Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen > VI. In Mulberry Street
Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.
VI. In Mulberry Street
A DOZEN years had wrought their changes since Roosevelt took his legislative committee down from Albany to investigate the Police Department of New York City. The only change they had brought to Mulberry Street 1 was that of aggravating a hundredfold the evils which had then attracted attention. He had put an unerring finger upon politics as the curse that was eating out the heart of the force once called the finest in the world. The diagnosis was correct; but the prescription written out by the spoilsmen was more politics and ever more politics; and the treatment was about as bad as could have been devised. With the police become an avowedly political body with a bi-partisan in stead of a non-partisan Board of Commissioners, there grew up, primarily through the operation, or non-operation, of the Sunday saloon-closing law, a system of police blackmail unheard of in the world before. It was the disclosure of its slimy depths through the labors of Dr. Parkhurst and of the Lexow Committee which brought about the political revolution out of which came reform and Roosevelt. But in Mulberry Street they were hailed as freaks. The “system” so far had been invincible. It had broken many men who had got in its way.   1
  “It will break you,” was the greeting with which Byrnes, the Big Chief, who had ruled Mulberry Street with a hard hand, but had himself bowed to “the system,” received Mr. Roosevelt. “You will yield. You are but human.”   2
  The answer of the new President of the Board was to close the gate of the politicians to police patronage.   3
  “We want,” he said, “the civil service law applied to appointments here, not because it is the ideal way, but because it is the only way to knock the political spoilsmen out, and you have to do that to get anywhere.” And the Board made the order.   4
  Next he demanded the resignation of the chief, and forbade the annual parade for which preparations were being made. “We will parade when we need not be ashamed to show ourselves.” And then he grappled with the saloons.   5
  Here, before we go into that fight, let me turn aside a moment to speak of myself; then perhaps with good luck we shall have less of me hereafter. Though how that can be I don’t really know; for now I had Roosevelt at last in my own domain. For two years we were to be together all the day, and quite often most of the night, in the environment in which I had spent twenty years of my life. And these two were the happiest by far of them all. Then was life really worth living, and I have a pretty robust enjoyment of it at all times. Else where I have told how we became acquainted; how he came to my office one day when I was out and left his card with the simple words written in pencil upon it: “I have read your book, and I have come to help.” That was the beginning. The book was “How the Other Half Lives,” in which I tried to draw an indictment of the things that were wrong, pitifully and dreadfully wrong, with the tenement homes of our wage-workers. It was like a man coming to enlist for a war because he believed in the cause, and truly he did. Now had come the time when he could help indeed. Decency had moved into the City Hall, where shameless indifference ruled before. His first thought was to have me help there. I preserve two letters from him, from the time between the election in 1894 that put Tammany out and the New Year when Mayor Strong and reform moved in, in which he urges this idea.   6
  “It is very important to the city,” he writes, “to have a business man’s mayor, but it is more important to have a workingman’s mayor, and I want Mr. Strong to be that also.… I am exceedingly anxious that, if it is possible, the Mayor shall appoint you to some position which shall make you one of his official advisers.… It is an excellent thing to have rapid transit, but it is a good deal more important, if you look at matters with a proper perspective, to have ample playgrounds in the poorer quarters of the city, and to take the children off the streets to prevent them from growing up toughs. In the same way it is an admirable thing to have clean streets; indeed, it is an essential thing to have them; but it would be a better thing to have our schools large enough to give ample accommodation to all should-be pupils, and to provide them with proper play-grounds.”   7
  You see, he had not changed. His was the same old plan, to help the man who was down; and he was right, too. It was and is the essential thing in a country like ours: not to prop him up forever, not to carry him; but to help him to his feet so he can go himself. Else the whole machine won’t go at length in the groove in which we have started it. The last letter concludes with regret that he had not seen his way clear to accept the street-cleaning commissionership that was offered him by the Mayor, for “I should have been delighted to smash up the corrupt contractors and put the street-cleaning force absolutely out of the domain of politics.” No doubt he would; but it was well he did n’t, for so Colonel Waring came into our city’s life, and he was just such another, and an engineer besides, who knew how.   8
