By: The Fusionist
In May 1907, Timothy D. “Big Tim” Sullivan, a key leader in the powerful Tammany Democratic organization in New York City, spoke to a reporter from the New York Herald. “Help your neighbor, but keep your nose out of his affairs,” said Big Tim, seemingly libertarian-ly.
The former New York state legislator, who had recently resigned from Congress but not from his role as Tammany power-broker, wasn’t actually endorsing libertarianism. He was talking about his no-questions-asked policy of distributing charity to the poor who lived in the Bowery district – poor people whom the Democrats relied on to get elected and re-elected. Sullivan held an annual daylong summer extravaganza of food and entertainment for grateful voters and their families, and an annual Christmas dinner, too, plus clothing giveaways. He literally bailed out people who got in legal trouble, and helped job-seekers get employed in government or the private sector.
A businessman who had ownership interests in saloons and theaters, Sullivan probably chipped in some of his own money for his charitable efforts. But he didn’t have to rely solely on the contents of his own pocketbook. Sullivan took a “regulate and tax” approach to gambling, liquor, and other kinds of vice – if by “tax” you mean payoffs to himself and his friends, plus help for his poor constituents.
Often charged with being “King of the Underworld,” Sullivan denied it. He particularly denied shaking down prostitutes. At one point, in order to forcibly, as it were, rebut the allegations, Sullivan’s people raided some brothels and beat up some pimps.
Sullivan was even more enthusiastic about practicing violence against Republican poll-watchers. To take one example: when political reformer William Travers Jerome in 1901 threatened to employ poll watchers in Sullivan’s territory, Big Tim told the press: “If Jerome brings down a lot of football playing, hair-mattressed college athletes to run the polls by force, I will say now that there won’t be enough ambulances in New York to carry them away.”
And if Big Tim had to recruit from the criminal underworld to accomplish his dirty work, he would do so. As Professor Daniel Czitrom put it: “The Sullivan machine occasionally employed rival gangs for strong-arm support at election time, especially during the rare but bruising intra-Tammany primary fights. The largest and most notorious of these were the Jewish Monk Eastman gang and the Italian Paul Kelly Association, whose bitter feuding sometimes exploded into gunfire on Lower East Side streets.”
Shortly after Sullivan gave his comments about keeping one’s nose out of people’s affairs, a prestigious Quaker school in Washington, D. C., held its graduation ceremonies. Friends School, as it was known, was presided over by the husband-and-wife team of Thomas and Frances Sidwell, after whom the school would later be renamed. The graduates were to be addressed by a very important, albeit non-Quaker figure: President Theodore Roosevelt, whose son went to the school (Roosevelt, incidentally, was an old adversary of Sullivan’s).
While waiting for Roosevelt and his wife to arrive, the graduation crowd listened to a Friends School alumnus and Harvard graduate, who had studied in Berlin and Vienna to be a professional violinist and now shared his talent with the audience with solos by Vieuxtemps, Elgar, and Bazzini.
The violinist, Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, was from a Southern family as distinguished as his name sounded. His doctor-father had financed his education and was probably relieved that Fitzhugh seemed to have settled down to a regular job. Fitzhugh’s sometimes strange and disturbing behavior made him unpleasant to have around the family home.
President Roosevelt arrived and gave his speech. Goldsborough remained during the speech, as we know from a photograph of the event showing the violinist standing on the President’s right. A later search of Goldsborough’s notebook showed the violinst describing the Rough Rider as “An example of evolution from Politics to Barbarism,” but despite this, perhaps Goldsborough found something in Roosevelt’s speech worth listening to. Roosevelt gave a version of one of his favorite speeches, “The American Boy” (the graduating class had a handful of girls as well as boys). Roosevelt proclaimed: “When a boy grows up, I want him to be of such a type that when somebody wrongs him he will feel a good, healthy desire to show the wrongdoers that he can not be wronged with impunity.”
With these not-fully-Quakerish sentiments echoing in their ears, the graduates, the President, and Goldsborough went their separate ways. Goldsborough got work playing first violin for the Pittsburgh Orchestra. He had undeniable musical talent. But he was not a talented poet. This was unfortunate, since Goldsborough insisted on reading his poetry to other members of the orchestra. His colleagues put up with it, until one day a fellow-musician said that Goldsborough’s poetry was terrible. Goldsborough broke his violin over the other musician’s head.
[insert “sax and violins” joke here]
Soon after this, in 1910, Goldsborough left Pittsburgh, explaining everything in a brief note so that nobody would worry: “The Pittsburgh smoke has driven me crazy. You will never see me again.”
