In the 1890s, Theodore Roosevelt was just a headstrong, ambitious politician, years way from becoming a hero of the Spanish American War and then President of the United States. He was as straight an arrow as could possibly be imagined when he became one of four Police Commissioners in sin-drenched New York City. He swore to reform the city and put an end to vice. Island of Vice is the fascinating and amusing story of his attempt to do just that.
At that time, the city was crawling with poor people barely making ends meet. Homeless people slept on park benches, hanging by their arms from ropes in crowded rooms, or in police basements. Prostitutes walked the streets and searched for business in all-night dance halls. Illegal gaming dens and cheap saloons were everywhere. But the city also had the extremely wealthy, who did their drinking and gambling in private clubs and their carousing in sophisticated and exclusive houses of pleasure.
Meanwhile, policemen worked for little money 110 hours a week. They were very quick to look away from a streetwalker or ignore an open side door at a saloon selling booze illegally on a Sunday. New Yorkers in general felt that matters of alcohol and sex were none of the police department’s business.
Into this situation came Roosevelt, with his reformer’s zeal and hatred of drunkenness and immorality. He swore to enforce every law to the letter, an impossible task then as it is now.
Island of Vice has everything a book needs to be successful. It has sex, greed, corrupt cops, alcohol abuse, private detectives, and political intrigue. Zacks has done his research meticulously and he tells the story in a rollicking and entertaining way. He paints a vivid portrait of New York City and of Roosevelt as the blustering, stubborn, but ultimately appealing character who was thrust into a completely untenable situation. Along the way, the reader encounters many colorful characters, such as Little Egypt. (Of course, the most interesting are the ones on the side of vice.)
The photographs included in the book are worth the cost of the book alone.
Ultimately, the story is filled with humor as Roosevelt fights New York and New York fights back. It is highly recommended for anyone with even a casual interest in American History.