Richard Zacks’ new book, Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, takes a closer look at Theodore Roosevelt’s time as a police commissioner of New York City. Often remembered as the time when Roosevelt did his late night rounds with Jacob Riis, catching sleeping cops at their posts and ridding the New York Police Department of its Tammany loving police chiefs, Zacks digs much deeper into the legend and finds that Roosevelt’s time as a police commissioner was perhaps not so successful as legend would have us believe. I was able recently to put some questions to Zacks and ask after his work on the book.
Zacks considers himself a narrative non-fiction writer who was toying with the idea of working on his first novel when he stumbled across the story of Roosevelt as police commissioner. His vague understanding that Roosevelt sailed in and reformed the city had him checking local newspapers of the time, only to discover a very different story. Even the New York Times, a small circulation daily and the paper Zacks considers to be Roosevelt’s staunchest supporter during these years, admitted that Roosevelt had probably set back reform in the city after his tenure. Interested by the contradictions, Zacks started researching deeper. He admits he loves researching; it’s hard for him to stop and is one of the reasons the book took five years to put together. Also, the amount of newspapers in New York City in the 1890s was staggering, as Zacks puts it, “It was almost a curse how many vibrant daily newspapers existed in New York in the 1890s.” Zacks worked his way through the newspaper accounts, 1890s guidebooks, and memoirs as well as footnotes from scholarly books to trace down more primary material. A court record on a Parkhurst detective who was on trial for accepting bribes, the 4,000 page trial record of police captain Joseph Eakins and the 5,000 page accounts of the Lexow hearings on police corruption were particular gold mines which offered Zacks a much more candid picture of the police world than the newspapers could publish at the time. From all of this, not to mention the Roosevelt research on top of it, Zacks created a 495 page daily chronology of Roosevelt’s time as a police commissioner and used that to set up the structure of his book.
Island of Vice includes some of New York City’s most colorful characters in the 1890s, all accurately described by Zacks’ research. I asked if he had a particular favorite among the police chiefs, crusading reverends and overzealous police commissioners and Zacks admitted to enjoying police captain Big Bill Devery the most. As Zacks describes him: “Funny, Corrupt. Tammany Hall. I gave a chunk of the book to him to act as a foil to Roosevelt’s crusading. Big Bill was born over a bar, was a club fighter and shook down the brothels of the lower east side for bribes. Rev. Parkhurst said Bill had a certain “genius” but it all ran along “depraved lines.” Lincoln Steffens said Big Bill was no more fit to be police chief than the fish man to run the aquarium.” I also asked after Roosevelt’s feud with fellow police commissioner Andrew Parker, a straight-laced, rather crafty lawyer. The bad blood between the two commissioners was started over the promotion of two Republican police captains to inspector; Parker was a stickler for the fine print and Roosevelt was very black and white about getting things done. “The irony of the feud is that both men were very similar in their beliefs about police reform and law-and-order. But in their day-to-day methods, Roosevelt was open and aggressive and full of broad stroke goals, and Parker was sly and quite cunning and astoundingly adept at ferreting out lawyerly fine print,” as Zacks explains it.
Though Roosevelt left New York City in almost the same way he found it, his reforms being beaten back by the city itself, his feud with Parker and Tammany Democrats regaining lost ground, it was an important stop along Roosevelt’s journey. The position “cemented his national reputation for fearlessness,” notes Zacks, and also made his name synonymous with the reform wing of the Republican Party. It toughened him to criticism and also made him so irritating to Boss Thomas Platt that he kept pushing Roosevelt up the political food chain, eventually to the vice presidency just to get him out of New York state. In the end, “…he showed himself a fearless reformer who stood up to corrupt cops and Tammany Hall. His crusade against vice catapulted his standing among reformers.”
Zacks presents a very clear picture of this young, zealous reformer who still had a lot to learn about himself and politics in Island of Vice. But he also presents a very clear picture of New York City in the 1890s with all its grime, corruption and “sin-loving” populations of old money New Yorkers, newly minted Wall Street millionaires and the thousands of immigrants who were just arriving to its streets. If Theodore Roosevelt is one of the main characters of Zacks’ study, then New York City is perhaps his main nemesis. “I think New York City, which originated in 17th century Dutch tolerance and was constantly rejuvenated by influxes of diverse immigrants, simply is too vibrant, too combative to ever allow for lock-step reform,” Zacks answered when I questioned him on NYC’s love-hate relationship with her many reformers over the years, “when corruption goes too far, such as with the 1890s police force overseeing vice, then there’s a clamor for reform but that fades with the realization of excessive piety.” Unfortunately for the moral Roosevelt, this meant New York City herself was the undoing of much of his work on the police commission.
Zacks’ book, Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, is a detailed and fascinating look at Theodore Roosevelt as a brash reformer in New York City who still had a lot to learn, trying to reform a city which both lauded and loathed him for his efforts. Check it out when it’s released on March 13 or pre-order it today!