Before he was a Rough Rider and before he was president, Theodore Roosevelt was a New York City police commissioner whose principal agenda was to force his brand of morality on the city. In 1895, Tammany Hall may have been defeated, but police were still on the take, 30,000 prostitutes plied their trade, and tavern owners never locked up. Despite TR's stubbornness, city bookies would have been right to have given the commissioner pretty low odds for success.
In Island of Vice, Richard Zacks introduces us to the gritty side of turn-of-the-century Manhattan. In the 1890s, drinking, gambling, and sex were available 24/7 and most New Yorkers either indulged or turned a blind eye. Policemen were more often seen drinking on the beat then they were patrolling the streets, and their main concern was collecting payoffs to share with their superior officers.
Theodore Roosevelt stepped into this chaos with a morality agenda. To get a feel for what he was up against, TR and photojournalist Jacob Riis took midnight strolls through the city, visiting bars, spying on policemen, and taking note of brothels. Roosevelt believed his late-night research would help him crack down on bars trying to get around the Sunday closure laws and allow him to set up stings to catch prostitutes and corrupt cops.
Roosevelt, however, never fully understood the everyday New Yorker or the power of the payoff. Thanks to tavern owners who found ways around the excise laws, courtroom antics, yellow journalism, and police disciplinary boards that could be bribed, TR's plans for ending vice barely got off the starting line.
Island of Vice is a readable and accessible examination of Roosevelt's tenure with the NYPD. Relying on letters, newspaper stories, and court reports, among other sources, Zack takes a multi-pronged approach. He describes the sociocultural climate of the city, discusses the factors that may have led TR to take a morality stance, and fleshes out the personalities and events that finally drove Roosevelt out of New York and back to Washington.
Bonus comment: Richard Zacks's Island of Vice is particularly interesting to read after Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham, a novel set fifty years earlier when the NYPD was just being formed. Although one must be careful when comparing a fictional description with a historical account, the two books together provide a fascinating look at the city's police force in the nineteenth century.
I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio, 15 hr,28 min) read by Joe Ochman. My positive review of the audiobook was written for AudioFile magazine. The print edition contains a center insert with period photographs, a decent index, end notes, and a bibliography.
Published by Random House / Doubleday, 2012
Source: Review (print & audio) (see review policy)
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