When young Theodore Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner of New York City, he had the astounding gall to try to shut down the brothels, gambling joints, and after-hours saloons. This is the story of how TR took on Manhattan vice . . . and vice won.
In the 1890s, New York City was America’s financial, manufacturing, and entertainment capital, and also its preferred destination for sin, teeming with forty thousand prostitutes, glittery casinos, and all-night dives. Police captains took hefty bribes to see nothing while reformers writhed in frustration.
In Island of Vice, Richard Zacks paints a vivid portrait of the lewd underbelly of 1890s New York, and of Theodore Roosevelt, the puritanical, cocksure police commissioner resolved to clean it up. Writing with great wit and zest, Zacks explores how young Roosevelt goes head to head with Tammany Hall, takes midnight rambles with muckraker Jacob Riis, and tries to convince two million New Yorkers to enjoy wholesome family fun. When Roosevelt’s crackdown succeeds too well, even his supporters turn on him, and TR discovers that New York loves its sin more than its salvation.
With cameos by Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and a horde of very angry cops, Island of Vice is an unforgettable snapshot of turn-of-the-century New York in all its seedy glory and a brilliant miniature of one of America’s most colorful presidents.
About Richard Zacks
RICHARD ZACKS is the author of several nonfiction books, including The Pirate Hunter, An Underground Education,and History Laid Bare. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Time, Harper’s and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. He writes in an office in New York City overlooking Union Square.
“A fascinating narrative history of Theodore Roosevelt’s doomed struggle to put a lid on crime in New York during his tenure as Police Commissioner starting in 1895…One of the achievements of Island of Vice is that Zacks penetrates beneath the bluster into the psychology of this strange, restless man.” –Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Here is young Teddy Roosevelt as the reformist New York City Police Commissioner confronted in 1895 with a cabal of unaccountably wealthy police officials, whole neighborhoods of brothels, and the paws of the Tammany Tiger in everything. A delicious municipal history, impeccably researched, excitingly told.” –E. L. Doctorow, award-winning author of Ragtime
“In the early 1890s, New York was America’s vice capital, with thousands of prostitutes and countless all-night gambling halls. But then, in 1895, Teddy Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner. Richard Zacks paints an engagingly vivid picture of the rise of Roosevelt, the birth of the reform movement, and the creation of 20th century America. Roosevelt comes alive with all of his blustery and belligerent passion, and so does New York City.” - –Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Steve Jobs and Einstein: His Life and Universe
Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Doomed’ War On New York Vice
NPR Book Review – March 25, 2012 (Excerpt)
New York in the gilded age was a city of epic contrasts. Top-hatted swells in glossy carriages promenaded uptown, while just a few blocks south, poverty, crime and overcrowding were the order of the day.
And vice, let’s not forget vice. New York was what was called a “wide-open” town, with gambling, prostitution and liquor available on almost every corner. The cops and the Democratic machine politicians of Tammany Hall mostly looked the other way — when they weren’t actively involved.
But in 1895, a new sheriff came to town. Literally. Voters threw out the corrupt Democratic administration in favor of reform-minded Republicans, and Theodore Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner.
Author Richard Zacks tells weekends on All Things Considered host Laura Sullivan that Roosevelt was a man on a mission: He was going to root out the corruption, and vice and clean up the city.
“In hindsight, what he was trying to do, it’s like somebody going into Vegas and just saying, there’s gonna be no more gambling,” says Zacks, the author of the new book Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York.
The book’s title pretty much says it all: While Roosevelt had the best of intentions, he faced a terribly uphill battle. [Read the full article...]
“Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York” by Richard Zacks
The Washington Post Book Review – April 13, 2012 (Excerpt)
Aclergyman, a detective and a society swell walk into a bar. . .
It sounds like a vaudeville routine, but, as Richard Zacks reports in “Island of Vice,” his jaunty and beautifully researched portrait of New York at the close of the 19th century, it was actually the opening salvo of “a holy war on vice and government collusion.” The clergyman, the Rev. Charles Parkhurst of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, had delivered a blistering sermon a few days earlier — on Valentine’s Day, 1892 — in which he called out the corrupt power brokers of the city’s Tammany Hall political machine. According to Parkhurst, the mayor and his subordinates were a “lying, perjured, rum-soaked and libidinous lot” growing fat on the city’s houses of sin through an entrenched system of bribes and rake-offs. Something had to be done.
When city officials fought back with libel charges, Parkhurst launched an unlikely fact-finding mission, hiring a private detective to conduct him and a devout blue-blood parishioner on a tour of New York’s seamy side. “I never dreamed that any force of circumstances would ever draw me into contacts so coarse, so bestial, so consummately filthy,” Parkhurst declared. At one stop, the reverend averted his eyes from a display of nude leapfrog; at another, he fended off a 19-year-old girl’s blunt proposition. History has drawn a discreet veil over the carryings-on at the “French Circus” on West 4th Street, but certain statutes invoked at the time made reference to birds, animals and corpses. [Read the full article...]
The Commish - ‘Island of Vice,’ by Richard Zacks
The New York Times Book Review – July 20, 2012 (Excerpt)
Before there was Rudy Giuliani, there was Teddy Roosevelt.
In the 1990s, Giuliani was New York’s dogged crime fighter in chief, but just about 100 years earlier, Roosevelt had donned that mantle as a police commissioner and president of what was then the city’s four-man, bipartisan Police Board. His campaign to wipe out everyday vice and corruption gained him a national reputation, one that, in contrast to Giuliani’s, actually led to the White House.
Roosevelt needed no broken-windows theory to drive his crusade, just an outraged silk-stocking moralism, and fin de siècle New York City gave him plenty to be outraged about. The number of brothels in Manhattan was legion, dotting not just the notorious Tenderloin district, and the number of prostitutes was estimated at more than 30,000. Casinos and opium dens were commonplace, and saloons stayed open on Sundays in brazen disregard of state laws. The police not only tolerated pleasure domes but skimmed the earnings, with payoffs to the beat cop filtering up to the precinct captains and the police chief.
Richard Zacks, in “Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York,” tells the story of Roosevelt’s two-year campaign with gusto and authority and the wry observations of an author who knows how it will all predictably turn out. The reason Roosevelt’s quest was doomed, this account makes clear, is that New Yorkers — then and now — like their vices neat. Sure, they did not favor police and political corruption, but they would not stand for the abridgment of their pleasures, even if the consequence was police and Tammany Hall graft. [Read the full article...]
THE BLEEDING HILLS A Novel by Wilfried F. Voss
I have fought a good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith. - 2 Timothy iv. 7
The Irish War is officially a part of history, but not for Finnean Whelan, an IRA veteran of almost 40 years. British Intelligence has produced evidence that he is the mastermind behind a conspiracy to assassinate the First Minister of Northern Ireland. For Whelan this is not only a mission of revenge, but marks the beginning of a journey into the past and the return to the one true love: Ireland. [More...]
We are the only country that makes guns, including military-style assault weapons, available to anyone who wants to buy them. This is not freedom. It is a tyranny of death and destruction — a tyranny of which the National Rifle Association is proud. The Washington Post
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