  As to the share he wanted me to take in it, we had it out at the time over that; and, though we had little tugs after that, off and on, it was settled then that I should not be called upon to render that kind of service—to Mayor Strong’s rather bewildered relief, I fancy. I think, to the end of his official life he did not get quite rid of a notion that I was nursing some sort of an unsatisfied ambition and reserving my strength for a sudden raid upon him. I know that when I asked him to appoint an unofficial Small Parks Committee, and to put me on it, it took him a long time to make up his mind that there was not a nigger in that woodpile somewhere. He was the only man, if I am right in that, who ever gave me credit for political plotting. For when, afterward, as I recorded in “The Making of an American,” I marched the Christian Endeavorers and the Methodist ministers to the support of Roosevelt in the fight between him and his wicked partners in the Police Board, that was not plotting, though they called it so, but just war; a kind of hold-up, if you like, in the plain interests of the city’s welfare.   9
  But “the system” Roosevelt was called to break up. I shall not attempt to describe it. The world must be weary of it to the point of disgust. We fought it then; we fight it now. We shall have to fight it no one can tell how often or how long; for just as surely as we let up for ever so little a while, and Tammany, which is always waiting without, gets its foot between the door and the jamb, the old blackmail rears its head once more. It is the form corruption naturally takes in a city with twelve or thirteen thousand saloons, with a State law that says they shall be closed on Sundays, and with a defiant thirst which puts a premium on violating the law by making it the most profitable day in the week to the saloon-keeper who will take the chances. Those chances are the opportunities of the politician and of the police where the two connect. The politicians use the law as a club to keep the saloons in line, all except the biggest, the keepers of which sit in the inner councils of “the Hall”; the police use it for extorting blackmail. “The result was,” said Roosevelt himself, when he had got a bird’s-eye view of the situation, “that the officers of the law and the saloon-keepers became inextricably tangled in a network of crime and connivance at crime. The most powerful saloon-keepers controlled the politicians and the police, while the latter in turn terrorized and blackmailed all the other saloon-keepers.” Within the year or two that preceded Roosevelt’s coming to Mulberry Street, this system of “blackmail had been brought to such a state of perfection, and had become so oppressive to the liquor-dealers themselves, that they communicated first with Governor Hill and then with Mr. Croker.” I am quoting now from a statement made by the editor of their organ, the “Wine and Spirit Gazette,” the correctness of which was never questioned. The excise law was being enforced with “gross discrimination.” “A committee of the Central Association of Liquor Dealers took the matter up and called upon Police Commissioner Martin (Mr. Roosevelt’s Tammany predecessor in the presidency of the Board). An agreement was made between the leaders of Tammany Hall and the liquor-dealers, according to which the monthly blackmail paid to the police should be discontinued in return for political support.” The strange thing is that they did not put it on the books at headquarters in regular form. Probably they did not think of it.   10
  But the agreement was kept only with those who had “pull.” It did not hurt them to see their smaller, helpless rivals bullied and blackmailed by the police. As for the police, they were taking no chances. They had bought appointment, or promotion, of Tammany with the understanding that they were to reimburse themselves for the outlay. Their hunger only grew as they fed, until they blackmailed everything in sight, from the push-cart peddler in the street, who had bought his license to sell, but was clubbed from post to post until he “gave up,” to the brothel, the gambling-house, and the policy-shop, for which they had regular rates: so much for “initiation” every time a new captain came to the precinct, and so much per month for permission to run. The total ran up in the millions. New York was a wide-open town. The bosses at “the Hall” fairly rolled in wealth; the police had lost all decency and sense of justice. That is, the men who ran the force had. The honest men on the patrol posts, the men with the night-sticks as Roosevelt called them when he spoke of them, had lost courage and hope.   11
  This was the situation that confronted him in Mulberry Street, and with characteristic directness he decided that in the saloon was the tap-root of the mischief. The thing to do was to enforce the Sunday-closing law. And he did.   12
  The storm that rose lives in my memory as the most amazing tempest—I was going to say in a teapot—that ever was. But it was a capital affair to those whose graft was at stake. The marvel was in the reach they had. It seemed for a season as if society was struck through and through with the rottenness of it all. That the politicians, at first incredulous, took the alarm was not strange. They had an interest. But in their tow came half the community, as it seemed, counseling, praying, beseeching this man to cease his rash upturning of the foundations of things, and use discretion. Roosevelt replied grimly that there was nothing about discretion in his oath of office, and quoted to them Lincoln’s words, “Let reverence of law be taught in schools and colleges, be written in primers and spelling-books, be published from pulpits and proclaimed in legislative houses, and enforced in the courts of justice—in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.” He was doing nothing worse than enforcing honestly a law that had been enforced dishonestly in all the years. Still the clamor rose. The yellow newspapers pursued Roosevelt with malignant lies. They shouted daily that the city was overrun with thieves and murderers, that crime was rampant and unavenged, because the police were worn out in the Sunday-closing work. Every thief, cut-throat, and blackmailer who had place and part in the old order of things joined in the howl. Roosevelt went deliberately on, the only one who was calm amid all the hubbub. And when, after many weeks of it, the smoke cleared away; when the saloon-keepers owned in court that they were beaten; when the warden of Bellevue Hospital reported that for the first time in its existence there had not been a “case,” due to a drunken brawl, in the hospital all Monday; when the police courts gave their testimony, while savings-banks recorded increased deposits and pawn-shops hard times; when poor mothers flocked to the institutions to get their children whom they had placed there for safe-keeping in the “wide-open” days—then we knew what his victory meant.   13
