“Shake Sharp Next!”

January 22, 1887

Thomas Nast

“Shake Sharp Next!”

Business Scandals; New York City, Government/Politics; New York City, Transportation; Public Health; Symbols, Justice; Transportation, Streetcars; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

Justice. "You say it has turned against you, and you would like to try it in another county. It is true it has been abused, but you'll find it about the same everywhere. And it will be proved to you that in this case it is not better to give than receive."

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the legal troubles of Jacob Sharp, the wealthiest and most powerful streetcar magnate in New York City, who was accused in late 1885 of bribing the Board of Aldermen in order to expand his company’s franchise.

Jacob Sharp had received generous favors from the city government as far back as the early 1850s, when the Common Council of 1852-1853 (nicknamed the “Forty Thieves”) awarded him the Wall Street ferry franchise over higher-bidding competitors, then reduced his rental fees. There was little doubt that personal payoffs sealed the deal.

It was not until the “horsecar wars” of the 1880s that Sharp would finally run afoul of the law. At the time, 32 horse-drawn streetcar companies operated in New York City, facing further competition from the elevated railroads. The horsecar companies keep overhead low by not cleaning their filthy, vermin-infested cars, and by paying their workers low wages for long, sixteen-hour days. Each streetcar line refused to accept transfers from their rivals, making travel in the city cumbersome.

For 30 years, Jacob Sharp had been scheming to gain a franchise to expand his Broadway and Seventh Avenue Railroad, but had been checked by influential Broadway merchants, such as the Astors and the Stewarts. In 1883, a new challenger arose with the formation of the New York Cable Railway Company, which aimed to replace the horsecars with cable cars. In 1884, both factions converged on Albany to buy the approval of the state legislature. Sharp’s lawyer drafted the appropriate legislation, and his lobbyist distributed $200,000 to various legislators, easily exceeding the bribes offered by the cable company.

With legislative sanction secured, the focus shifted to New York City’s Board of Aldermen. Sharp offered $500,000 for the aldermen’s personal bank accounts, but the cable car company came up with $750,000, half in cash and half in the company’s bonds. The Board accepted Sharp’s all-cash bribe and awarded him the franchise. The cable car company’s angry board of directors called for an official investigation.

In 1885 and 1886 newspaper headlines reported Sharp’s massive bribery, and uncovered the fact that his company owed a $1,000,000 in back taxes. The police arrested 22 aldermen, many of whom were indicted, convicted, and jailed, although some fled to Canada. Sharp was sentenced to four years, but the verdict was reversed by the Court of Appeals on a technicality. Sharp died in 1888 before a scheduled second trial could be held.

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon pictures Justice seated on her throne, holding the scales of justice on her lap. She chastises Jacob Sharp for his plea that he has suffered an injustice in the law courts and the court of public opinion. Justice reminds the streetcar mogul that his corrupt behavior is at the cause of the situation. Sharp stands admonished, leaning slightly backward, with his ladle dipped in a container of “New York County Milk of Human Kindness.” Both the image of the milk can and the emphatic text “turned against you” allude to the unrelated problem of the city’s milk supply. The unsanitary process of milk production and distribution, plus producers attempt to adulterate the milk, led to serious, often deadly, public health problems in the late-nineteenth century. Not until the 1890s did an experimental use of pasteurized milk begin. Here, cartoonist Thomas Nast implies that Jacob Sharp is as much of a public hazard as tainted milk.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Shake Sharp Next!”
July 14, 2024

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