6. Police Commissioner

These midnight rambles are great fun. - Theodore Roosevelt

When Theodore was appointed Police Commissioner of New York City, he immediately resigned as Civil Service Commissioner. There were four Police Commissioners, two from each party, and a Chief appointed by the Commissioners. The Chief and any one Commissioner could hold up actions of the other Commissioners. It was easy to come to a deadlock. 1

Roosevelt, who was something of a clothes horse, wore pink shirts and a broad silk sash under his frock coat in place of a vest. 2

Newspapermen and cartoonists loved him. Tammany Hall and crooked policemen hated him. Riis, the author of How the Other Half Lives, made him aware of the conditions in the poor sections of the city.3

For the next two years he was president of the Police Commission. His goals were:
1) To handle the police department
2) To make the city a better place in which to live

He was cautioned to “go a bit slow at first.” He couldn’t go slow. He energetically threw himself into his work.

A journalist described his morning:

About 8:30 he would come around the corner of Bleecker Street, walking with a springy tread, goggling his spectacles enthusiastically at everything around, about, and behind him. There was a rapid increase in pace as he drew near Police Headquarters, followed by a
flying ascent of the front steps. Ahead of him in the lobby, a uniformed porter would step into the waiting elevator and reach for its controls; but by that time Roosevelt, feet blurring, was already halfway up the stairs. Arriving on the second floor with no perceptible rise or fall of his chest, he would scurry across the hallway into his office overlooking the street. Here, one morning a reporter was on hand to note that “He swings the chair, sits down, and takes off his glasses and his hat, all so quickly that he appears to be doing [everything] at once.” Replacing the glasses with pince-nez, Roosevelt would “fling his attention” at the first document in front of him. Read, digested, and acted upon, the item would be given to his “girl secretary” for filing, or, often as not, dispensed with in Rooseveltian fashion, i.e., crushed into a ball and hurled to the floor. By the end of the day the area around his desk was ankle-deep in paper jetsam. “I wonder he does not wear himself out,” sighed Commissioner Grant.4

Midnight Rambles
Full of manic energy, he would roam the streets at night, dressed in a black cloak and broad-brimmed hat, looking for policemen sleeping on the job or consorting with prostitutes. He said he was trying to find out by “personal inspection how the police were doing their job. A good many were not doing their duty,” he told Bamie, “and I had a line of huge frightened guardians of the peace down for reprimand or fine, as a sequel to my all-night walk.”5
A journalist described it:

When he asks a question, Mr. Roosevelt shoots it at the poor trembling policeman as he would shoot a bullet at a coyote....he shows a set of teeth calculated to unnerve the bravest of the Finest. His teeth are very white and almost as big as a colt’s teeth. They are broad teeth, they form a perfectly straight line. The lower teeth look like a row of dominoes. They do not lap over or under each other, as most teeth do, but come together evenly...They seem to say: “Tell the truth to your Commissioner, or he’ll bite your head off.”
Generally speaking, this interesting Commissioner’s face is red. He has lived a great deal out of doors, and that accounts for it. His hair is thick and short...Under his right ear he has a long scar. It is the opinion of all the policemen who have talked with him that he got that scar fighting an Indian out West. It is also their opinion that the Indian is dead.
But Mr. Roosevelt’s voice is the policeman’s hardest trial. It is an exasperating voice, a sharp voice, a rasping voice. It is a voice that comes from the tips of the teeth and seems to say in its tones, “What do you amount to, anyway?”
One thing our noble force may make up its mind to at once--it must do as Roosevelt says, for it is not likely that it will succeed in beating him. 6

“These midnight rambles are great fun,” Roosevelt said. “My whole work brings me in contact with every class of people in New York, as no other work possibly could; and I get a glimpse of the real life of the swarming millions. Finally, I do really feel that I am accomplishing a good deal.”7

Exhilarated, Theodore was totally involved in his work and learning something new everyday. One man remembered him as “Beaming, buoyant, blithe...really happy he was in those days.”8

How the Other Half Lives
He had read Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives and had sent him a note saying “I have read your book, and I have come to help.” Riis said that when he met Roosevelt “it was love at first sight.”9

Riis and Roosevelt toured the slums of New York. It was quite an eye-opener. Roosevelt was introduced to a world where there were “curb women” selling weeds, stale tomatoes, oranges and stale bread. It was a place where people ate dead goats that had been lying in the streets for two days, a place where homeless tramps begged for money during the day and slept in tenement hallways at night, a place where a child’s arm was burnt with a hot iron and then acid poured on it so that he could be sent out to beg. His parents threatened to burn his arm off if he did not bring back enough money.