  These were the things that happened. They are the facts. Living in this cosmopolitan city, where, year after year, the Sunday-closing law turns up as an issue in the fight for good government,—an issue, so we are told, with the very people, the quiet, peace-loving Germans, upon whom we, from every other point of view, would always count as allies in that struggle,—I find myself impatiently enough joining in the demand for freedom from the annoyance, for a “liberal observance” of Sunday that shall rid us of this ghost at our civic banquet. And then I turn around and look at the facts as they were then; at that Sunday which Roosevelt and I spent from morning till night in the tenement districts, seeing for ourselves what went on; at the happy children and contented mothers we met whose homes, according to their self-styled defenders, were at that very time being “hopelessly desolated by the enforcement of a tyrannical law surviving from the dark ages of religious bigotry”; and I ask myself how much of all the clamor for Sunday beer comes from the same pot that spewed forth its charges against Roosevelt so venomously. It may be that we shall need another emancipation before we get our real bearings: the delivery of the honest Germans from their spokesmen who would convince us that with them every issue of family life, of good government, of manhood and decency, is subordinate to the one of beer, and beer only.   14
  Blackmail was throttled for a season; but the clamor never ceased. Roosevelt shut the police-station lodging-rooms, the story of which I told in “The Making of an American.” Greater service was never rendered the city by any man. For it he was lampooned and caricatured. He was cruel!—he who spent his waking and sleeping hours planning relief for his brother in distress. So little was he understood that even the venerable chairman of the Charter Revision Committee asked him sternly if he “had no pity for the poor.” I can see him now, bending contracted brows upon the young man who struck right and left where he saw wrong done. Roosevelt answered patiently enough, with respect for the gray hairs, that it was poor pity for the tramp to enable him to go on tramping, which was all the lodging-houses did; and he went right ahead and shut them up.   15
  We had a law forbidding the sale of liquor to children, which was a dead letter. I stood in front of one East Side saloon and watched a steady stream of little ones with mugs and bottles going through the door, and I told Roosevelt. He gave orders to seize the worst offender, and had him dragged to court; but to do it he had to permit the use of a boy to get evidence, a regular customer who had gone there a hundred times for a bad purpose, and now was sent in once for a good one. A howl of protest arose. The magistrate discharged the saloon-keeper and reprimanded the policeman. Like a pack of hungry wolves they snarled at Roosevelt. He was to be legislated out of office. He turned to the decent people of the city. “We shall not have to employ such means,” he said, “once a year, but when we need to we shall not shrink from it. It is idle to ask us to employ against law-breakers only such means as those law-breakers approve. We are not playing ‘puss in the corner’ with the criminals. We intend to stamp out these vermin, and we do not intend to consult the vermin, as to the methods we shall employ.” And the party managers at Albany he warned publicly that an attack upon the Police Board, on whatever pretext, was an attack upon its members because they had done their duty, and that the politicians must reckon with decent sentiment, if they dared punish them for declining to allow the police force to be used for political purposes, or to let law-breakers go unpunished.   16
  Roosevelt won. He conquered politics and he stopped law-breaking; but the biggest victory he won was over the cynicism of a people so steeped in it all that they did not dream it could be done. Tammany came back, but not to stay. And though it may come back many times yet for our sins, it will be merely like the thief who steals in to fill his pockets from the till when the store-keeper is not looking. That was what we got out of having Roosevelt on the Police Board. He could not set us free. We have got to do that ourselves. But he cut our bonds and gave us arms, if we chose to use them.   17
  Of the night trips we took together to see how the police patrolled in the early hours of the morning, when the city sleeps and policemen are most needed, I told in the story of my own life, and shall not here repeat it. They earned for him the name of Haroun-al-Roosevelt, those trips that bore such sudden good fruit in the discipline of the force. They were not always undertaken solely to wake up the police. Roosevelt wanted to know the city by night, and the true inwardness of some of the problems he was struggling with as Health Commissioner; for the President of the Police Board was by that fact a member of the Health Board also. One might hear of overcrowding in tenements for years and not grasp the subject as he could by a single midnight inspection with the sanitary police. He wanted to understand it all, the smallest with the greatest, and sometimes the information he brought out was unique, to put it mildly. I can never think of one of those expeditions without a laugh. We had company that night: Hamlin Garland and Dr. Alexander Lambert were along. In the midnight hour we stopped at a peanut-stand in Rivington Street for provender, and while the Italian made change Roosevelt pumped him on the economic problem he presented. How could he make it pay? No one was out; it did not seem as if his sales could pay for even the fuel for his torch that threw its flickering light upon dark pavements and deserted streets. The peanut-man groped vainly for a meaning in his polite speech, and turned a bewildered look upon the doctor.   18
