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Civic Commentaries

Textbook Review #2: A Battle for the
Soul of New York

(Warren Sloat, A Battle for the Soul of New York: Tammany Hall, Police Corruption, Vice, and Reverend Charles Parkhurst's Crusade Against Them, 1892-1895. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002, 482 pp.)

 

The proclivity of Americans to unite for civic reform waxes and wanes with the times. Writing in the pre-Revolutionary period, and reflecting on the injustices Mother England were inflicting on the colonists, James Otis complained that his fellow Americans, possibly from “indolence” or “timidity,” had shown a “most profound and I think shameful silence, till it seems almost too late to assert our indisputable rights as men and as citizens. What [will] posterity think of us?” Eventually, of course, enough of his fellow Americans became sufficiently fed up with the behavior of Mother England and revolted against her. But this was by no means a unanimous, colony-wide effort. Some historians claim that surprisingly large numbers of Americans at the time remained loyal to England or simply stood passively on the sidelines during that time.

A Battle for the Soul of New York tells how some Americans in recent history conducted a rebellion, not against an obdurate English monarch and parliament, but against home-bred thugs and malefactors. In its beginning pages, the author’s well-told narrative focuses on one man, Reverend Charles Parkhurst, who designed and implemented a four-year campaign against various copper-buttoned extortionists, boodlers, and grafters in New York City during the late Victorian period. As the story progresses, its attention shifts from Reverend Parkhurst to a colorful array of politicians; bureaucrats; immigrants; reform groups; and, as one chapter title puts it, “A Colossal Organization of Crime.”

For the purposes of this Web site, it would be difficult to find a better book to review. It illustrates what happens when citizens mobilize for civic warfare, provides insights into grand jury behavior, illuminates patterns of civic corruption and how the press responds to it, and demonstrates the need for vigilance to which the framers of the Constitution so often referred.

Warren Sloat’s book is also a brilliant study of the social organization of a campaign for civic reform. It is a masterful textual fabric with many threads running through it and is, therefore, a good choice for home-school parents who would prefer that their teenage pupils learn more about the realities of street-level civics than numb their minds with dream-world flow charts showing how laws are made.

The strands of the gripping narrative include the vicious exploitation of immigrants in America’s largest city in the Gilded Age; how the seeds of municipal corruption flourish until they threaten a community’s daily life; what role the news media (in this case newspapers) perform in times of corruption; how social movements start and end; and, most important, how one dedicated citizen can turn the tables on a vast network of fraud, graft, and corruption. The book is valuable in another way for any reader of American history: It is an interesting and comprehensive answer to something that had puzzled me for years, namely, what was the Progressive Era, how did it start, and what can we learn from it about the practice of citizenship? A Battle answers these questions.

The Context

Much of the drama in Mr. Sloat’s book comes from his skill in working into his narrative leading social trends of the time, including the anarchism movement, immigration, and the women’s suffragist campaign. As he introduced each of these topics at various stages of his book, I wondered how he was going to fit it into his plot. But he did and with superb skill.

Anarchy

“Anarchy” is not in Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Judging by the definitions in that book, he might have defined it thus: The ideal word for explaining the true definition of “dilemma”; a forced choice between two equally undesirable alternatives, viz., anarchy and government. The index for A Battle for the Soul of New York lists eight references to anarchists. These colorful references come together in pages 403-408, where one finds a description of a meeting that Reverend Parkhurst attended during his campaign in a ground-level Greenwich Village flat. Most of this group were women: “political adventurers, bohemian drifters, and unknown artists and writers” and most notably, Miss Emma Goldman.

For me, the author’s intermittent blending of various radicals, anarchists, and other off-center characters into his plot pays off: The Greenwich Village meeting illustrates an important facet of the minister’s strategic genius, namely, coalition building. Although his roots were in a New England farm and he was steeped in his Christian belief, he saw the Greenwich Village gathering as “a preview of the twentieth century, the kind of urban America in which he and they were destined to live. It would be a century in which the only shared vision was the will to be free, and it would have to be a century based on the model of the anti-Tammany forces” for our country to survive.

Immigration

This subject is one of the most pervasive of the three threads I have chosen to illustrate the breadth of the book and is the most poignant. In A Battle for the Soul of New York, the story of immigration is effectively told in many ways, but of these, one tale is particularly compelling. Its leading figure is a woman named Caela Urchittel. She, her husband, and their four children were Russian Jews fleeing from their homeland in 1891. Caela Urchittel arrived in New York alone, her husband having died en route. A Jewish charity loaned her money to start a business, but she established it in a police precinct commanded by a police captain who was particularly adept at extorting money from business owners, especially immigrants. Because she refused to pay the police “ranch rent,” her business failed and she became destitute to the point of wearing rags for clothing.

