Monday, February 18, 2013

Happy Presidents' Day #5 -- February 18, 2013

This article, from the 25-August-1895 Los Angeles Herald, talks about future president Theodore Roosevelt during his time as a New York City police commissioner, when he made a big impression on the force and on voters across the nation. Note that it says he has no political ambitions. "Well heeled" below means armed. 


The Combination That Has Turned Gotham Up-side Down

What New York's Most Talked About and Most Hated Man Does in Twenty-four Hours -- Hated by Many

Teddy Roosevelt, the man who has ripped the police department of New York wide open and turned it upside down in a very short space of time, has no political ax to grind. He is not working for future recognition when fine offices are to be distributed. In fact, he says that just as soon as a man begins to consider the effects of his actions on his political future he loses all his usefulness.

A day with Mr. Roosevelt is about the busiest day that can be spent in New York these hot times. This young man, who has been called the "dude commissioner," knows no rest. The hottest day does not worry him. He goes right ahead working and showing his teeth.  This latter is no figurative bit of speech.  It is literal. His fine white teeth, which glisten and shine all day long, are known and feared by each one of the 3000 and odd of the police force. "Teddy and his teeth" is an awful combination in Mulberry street. It is a difficult matter to say when Mr. Roosevelt's day begins. Often be works right on from midnight of one day to the next. He has set a terrible example for the rest of the easy-going, luxury-loving, office-holding world of the city.  It was a strange sight in the old days if any police commissioner averaged throughout the week more than two hours work a day. Sixteen to twenty is Roosevelt's average.

An ordinary day is begun by this unusual president of the police board at 7 a.m., when he flashes into the building on Mulberry street. Like a streak of lightning the news darts into every ear, in every room, on every floor, that Teddy is on deck, teeth, eye-glasses, energy and all. 

The clerk who manages the mail of the most talked about man in New York has no sinecure. Roosevelt likes to begin the day by going over these letters.  There is as much excitement in them as in cow punching, a trade in which the head of the New York police excels. It's an off day when less than fifty threatening letters are received. These come mainly from the hangers-on of saloons and the small fry criminal classes (generally Roosevelt has driven the eight thousand and odd owners of saloons well nigh crazy by his Sunday crusade against them, and as each proprietor has at least six hangers on who swear by him, Roosevelt has a fine brigade of 5,000 men pitted against him. This, of course, represents only one division of the grand army of his enemies. In round numbers there are about 250,000 persons in New York who would smile if he were dropped into the river some dark night. But against this quarter of a million there are more than a million and a half of people who are with him up to the hilt.

In eight cases out of ten the letters received by Roosevelt are anonymous. That is the reason the threats do not worry him. It's a question whether they would cause him any disquiet if they were signed. He lived in the western country and with "bad men" on all sides of him for a long time, and always held his end up. He is an adept in the use of all kinds of fire-arms and a fine athlete.

Only the other day a stonemason, a big, brawny fellow, called to see him for the purpose of getting on the force.  Roosevelt used to box regularly every morning in an uptown academy, and soon outgrew the other members of the school. He put too much steam in his blows even for the instructor. So the stone mason was called in to spar with the coming president of the police board.

The craftsman had hard muscles and thought at first it would be great sport to polish off the dude. But it wasn't. The dude could fight. The stonemason soon learned to respect the slugging abilities of the dude. They fought each other early every morning for a long time. If the stonemason passes the regular civil service examination he will get on the force. If he doesn't he won't. Roosevelt likes him and would be glad to do him a favor, but influence, political pulls, etc., are things of the past.

There are hordes of callers every hour in the day upon the commissioner. All kinds of wrongs are poured into his ear.  His sudden prominence has caused many people to believe that be possesses every legal power from that of United States supreme court justice down to street sweeper. He sees all callers and disposes of them with terrific speed. One woman wanted him to come right away and arrest the woman living in the next house to her for throwing things in her back yard. Cranks who want to argue, the excise question with him call in droves and try to present elaborate arguments showing why the citizens of New York should have Sunday beer.

Mr. Roosevelt's position on this question is not generally understood. He says that he is in favor of more liberal excise laws and is not opposed to the sale of drinks on Sunday more than on any other day. But while there is a law in existence prohibiting the sale on Sunday he intends to enforce it. It is not within the scope of his duties to pass judgment upon the justice or injustice of the laws;.  all he must do is to enforce them.

A dozen times in the day Acting Chief Conlin, the present executive head of the department, has conferences with Mr. Roosevelt. Mr. Conlin is striving with might and main to hold the job from which Mr. Byrnes was ousted. Conlin is an old police officer who has been in the service almost as long as Mr, Roosevelt has been on earth, but he, like many others, has found that the newcomer can teach him something.

Roosevelt's main ambition is to show the people of New York that all reformers are not theorists, and consequently impracticable. He says he is a reformer, but he doesn't indulge in the luxury of theorizing unless honesty and sound business methods are to be classed as theoretic. He knew nothing about running a police department when he took the helm. He makes his plans as be goes along and learns. He is manipulating the machinery of the force to suit local conditions. This is the foundation of his plan. Find out the local conditions in each precinct and then adapt the police work to suit them. In many respects Roosevelt has shown the Byrnes regime to be a farce-comedy, particularly as to the suppression of disorderly resorts and the enforcement of the excise law.

Roosevelt usually remains at headquarters until 8 o'clock. Then, if it is to be one of his roaming nights, he starts for one of his many clubs, where he dines and reads until 10 o'clock. About this time the policeman is beginning to feel tired. There are fewer people on the streets and he can indulge in restful violations of the discipline laws with little chance of discovery. At least be could do so before Roosevelt adopted such unholy habits of prowling about all parts of the city at night unearthing the uniformed delinquents.

It may be in Harlem that the commissioner will strike like a bolt of lightning.  Or it may be the far west side or the down town slums of the East Side or perhaps in the turbulent quarter of Hell's Kitchen, where the occupants amuse themselves by dropping bricks and heavy household utensils upon the heads of passing policemen. It is safest to walk in the middle of the street at night time in this quarter, a fact which many policemen have learned. There is less danger of being ambushed by ambitious thugs. No one knows where the commissioner will strike, but he has already worked so much damage to heretofore spotless records that the policemen have created a system of signals by which they inform one another that tbe terror is abroad. What this system is has not been learned, but it is doubtless worked with the aid of saloon hangers-on, who are impressed as messengers and sent flying about the precinct on their mission of alarm.

On his first night's tour Roosevelt found only one policeman doing his  duty. Now it is hard to find one policeman not doing his duty. Whether it is the result of the signal system or an honest improvement in the work of the men is hard to say. It is probably a combination of both.

The police have not taken kindly to this prowling about of their chief, and their friends are even more indignant.  Roosevelt runs the risk of serious injury during his wanderings. Not long ago a man who looked like Roosevelt was mistaken for the commissioner by a crowd of Harlemites. They tried to mob him, but he escaped by fleetness of foot and catching an elevated train. But Roosevelt's nerve is good, and although he is not a big man, he is a fighter, and there is a general impression that when he is sleuthing at night he goes well heeled. 

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