Daniel Czitrom’s new book New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford University Press, 2016) offers a narrative history of the Lexow Committee, which the author considers the first major crusade to clean up Gotham.
Czitrom tells this story within the larger contexts of national politics, poverty, patronage, vote fraud and vote suppression, and police violence. The effort to root out corrupt cops and crooked politicians morphed into something much more profound: a public reckoning over what New York had become since the Civil War.
On a Sunday morning in early 1892, Reverend Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst ascended to his pulpit at the Madison Square Presbyterian Church in New York and delivered one of the most explosive sermons in the city’s history. Municipal life, he charged, was morally corrupt. Vice was rampant. And the city’s police force and its Tammany Hall politicians were”a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, and libidinous lot.”
Denounced by city and police officials as a self-righteous “blatherskite,” Parkhurst resolved to prove his case. The bespectacled minister descended his pulpit and in disguise visited gin joints and brothels, taking notes and gathering evidence. Two years later, his findings forced the New York State Senate to investigate the New York Police Department. The Lexow Committee heard testimony from nearly 700 witnesses, who revealed in shocking-and headline-dominating-detail just how deeply the NYPD was involved in, and benefitted from, the vice economy. Parkhurst’s campaign had kick-started the Progressive Movement.
The book’s key characters include Police Superintendent Thomas Byrnes and Inspector Alexander “Clubber” Williams, the nation’s most famous cops, as well as revolutionary Emma Goldman, prosecutor John W. Goff, and an array of politicos, immigrant leaders, labor bosses, prostitutes, show-business entrepreneurs, counterfeiters, and reformers and muckrakers determined to change business as usual.
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