When the police continued to try to extract protection money from her, and having had her children taken from her as an extortionist-in-uniform threatened would happen, she contacted Reverend Parkhurst’s legal advisor, Frank Moss, another interesting character throughout the book. With Moss’s help, she appeared before a State of New York Legislative committee where she desperately begged for help in her native tongue. Newspaper coverage of this seemingly minor, yet dramatic episode before the Lexow Committee did much to swing public sentiment in favor of Reverend Parkhurst’s campaign. Mr. Sloat described how Mrs. Urchittel and her children were reunited in the courtroom where the committee was meeting. With the right actress, a motion-picture depiction of the reunion would surely justify an Oscar:

Down sank Mrs. Urchittel on her knees, her right arm enfolding her babes as if they were a bouquet, her left raised heavenward. In a strange tongue she invoked the blessings of Jehovah on the kind gentlemen. She bade her children pray for them, and prayed for them herself right then and there. Then she began to thank them.

“That is all right, my good woman,” said the blushing Lexow. Senator Bradley pinched up some snuff, but even that movement did not conceal the mist in Uncle Dan’s [Bradley’s] eyes.

The Women's Suffrage Movement

The story of the fight for women’s rights involved many of the same social forces that Parkhurst’s own campaign unleashed: planned effort, civic indignation, publicity, and great energy. This partly explains why the index to A Battle for the Soul of New York contains so many women’s names, including that of famed reporter Nellie Bly, who interviewed Emma Goldman while the latter was in jail awaiting trial.

Reverend Parkhurst knew well, even before his campaign, that women had “fashioned the argument for suffrage in terms of the city’s collective life. They argued that public administration of large cities had become a demanding task, and that many men, with the weighty cares of business upon them, could not devote the necessary time for it; the hour had arrived for women to lend a hand.” Beyond that, a popular sentiment was spreading that “Women’s influence … would counter the forces that fostered crime, disease, immorality, poverty, and corruption, all of which could be traced to the power of the saloons. Without female influence … the city was a bedraggled sight--the public sphere that men had made.” As noble as these sentiments were, a possibly even more compelling reason for seeking the assistance of the women of New York City in his campaign was their ready-made network of various charitable, social, and business organizations, ideal auxiliary forces for a broadly conceived battle for souls.

The Man, His Motives, and His Strategy

One does not read far into A Battle for the Soul of New York before he asks himself the question, to paraphrase the title of an old novel, “What Made Charles Parkhurst Run?” Throughout the book, bits and pieces of Parkhurst’s life and temperament surface, such as his having been born on a farm “on the stony ground of Western Massachusetts” and his early education. The author’s “Prologue: Winter, 1891-1892,” ends with what is the best insight into why a seemingly reserved, scholarly minister decided it was time to go to work in the Augean stables of New York City at the turn of the century. That great city, which had figured so prominently in the birth of the nation, was grievously corrupted, and not only was the corruption a threat to democracy, it was an affront to the God who created the miracle of the New World. To save New York from further degeneration and restore it a community of “virtue and liberty” would require someone “who could arouse the people to take up the joys and burdens of self-government and call the institutions of the city to account. It would take courage and fidelity, vision and discipline--and in this city, it would help to have a provocative style that created excitement. And, as so often happens in history, Providence had such a fellow waiting in the wings.”

It would be difficult to find a better summary of Reverend Parkhurst’s credentials for the job ahead of him. As A Battle for the Soul of New York unfolds, however, more of Parkhurst’s spirit is revealed. How, one asks, could a man who could write a book titled The Forms and Functions of the Latin Verb, Illustrated by Sanskrit, become the doggedly persistent, resilient warrior fashioned on the same lines as General George S. Patton? When Reverend Parkhurst suffered his first defeat, which the author describes early in the book, he licked his wounds for a few days and returned to the battle field determined, energetic, and eager to learn from the lessons of that. From that moment forward, Charles Parkhurst’s campaign proceeded with strategic brilliance and with only minor defeats, which the Latin-Sanskrit scholar interpreted as important lessons for winning further skirmishes.

