the worst-governed city in america -- 6/08/20

Today's selection -- from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. In the early 20th century, Philadelphia gained the reputation as the most corrupt and worst-governed city in America:

"Muckraker Lincoln Steffens called Philadelphia 'the worst-governed city in America.' He may well have been right.

"Even Tammany's use of power in New York was haphazard compared to that of the Philadelphia machine, which had returned to power in 1916 after a reformer's single term in office. Philadelphia's boss was Republican state senator Edwin Vare. He had bested and mocked people who considered themselves his betters, people who despised him, people with such names as Wharton, Biddle, and Wanamaker.

Edwin H. Vare

"A short, thick-chested, and thick-bellied man -- his nickname was 'the little fellow' -- Vare had his base in South Philadelphia. He had grown up there before the incursion of immigrants, on a pig farm in a then-rural area called 'the Neck.' He still lived there despite enormous wealth. The wealth came from politics.

"All city workers kicked back a portion of their salary to Vare' s machine. To make sure none ever missed a payment, city workers received their salary not where they worked or in City Hall -- a classic and magnificent Victorian building, with curved shoulders and windows reminiscent of weeping willow trees -- but across the street from City Hall in Republican Party headquarters: The mayor himself kicked back $1,000 from his pay.

"Vare was also the city's biggest contractor, and his biggest contract was for street cleaning, a contract he had held for almost twenty years. At a time when a family could live in comfort on $3,000 a year, in 1917 he had received over $5 million for the job. Not all of that money stayed in Vare's pockets, but even the part that left passed through them and paid a toll. Yet the streets were notoriously filthy, especially in South Philadelphia -- where the need was greatest, where everything but raw sewage, and sometimes even that, ran through the gutters, and where the machine was strongest.

"Ironically, the very lack of city services strengthened the machine since it provided what the city did not: food baskets to the poor, help with jobs and favors, and help with the police -- the commissioner and many magistrates were in Vare's pocket. People paid for the favors with votes which, like a medieval alchemist, he transmuted into money.

"The machine proved so lucrative that Edwin Vare and his brother William, a congressman, became philanthropists, giving so much to their church at Moyamensing Avenue and Morris Street that it was renamed the Abigail Vare Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, after their mother. Not many churches are named after mere mortals, but this one was.

"Yet nothing about the machine was saintly. On primary election day in 1917, several Vare workers blackjacked two leaders of an opposing faction, then beat to death a policeman who intervened. The incident outraged the city. Vare's chief lieutenant in 1918 was Mayor Thomas B. Smith. In his one term in office he would be indicted, although acquitted, on three entirely unrelated charges, including conspiracy to murder that policeman. That same election, however, gave Vare absolute control over both the Select and Common Councils, the city's legislature, and broad influence in the state legislature."



John M. Barry


The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History


Penguin Group


Copyright John M. Barry, 2004, 2005


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