I love the elegant houses of Washington or Grammercy Square. And I have books of photographs depicting the buildings along Broadway covered with placards advertising coal merchants and cigar makers. I enjoy imagining the bustling streets with the street cars, pushcarts, wagons vying for space. Traffic wasn’t so noisy you couldn’t hear the vendors and newsboys shouting.
But never mind all the daily life of the good citizens. For some reason, I really enjoy all that antique crime. From a distance, of course.
Crime wasn’t just for the professional criminals back then.
In the 1880’s, the New York Police department acted as a money-making arm of the city’s corrupt government. Patrolmen collected graft from brothels, bar halls and gamblers. The police pocketed some of the loot, but most of the money made its way into Tammany Hall’s coffers. Systematic corruption encompassed nearly every aspect of life in the department: cops had to buy their promotions. If they didn’t have ready cash, Tammany politicians would lend them the amount, and charge interest, of course. The promotions weren’t cheap – a captain’s position went for as much as $15,000.
The press occasionally demanded that the city to clean up the police force, but the era of the flagrant kickbacks and corruption only declined in 1894 when a new police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, began a dramatic and well-publicized clean up of the department.
For the really wicked vice and crime, there was Five Points, made famous by Gangs of New York. Apparently it really did deserve its awful reputation for vice. From Tyler Anbinder’s book Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum:
“The New York District Attorney’s indictment records reveal that for the blocks radiating from the Five Points intersection, nearly every building did house a brothel. Bordellos operated in thirty-three of the thirty-five dwellings on Anthony St. Between Centre and the Five Points intersection.”
That wretched party started to come to an end starting in the late 1880s. Many people credit Jacob Riis with helping to bring public attention to the plight of the slums when he took his camera into the hovels and produced the famous photo essay “How the Other Half Lives” (The photos were first reproduced as line drawing in the New York Sun as “Flashes from the Slum” in 1888).
His book is still in print (you can see the photos and read it free on the internet.)
I’ve seen arguments that a gradually more efficient—though corrupt–police department helped slow the wickedness of the big city. Inspector Thomas Byrnes was a colorful and controversial figure but there’s no doubt he took crime fighting seriously, at least in his city. (He tended to run criminals out of town if he couldn’t nab them. Let someone else deal with them.) He eventually got into trouble himself, when it became clear that he’d managed to acquire more than $350,000 in securities and real estate.
Actually, most of the people who dove into the wickedness to reform it were just as interesting as the career criminals themselves. There’s Dr. Pankhurst—but never mind him. He turned out to be as much fun as any of our scolding politician found with his pants down.
Back to Byrnes who established the Rogues Gallery, the first photographic record of criminals. You can still see the warnings he wrote to the general public and the faces he captured in the book 1886 Professional Criminals of America. My copy (a fine bathroom book, if you like that sort of thing) has introductions by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, a historian social critic, and S.J. Perelman, a humorist. Though I wouldn’t want to meet any of those panel-men, con artists, burglars, murderers, pickpockets, forgers or opium users gone wrong, I have to agree with Perelman who wrote:
“All in all, Professional Criminals of America is a gas, a vade-mecum for the amateur historian, the detective-story writer in quest of plots, and lovers of morbosita generally. If for no other reason, they should be captivated by the aliases of the rogues in the author’s gallery, a few of which I cull at random:
“Aleck the Milkman, Piano Charley, Brummagem Bill, English Paddy…Old Man Herring, Grand Central Pete, Funeral Wells, Hungry Joe, Marsh Market Jake, Yen Hock Harry, Kehoe the Mourner, Little Tip, Milky McDonald, Old Mother Hubbard…Paper Collar Joe, The Peoria Kid, Sheeny Sam, The Student, and Worcester Sal. ”
From a distance of more than hundred years, the evil is entertaining–and an age that only gave us black and white photos is colorful.