Four Phases of Reverend Parkhurst's Campaign

Phase One: December 1891 - March 1892

Aroused by a growing awareness of the extent of vice and violence in New York City, Charles Parkhurst delivered a sermon to his congregation on February 14, 1892. Warren Sloat describes the address as a Philippic. It was certainly a broad-brush characterization of prominent city officials as “one solid gang of rascals, half the gang in office and the other half out, and the two halves steadily catering to each other across the official line.” Several of the large newspapers of the city covered the sermon, one of which roundly denounced the Reverend and challenged him to produce “precise facts to support his infamous charges.” Probably under the control of the District Attorney of New York City at the time, the grand jury “called the minister to a command performance” to prove his charges.

The grand jury, which included several “Tammany braves and sympathizers,” invited Reverend Parkhurst to substantiate his charges, but he conceded that he based them on several newspaper reports of a murder in one of the City’s dens of iniquity. Sensing that the grand jury seemed uninterested in his allegations, Reverend Parkhurst later wrote that he withdrew from that “august presence [and] recorded in my heart a solemn vow … that I would never again be caught in the presence of the enemy without powder and shot in my gun-barrel.” The “powder and shot” would be, of course, names, addresses, dates, and times. Rather than rely only on newspaper stories, the campaigner would gather these facts first-hand.

The cleric had learned his lesson well. Thereafter, he and two companions in disguise toured vice-ridden New York neighborhoods to gather facts about saloons, bawdy houses, and police extortion. One month after the first sermon, the “Christian knight” delivered his second sermon to “the largest crowd in the history of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church.” The subject was the same, but this time it was supported by facts.

Phase Two: March 1892 - March 1894

“Volleys of protest against Parkhurst’s sermon” created widespread publicity. Despite one or two setbacks, the tide turned in favor of Reverend Parkhurst and his campaign. A New York City grand jury indicted a high-ranking police official and three subordinates. News about civic turmoil in New York City prompted the Legislature of the State of New York to conduct an investigation into the matter. Significantly, the official name of the senatorial body was the “Special Senate Committee to Investigate Police Matters in the City of New York.” The name unintentionally confirms the wisdom of Reverend Parkhurst’s earlier strategic decision to direct his campaign against the police, rather than toward the numerous moral cesspools throughout the City.

Phase Three: March 1894 - May 1894

The Lexow Committee convened in New York City and held hearings. Much of the testimony was taken from police officials and fueled further publicity about police corruption. Under persistent questioning by the committee’s attorney, a key witness, after several sessions, transformed from a self-confident Tammany representative on the Board of Police Commissioners to become as “limp as a rag doll.” Meanwhile, the trial of a major police figure for “neglecting his duty by not moving against specific houses of prostitution” ended in an acquittal. Ever the optimist, Reverend Parkhurst interpreted the outcome as “an expensive victory for Tammany and the Police” because the testimony penetrated the “iniquitous system to its vitals and [resulted in its] subversion.” The Lexow Committee adjourned for the summer.

Phase Four: Fall 1894 - November l895

The Lexow Committee resumed its hearings and called more police officers to testify. “Every session of the Lexow hearings produced more evidence of a degraded city” including a woman’s testimony that when her husband was maliciously arrested one of her children “went with him to the station house and remained with him in [a] cell for five days and nights, saying that he would not leave his papa alone in such a loathsome place.” Upon hearing this, a Senator on the Lexow committee, wiping his eyes, remarked, “My God, and this is New York in the nineteenth century.” Meanwhile, a city election was held, and “when all the ballots were counted, the reform forces had won a famous victory.” The victory, though temporary in the long view, was largely attributable to Charles Parkhurst’s leadership, his understanding of the maxim that one fights organizations with organizations, and a gift for strategic thinking.

Organizations and the System

Tammany Hall

Tammany Hall was the keystone in the structure of municipal corruption that Reverend Parkhurst tackled. Originally a men’s social organization, Tammany was founded just after the American Revolution, and, at one point, Aaron Burr was its leader. In time, it penetrated New York City government so deeply that it must have been difficult to find the boundary line between the two organizations. Of the city bureaucracies that Tammany controlled through nepotism, favoritism, and jobbery, the police department was the most prominent. Though less numerous than the police, some members of the judiciary were also Tammany partisans.

The New York City Board of Police Commissioners

Consisting of four appointees, this Tammany Hall-controlled body had oversight authority over the City police. Despite its small size, the Commission was an important element in Tammany’s system of control, consisting as it did of Tammany members. One extra-official function of the Board was, for a price, helping Tammany members get a job “on the cops” and obtain promotions for them.

