The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

URBAN COMBUSTION: When Morality & Politics Mix

Richard Zacks
Island Of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York
(Doubleday, 2012)

History is unpredictable. Not unlike today, late 19th century America was an age of robber barons, of white, Christian moral absolutists, of foreign immigration and domestic migration, and of a “progressive” movement contesting capitalism’s excesses. Like today, it was a period in which morality and politics mixed, fermenting an explosive concoction.

In 1895, New York was different, far smaller, than it is today. Then it included only Manhattan and chunks of the Bronx and Westchester. Today’s five borough city was consolidated in 1898, a brilliant move by Republicans to undermine the power of the Manhattan-anchored Tammany Democratic political machine.

On June 23, 1895, the president of the city’s recently-constituted Police Board of Commissioners, Theodore Roosevelt, launched an all-out war against those breaking the state’s “blue laws,” regulations prohibiting alcohol consumption in a public venue on Sunday, the Sabbath. The commission ordered the city’s police force to close an estimated 8,000 drinking establishments on that hot, humid Sunday. All hell broke out, but Roosevelt succeeded, imposing Sunday prohibition on the Big Apple for the next year and a half.

During this period Roosevelt served as president of New York’s police commission. This presidency is carefully plotted out in Richard Zacks’s informative and entertaining Island Of Vice. This is a short but eventful period in Roosevelt’s remarkable stepping-stone evolution to president of the U.S., the period between his tenure at the Federal Civil Service Commission and becoming Assistant Secretary of the Navy in McKinley’s first administration.

Zacks is a good storyteller and he’s caught the tiger by the tail with Roosevelt, one who truly embodied the spirit of fin-de-siècle America. Zacks focuses on two aspects of Roosevelt’s tumultuous tenure. First, he details Roosevelt’s reformist fight against police corruption, especially the system of kickbacks that lubricated the Tammany machine. Second, he chronicles in almost daily detail Roosevelt’s war against “vice,” mostly Sunday drinking but also prostitution, gambling, and homelessness.

Zacks’s portrait clearly reveals Roosevelt’s patrician arrogance, a moral sentiment that defined the official civic morality in New York—and America—in the late 19th century. Roosevelt shared with others of the grand bourgeoisie a self-righteousness equivalent to the greed that characterized the robber baron: a blind acceptance of their superiority. And, like Zacks’s notes in the book’s subtitle, Roosevelt’s effort to impose moralistic values on a radically transforming city was a “doomed quest.”

In the good old days of the late 19th century, men worked six days a week; Sunday was sacred, their one day off. After church, many of these good Christian men, tens of thousands of Irish, German, and Italian extraction, went to their neighborhood saloon, for a good time. These nearly all-male homosocial venues allowed hardworking men to visit with their buddies, catch up on stories about the homeland, get mail, relax, sometimes hook up with a hooker, settle up with the barkeep, and have a few drinks—before going home to the family and the tyranny of Monday morning.

New York blue laws date from colonial days. Roosevelt’s commission sought to enforce an 1857 ordinance that, over the subsequent four decades, had rarely been enforced, especially in Gotham. Like many laws, blue laws were a little-disguised attempt to impose the moral order of the upper crust on newly arrived, ethnic New Yorkers. Old-line Protestants, like Roosevelt, were appalled by what they perceived as the “immorality” (especially sexual practices) of recently arrived (and often Catholic) city folk. For these upstanding moral absolutists, the ethnic working class and poor had to be disciplined, their excesses restrained.

And the police force was the means to impose this moral order. Where priests and preachers failed to instill religious virtues, the police were called upon to enforce secular values, i.e. city laws. In the wake of the reformist electoral victories of 1894, a new, Republican-controlled police commission was appointed to set the city’s moral standards. During his 18-month tenure as president of the police commission, Roosevelt was the city’s archbishop of secular morality.

The “Roosevelt Sundays” were in force for more than a year, finally undercut by savage state politics and new laws (e.g. Raines Law which permitted “hotels” to sell alcohol). Together, they eviscerated Roosevelt’s authority. Roosevelt’s dry Sundays were a dry run, to coin a phrase, for the imposition of national abstinence a quarter-century later, with the adoption of the 18th Amendment establishing prohibition.

