We tend to think of Teddy Roosevelt as an iconic American figure, who succeeded at everything he did. Well, Richard Zacks is here to tell you that that’s not necessarily true. TR’s stint as NYC’s police commissioner was about as unsuccessful as it was short-lived. If anybody could have shown New Yorkers the error of their sinful ways, it surely would have been the indomitable Theodore Roosevelt. But the lesson that he learned (the hard way) is that New Yorkers like sin a whole lot more than salvation. The recent prostitution scandal that has graced New York’s tabloid headlines of late would appear to indicate that little has changed in the intervening 120 (give or take a few) years.
Much like today, 1890s New York was America’s financial, manufacturing, and entertainment capital. It was also the premiere destination for sin, teeming with 40,000 prostitutes, casinos, and all-night dives. Police captains were more than happy to supplement their incomes with hefty bribes, while looking the other way. Captain “Big Bill” Devery, a strapping Irishman who never met a sudsy beer he didn’t like, became Roosevelt’s arch nemesis, and the Tammany Hall political machine was not making TR’s job any easier.
TR’s wild ride is brilliantly documented in Island of Vice, a fascinating read for history buffs, lovers of NYC, sinners and, yes, even saints. E.L. Doctorow, author of the classic novel, Ragtime calls Island of Vice “a delicious municipal history, impeccably researched, excitingly told.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.