Monday, January 18, 2010

January 18,1910-Mayor Gaynor Tackles Snow Graft

Newly inaugurated New York mayor William Jay Gaynor had just completed his first two weeks on the job. After running on the Tammany ticket he had defeated Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in November. On his first day in Office, January 1, 1909 Gaynor had walked from his home at 20 Eighth Avenue in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn ( a distance of 3.5 miles) to New York City Hall. There he addressed the 1,500 people gathered to greet him: "I enter upon this office with the intention of doing the very best I can for the City of New York. That will have to suffice; I can do no more."

Gaynor had been selected by Tammany so as to give the appearance that Tammany was changing its ways and leaning towards reform. But Gaynor set about instituting real reform much to the chagrin of Charlie Murphy, the Tammany chief. In his first two weeks he Gaynor showed everyone he was not going to be another Tammany puppet by hiring qualified individuals to office instead of doling out patronage positions to Tammany office seekers. At the end of this second week he was looking forward to relaxing at his weekend farm on Long Island. But around noon on Friday a fierce snowstorm began to envelope New York.

Mayor Gaynor boarded a train for a weekend in Long Island near the height of the blizzard, but the train bogged down a mile and a half short of Hicksville. Gaynor hiked to the station and, realizing that reaching his weekend destination was impossible, chose to board a Brooklyn-bound train rather than spend the night near the station.

This time, the train for Brooklyn stalled in a drift three miles from Hicksville. Gaynor started hiking back with Charles E. Shepard , an editor for the Long Islander newspaper. Through chest-high drifts with near-zero visibility, they kept on the tracks by feeling the ground with their feet.

A wind gust knocked Gaynor down and knocked the editor through the ties of a trestle and into a gully 15 feet away. Gaynor found him unconscious. Yelling for help, he saw the red lantern of a trainman who had been following them, and told him to stay with the editor. Staggering into Hicksville, Gaynor found a doctor, who organized a rescue party. Shepard had two broken legs; Gaynor was treated for exhaustion and frostbitten ears.

Still, on the following Monday, Gaynor again walked to work from Brooklyn. "As I walked down Flatbush Avenue on my way over this morning, I noticed that all of the drivers of a long line of snow wagons which were being filled by the shovelers were standing about doing nothing or sitting on their wagons. Should they not take a shovel and help?"

When he arrived at his office that morning Gaynor's deputy street commissioner informed him of the discovery of a basement of a saloon in Brooklyn that served as a clearing house for the illegal punching of snow removal tickets. An angry Gaynor now knew that the grafting practices of the Tammany machine spread even to the city's snow removal practices. And drivers standing around and watching while others shovelled was the least of it.

In the long history of Tammany Hall corruption snow removal graft isn't something that immediately comes to mind. We think of police graft, labour racketeering, prostitution etc. But the snow removal swindle is right out of the Tammany textbook. It started with the old Tammany practice of having emergency workers pay two dollars to a Hall appointed supervisor supervisor before he would agree to put them to work for a period of time.

Next, the contractors, who had their positions because of Tammany loyalties, would purchase counterfeit snow removal vouchers from a contact Tammany had inside the city Printing office.

These tickets would then be punched and initialled by dishonest inspectors-for a fee from the contractor of course- showing that a certain amount of snow had been shovelled, carried away and dumped in a specified location. The contractor would then redeem the punched voucher-less a "handling fee" usually in a Tammany run saloon. In one case a contractor with five trucks turned in vouchers for thirteen trucks no questions asked. As long as the "Hall" was in charge everybody looked the other way.

Not very sexy, but a great way to make money off of the city for doing nothing.
Gaynor was furious and set his Commissioners about trying to find the culprit at the centre of this plan that graft hundreds of thousands of dollars whenever the city was hit with a huge storm such as the recent blizzard.

The next day, January 18, 1910 the scapegoat they came up with was Owen J. Murphy a Tammany big wig who as far as we know was no relation to Charlie Murphy. Owen was the was the Democratic leader of the Thirteenth Assembly District in Brooklyn who just happened to be the Deputy Street Cleaning Commissioner.

Upon announcing Owen Murphy's dismissal, the mayor said "Careless supervision of the Borough of Brooklyn has been given in the recent snow removal. No cards of identification were distributed; Women were paid for their supposed husbands and brothers without any proof as to whom they represented."

There would be no criminal investigation and Murphy would never be charged with a crime. He would have just faded into the Tammany wood work and been given another lower profile position in return for his loyalty to the machine.

Even though the power of Tammany was beginning to wane in 1910 they were still largely in charge of the Police and Justice systems of New York. Replacing Murphy with a reformist leaning candidate would have to suffice-Gaynor could do no more.

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