So, raise a toast to Roosevelt and those who led the campaign against the ostensibly alcoholic excesses of the city’s ethnic working classes. Roosevelt embodied the hypocrisy of his fellow social elite, taking full advantage of loopholes in the blue laws that allowed alcohol to flow legally in private clubs and hotel restaurants, second homes for the male gentry.

Roosevelt was a member of the Union League Club, where old-line, aristocratic members gathered on Sunday night to drink freely and plan how to better contest Tammany Democrats and morally discipline the poorer, ethnic peoples remaking the city. In keeping with New York’s—and America’s—long tradition of exempting the privileged from the legal consequences of their moral failings, the elite who crafted and imposed the Sunday abstinence law were, gratefully, excluded from its enforcement.

On December 16, 1896, a year and a half after Roosevelt ordered the closing of public bars on Sundays in June 1895, a most scandalous event took place in one of New York’s finest cabarets, Sherry’s. It involved some of the city’s leading swells and one of the nation’s first sex stars, “Little Egypt.” At first, rumors circulated that Roosevelt was present, but these were dispelled quickly. However, the scandal marked the nadir of Roosevelt’s tenure on the police commission; he had bigger fish to fry and was soon off to Washington, D.C., to be part of the new McKinley administration.

On this particular pre-Christmas evening, Herbert Barnum Seeley, a well-to-do nephew of the legendary P. T. Barnum, hosted an intimate get-together, a bachelor party for his brother, Clinton. The 20 gentlemen who attended were attired in their finest formal wear, their pedigree pre-established. The evening’s entertainment highlight was to be a series of performances by very attractive female performance artists, featuring Little Egypt. What exactly happened that night is still shrouded in mystery.

In keeping with the customs of the day among some upper-class male partygoers, female performers were subject to not merely the male gaze and catcalls, but lascivious touching as well. As Seeley later explained to the befuddled police, Little Egypt “just wiggled a bit, this way and that, and it was uninteresting, as they had all seen this sort of thing before. There were cries of ‘Take it off!’ and so forth.” When the police arrived, the female performers—naked but for their overcoats—were ushered out a back door.

Zacks provides the most thorough reconstruction of what happened on that fateful night of December 16, 1896, and in subsequent court proceedings. One could see this saga reenacted in a movie about Gotham. However, his retelling of this defining episode of city lore reveals his strength and weakness as a storyteller.

As Zacks reports, Little Egypt was really an Algerian, born Ashea Waba and living  in New York as “Mrs. Harper.” He mentions in passing that Little Egypt earned a sensational reputation performing at the 1893 Chicago Exposition.

He fails to acknowledge that in Chicago, along with Fatima (Fahreda Mahzar) and other women with stage names like Houri, Husaria, Farida, and Maryeta, Little Egypt represented the erotic fantasy of all that was foreign, seductive, un-American. So popular was Little Egypt that she helped launch the new movie industry, featured in one of Thomas Edison’s earliest peep shows, and became, as a leading scholar noted, W. K. L. Dickson’s “first Mutoscope hit.” Reading Zacks, one would never know that Little Egypt was the Marilyn Monroe of fin-de-siècle America. Not to underestimate her appeal, Little Egypt was professionally represented by no less a legendary theatrical figure than Oscar Hammerstein.

Zacks’s Island Of Vice is a great read. If you want to learn about Roosevelt’s war against police corruption and his suppression of Sunday drinking, it’s a great resource, as well as engaging and entertaining.

However, while providing a richly detailed profile of Roosevelt during a tempestuous episode of his remarkable life, Zacks rarely steps back and looks at the bigger picture. The book suffers from an unnecessary intellectual or analytic claustrophobia. One would have hoped that he would have made a bigger intellectual argument. In particular, Zacks should have looked more carefully at Roosevelt’s character or personality, especially the evident hypocrisy enforcing Sunday abstinence laws while attending Union League galas as well as his complicity in political frauds benefiting the Republican Party.

Like today, fin-de-siècleNew York was an era of robber baron greed and Christian moral intolerance. One would have hoped that Zacks would have used his study of Roosevelt to consider what’s happening in New York today and if another Roosevelt could emerge. Putting aside these concerns, Zacks’s Island Of Vice offers a compelling study of an often-overlooked era in New York history.


David Rosen


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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