Home Visiting the Museum For Educators Research and Explore




Irish Immigration to New York City >The Irish at 97 Orchard Street > 19th Century Dublin > Irish Immigrants in the Workplace > Irish Immigrants and the Catholic Church in America > Tammany Hall and Irish Political Participation > Irish Nationalism > Irish Fraternal and County Organizations > 19th Century Health Care and the Immigrant Irish > The Irish Wake Tammany Hall and Irish Political Participation
Through their involvement with Tammany Hall, the local Democratic Party organization that dominated the city's political affairs, the Irish helped construct the Democratic Party. Tammany's ability to remain in power for so long was based on the premise that it offered tangible help to the city's people, especially immigrants and slum dwellers, by helping families in times of emergency, finding them work, and easing problems with the law. The gratitude of the immigrant citizens was shown in the form of a vote on Election Day. With increased support among the immigrant community, the Tammany politicians were able to offer more help to those in their districts, and thus perpetuated their rule.1

Despite the association of Tammany Hall with the Irish, however, it was not until after the fall of the Tweed Ring that an Irishman ("Honest" John Kelly) assumed control of the organization. The three main figures in "Boss" William M. Tweed's Tammany Hall - Governor Hoffman, Mayor Hall, and Tweed himself - were all of a Protestant, native-born background, although they went to great lengths to portray their sympathies to the plight of the Irish both in New York and abroad in the interest of gaining an enormous number of potential votes.2

In December 1870, for example, Tweed publicly donated $1,000 to Irish political prisoners who had been exiled and were arriving in New York. Tweed also served on the Charitable and Religious committees of the state legislature between 1869 and 1871. Through this position, he assured that Catholic parochial schools, orphanages, and hospitals all received a good share of the charitable grants he could make available. In May 1869, Tweed managed to covertly pass a law that made city funds directly available to Catholic schools, a hotwire political issue that the Church had long advocated for, in response to what they believed to be the Protestant-orientation of public schools. Although Republicans eventually caught on to Tweed's intentions, he was able to keep the law in place for two years, further endearing him to the Catholic community.3

Most importantly, Tweed's efforts to promote public works on a grand scale provided hundreds of jobs for the city's immigrant population. However, Tweed and his associations siphoned off staggering amounts of money, tripling municipal debt and sending taxes soaring. Owing partly to the efforts of illustrator Thomas Nast, who exposed their corruption in a series of cartoons, Tweed was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. In 1878, he died a convicted felon in the Ludlow Street Jail. It is estimated that he and his associates stole between $30 million and $200 million from the people of the city.4

In the immediate aftermath of the Tweed Ring scandal, Tammany Hall and the county Democracy lay in a severe state of disarray, down but certainly not out. The machine had been shamed, discredited, and thrown under the light serious scrutiny before the people of the city. On one front, reform circles quickly mobilized to demand significant changes in the organization of municipal government and the powers bestowed upon officials within the municipal corporation, most importantly the power of the purse.5

The revelations of the Tweed scandal also sent Democrats within Tammany Hall scrambling to pick up the pieces and, for a number of ambitious men, consolidate power. Within Tammany Hall, the years immediately following the Tweed scandal were characterized by considerable infighting among rival factions of the organization. Apollo Hall, one faction that had split completely with Tammany, planned a total party realignment based on its anti-Tammanyism. Opposing this realignment were the remnants of Tweed's supporters under former State Senator Henry Genet, who sought to return the county Democracy to pilfering the taxpayer's funds. But "Honest" John Kelly and Samuel Tilden, under whose control Tammany remained, had other plans. In 1874, a "reformed" Tammany, lead by Kelly and Tilden, was returned to power when their candidate, William H. Wickham, was elected mayor.6

For 27 years, beginning with "Honest John" Kelly in 1871, Irish Catholics led Tammany Hall. Between 1902-1932, the organization was at the peak of its power. By the turn of the century, Tammany controlled about 60,000 government posts with salaries totaling $90 million a year. The machines created a large number of poorly paid blue-collar positions in order to maximize the number of working class voters rewarded. Although corrupt and undemocratic, the urban machine actively worked to incorporate working-class immigrant groups, such as the Irish, Jews, and Italians.7

