Tammany Hall, Women's Suffrage, and Big Tim Sullivan

By Alice Sparberg Alexiou


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as women grit their teeth and tirelessly fought for the right to vote amidst sneers and insults hurled at them by men and even members of their own sex, suffragists in New York found an unlikely and powerful ally: the big, crude Tammany boss Timothy Daniel Sullivan.

He was as corrupt as you’d expect of a pol owned by Tammany Hall, the famed Democratic machine whose influence back then reached deep into the corners of city government. With the help of his brother Paddy and a truckload of Sullivan cousins, “Big Tim” controlled everything below 14th Street, “da line,” where New York’s hoards of immigrant poor lived in fetid tenements, amidst the criminal enterprises that inevitably accompany poverty. This was Big Tim’s world, where he was born and raised — in the notorious Five Points slum — and he remained there. Muckrakers accused him of profiting off his constituents, mostly in the form of kickbacks from the area’s hundreds of saloons and gambling halls, in some of which he held interests. Big Tim was also said to benefit from the booming prostitution rackets of the Lower East Side, which were controlled by a Jewish racketeer and friend of Big Tim — he had, indeed, a lot of criminal friends — named Max Hochstim. (The pimp played by Joachim Phoenix in the 2013 film The Immigrant was based on Hochstim).

But people can be many things, simultaneously, and Tim Sullivan was way more than just a slum politician with underworld connections. He was a complex and evasive man, who cared for his loyal voters in personal ways: bailing them out of jail, slipping desperate mothers money to buy food for their children, and hosting turkey dinners every Thanksgiving. But besides these admittedly mundane ways of winning the hearts of his constituents, Big Tim was also a statesman. Backed by Tammany in 1886 as a State Assembly candidate when he was only twenty-four, Sullivan won, debarked for Albany, and immediately made a name for himself as an exceptionally astute politician. The speeches he made in his native Bowery patois to the patrician men sitting in the legislature sometimes brought them to tears. “He holds the lower house by the throat,” the Brooklyn Eagle wrote in 1891. “Some of the members of the assembly are afraid to cross his wishes for fear he’ll use his fists, others acquiesce in his desires because they are afraid of his sharp tongue.” In 1893, Sullivan was elected to State Senate, and except for a brief stint as a U.S. congressman, kept his seat there for the twenty years, working on legislation, some of it aimed at bettering working conditions. This cause was one of his passions.

Another was votes for women.

As a young assemblyman, Big Tim Sullivan listened carefully to the speeches made by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other suffragists each time they descended upon Albany to argue their case. He voted “yea” each time a suffrage bill actually made it onto the floor. His first opportunity came in 1892; the bill passed the Assembly but died in the Senate. It would take twenty-five years before women in New York finally got the vote, and as they fought this battle, Tim Sullivan stood right there alongside them. Not only was his position radical for the time, but adopting it meant bucking Tammany, which was then taking an overtly anti-suffrage stance (in the words of one of the big men in the hall, “the organization stands to lose if women get the vote.”) Considering how tenaciously the Tammany machine controlled New York politics, Big Tim’s declared independence on the suffrage issue seems pretty incredible. But Tammany left him alone: He was too powerful, and too fiercely worshipped by his constituents, to be silenced.

So how to explain this renegade Tammany boss’s so very enlightened attitude on women’s suffrage, long before public opinion turned in favor of it? It seems it came at least in part from growing up hungry in the Five Points with ten siblings and an alcoholic stepfather who beat his mother. Catherine Connelly Sullivan somehow managed to feed her kids, although she often went hungry. Sullivan adored her — at the end of his life he had Kenmare Street named for her birthplace in Ireland — and admired the grit and sacrifices of the women — not just the mothers, but their daughters too--struggling to keep families together in New York’s mean streets. Once he told a reporter: “I’ve been watchin’ the folks goin’ to their work of a morning, comin’ over the Brooklyn Bridge and fillin’ the ferryboats and the crowdin’ down in the subway. And the tings that hits me right in the eye is the fact that there’s nearly as many women as men in these mornin’ crowds of workers. If the women have to work like that alongside of men, then they ought to be able to vote alongside them, too.” He also thought women should be able to run for office. “If man is the mighty affair he thinks he is, why is he afraid of political competition by women?” But if he’s not such a mighty affair, then it’s time he stepped down and gave the ladies a chance to show what they can do in politics.”

Clearly, then, Big Tim Sullivan genuinely liked women. This makes us wonder, in light of his startlingly progressive views about their place in a man’s world: How did he treat them? In his private life, we don’t know. He had a wife, Helen Fitzgerald, who’d grown up with him in Five Points. The couple married very young and soon became estranged, but, being Catholic, never divorced. They had no children. Big Tim was known to like actresses and prostitutes. Rumors of liaisons abounded, but everybody knew better than to ask him about it. He fathered several children, as they quaintly said in those days, out of wedlock.

But publicly, Tim Sullivan’s demeanor towards women could not have been more respectful. In January 1911, when groups of suffragists once again descended on Albany to present a bill to the legislature, they found Big Tim Sullivan busy working on a bill to make it illegal to carry a gun without a permit. (The bill passed into law the following April, and is still on the books. We still call it “the Sullivan Law.”) Never mind; he immediately got behind the latest suffrage bill.

“Perhaps you didn’t know that the famous senator from the Bowery has the intention of supporting the next bill,” wrote Evening World columnist Nixola Greeley-Smith, thirty-one, in a full-page story about Sullivan in January 1911. This granddaughter of Horace Greeley and a newspaperwoman since age eighteen, Greeley-Smith was by then famous. With her fiercely progressive views and well-honed interviewing skills, she loved throwing tough questions at powerful men, and she approached the Sullivan interview with the skepticism of a seasoned reporter. She pictured Big Tim as embodiment of a corrupt politician — “a large and roseate person, completely surrounded by diamonds.”

But when the King of the Bowery actually stood before her, she was utterly charmed.

“I saw a stately person in marvelously fitting black clothes. He was a monument of stable simplicity, from his shoes to his black tie, in which a beautiful white pearl coyly rested,” she wrote in her article. She noted the twinkle in “the very blue Sullivan eyes.” Contrary to her usual practice, Greeley-Smith did not ask Big Tim any embarrassing questions. Instead, she let him do all the talking. “Give a woman half a chance,” he told her, “and you’ll find she can reason just as well and is generally a good deal fairer and squarer than a man.”

Sullivan saw to it that the 1911 suffrage bill got out onto the floor of the legislature in June. To his sorrow, it did not pass. But as women in New York and throughout the country pressed on with their fight for the vote, word circulated that the famous Bowery senator Tim Sullivan was supporting their cause. That support mattered, as one newspaper wrote: “Mr. Tim Sullivan having declared himself in favor of woman suffrage, the question may as well be as good as settled.”

The following year — 1912 — Sullivan tried to get another suffrage bill through committee, but it was killed. He told supporters not to lose heart, that it would only be a few years before women in New York got the vote. He was right: in 1917, New York became the fourteenth state to ratify suffrage for women. But Big Tim Sullivan, tragically, didn’t live to see it. At some point during his career, he’d contracted syphilis. By 1911, as he simultaneously worked on gun control legislation and the suffrage bill, he was seriously ill. He died in 1913.

Alice Sparberg Alexiou is the author of Jane Jacobs (2006) and The Flatiron (2010). Her new book, a history of the Bowery, will be published in the spring.