“The Big Chief’s Fairy Godmother”

September 6, 1902

William A. Rogers

“The Big Chief’s Fairy Godmother”

New York City, Government/Politics; Police Corruption; Tammany Hall, Richard Croker; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

Mr. Devery tells "where he got it."

In this cartoon, William Devery, the former police chief of New York City, sits on a fire hydrant while contentedly holding and pocketing a pile of gold coins.  The notoriously corrupt Devery was widely known to control illicit gambling in the city, but he consistently denied knowledge of wrongdoing before various investigatory commissions.  The cartoonist lampoons Devery's silence concerning his ill-gotten gain from illegal gambling by identifying the source of his wealth as his black-masked fairy godmother, upon whose wings appear the symbols of the four suits of playing cards.

In the early 1890s, the Reverend Charles Parkhurst led a crusade to stamp out vice in New York City, excoriating Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine, and the Metropolitan Police for permitting and profiting from gambling, prostitution, and similar crimes.  In 1894, the Republican-controlled state legislature appropriated funds for an investigation, chaired by State Senator Clarence Lexow of Nyack.  After Governor Roswell Flower, a Democrat, vetoed the expenditure, the New York City Chamber of Commerce agreed to finance the probe.  

The Lexow Committee, ironically headquartered at the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street, examined evidence from Parkhurst's City Vigilance League, as well as undertook its own investigations.  The Lexow Committee uncovered police involvement in extortion, bribery, counterfeiting, voter intimidation, election fraud, brutality, and scams.  Attention focused on Devery, then a police captain, who stonewalled before the committee by only responding vaguely to questions:  "touchin' on and appertainin' to that matter, I disremember."  The state probe and Devery's impudent testimony prodded the police commissioners to clean house.  Charged with accepting bribes, Devery feigned illness and his case never reached trial, although he was temporarily demoted.

On January 1, 1898, the five boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond (Staten Island) formally merged into the City of New York, which established a consolidated police department with a force of nearly 7000.  At the insistence of Richard Croker, the boss of Tammany Hall, Devery, who boasted that his bricklayer father helped build Tammany Hall, was appointed chief of police.  Since Devery's (regained) rank of captain made him ineligible for the top position, he was named deputy police chief until the current chief was forced into retirement in late spring so that Devery could assume the title.  His appointment as police chief sent shockwaves throughout the reform community.

In October 1898, Harper's Weekly ran an exposé on "'Wide-Open' New York," by muckraking journalist Franklin Matthews.  The multi-page article detailed police corruption and increased crime under the watch of Devery and Croker.  It alleged that Devery and his Tammany police extorted money from pool halls, gambling dens, saloons, dancehalls, and brothels; paid the bail bonds when the proprietors and employees were arrested; allowed blatant violations of the liquor and vice laws; and ignored the brutality of illicit prize-fights.  Devery 's rumored advice to his officers was, "When you're caught with the goods on, don't say nothin'."

In 1899, Governor Theodore Roosevelt and Republican state legislators established another committee, headed by Assemblyman Robert Mazet, to investigate Tammany Hall corruption.  In April, the committee questioned Police Chief Devery.  New York's top cop habitually left work in the early evening to stand on the street corner of Eighth Avenue and Twenty-First Street, where he claimed to be available for all constituents, until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.  He denied noticing that right across the street a saloon was conducting a lively after-hours business.  Soon after the Mazet Committee concluded its work with a blistering denunciation of Croker and Devery, The New York Times reported that gambling-house owners paid over $3 million annually in protection money.  Although the newspaper did not publish names, Devery was known to be one of the leaders of the "gamblers' syndicate."

In October 1900, Harper's Weekly published more revelations by Franklin Matthews of Tammany police and political corruption.  Dramatically entitled "The Cost of Tammany Hall in Flesh and Blood," the article concentrated on increased death rates from unsanitary conditions and homicides, a jump in juvenile crime, as well as the women and children who often were the victims of the lack of honest and effective law enforcement.  In November, Devery came under fire for alleged involvement in vote fraud, though he characterized the election as the "fairest ever held in New York City."

Governor Roosevelt, in one of his final acts before becoming vice president in March 1901, signed legislation replacing the Police Board and office of police chief with a single police commissioner.  With Devery's job thus eliminated, Croker arranged for him to become the chief inspector (the highest ranking uniformed officer).  In November, however, the Tammany Hall slate lost in the city elections, putting Devery out of a job in January 1902.  Meanwhile, the mounting evidence against Croker finally forced him to resign as Tammany Hall boss and retire safely to Ireland.  The machine's new leader, Charles Francis Murphy, orchestrated the removal of Devery from Tammany Hall's executive committee around the time this cartoon was published.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Big Chief’s Fairy Godmother”
July 14, 2024

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