Island of Vice
Bull in a china shop
By Steven Martinovich
President. Decorated soldier. Avid outdoorsman. A man who succeeded seemingly at will. If one were to put together a scale of manhood it's likely that most would put Theodore Roosevelt near or at the top. How could you denigrate a man who delivered a campaign speech with a would be assassin's bullet freshly lodged in his chest? Often lost, however, in all the hagiographic praise of Roosevelt is acknowledgement of a relatively short period of his life in which he served as an eventually deeply unpopular moral crusader while Police Commissioner in New York City. For about two years Roosevelt took on police corruption and the sin industry that fed it and failed spectacularly.
Richard Zacks chronicles that period of the Bull Moose's life in his hugely entertaining Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. While top cop Roosevelt introduced a number of positive reforms including annual physical exams, choosing recruits based on physical and mental qualities, standardizing on a single revolver and the installation of telephones in station houses, among others. Those accomplishments, however, were overshadowed by his war on prostitution, bars and their patrons which he correctly identified as the financial engine of police sleaze.
Although its heyday had passed, Tammany Hall still held significant power in New York City. Patronage and graft were its currency and among its chief weapons and benefactors was the city's police force. Like all industrial-sized activities, money greased the wheels and police officers interested in progressing were expected to shake down the city's sizable population of prostitutes and bar owners who flouted Sunday prohibitions against serving alcohol. Roosevelt correctly surmised that cutting off the flow of bribery and enforcing existing laws would severely weaken the corrupt and encourage moral order in a city teetering between respectability and licentiousness.
If Roosevelt had any delusions that he could simply charge in and change the atmosphere overnight he would be taught otherwise. As Zacks reports, Roosevelt initially saw success and some public support as most bars were forced to close down on Sunday and many prostitutes were chased off or forced to go deep underground to ply their trade. Resistance came from some police officers who saw bribery as simply part of the job and a working class city denied the comfort of a beer on Sunday – for most of them their only day not working. As Roosevelt tightened the noose he came under increasing attack from all sides, Democrat and Republican alike. The former for the loss of dirty money, the latter for election losses because of Roosevelt's campaign.
Had Zacks merely stuck to the larger story Island of Vice would have been a fine effort but his peerless and fanatical historical research fleshes out this story completely. His account deftly weaves in the internecine war on the police commission that hobbled Roosevelt's efforts and the crooked politicians he fought, while smoothly including any number of sordid details like the price list of an 1895 New York prostitute. That's always been the chief calling card of Zacks' efforts – nailing down the facts while including a generous helping of real life, dirt and all. It turns history from another tedious academic exercise to something that a reader can relate to. It's tiresome to describe something as "history brought to life" – since most things described thus fail to do so – but Zacks has a remarkable track record doing just that.
Island of Vice is a truly enjoyable romp through sin and corruption and one man's tireless and doomed efforts to stamp it out. Zacks manages to mix the high and low brow with the skilful hand of an artist in order to accomplish his larger mission of illuminating Roosevelt, his war and the battlefield it took place on. Whether Island of Vice diminishes Roosevelt –paeans to the man don't usually include "moral scold" – or elevates him further is for the reader to decide. What is certain is that Zacks has turned in another worthy effort.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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