8/22/12 - bosses and votes

In today's excerpt - for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a major portion of the vote in America's cities was controlled by "bosses," such as Big Tim Sullivan of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, who ruled through a mixture of charity, extortion, fraud and violence:

"[Big Tim Sullivan] never formally headed Tammany. He didn't need to. His own Lower East Side fiefdom was lucrative enough, and Big Tim wisely realized that if he ever took charge of Tammany, he'd inevitably serve as a lightning rod for reformers' ire.

"Sullivan's was a rags-to-riches story. When Tim was four, his father died. At eight, he peddled newspapers on the street. His energy and charm quickly attracted the attention of local politicians, and he began ascending Lower East Side society. By twenty-two he owned his own saloon. At twenty-three he won election as Assemblyman in the old Third District. In 1892 Tammany boss Richard Croker anointed Sullivan as leader of his assembly district, making him de facto boss of the entire Lower East Side. That fall Sullivan's district voted for Democrat Grover Cleveland over President Benjamin Har­rison 395 to 4. 'Harrison got one more vote than I expected,' Sul­livan apologized to Croker, 'but I'll find that feller.'

"Sullivan served briefly in Congress, finding it dull aside from his campaign to capture the congressional pinochle championship. He left after one term. For most of his career, he held the title of state sen­ator, but it was from district leadership that his power flowed. Big Tim ruled by sheer force of charity. Need a turkey at Thanksgiving or a load of coal to help you through a cold winter? Big Tim would help. Need a job with the city or with a company that had city business? Big Tim assisted happily.

Tim's fiefdom contained the legendary Bowery. Besides saloons and theaters, stuss houses and whorehouses, it contained most of New York's bums. Sullivan never forgot them. They were human beings like everyone else -- and voters, too. Each Christmas, he hosted a magnificent feast in their honor. The 1909 event served 5,000 indi­gents 10,000 pounds of turkey, a 100 kegs of beer, 500 loaves of bread, 200 gallons of coffee, and 5,000 pies. Each man also received an array of presents to help tide him over during the coming winter: a pair of shoes and socks, a pipe, and a sack of tobacco. Tim didn't discriminate among the different nationalities of his East Side empire. He couldn't afford to. The Lower East Side was changing fast. The Irish no longer dominated numerically. Germans, Italians, and Jews -- hundreds of thousands of Jews -- now lived there. Big Tim helped them all.

"Gratitude remained a practiced virtue, and Sullivan's beneficiaries remembered him, not only at the polls, but in their hearts. Countless tenement homes featured framed portraits of their great friend and protector State Senator Timothy D. Sullivan. Not all of Big Tim's activities were so saintly. Every saloonkeeper, gambler, thief, and pimp operating on the Lower East Side paid tribute to Sullivan. Some said Big Tim owned brothels himself; his holding the vice presidency of the area's formal pimps' trade group, the Max Hockstim Association, did little to alleviate suspicion. He oversaw Manhattan's boxing industry. If Big Tim didn't receive his cut, you didn't receive a license. With gambler Frank Farrell and police chief 'Big Bill' Devery he controlled most of Manhattan's gambling.

"Not everyone loved Big Tim. Some coveted his power and chal­lenged the candidates he sponsored, mostly in primaries. To counter them, he employed fraud and outright thuggery. occasional ballot box in the East River, but more often it involved 'repeaters,' gentlemen moving between polling places, voting at each stop. Not surprisingly, Sullivan had his own strategies on repeating, and they favored employing the hirsute. 'When you've voted 'em with their whiskers on,' he once observed, 'you take 'em to a barber and scrape off the chin-fringe. Then you vote 'em again with side lilacs and a mustache. Then to a barber again, off comes the sides and you vote 'em a third time with the mus­tache. If that ain't enough and the box can stand a few more ballots clean off the mustache and vote 'em plain face. That makes every one of 'em good for four votes.'

Sometimes fraud proved insufficient. Other Democrats were also skilled at such devices. So Big Tim -- and his rivals -- hired neighbor­hood toughs to discourage opposition voters, scare off enemy cam­paign workers, and soundly beat rivals to a pulp."


David Pietrusza


Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series


Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2003, 2011 by David Pietrusza


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