The New York City Police Department

At the beginning of Charles Parkhurst’s campaign, the New York City Police Department consisted of 4,000 men, one for each of the 4,000 saloons in the city at the time. About 300 captains commanded geographical territories known as precincts. The Superintendent of Police during Reverend Parkhurst’s campaign played, as did the district attorney, a somewhat curious role in the book. He had a reputation as an aggressive, successful detective, having solved one of the largest armed robberies in the history of the City. His talent for maneuvering seems to have matched Reverend Parkhurst’s. When Charles Parkhurst scored a point in his campaign, the Superintendent often scored a counterpoint. At first, he wrote Reverend Parkhurst off as a meddler posing as a detective. Throughout the campaign, the Superintendent’s position never seemed to be in jeopardy, though some of his captains were not so fortunate.

As the minister’s campaign became increasingly effective, the Superintendent shuffled police captains from their precincts to new precincts to gull the newspapers and the citizens into thinking that something was being done. In many cases, the captains welcomed their reassignments as opportunities to perfect their extortion tactics in a new setting.

The New York City Grand Jury

This institution appears at several places in the story. At the time, its term of service was one month. At the outset of his campaign, Reverend Parkhurst tried to interest the sitting Grand Jury to hear what he had to say about police corruption. He was surprised to find out that the panel dismissed him and almost formally rebuked him. After a brief period of surprise and disappointment at the Grand Jury’s response, the minister’s experience convinced him that it was time for fact gathering.

Throughout the book, one finds hints that the New York Grand Jury was sometimes the district attorney’s puppet, an often-voiced criticism of the institution throughout its recent history. This might explain why grand jurors rejected Reverend Parkhurst’s attempt to inform them about municipal corruption. In a book published during the campaign, another author writes about a ceremony then used for selecting New York City grand jurors (Train, 1904). He relates that an unidentified New York City public official was puzzled about why certain persons had a better chance than others to be selected for grand jury service. Though the selection process was ostensibly at random, the official decided to observe how the names of grand jury candidates were drawn from a box containing slips of paper on which were written names of prospective panelists.

Also attending the same selection ceremony was a variety of public officials, including the mayor, a presiding judge, and other municipal dignitaries. Apparently undeterred by the presence of these people, the observer inserted his hand into the “wheel” containing the names of prospective jurors “and found that some of the slips were heavier and of a different texture than the others, and could be easily separated by the sense of touch. The inference was obvious. Undoubtedly the opportunity [to choose] between the sheep and the goats had been made good use of” (Train, 1904, p. 112).

The District Attorney of New York City

The district attorney is another puzzling character in A Battle for the Soul of New York. Occasionally, he assisted Reverend Parkhurst, but most of the time he opposed him. Warren Sloat characterizes the district attorney as “a direct descendant … of the first English Governor of the colony of New York” who had “cast his lot with Tammany Hall.” Skilled in the law, the district attorney “could have made a good living without political connections … and [he] enjoyed a reputation for quick wit [and] legal acumen and diligent preparation.” Throughout the book, the district attorney at times seems reform-minded, but at other times, he sided with the system, as will be illustrated below.

Indignation, Spin, and Framing

Vigilant citizens who, for the first time, attempt to expose corrupt political behavior are often surprised, if not shocked, at the reactions of various actors in the drama. A citizen–intervener might expect that, having heard his or her well-founded allegations, the local press would immediately conduct an investigation into the matter, but this rarely happens. The reaction of the press more often is to protect the regime by expressing incredulity, skepticism, or outright hostility. For example, one New York City newspaper in the early stages of his campaign demanded that Reverend Parkhurst “substantiate his charges before the Grand Jury” and claimed that not doing so would demonstrate that he is “a wicked, malicious, reckless, and criminal slanderer.”

One would think that, because of the pastor’s calling, a newspaper publisher would not question his integrity. One might also expect that, after a report of wrong doing has occurred, the chief administrator of the involved local government would immediately announce that he or she has initiated an investigation into the charges. What typically happens, however, is that the person who heads the organization vociferously maligns the citizen or citizens who have had the temerity to demand accountability. For example, after the second grand jury issued “a presentment that accused the Police Department of failing to enforce the law against brothels and gambling houses” the high-ranking police official who later became Superintendent of Police loudly denounced the “gross outrage” committed by the “men constituting a Grand Jury, which only sits for a month, [for issuing] a presentment against a Police Department whose efficiency cannot be equaled in this or any other country.”