Children died slowly from starvation, or quickly from measles which spread fast in the crowded conditions. Babies’ coffins were stacked high each day on the boat that went to the city cemetery. Funerals were hideously expensive with huge displays of flowers and ludicrous funeral parades. People abandoned babies, some still alive, to avoid the expense of a funeral. Three companies insured the lives of children for five to twenty-five cents a week. People actually killed their own children to get the insurance money.

Preteen girls were paid $1.75 to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. When time came to give them a raise, the girls were usually fired.

Gangs terrorized the neighborhood, robbing and murdering.

Several hundred people lived in each tenement. The apartments were dark and unventilated. One apartment usually held many families. Overcome by stagnant air, children died of suffocation. Laws that limited the working day to ten hours, required a 45-minute dinner period and forbade child labor didn’t apply to the work done manufacturing cigars in the tenements. Children ate while they worked and worked from daybreak until 9:00 pm.

The rents were enormous, the wages miserable. Everyone had to work - mother, father and small children. TB, typhus and smallpox were rampant. People worked seventeen hours a day, seven days a week for six and a half cents an hour. Out of the million and a half people who lived in the city, half a million were driven to beg for food or accept charity. Ten percent of the burials were in potters field.

Riis called for city parks, playgrounds, tenement regulations, the building of modern tenements, the remodeling of existing tenements, laws to protect tenants and the arrest of landlords who violated those laws. He also wanted laws to regulate the number of tenants in a building.10

Roosevelt became concerned about tenement conditions as a result, and tried to improve conditions for working people. He was a member of the Health Board and promised to put as many of Riis’ principles into effect as he could.11
Theodore spent ten to twelve hours a day working and going to meetings and hearings. Nightly he prowled the city looking for misbehaving policemen. He had little time to work on Volume IV of The Winning of the West and saw “little more than a glimpse” of his children.

Police Corruption
Theodore could sniff out evil and once he sniffed it, he was compelled to track it down and destroy it. There was a corrupt Police Chief named Byrnes. Roosevelt decided to get rid of him “at once.” He wrote Lodge:

I think I shall move against Byrnes at once. I thoroughly distrust him, and cannot do any thorough work while he remains.

Byrnes laughed aloud when he heard about this. He didn’t think the attempt to oust him would work. “It will break you,” he warned Roosevelt. “You will yield. You are but human.”

Byrnes was the most effective policeman in America. He guarded Wall Street so well that crime was virtually unheard of there during the day. But he was under Tammany influence and was involved with taking payoffs from criminal elements.12

Nine days later Byrnes was out. Threatened with an investigation, he tendered his resignation.13

Next Roosevelt turned his sights on a brutal inspector, Alexander Williams, also known as “Clubber” Williams, who cracked heads on the Lower East side. Theodore forced his resignation also. Newspapers agreed that “the removal of [Byrnes and Williams] render the further work of improvement comparatively easy.”14

Roosevelt was friendly with many journalists. He cultivated them so that they would report favorably on him. He led the reporters to believe that he really needed their advice. He would let them calm him and tell him to check with his associates before doing anything rash.

AntiSemitic Preacher
Roosevelt loved to fight evil. An opportunity presented itself for Roosevelt to, if not destroy evil, at least neutralize it.

An antiSemitic preacher arrived in New York from Germany with the intention of preaching against the Jews. He demanded police protection. Roosevelt abhorred the man and everything he stood for. However there was no law preventing him from preaching and Roosevelt was afraid he would get hurt and become a martyr for antiSemitism. “On thinking it over”, he said, “it occurred to me that there was one way in which I could undo most of the mischief he was trying to do.” He assigned only Jewish policemen to protect the man. Roosevelt watched gleefully while the preacher gave his antiSemitic speeches under the protection of a Jewish sergeant and forty Jewish policemen. The man quickly became an object of ridicule and left the city.15

Sunday Closings
Roosevelt decided to enforce the closing of bars on Sunday. Policemen routinely allowed some bars to remain open, while others closed, and Roosevelt wanted to fairly enforce the law. This was a tremendously unpopular move on his part and the German bar owners held a large parade to show their disapproval of him. His sister described what happened this way:

They were parading to show their disapproval of him, but at the last moment, as a wonderful piece of sarcasm, they decided to invite him to review the parade, hardly thinking that he would accept the invitation. Needless to say, he did accept it, and leaning over from the platform where he had been invited to sit, he saw the mass of marching men carrying banners with “Down with Teddy,” and various other more unpleasant expletives. One company, as it passed the reviewing-stand, called out
“Wo ist Teddy?” “Hier bin ich,” called out the police commissioner, leaning over the railing and flashing his white teeth good-humoredly at the protesting crowd, who, unable to resist the sunshine of his personality, suddenly turned and, putting aside the disapproving banners, cheered him to the echo.