Within the Irish community, The Democratic Party's strides in social legislation also neutralized the Socialist's position, as well as weakened the Republican's position in their appeal with New York's German Jews. The Democrats commitment to social reform and progressivism also drew the political progressives of the day such as Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evan Hughes, and Oscar Strauss to their side. The big-city urban machine wasn't brought down until The New Deal took the political bosses' control over the working class and replaced it with social security and welfare.8

"Big" Tim Sullivan
Born to poor Irish parents in the notorious Five Points neighborhood, as an adult "Big" Tim Sullivan successfully cultivated careers in business and politics. Over the course of 25 years beginning in 1886, Sullivan assembled a political machine that ruled the districts of lower Manhattan. A legitimate entrepreneur in the world of entertainment, Sullivan forged an effective brand of urban politics by fusing the traditional tactics of the machine with his influence in commercial leisure and organized crime.9

Staging theatrical entertainments and athletic competitions, handing out food and clothing to constituents, and offering employment and social services to ordinary citizens won him many followers, but Sullivan's protection of key figures in the vice economy of the Lower East Side made him a rather controversial figure. Despite his frequent use of physical intimidation, "Big" Tim nonetheless worked to expand the franchise and give the disadvantaged a voice in municipal politics.10

The 1875 Naturalization Frauds

While the heyday of election and naturalization fraud occurred during the late 1860s, the fall of the Tweed Ring and token reforms at the state level appear to have done little to curb Tammany Hall's thirst for votes cast at any price. In 1874-1875, Tammany Hall undertook a concerted program to fraudulently naturalize thousands of new immigrants. Analyzing the 1875 New York State Census The New York Times reported in 1876, "The one fact that while in the first sixteen wards (excluding the twelfth) there are reported 7,732 less inhabitants than by the census of 1870, while in the same wards there are reported thirty-six thousand more voters that were registered the year before (1874), settles the whole matter. But how do they make this astonishing increase in voters, it may be asked. We answer: By putting down every foreign-born male over twenty-one years of age as a voter; the manifest purpose being to furnish them with dead-men's papers or boldly-forged certificates of naturalization, and bring them to the polls to vote for Tilden and "Reform. Behold the evidence:"


Population by Census of 1870 450,018 Population by Census of 1875 442,386
Decrease in 5 Years   7,632  
Voters Registered 1874   58,895  
Voters by Census of 1875   82,582  
Increase in Voters in ten months   23,687  

If one takes into account the 7% decrease in population, the Times maintains, a 37% increase in voters for the city as a whole can only be explained in one way-"The Tammany leaders, determined to get full control of the State, caused fifty-thousand men not yet naturalized or under age to be returned as qualified voters...The facts exposed in this article conclusively show the reasons why Tilden and the Tammany "Reform" party bear such a bitter hatred to all registry laws, supervisions, challenges, iron-clad oaths, and every act, person, and thing that has a tendency to expose and prevent the infamous frauds in which that party was conceived and brought forth, and by which it lives, and without which it long ago would have died the death of a knave, and been buried out of the sight and memory of honorable men."

Although he seems to have proceeded according to the law, Joseph Moore's naturalization in October 1874 may have been associated in some way with the events described above. Indeed, a considerable number aliens were also naturalized in the City of New York during October 1874. On October 25th, the New York Times Reported, "The number of persons who have taken out their naturalization papers during the past four weeks, up to yesterday, the last day of nomination, in preparation for the ensuing [local] election, are, as accurately as can be ascertained, as follows:

Superior Court: 1,900
Common Pleas: 1,400
U.S. Courts: 89
Total: 3,389

1 Oliver E. Allen, The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993); Tyler Annbinder, Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum (New York: Free Press, 2001); Alexander Callow, The Tweed Ring (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 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 (Sept., 1991).
10 Ibid.
previous page << >> next page

2005 Lower East Side Tenement Museum






108 Orchard Street | 212-431-0233 | lestm@tenement.org