Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January 13, 1910 - Rhinelander Waldo Becomes Fire Commissioner

It was January 13, 1910 and radio history was being made. Lee De Forest, one of the fathers of the electronic age was producing the world's first public radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The concert featured Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn singing arias from Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci. In the audience that night 32 year old Rhinelander Waldo was relaxing at the end of a busy day. Earlier that day he had been appointed New York's Fire Commissioner.

In the New York City of 1910, Rhinelander Waldo was regarded as one the "catches" of society. At 33 years of age he was one of the best known young men of the Rheinlander-Gallatin-Stewart families. As the son of Francis W. Waldo and Gertrude Rhinelander he stood to inherit a large portion of one of the largest and oldest fortunes in the city.

Educated at the Berkeley School, the Columbia School of Mines and West Point, Rhinelander Waldo decided on a military career where he served all throughout the North Luzon campaign after the American occupation of the Philippines in the Spanish American War. As Captain of the Constabulary Filipino Scouts he was the Military Governor of Mindanao, a city of 40,000 inhabitants when he was barely 25.

After fighting through the campaign to put down the Moro rebellion from 1903-1905 he resigned from the Army with the rank of Captain and returned to the city. He found that in the corrupt world of Tammany Hall New York he was already well connected.

The Rhinelander family had been tied to Tammany Hall for decades and had used the powers of city government to get grant after grant for virtually nothing. In return the family provided funding through kickbacks or campaign contributions which "The Hall" used for political influence. Rhinelander parlayed these connections as well as his distinguished military record into a plum position mere weeks after returning from the army.

General Theodore A. Bingham, with a gentle push from the Tammany administration that ran City Hall, named Rhinelander Waldo the city's first Deputy Police Commissioner. For reasons that are unclear, Waldo resigned the post and in 1907 Mayor George McClellan Jr. (Son of the famous Civil War General) selected him to organize the new water police for the Catskill Aqueduct. But by 1909 McClellan was causing trouble within the Tammany ranks by resisting Tammany's requests for patronage appointments and corrupt dealings.

Tammany Boss Charlie Murphy saw to it that McClellan was replaced on the Tammany ticket in that year's mayoralty election by a judge from Brooklyn named William Jay Gaynor. This was done in response for citywide calls for reform, but Gaynor's term would be marked with even greater corruption-especially in the police department.
Gaynor was going to have to play things Tammany's way. And one of his first tasks-on January 13, 1910- was to appoint Rhinelander Waldo as the city's new Fire Commissioner. Waldo might not be the best candidate, but he came from a family that Tammany had to keep happy. Charlie Murphy knew what side his bread was buttered on. He also had installed a fire commissioner that could run things in concert with Tammany's political motives.

Such was the nature of a Tammany appointment. Rhinelander Waldo, from an important "Knickerbocker" New York family, well educated, decorated war hero accepted the position of that of a puppet. Under Tammany's control the fire department could shield the factories and sweatshops whose owners lined its pockets free from regulations necessitating expensive sprinkler systems and fire escapes. It was part of a "protection" that Tammany offered to go along with its union busting services.

Rhinelander Waldo would be fire commissioner at the time for the great Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in which 146 people, mostly teenage female immigrant sewing machine operators lost their lives- March 25, 1911. It was during a time when the fire departments still responded with horse drawn pumps and ladders only reached to the 7th floor of buildings.

The Triangle company occupied the 8th 9th and 10th floor of the Asch building just east of Washington Square Park in Greenwich. Most of the victims either burned or leapt to the deaths. In the inquiry that followed Waldo would testify that fire escapes and sprinkler systems would have been dealt with under the jurisdiction of the Building Department who had failed to act on Fire Code violations that Waldo's department had discovered. It was the Tammany two-step at its best and distracted the investigators long enough to absolve the Fire Department from any real blame in the matter.

In an article in the New York Times on April 9, 1911 Waldo he insisted that the role of the Fire Department was to extinguish fires and that a separate Bureau of Fire Prevention to be established. This bureau would be responsible for enforcing regulations that governed things such as sprinkler systems and fire escapes. Even in the early 20th century, the answer to ineffective government bureaucracy was more bureaucracy.

Less than 2 months after the Triangle Fire Waldo was hustled out of the Fire Commissioners job and into the job of Police Commissioner. On May 23, 1911 he replaced James C. Cropsey after Cropsey quit citing interference from Mayor Gaynor and Tammany. Rhinelander Waldo was only too glad to be interfered with and immediately set up (at Tammany's request) a strong arm squad to give the appearance of cleaning up corruption among the city's police force. In charge of this strong arm force he placed Lieutenant Charles Becker -a corrupt, grafting Tammany operative who went on to become the only New York City policeman executed for murder.

But that is another story for another time.

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