“I am working as I never worked before,” he told Bamie, “and I have now run up against an ugly snag, the Sunday Excise Law. It is altogether too strict; but I have no honorable alternative save to enforce it, and I am enforcing it, to the furious rage of the saloon keepers and of many good people, too; for which I am sorry.”17 If the law was unjust, his enforcing it would bring attention to it and (hopefully) the law would be repealed.18

The forty-hour days and the nights roaming the streets for recalcitrant policemen took its toll. Roosevelt had mild mood swings. At the high end of his mood swings, the happy end, the “up” part, he could do the work of ten men and stay up all night to do it, too. It’s amazing that he held together as well as he did. He was able to do two years of strenuous mental work without collapsing. Finally though, the work took its toll. Teetering at the top of his “high”, he began to feel the pressure, the expectation that he had to continue to do such a fine, energetic job. He began to slide downwards, towards depression and his friends noticed it. Lodge “[worried] a little as to the effects of the fatigue and anxiety upon him,” expressed his concern to Bamie:

He seems overstrained and overwrought - that wonderful spring and interest in all sorts of things is much lowered...is fearfully overworked...He has that morbid idee fixe that he cannot leave his work for a moment else the world should stop.19

Roosevelt himself admitted to hours of depression and feelings of nervous fatigue.20 He had “literally [been] driven to death by the work here and by the responsibility”:21

I work and fight from dawn until dark, almost; and the difficulties, the opposition, the lukewarm support, I encounter give me hours of profound depression; but at bottom I know the work has been well worth doing, and that I have done it as well as it could be done. And what I most care for is its intensely practical work-a-day character; it is a grimy struggle, but a vital one.22

My own work is becoming of almost intolerable difficulty...I hope we shall be legislated out, for I have done about all that can be done, under the present law.23

He felt he had offended so many business interests that his political career was over. ”I really have no efficient friends,” he said. “The Democrats are absolutely under Tammany, and the majority of the Republicans is largely controlled by Platt.”24 “In the New York political world just at present every man’s hand is against me; every politician and every editor; and I live in a welter of small intrigue...I rather think that in one way or another I shall be put out of office before many months go by.”25
He said to his friend Bishop:

This is the last office I shall ever hold. I have offended so many powerful interests and so many powerful politicians that no political preferment in future will be possible for me. All the Liquor interests, including the great breweries, and all the party bosses will oppose me, and no political party will venture to defy an opposition so fatal as that is. I realized this when I began my fight for the enforcement of the Sunday law and against police bribery and corruption, but it was the only course I could honestly pursue and I am willing to abide by the consequences.26

Theodore and Henry Cabot Lodge exchanged letters daily. The mail moved quickly between New York and Washington, D.C. Sometimes Theodore received letters the same day Cabot wrote them. Lodge assured Theodore that he would some day hold a very high office. He would at least become a Senator. Theodore felt that this was impossible. “I have...just about as much chance of being Czar of Russia,” he said.27 But Lodge knew that the political machine was on good terms with Theodore. He urged Theodore to “stump the State.” If people could see and hear him they would vote for him.

“The chance for future political preference for me is just about such a chance as that of lightning striking,” replied Roosevelt to one of Lodge’s letters. 28
Lodge wrote:

I can judge of your standing and reputation better than you and I am a fair judge of political forces. The same political forces which compelled the convention to take your issue will compel them if rightly handled to take you. You have, thanks to your wisdom and good sense, no personal quarrel with the machine and you have a great chance to take the leadership of powerful and controlling elements of the party which can put you in the Senate. You do not realize how you have impressed the popular imagination and that means getting what you want....I do not say you are to be President tomorrow. I do not say it will be--I am sure that it may and can be. I do say that the Senate which is better is well within reach. Stump the State.29

In his less than two years there he had made sweeping reforms. He founded a police academy for trainees, he brought in the latest technology, including fingerprinting, he extended employment opportunities for women and other minorities and he set standards for police recruitment. “The concepts and practices that he fostered in 1895 still serve as guidelines for modern efforts to upgrade police administration in the United States,” wrote biographer Nathan Miller.30

