Tammany Hall: the Labor and the Irish in 19th Century America by Lyndsay Faye – Guest Post

Today I’m pleased to welcome Lyndsay Faye to the blog. Lynsey’s latest book featuring detective Timothy Wilde, The Fatal Flame, published by Headline on 12 May 2015.


Tammany Hall: the Labor and the Irish in 19th Century America

During the 2012 Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney presidential election, the writers at Saturday Night Live were as usual busily making political candidates look about as sensible as carrying water with a sieve.  Economics play a major part of any campaign in any country, but since the 2008 financial collapse, Americans have been particularly fraught about jobs, whipping up the sort of enthusiasm over employment we once devoted to crispy processed snack products (preferably with something to dip them into, doesn’t matter what) and local baseball teams.  During a sketch I found memorable, actor Jason Sudeikis as Republican candidate Mitt Romney is seen in the shower, soaping up and singing himself a happy morning ditty:

Oh, poor people hate havin’ jobs!

Poor people hate havin’ jobs…

The only thing poor people hate worse than condoms

Is getting up and goin’ to a job!

The reason this made for such scathing satire apart from the obvious is that the rah-rah attitude Americans devote to our country makes it difficult for some to believe you could possibly fail to find a job supposing you want one.  We make cars (used to make cars) and make electronics (used to make electronics) and have the best scientists (used to have great scientists)!  How could you possibly not have a job if you want one, really want one?  (It took my younger brother, who has his master’s degree, years to get a job following grad school that wasn’t personal training in a fluorescent-lit gym).  In reality, jobs and politics have always been closely aligned in American history, and in no case was that truer than for Tammany Hall in the nineteenth century.

The Irish Potato Famine was a tragedy on a massive and heartbreaking scale.  Countless starved to death in their homeland, and countless more were permanently displaced.  One can picture the fields of moldering potatoes, the terrible plight of the destitute, even the teeming ragged harrowed hopeful thousands who poured into New York City seeking salvation in the form of edible food.

But what did they do once they arrived?  And where were the jobs for so many desperate refugees?  Many, of course, chose to travel to the interior of America if they could afford to—but if they remained behind in New York, odds are almost certain that they in some fashion fell in with Tammany Hall.  

Think of American political parties as businesses (you wouldn’t be far off).  They advertise, they pay close attention to public relations, and they hone their products (in this case, their political messages) to try to attract consumers (voters).  They even conduct polls and study demographics to achieve these goals, and religiously.  In order to run a business, you need investors and capital, yes?  For the Democratic Party in the nineteenth century, that’s where Tammany Hall came in—and they recognized, as their political rivals the Whigs did not, that thousands of Irish refuges meant thousands of Irish voters.

Tammany Hall was not synonymous with the Democratic Party, but it may as well have been, in the same way spending your money at Banana Republic and at The Gap benefits the same group of people no matter the exact fit of the polo shirt.  Tammany Hall’s modus operandi was somewhere between a rough and ready club of drunk scrappers and fundraising committee massive enough to attract money like a particularly eager black hole.  It was not the first organized political engine by far, but it was certainly the most effective of its time, and by the mid-nineteenth century, Tammany was beloved by thousands of Irish who could turn to no one else.  Tammany planned it that way—they knew that gratitude would translate into support at the polls.

Though it would be true to say some of Tammany’s methods of enforcing their opinions were outrageous (read: brickbats, brass knuckles, and Daniel Day Lewis’s truly magnificent moustache in Gangs of New York), they would never have become so entrenched if they were not providing their constituents with exactly what they wanted: jobs.  The streets of 1840s and 1850s Manhattan were choked with immigrants, orphans, widows, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations.  People lived in tenements ten to a cellar with sewage oozing through the walls, caught rats to roast, sewed piecework eighteen and twenty hours a day for pennies.  They lived life on the knife’s point, and any setback we might consider irksome but manageable—an illness, a bout with food poisoning, the necessity of finding new lodgings—could have been fatal.  Finding steady employment was the only slender guarantee of survival.

When their voters were in trouble, Tammany stepped up to assist before anyone had ever heard of social services, and before New England Protestant churches had caught on to the notion that you might not be devil-ridden simply because you were Catholic.  In a virulently anti-Catholic world, the Irish often found themselves shut out of New York culture, both socially and economically.  Unlike their rivals, the Whig Party, the Democrats welcomed the Irish—or more specifically, they welcomed their votes.  Tammany was the driving force behind extending the vote to propertyless white males in the 1820s (previously, land ownership was a requirement), and had already gained a reputation for rowdy egalitarianism.  When the Irish flooded into the city, where the “nativist” Whigs saw a problem, the Democrats saw a solution: only help people who need helping, and they will repay you with their undying loyalty.

Tammany was organized into “wards” or turfs, and the bosses of those wards served many purposes for their communities.  They found jobs for new arrivals, helped them locate housing, delivered heaping baskets of food at Christmas, even spoke words in the ear of Tammany-appointed judges when their voters ran into trouble.  It was about as corrupt as Vladimir Putin at a bunga bunga held by a Mexican drug cartel—but it was all the people had to fall back on, and decade after decade, the system kept successfully electing Democratic candidates.

Tammany was ruthless, unafraid of destroying ballot boxes, renting voters from nearby Philadelphia, or releasing convicts for a single day and buying their votes with free liquor (all historically accurate).  They later grew far too opulent for their own good and became forever associated with government skullduggery when William “Boss” Tweed was found by an aldermen’s committee to have stolen somewhere between 25 and 50 million dollars from New York taxpayers (and this was in 1877).  But before the soaring heights of infamy, before Tammany took New York in a stranglehold, they did understand one thing:

 Poor people don’t hate having jobs.

About the book:

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From the author of the highly acclaimed GODS OF GOTHAM and SEVEN FOR A SECRET comes another vivid historical novel featuring Timothy Wilde.

A scarred barman turned copper star, the birth of the NYPD, gangs, murder, brothels  and bedlam in the dark underworld of nineteenth-century New York.

Timothy Wilde – copper star, tough with a warm heart, learning his craft as a detective.

Valentine Wilde – Timothy’s gregarious, glamorous, depraved rogue of a brother.

Mercy Underhill – The intelligent, creative but unstable love of Timothy’s life.

Silkie Marsh – The beautiful brothel owner whose scheming knows no bounds.

Against the gritty backdrop of the notorious Five Points in 1848, Timothy Wilde is drawn yet again into a disturbing mystery, leading him to the heart of the Bowery girls, the original ‘factory girls’ in downtown Manhattan.

Someone is starting fires on the streets of New York and Timothy has to unravel a knot of revenge, murder and blackmail if he’s to find out who is behind it all and stop them before the whole city goes up in flames…

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