A Lexow Effect? Daniel Czitrom's New York Exposed

Reviewed by Brian J. Rizzo

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New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era. Daniel Czitrom. New York: Oxford University Press. 2016. 398 pp.

A federal and state investigation into New York City corruption involving the mayor, high ranking police officials, and wealthy businessmen sounds like the makings of a great book about municipal abuse of power. Well, that book about the latest scandal to hit Gotham is still being written, but the book about New York’s first major cop scandal, and the state investigation that “exposed” it is hot off the press.

New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era by Daniel Czitrom, a Mount Holyoke College historian, is the story of the Lexow Committee's investigation of the New York Police Department. The book is by no means a narrow history. Czitrom explores the “realities and rituals” of the politicians and disenfranchised, the police and downtrodden, the capitalists and poor alike. It is a place and time he knows well, having served as the historical adviser for BBC America’s Civil War era drama Copper, and published an earlier work, with Bonnie Yochelson, on this setting (Rediscovering Jacob Riis, 2008).

Czitrom sought to answer a single question, “How did the excesses of Gilded Age New York give birth to a powerful national movement for urban reform?" His answer is what he dubs the “Lexow Effect,” his phrase for not just the national effect of revealed corruption, but the means by which it was exposed: the governmental investigating committee. Public “exposures” resulted in “the prevailing twentieth-century understanding of the ‘system’ -– the moment at which the public learned the extent to which it was rigged.” Local reformers (called “goo-goos” because they championed “good government”) led the charge for non-partisan government; as with Teddy Roosevelt, who took up the baton, became president of the Police Board post-Lexow, and instituted changes to professionalize the force, enacting tougher civil service requirements for appointment and promotion, and reducing the corruption and partisanship of the patronage system.

Academics can debate the level the Lexow Committee's influence in "launching the Progressive era," or its role in reforming the police. Were the intellectual elites influenced by the 1883 Pendleton Act, creating a merit-based personnel system replacing the “spoils” system? Or perhaps Woodrow Wilson’s 1887 article "The Study of Administration," which advocated for a new discipline to train professional administrators to run government? What we do know, because Czitrom tells us, is the Progressive message of reform was brought to the “masses” through enhanced media coverage of the daily hearings. And if he is right, the Lexow Effect is present today; the latest federal investigation into New York City police corruption is evidence that “every twenty-years, or so” there is a scandal (in the zealous Lexow counsel role played masterfully by John Goff in the original is the equally zealous Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York).

Written in a creative non-fiction style, New York Exposed tells the story surrounding the five volume, 6,000 page report on the Investigation of the Police Department of the City of New York, 1894 (Lexow Committee) which Czitrom found collecting dust in a New York City bookstore. Czitrom takes what he describes as “an utterly bureaucratic document” and transforms it into a well-researched, well-written, and well-spun yarn about decadence, corruption and deprivation in the Gilded Age. You do not have to be an academic or amateur historian to appreciate this work. New York Exposed has appeal for native and tourist alike.

It is February 14, 1892, when Czitrom introduces his protagonist, Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, whose Madison Square pulpit is ground zero for the crusade against vice in New York. Parkhurst, who sardonically observed, “any crime has its price,” focused his sights on political-police collusion. But it was the police department’s non-enforcement of Sabbath “blue laws” and regulations of gambling houses and brothels that made the Presbyterian minister apoplectic. Ultimately, his persistence led to the creation of the Lexow Committee, the focus of the book. (For an in-depth account of Parkhurst’s motivation, see Warren Sloat’s 2002 A Battle for the Soul of New York).

While Parkhurst’s dogged pursuit of justice led to the investigation, however, he was not its star. At least for Czitrom, that credit goes to the Lexow Committee itself, which performed its show on the nation’s greatest stage: New York City. Because “New York politics is national,” the show ran in multiple cities around the country, as newspapers, the cable news of the day, printed daily testimony play by play, in the process "making sensational, publicity driven investigations valuable new tools for ...reform movements."

The bulk of the drama involves the age-old theme of “good versus evil.” And, like any good drama, “good” appears to triumph in the end, although it is the assortment of “evil” characters which give the narrative its pop.

All the “usual suspects” are included, but some deserve special mention.

