“Hunting the Octopus”

October 6, 1900

William A. Rogers

“Hunting the Octopus”

Business Scandals; Business, Trusts/Monopolies; New York City, Government/Politics; Presidential Election 1900; Tammany Hall, Richard Croker;

Bryan, William Jennings;

New York City;

No caption.

William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1900, made opposition to large business corporations ("trusts") one of the cornerstones of his campaign.  Republicans, however, attacked Bryan as a hypocrite because some of his key supporters were intimately connected with controversial business trusts.  In this cartoon, Bryan carries a "Repeating Winderbuss" (a pun on his long-windedness) to hunt the "octopus"--a common metaphor for business monopolies, with their powerful, grasping, slimy, multiple tentacles.  Yet the octopi are right beside him in the guise of Senator James Jones (right) of Arkansas, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and member of the round cotton-bale trust; William A. Clark of Montana (far right, whose last name is misspelled in the cartoon), a former and future senator from Montana who was part of the Copper Trust; and, most prominently, Richard Croker (left), boss of New York City's Tammany Hall Democratic machine and a member of the Ice Trust.

In 1899, during the Mazet Committee hearings on Tammany Hall corruption, the state's chief counsel, Frank Moss, asked Croker and the Boss's deputy, John Carroll, whether they held stock in the Consolidated Ice Company.  Carroll denied it, as did Croker at first before admitting that he had put it under his wife's name.  Moss later entered a document into the record showing that Carroll and Charles Morse, the president of Consolidated Ice, served together on a utilities board in Illinois.  At the time, Moss's inquiries seemed to have little bearing on the Tammany hearings, and did not stir public comment.

Investigative journalists from the New York World, however, followed the lead, and in early 1900 reported that Consolidated Ice had become the American Ice Company, which had bought out virtually all of its competitors in the New York metropolitan area.  Moreover, the newspaper alleged that the creation of the "Ice Trust" had been facilitated by giving large shares of stock to influential political figures, who, in return, provided political protection for the monopoly.  The stock's monetary value was considerable:  $250,000 for Croker's wife; $500,000 for Carroll; $678,000 for Mayor Robert Van Wyck, a Tammany hack; and over $200,000 for the mayor's brother, Augustus Van Wyck, a member of the Resolutions Committee at the 1900 Democratic National Convention.  

Other stock recipients included Hugh McLaughlin , the Democratic boss of Brooklyn, and Frank Platt, the son of Republican state boss and Senator Thomas Platt.  Importantly, the dock commissioners at the New York City harbor, such as Charles F. Murphy, the future boss of Tammany Hall, and Peter Meyer, Croker's real estate partner, had been given their cut, too.  Therefore, they made sure that the cargoes of the few ice competitors that had refused to be bought by American Ice were not unloaded at the piers and that their equipment was vandalized.  The World also noted that Mayor Van Wyck and deputy boss Carroll had stayed at American Ice president Morse's home in Maine, and visited his ice manufacturing plant.

New York City residents had endured many Tammany scandals over the years, but they became outraged when the World and other city papers reported in early April that American Ice was doubling the price of its ice, citing an alleged shortage.  In the days before refrigeration, ice was a necessity in every household for preventing perishable foods and medicines from spoiling, and it was especially critical to have a ready and affordable supply during the hot summer months, which would soon be upon the city.  The newspapers fanned fears that the expensive ice would lead to massive illness and death.  The public backlash forced American Ice to reduce its price (though it was still a third higher than before), and Croker to remove Carroll as his deputy.

The political damage to Tammany Hall, however, had already been done.  Reformers' previous charges against the city's main Democratic machine had usually fallen on deaf ears among its working-class and poor constituents, who viewed Tammany Hall as fighting for them, even if its leaders sometimes profited by graft.  The Ice Trust scandal was different because it demonstrated that Tammany Hall politicians were profiting from corrupt practices directly adverse to the interests and well being of the city's working class and poor.  Coming on the heels of the Mazet investigation, it was a blow from which Boss Croker would not recover.

Croker, in fact, aggravated the situation through his involvement in William Jenning Bryan's presidential campaign.  In 1896, with Croker out of the country, Tammany Hall had not supported Bryan.  In 1900, the boss first saw to it that the New York delegation endorsed Bryan, and then played a major role at the Democratic National Convention.  Republicans, however, nominated a major nemesis of Tammany Hall as their vice presidential nominee, Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York.  Roosevelt stumped vigorously throughout the country, continually assailing Croker, and Bryan for associating with the corrupt boss.  The effectiveness of the anti-Croker campaign became apparent at a Democratic rally in Madison Square Garden during which Bryan ridiculed the "McKinley prosperity" and lambasted " the trusts."  When the Great Commoner rhetorically asked, "They say we are prosperous.  Who's we?"  A voice from the audience bellowed back, "Croker!", provoking a roar of laughter from the crowd.

In November 1900, Bryan lost the election, and American Ice soon lost its monopoly status.  In early 1901 Vice President-elect Roosevelt, in his final days as governor, fired the New York district attorney, Asa Bird Gardiner, a Tammany associate, and signed legislation abolishing the office of police chief, thus turning out the current corrupt chief, William Devery, another Tammany man.  In 1901, reformer Seth Low defeated the Tammany candidate, Edward Shepard, in the mayoral race.  In early 1902, Croker resigned from Tammany Hall and moved to his estate in Ireland.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Hunting the Octopus”
July 14, 2024

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