  “How,” said he, coming promptly to the rescue,—“how you make him pay—cash—pan out—monish?”   19
  The Italian beamed with sudden understanding. “Nah!” he said, with a gesture eloquent of resentment and resignation in one: “W’at I maka on de peanút I losa on de dam’ banán’.”   20
  Did the police hate Roosevelt for making them do their duty? No, they loved him. The crooks hated him; they do everywhere, and with reason. But the honest men on the force, who were, after all, in the great majority, even if they had knuckled under in discouragement to a system that could break them, but against which they were powerless, came quickly to accept him as their hope of delivery. For the first time in the history of the department every man had a show on his merits. Amazing as it was, “pull” was dead. Politics or religion cut no figure. No one asked about them. But did a policeman, pursuing a burglar through the night, dive running into the Park Avenue railroad tunnel, risking a horrible death to catch his man, he was promptly promoted; did a bicycle policeman lie with broken and bruised bones after a struggle with a runaway horse that meant his life or the lives of helpless women and children if he let go, he arose from his bed a roundsman with the medal for bravery on his breast. Did a gray-haired veteran swim ashore among grinding ice-floes with a drowning woman, he was called to headquarters and made a sergeant. I am speaking of cases that actually occurred. The gray-haired veteran of the Civil War had saved twenty-eight lives at the risk of his own,—his beat lay along the river shore,—had been twice distinguished by Congress with medals for valor, bore the life-saving medal, and had never a complaint against him on the discipline-book; but about all the recognition he had ever earned from the Police Board was the privilege of buying a new uniform at his own expense when he had ruined the old one in risking his life. Roosevelt had not been in Mulberry Street four weeks when the board resolved, on his motion, that clothes ruined in risking life on duty were a badge of honor, of which the board was proud to pay the cost.   21
  That the police became, from a band of blackmailers’ tools, a body of heroes in a few brief months, only backs up my belief that the heart of the force, with which my lines were cast half a lifetime, was and is all right, with the Deverys and the Murphys out of the way. Led by a Roosevelt, it would be the most magnificent body of men to be found anywhere. Two years under him added quite a third to the roll-of-honor record of forty years under Tammany politics. However, the enemy was quick to exploit what there was in that. When I looked over the roll the other day I found page upon page inscribed with names I did not know, behind one of a familiar sound, though I could not quite make it out. Tammany or Toomany—either way would mean the same thing: it was no longer a roll of honor.   22
  These were some of the things Roosevelt did in Mulberry Street. He did many more, and they were all for its good. He did them all so simply, so frankly, that in the end he disarmed criticism, which in the beginning took it all for a new game, an “honesty racket,” of which it had not got the hang, and could not,—confounded his enemies, who grew in number as his success grew and sat up nights hatching out plots by which to trip him. Roosevelt strode through them all, kicking their snares right and left, half the time not dreaming that they were there, and laughing contemptuously when he saw them. I remember a mischief-maker whose mission in life seemed to be to tell lies at headquarters and carry tales, setting people at odds where he could. He was not an official, but an outsider, an idler with nothing better to do, but a man with a “pull” among politicians. Roosevelt came upon some of his lies, traced them to their source, and met the man at the door the next time he came nosing around. I was there and heard what passed.   23
  “Mr. So-and-so.” said the President of the Board, “I have heard this thing, and I am told you said it. You know, of course, that it is a lie. I shall send at once for the man who says he heard you tell it, so that you may meet him; because you know if you did say it we cannot have you around here any more.” The man got out at once and never came back while Roosevelt was there.   24
  It was all as simple as that, perfectly open and aboveboard, and I think he was buncoed less than any of his “wise” predecessors. There was that in his trust in uncorrupted human nature that brought out a like response. There always is, thank heaven! You get what you give in trust and affection. The man who trusts no one has his faith justified; no one will trust him, and he will find plenty to try their wits upon him. Once in a while Roosevelt’s sympathies betrayed him, but not to his discredit. They laugh yet in the section-rooms at the police stations over the trick played upon him by a patrolman whose many peccadilloes had brought him at last to the “jumping-off place.” This time he was to be dismissed. The President said so; there was no mercy. But the policeman had “piped him off.” He knew his soft spot. In the morning, when the Commissioner came fresh from his romp with his own babies, there confronted him eleven youngsters of all ages, howling dolefully. The doomed policeman mutely introduced them with a sorrowful gesture,—motherless all.   25
