Tuesday, May 8, 2012

"Island of Vice" by Richard Zacks (2012)

1896 was a crucial year in the history of New York City. The annexation of all 5 boroughs was less than 2 years away. The City of New York, comprised at the time of the island of Manhattan, was in the throes of a crime wave the likes of which would never be seen again. Literally, as the title of this book suggests, it was a city of sin. This was also the beginning of the end for Tammany Hall, the political party which had ruled the city for decades.

In a story propelled by the likes of characters such as Nellie Bly, the female reporter of crime at the New York World; and Reverend Charles Parkhurst, the leader of an anti-crime crusade; this book rips and roars its way through the final years of the 19th century, ably guided by the skillful authorship of Richard Zacks.
Much of the story centers on Theodore Roosevelt, who would in short order become famous for his exploits at San Juan Hill during the war in Cuba, as well as becoming President of the United States at the dawn of the 20th century. And what a story it is!

Think of any criminal enterprise in operation today, and it was available then. The only difference was in the technology used in committing the crimes; as human nature has not changed much in the intervening years.
For instance, in the place of todays "chop shops", which alter automobiles, the horse thief of the 19th century merely rode the animal to one of the scores of stables dotting the riverfronts on both sides of the island, and had the animal dyed, the mane clipped, and the saddle changed. The rider then emerged on a "horse of a different color"; so to speak; free to gallop away out of the city to sell his stolen steed.
Gambling was rife, with hundreds of illegal gaming establishments throughout the city, all under the protection of the Police. Prostitution, in every known form, was also readily available in all areas of the city. Women, respectable ones, did not roam about freely at night. Even gentlemen did not stroll after dark without a sense of foreboding.
Into this scenario came Theodore Roosevelt, who had been raised in New York, but had spent the last several years in Washington, D.C. He was now back in New York, determined to clean up the city, as well as make a name for himself. He lost no time in doing both.
Teaming up with Reverend Parkhurst, as well as with Jacob Riis, these men set out to put the city back on course to become the greatest metropolis ever known.  Riis and Roosevelt had become great friends, and mutual admirers, after Roosevelt read Riis' "How the Other Half Lives", which was published in the 1880's when Jacob Riis was working as a Police Reporter for the Evening Sun.
The photos, and their accompanying stories, shocked the city into a social awareness which would spark the changes affecting the most disadvantaged citizens Manhattan.
Roosevelt and Riis, in disguise, went on a series of midnight journeys into the seediest parts of the city, seeking to document the criminal activities, and then tear them down. Acting upon the heels of Reverend Parkhurst's own campaign against vice, in which he too, toured the city at night under the protection of Detective Charles Gardner, the city was rocked by scandal after scandal, as the veneer of corruption was laid bare for the people to see.
The Police Department was so corrupt that Roosevelt canceled the 1895 annual Police parade, declaring that the force was unworthy of the honor. When he went on his midnight tours he found himself threatened by his very own officers! With tireless effort, and knowledge that his crusade was a just one, he re-enforced the Civil Service laws, giving the city a better police force with which to fight crime.
With a bold and exciting style of writing, Mr. Zacks has created a veritable visual montage of New York in the not so "Gay Nineties", putting truth to the sepia colored images we all hold of that era. Illustrated with some of the best photos ever of old New York, this book is a "must read" for anyone interested in, or in love with, the history of Old New York.

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