that Boss Tweed’s graft cost New York taxpayers between $25 and $45 million. Later estimates ranged as high as $200 million, equivalent to an astonishing $2.8 Billion, today.

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Cartoonist Thomas Nast denounced the Tammany machine as a ferocious tiger, devouring democracy.

The Tammany Hall political machine, moved on. By the end of the 19th century, ward Boss Richard Croker ran a system of graft and corruption the likes of which Boss Tweed could have only dreamed.

In the end, three things killed the Tammany Hall system. Early Irish arrivals had been primary beneficiaries and major supporters of Tammany’s patronage system, but there are only so many favors to go around. Continued immigration diluted Tammany’s base, and later arriving Irish, Italian and eastern European immigrants found themselves frozen out.

y9AfutFuWoQMH-GAzYj6wjl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9Next is the spoils system, itself. To this day, too many think it’s government’s job to “Bring home the Bacon”, not seeming to realize that they are themselves, the hogs. The Roosevelt administrations’ efforts to fix the Great Depression resulted in a blizzard of bacon from an increasingly Nationalized federal government, separating the local machines from their proximate base of support.

Last came “reformers” such as New York governor and future President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who occasionally built enough steam to hurt the Tammany machine. Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, he of the famous “Dewey Wins!” photograph, managed to put several Tammany Hall leaders in jail, along with such unsavory supporters as “Lucky Luciano”.

Republican Fiorello La Guardia served three terms as New York mayor between 1934-’45, the first anti-Tammany mayor ever, to be re-elected. A brief resurgence of Tammany power in the 1950s met with Democratic party resistance led by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, and party politician Herbert Lehrman. By the mid-1960s, the Tammany Hall system, was dead.

Tammany Hall was a local manifestation of a disease afflicting the entire country. Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and others:  all suffered their own local outbreak.

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Tammany Hall, Union_Square

The Ward Boss still lives in places like Chicago but, like the Jeffersons, the corruption has “moved on up”. Today, rent seekers and foreign powers pay tens of millions in “speaking fees” and other “pay-for-play” schemes.

A hundred years ago, Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) described politics as “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.  Boss Tweed could tell you.   It’s as true now, as it was in his time.

Featured image, top of page:  Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast’s depiction of the Tammany ring:  Who stole the people’s money? T’was him!

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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June 15 1904 A Community, no More

The General Slocum disaster killed fewer than one per cent of the overall population of Little Germany, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  

In the first full century of American independence, three great waves of European and later Asian immigrants left their homes in the ‘old country’, headed for a life in the new world.

The-Scotch-Irish-the-Eighteenth-Century-Irish-Diaspora-1Starvation, shipwreck and disease killed no fewer than 1 in 10 during the period 1790 – 1820, without any so much as setting foot in the new world. And still they came.

The largest non-English speaking minority were the ethnic Germans, escaping economic hardship and in search of political freedom.  At the time of the Civil War, nearly one-quarter of all Union troops were German Americans, some 45% of whom were born in Europe.

German migration rose faster than any other immigrant group through the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th, many in pursuit of agricultural opportunity while others settled in major cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now the East Village. “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called the area, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world, save for Berlin and Vienna.

Little Germany

June 15, 1904 dawned bright and beautiful on Little Germany, a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel Passenger Steamboat General Slocum left the dock and steamed into the East River.

PS General Slocum was on a charter this day, carrying German-American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on a harbor cruise and picnic. Over a thousand tickets were sold, not counting 300+ children who were sailing for free.

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There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match into the forward section lamp room. The flames spread quickly, fueled by lamp oil and oily rags.  A 12-year old boy first reported the fire, but the Captain didn’t believe him.  The fire was first noticed at around 10:00am.

The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment. Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor. Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.

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Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered.” It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings.

The wind and the speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.
Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.

Slocum 1

Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel.

One woman gave birth in the confusion, and then jumped overboard with her newborn to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

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Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and his feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.

Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death, or drowned. It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.

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Adella Liebenow

There were only 321 survivors.

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six-month-old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother.

The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both of Liebenow’s sisters were among the unidentified dead.

The General Slocum disaster killed fewer than one per cent of the overall population of Little Germany, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.

There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of a once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  2600326453_0eae4732c8

There was no longer anything for them, in that place.

Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the General Slocum disaster, had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

Deep inside the East Village, amidst the hipsters and the poets’ cafes of “Alphabet City”, stands a forgotten memorial.  A 9′ stele erected in Tompkins Square Park, sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble. The relief sculpture shows two children, beside them are inscribed these words: “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.

Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100, the oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history.  Until September 11, 2001.

 

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