  Mr. Roosevelt’s stern gaze softened. What, no mother? all these children! Go, then, and take one more chance, one last chance. And the policeman went out with the eleven children which were not his at all. He had borrowed them, all but two, from the neighbors in his tenement.   26
  But there is no malice in the joking at his expense, rather affection. It is no mean tribute to human nature, even in the policeman’s uniform, that for the men who tricked Roosevelt in the Police Board—his recreant colleagues—and undid what they could of his work, there survives in the Department the utmost contempt and detestation, while Roosevelt is held in the heartiest regard that is not in the least due to his exalted station, but to a genuine reverence for the man’s character as Mulberry Street saw it when it was put to the severest test.   27
  I shall have, after all, to ask those who would know him at this period of his life, as I knew him, to read “The Making of an American,” because I should never get through were I to try to tell it all. He made, as I said, a large part of my life in Mulberry Street, and by far the best part. When he went, I had no heart in it. Of the strong hand he lent in the battle with the slum, as a member of the Health Board, that book will tell them. We had all the ammunition for the fight, the law and all, but there was no one who dared begin it till he came. Then the batteries opened fire at once, and it is largely due to him and his unhesitating courage that we have got as far as we have. And that means something beyond the ordinary, for we were acting under an untried law, the failure of which might easily involve a man in suits for very great damages. Indeed, Mr. Roosevelt was sued twice by landlords whose tenements he destroyed. One characteristic incident survives in my memory from that day. An important office was to be filled in the Health Department, about which I knew. There were two candidates: one the son of a janitor, educated in the public schools, faithful and able, but without polish or special fitness; the other a college man, a graduate of how many foreign schools of learning I don’t know, a gentleman of travel, of refinement. He was the man for the position, which included much contact with the outer world,—so I judged, and so did others. Roosevelt had the deciding vote. We urged our man strongly upon him. He saw the force of our arguments, and yielded, but slowly and most reluctantly. His outspoken preference was for the janitor’s son, who had fought himself up to the point where he could compete. And he was right, after all. The other was a failure; he was over-educated. I was glad, for Roosevelt’s sake as well as for my own, when in after years the janitor’s son took his place and came to his own.   28
  One incident, which I have told before, I cannot forbear setting down here again, for without it even this fragmentary record would be too incomplete. I mean his meeting with the labor men who were having constant trouble with the police over their strikes, their pickets, etc. They made me much too proud of them, both he and they, for me ever to forget that. Roosevelt saw that the trouble was in their not understanding one another, and he asked the labor leaders to meet him at Clarendon Hall to talk it over. Together we trudged through a blinding snow-storm to the meeting. This was at the beginning of things, when the town had not yet got the bearings of the man. The strike leaders thought they had to do with an ambitious politician, and they tried bluster. They would do so and so unless the police were compliant; and they watched to get him placed. They had not long to wait. Roosevelt called a halt, short and sharp.   29
  “Gentlemen!” he said, “we want to understand one another. That was my object in coming here. Remember, please, that he who counsels violence does the cause of labor the poorest service. Also, he loses his case. Understand distinctly that order will be kept. The police will keep it. Now, gentlemen!”   30
  There was a moment’s amazed suspense, and then the hall rang with their cheers. They had him placed then, for they knew a man when they saw him. And he,—he went home proud and happy, for his trust in his fellow-man was justified.   31
  He said, when it was all over, that there was no call at all for any genius in the work of administering the police force, nor, indeed, for any unusual qualities, but just common sense, common honesty, energy, resolution, and readiness to learn; which was probably so. They are the qualities he brought to everything he ever put his hands to. But if he learned something in that work that helped round off the man in him,—though it was not all sweetness or light,—he taught us much more. His plain performance of a plain duty, the doing the right because it was the right, taught us a lesson we stood in greater need of than of any other. Roosevelt’s campaign for the reform of the police force became the moral issue of the day. It swept the cobwebs out of our civic brains, and blew the dust from our eyes, so that we saw clearly where all had been confusion before: saw straight, rather. We rarely realize, in these latter days, how much of our ability to fight for good government, and our hope of winning the fight, is due to the campaign of honesty waged by Theodore Roosevelt in Mulberry Street.   32

Note 1. The Police Headquarters of the city is in Mulberry Street. [ back ]


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