One of the strongest attempts to discredit Charles Parkhurst occurred when he testified during a trial following an indictment against a woman charged with operating a house of prostitution. When he and his two companions toured of the city’s underworld incognito, the trio entered the woman’s “respectable boarding house for ladies.” After questioning Reverend Parkhurst, the madam’s defense attorney turned to the jury, and, “in a voice keening with outraged virtue,” demanded that jurors “think of Parkhurst, the minister of the Gospel, as an instigator of crime, roaming about the city, paying with his own money, poor, degraded women to disgrace themselves. I declare to you that by the law of God, by the moral law, aye!, by the statutes of the State of New York, Parkhurst, the minister, is a criminal.”

“Spin” or “framing” are words describing another style of response: Claiming that one’s opponent is, in truth, not solving a pressing problem but, rather, is causing problems far more serious than what he alleges. For example, one high-ranking police official asserted that “the reverend’s pulpit hi-jinks provided brothels with free advertising.” “Thank God,” the critic continued, “that vice is so hidden that Dr. Parkhurst has to get detectives to find disorderly houses [when] thousands of wives and daughters [in New York City] do not know of even their existence.” Likewise, a 300-pound madam of a house of prostitution criticized Reverend Parkhurst for his “risqué sermon” and its degrading effect on “hundreds of pure minded boys and girls.”

Conclusion

An acquaintance recently told me that she could not understand a comment I made to her about the steady decline of citizen activism in our Country, other than in environmental matters or for some self-interest purpose. The more examples I offered to explain the assertive citizenship our Constitution presumes, and that our form of government sorely needs to survive, the more puzzling my comment seemed to her: “I volunteer to plant flowers in our city’s park and read books to children in our library. Isn’t that being an active citizen? I just don’t understand what you’re saying.” Assuming that she wished to understand my point, Warren Sloat’s book would have been ideal for her to read.

Of course, Reverend Parkhurst was, as Americans typically think of their role as citizens, something of an anomaly even in his own time. After the smoke of the American Revolution subsided and the states had ratified the Federal Constitution, Americans apparently concluded that their new political system was a Machine that Would Go of Itself (Kammen, 2006). Somehow the idea spread that the Founders designed the Constitution so well that the apparatus of government would function without the oiling, repair, and sharpening that even the simplest lawn mower requires from time to time. Reverend Parkhurst and his supporters understood that this view of our Nation was fallacious. Self-government is not a lifeless perpetual motion device; it is a garden that needs constant weeding, nourishment, and protection from parasites and other destructive insects.

Charles Parkhurst’s civic campaign would have been difficult, if not impossible, in a government other than what our Founders created. The freedoms of speech, association, the press, the grand jury, and representative government are merely some of the Constitutional principles one sees at work in the subtext of A Battle for the Soul of New York. Somehow his New England upbringing helped the militant minister understand what the Founders and their English predecessors knew: Tyranny thrives in the soil of civic neglect. This is one reason why the Founders often wrote about vigilance before, during, and after 1787.

Measured by the number of years it spanned, the Progressive Era lasted for only a few ticks on the clock face of American history. With its roots in the work of Reverend Parkhurst and his civic allies, the idea of organized citizen oversight of government blossomed vigorously from World War I until about the 1960s. The America that citizens lived in during that period was festooned with state and local crime commissions, bureaus of government research, public expenditure councils, municipal research bureaus, state and local taxpayers associations and the like. What cynics and corrupters derisively referred to in that time as “goo-goo” organizations (i.e., good government) have, for the most part, gradually disappeared from the civic landscape since World War II.

Modern Americans seem to have forgotten what Reverend Parkhurst well knew about eternal vigilance. He realized that the weed of civic corruption, though it might be pruned back from time to time, has remarkable powers of survival. Despite the indictments, prison, and jail sentences resulting from the minister’s work, he knew, as did many of the Founders, that from the moment of the birth of the new nation, political corruption would never end. Warren Sloat captured the campaigner’s viewpoint about civic watchfulness in these words:

For a long time and at the top of his lungs he had exhorted the people to seize their power, and his message bespoke his vision of democracy, for like Jefferson he associated liberty with a vigilant public. To him struggle was not the price paid for democracy, but its essence, and he exulted in it as he did in the bracing liquor of mountain-climbing. “Municipal ground will always have to be a battle field,” he wrote in the conclusion of his book “and may the God of battles multiply his champions, solidify their ranks, put might into their arms, chivalry into their hearts, and crown us all with a steady and widening victory.”

References

Kammen, Michael. A Machine that Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006.

Train, Arthur. The Prisoner at the Bar: Sidelights on the Administration of Criminal Justice. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1904.


August 20, 2008

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