As State Senator, William “Boss” Tweed instrumentally helped establish a bi-partisan police board of commissioners in 1870 and put the department in charge of overseeing elections. The Board’s configuration was intended to eliminate politics from police affairs, but, as Czitrom notes, “the bi-partisan principle had…the opposite effect.” Spoils, patronage, and, now, graft was split between two parties. As for overseeing the elections, Tweed knew how critical the new Board would be for Tammany Hall -- remarking, “as long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?”

“Big Tim” Sullivan is another. The Manhattan district leader summarized his politics this way: “Help your neighbor, but keep your nose out of his business.” Sullivan understood his constituency well. Many working-class New Yorkers considered it their “business” whether to have a beer on Sunday, instead of listening to a Parkhurst sermon on redemption. Nonetheless, the enforcement policy of alcohol consumption on Sunday remained a hot election issue well into the twentieth century. Whether the “lid” was lifted, tilted slightly, or shut tight, depended on who occupied City Hall.

But the most captivating members of this star-studded cast are the members of the Police Department. Czitrom captures their swagger of invincibility, their “imperious” nature, and their collusion with both Democrats and Republican magnificently. The police saw their priority as keeping the streets safe, maintaining order, and providing service par excellence. Regarding vice enforcement, they staked a middle way, between outright suppression or flagrant license.

Three cops, or “buttons,” stand out: Thomas Byrnes, Alexander Williams, and William Devery. Byrnes, the Superintendent of Police, who originated the “third degree,” challenged the Lexow Committee to find “any man… to point his finger at me and ever say he gave me a dollar… in a dishonest way.” Captain Alexander Williams (nickname: “Clubber”) similarly toyed with the committee throughout his testimony. When asked, “in the face of this mountain of evidence against you” if his position was simply that “everyone has lied about you?” Williams responded glibly, “Yes, Sir.” William’s most famous quote has many variations, but when he reportedly said, “I’ve been living on chuck in the other precincts, I’m going to get me some tenderloin now,” he let it be known that the “Tenderloin” is the most lucrative district in the city for grafting. Interestingly, it is also home to Parkhurst’s Madison Square Presbyterian Church.

But it was Captain Devery, or “Big Bill,” who kept Parkhurst up at night embodied all that was rotten with “the system.” Devery endured Parkhurst’s personal attacks, grand jury indictments, and arrest, only to be found not guilty and exonerated. Czitrom calls Devery “the most politically connected cop in the city’s history.” He endured incriminating witness testimony, and dismissal in absentia at a police board hearing, only to be reinstated by the court, and ultimately made Chief of Police in 1897. The state legislature abolished the position, but still Devery was not finished. In 1901, he became the number-two man in the department, assuming the civilian position of First Deputy Commissioner. Devery epitomized the crooked cop, not even pretending to be on the level. In 1893 when he assumed command of the Eldridge Street station house, he told his men, “If there’s any graftin’ to be done, I’ll do it. Leave it to me.” And being as Devery was never “caught with the goods,” he would respond to questions about his dealings in classic “Deverese,” saying things like ”touchin’ on and appertainin’ to that matter, I disremember.”
Czitrom asserts that police brutality remains “unchecked,” as in the days of “Clubber” Williams, something criminologists and historians might dispute. Today’s NYPD is as diverse, as well-trained, and as professional as any big-city police department. But there will always be members of the department who engage in corrupt, brutal, and immoral behavior, as evidenced by current scandals and abuses of authority, like the controversial stop-and-frisk policy or the alleged quota system, which always disproportionately affect those who need the police most.

Historians and political scientists might also debate whether the “Gilded Age police scandal” launched the Progressive Era. The primary mission of those reformers was the removal of corrupt partisan politics from municipal services. And the most visible form of egregious political corruption was found in the police department. So that is where Dr. Parkhurst began his crusade, and where the Lexow Commission focused its investigation. To quote Parkhurst from his New York Times obituary: “My campaign in New York was not directed against prostitutes… gamblers… drinkers… my whole battle was waged against the hypocrisy and collusion of our city government. That government said one thing…[and] it did another.”

Progressives envisioned a government run by professionally trained administrators, a society where both “halves” benefited. They championed non-partisan “good government” ideals. Czitrom believes there is still work to be done on this front. In this, I agree. Whether the Lexow Effect has anything to do with it, I am not yet convinced.

Brian J. Rizzo is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Westfield State University in Massachusetts and a retired New York Police Department Sergeant. He is currently turning his dissertation, “Serving at the Pleasure of the Mayor: An Exploration of Political Involvement in New York Police Commissioner Departures 1901 - 2001,” into a book.