On January 23, 1911, around New York City’s Gramercy Park, the novelist David Graham Phillips was taking his regular walk in the high-toned neighborhood. Phillips was a “muckracker,” a term coined by President Roosevelt to describe writers like Phillips who focused on corruptions and abuses in society. Phillips had written several novels denouncing political abuses, and he had also written a novel of manners, The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig, mocking the upper crust.
One of the young ladies in the Joshua Craig novel was described as follows: “To her luxurious, sensuous nature every kind of pleasurable physical sensation made keen appeal, and she strove in every way to make it keener.” Someone had recently been bombarding Phillips with letters complaining that this character was a satire on his (the correspondent’s) sister. This was not true, and Phillips had rightly concluded that the letter-writer was a nut, but what Phillips didn’t know was that the letter-writer had taken up lodging nearby in order to stalk Phillips and seek “revenge.”
And now the letter-writer, Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, was coming up to Phillips, shooting the novelist and then himself. Goldsborough died promptly; Phillips died the following day.
Phillips’ murder was quite helpful to a bureaucrat named George P. LeBrun, a gun-control zealot who got together a coalition for a more restrictive firearms law. LeBrun recruited a committee consisting of John D. Rockefeller and other bigshots – the committee called itself the Legislation League for the Conservation of Human Life, of which LeBrun became secretary.
To sponsor the gun law, LeBrun recruited Big Tim Sullivan, who by this time was back in the state Senate. Sullivan, who now represented in the Lower East Side, piously told LeBrun about the need to stop murderous gang rivalry. (Cynics to this day suggest that Sullivan wanted a legal weapon to keep his allies well-armed while disarming his adversaries, but what possible basis can there be for such a supposition?) Sullivan took the floor on behalf of his bill, which would require permits for concealable guns. The legislature voted with Sullivan and the bill became law.
LeBrun credited Phillips’ murder: “Four shots fired by a maniac caused me to become the father of the Sullivan Law…” This law, of course, restricts the arms-bearing rights of perfectly sane people. Unless they have connections, like Big Tim Sullivan’s allies.
The New York Times reported Sullivan’s reassurances: “Senator Sullivan said that householders and business men who desired to keep weapons in their homes and places of business as a measure of protection would not be inconvenienced by the new law.” As reported in the Times, Sullivan was sure of the law’s constitutionality because he had “consulted a Supreme Court Justice [i. e., state trial judge] in preparing it.”
This justice may or may not have been the retired judge – and Tammany ally – Roger A. Pryor, who in an interview with the Times assured the reporter that the law was constitutional, because the state of New York did not have to obey the Second Amendment – “it is settled by uniform adjudication that [the Second Amendment] is a limitation on the authority and power of the Federal Government only….Senator Sullivan is entirely right and his critics are all wrong.”
Judge Pryor had certainly come a long way since that April day in Charleston harbor half a century before, when he and others discussed whether to fire on Fort Sumter…but that is a story for another time.
As for Sullivan, he was elected to Congress again in 1912, but went mad, and died mysteriously in 1913.
“Bang, Bang, Your [sic] Dead,” The Public “I,” January 24, 2013, http://thepublici.blogspot.com/2013/01/bang-bang-your-dead.html
Juan Ignacio Blanco, “Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough,” Murderpedia, http://murderpedia.org/male.G/g/goldsborough-fitzhugh.htm
Carl M. Cannon, “Clinton gives commencement address at daughter Chelsea’s private school ‘Dad, the girls want you to be wise the boys just want you to be funny.’” Baltimore Sun, June 07, 1997 http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-06-07/news/1997158013_1_sidwell-friends-school-clinton-chelsea
Sewell Chan, “Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany Kingmaker,” New York Times, City Room blog, December 18, 2009, https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/big-tim-sullivan-tammany-kingmaker/
Commencement Exercises and President Roosevelt’s Address, May 24, 1907. Friends School, Washington, D.C.
Richard C. Cortner, The Supreme Court and the Second Bill of Rights: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Nationalization of Civil Liberties. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.
Daniel Czitrom, “Underworlds and Underdogs: Big Tim Sullivan and Metropolitan Politics in New York, 1889- 1913.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Sep., 1991), pp. 536-558
Friends’ Intelligencer, Sixth month [June] 8, 1907, p. 366.
George P. Le Brun, as told to Edward D. Radin, call me if it’s murder! New York: Bantam, 1965, pp. 69-77.
“History,” Sidwell Friends School, http://www.sidwell.edu/about_sfs/history/index.aspx
“Roger A. Pryor Finds New Gun Law Valid,” New York Times, September 5, 1911. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9800E4D91531E233A25756C0A96F9C946096D6CF
“Sullivan Wants New Gun Law to Stand,” New York Times, September 7, 1911, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9B00E6DA1E3EE033A25754C0A96F9C946096D6CF