The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, August 08, 2003

From Saint Hiram to the Governator - Part the First

I had thought that mounting political careers on the back of prosecutions of organised crime was a peculiarly Empire State phenomenon.

There was Franklin Roosevelt - who, as befits a member of the gentry, didn't exactly rampage against the politico-criminal nexus. But, as Governor, found the Seabury Committee [1] tailor made for cleansing him of the taint of Mayor Jimmy Walker and Tammany just in time to snaffle the national ticket in 1932 [2].

Fiorello LaGuardia, Congressman then Mayor of New York City [3] before his campaign started [4]. (He thought he would go further - FDR consigned him to the dumpster, together with Ed Flynn, Tom Pendergast and others I can't remember right now, once his usefulness to FDR had evaporated [5].)

Thomas Dewey became US District Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1933 (the year LaGuardia was elected) and spent the rest of the decade (in various capacities) prosecuting organised crime [6], and set himself up nicely for Albany and a run at FDR.

Rudolph Giuliani was USDA for the same district as Dewey, and exploited his position in much the same way.

Hiram Johnson was there first, in the first decade of the twentieth century. His first entrance onto the public stage was as prosecutor of San Francisco boss Abraham Ruef - replacing one Francis Heney, a prosecutor (apparently appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to fight SF corruption) who was so unfortunate as to get himself shot in open court! Johnson secured his conviction - and a fourteen year sentence.

Little wonder, perhaps, that Johnson should have been inspired to a political career by such spectacular events.

There's a ragbag of online materials with potential [7] on this colourful period of the city's past that I've yet to do more than skim.

Also worth looking at is Samuel P Orth's 1919 The Boss and the Machine, which traces the history of machine politics from start of the Republic.

My dead tree collection has a snippet or two on Johnson. For example, John Gunther in Inside USA (p13) points out that he was the
...son of a father - Grove L Johnson - who was Southern Pacific's own chief lobbyist!...Grove had once served a penitentiary sentence, and for many years he and Hiram, stubborn men both, never spoke. Once they campaigned against one another, and Grove told his audience that Hiram and another son might be found addressing a rival crowd down the street. "And who are those men?" Grove bellowed. "One is full of booze - the other of conceit! Who are they? My sons!"

The Southern Pacific (which, as the Central Pacific, was responsible for the western portion of the track that met at Promontory Point, UT on May 10 1869) bossed the Golden State for several decades before Johnson became Governor.

But, as the shilling shockers say, we anticipate....

  1. Or, more properly, the Hofstadter Committee - Samuel Hofstadter was the chairman, Seabury more like chief counsel - what looks like an excellent article Lost Warrior: Al Smith and the Fall of Tammany covering the whole grubby business of NY Democracy 1930-32.

  2. And once safely ensconced in the White House, Tammany's training helped him organise a machine of machines - as previously recommended, Lyle W Dorsett's Franklin D Roosevelt and the City Bosses shows how well Squire Franklin had learnt his lesson from Charles Murphy and the boys.

  3. And the key man for Franklin Roosevelt for securing him New York's electoral college votes - the fact he was GOP was, of course, entirely by the by!

  4. A flavour of LaGuardia's activities from this mafia timeline.

  5. Dorsett's book has the story.

  6. Material on Dewey and the mob here and here

  7. Here, here, here, here, and here.

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