Crime decreased, especially vicious crime. Criminals were discouraged from purchasing police protection. He gave awards for gallantry and promptly promoted those who deserved it.31

He was praised for his “evident desire to do the right thing as [he] saw it at whatever cost.”32

An editor wrote:

[I]n New York you are...exhibiting to the young men of the country the spectacle of a very important office administered by a man of high character in the most efficient way amid a thousand difficulties. As a lesson in politics I cannot think of anything more instructive.33

But now Roosevelt was tired and depressed. He could no longer face the pressures he had faced earlier in this job. He wanted to leave. “The grinding labor, and the worry, have been very great,” he said.34

In August “the endless strain and worry” drove him to visit his ranch in Dakota. He offered to make one or two speeches for the Republican Committee on his way out there.35

At this time, Marcus Hanna needed stump speakers for William McKinley. Hanna’s friendly, honest, unassuming nature appealed to Roosevelt. Hanna was a rich man. His only ambition was to make William McKinley President. “McKinley is a saint,” he said. McKinley is “the best man I ever knew!”36 Roosevelt went out West to speak. His clear, simple and direct way of speaking drew crowds. He spoke in parables and painted colorful pictures with words. He positively beamed goodness, honesty and good humor. He’d viciously attack McKinley’s opponent and then suddenly laugh “Ha!” aloud. People loved watching him enjoy himself so obviously. Edmund Morris described him as speaking on one occasion “grinning, grimacing, breathing sincerity from every pore, while the son of Abraham Lincoln sat behind him applauding and the great hall resounded with cheers.”37

Theodore himself was surprised when the “immense audiences, who always listened attentively...sometimes...went mad with enthusiasm.”38
Theodore, needing a change, decided to look for another post.

He had an interest in the Navy, which is why he wrote his naval history of the War of 1812. He started to revise the book and gingerly let Lodge know that he still had an interest in the Navy by writing, “What has been done in the Navy?” Lodge wrote back, “We are going to get a good appropriation for the Navy...so you see there is no danger of the Navy being crippled.”39

Roosevelt invited an old friend of President McKinley’s to Sagamore Hill. Mrs. Bellamy Storer was a lobbyist for the Catholic Church and good at her job. He knew she was; he had seen her in action. He took her rowing and told her that the security of his children, his “bunnies”, lay in his ability to get an appointment in Washington. His current unpopularity in New York was going to put him out of a job and he would end up becoming a writer of books that do not sell. He said to her, “I should like to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy.”

Years later she wrote that the “peculiar attraction and fascination” of the young TR “lay in the fact that he was like a child; with a child’s spontaneous outbursts of affection, of fun, and of anger and with the brilliant brain and fancy of a child.”

One never knew what he would say next. He was certainly very witty in himself, and he valued wit in others. He used during this period to get on the warpath over Sienkievicz’s novels--The Deluge and Fire and the Sword--and when he was quite sated with slaughter his face would be radiant and he would shout aloud with delight. He seemed as innocent as Toddy in Helen’s Babies, who wanted everything to be “bluggy”....His vituperation was extremely amusing, and he had a most extraordinary vocabulary...Never in our lives have we laughed so often as when Theodore Roosevelt of those days was our host.40

Mrs. Storer pleaded Roosevelt’s cause. McKinley said, “I want peace and I am told that your friend Theodore--whom I know only slightly--is always getting into rows with everybody. I am afraid he is too pugnacious.” 41

Lodge also worked to get Theodore selected as the new Assistant Secretary of the Navy. “It was Cabot’s energy which put me in,” Roosevelt said later.42 He had been worried and had been trying to convince himself that he would be quite all right without the position. He could keep doing his work in New York and then “turn to any work that comes up.”

While waiting for word of his appointment, the Social Reform Club asked him to speak. The club contained many labor leaders and philanthropists. Without a word of warning to T.R., they asked “Oppenheimer...a violent socialist and agitator, to answer [him]....In short, it was a put-up job.” The newspapers had been invited to cover it. “Now I am going to say something in which I fear even you will believe my judgement is entirely wrong,” wrote Theodore, who was becoming more and more aware of his uncommon hold on audiences:

I never won a more complete triumph; of a small character, than in my answer to Oppenheimer. I was addressing hostile socialists who began by hissing me. When I had finished my speech I had driven Oppenheimer out of the room, and I had the audience perfectly crazily on my side. They cheered me and cheered me again and again, and thronged around me so to shake hands, and to tell me that they had changed their opinion, that I was not able to get away for half an hour.43

On April 6, 1897, Theodore was nominated as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.