Thursday, April 29, 2010

Robert A. Van Wyck

Here's what probably will be the final entry in my gallery of disreputable relatives. A distant member of the family, Robert A. Van Wyck, was elected Mayor of New York in 1898. As it happened, that made him the first Mayor of Greater New York since the five boroughs had only just come together under a single administration. It's partly to due to his leadership that the transition from five to one was successful. It also happened that work was begun on the New York subway system while he was in office. If these are two major occurrences to his credit, there, is, unfortunately, quite a bit more to be debited from his account in the tally of good and ill for which he was responsible. Caroline Hague's smuggling was a crime, but one of very small proportion when compared to Van Wyck's. She paid a fine for hers and got on with her business while he, publicly condemned but not judicially convicted, retired to live a life of leisure in Paris on the ill-gotten wealth he acquired while in office.

Robert A. Van Wyck was a descendant of Cornelius Barentse Van Wyck who had come to New Amsterdam from Holland in the middle of the seventeenth century. The Van Wycks are an old Rhenish family, tracing themselves back to the Chevalier Hendrick Van Wyck, who lived in fifteenth century Utrecht. After settling on Long Island, Cornelius Barentse had a son, Theodorus, who is the common ancestor of Mayor Van Wyck and myself: Altje, daughter of Theordorus, married a member of the Thorne family of Long Island and they are progenitors of the branch of the family in which I reside, and Barent, son of Theodorus, produced the ancestral line in which Robert A. Van Wyck can be found. You can see here what the descendancy looks like.

Van Wyck was a well-educated and apparently intelligent New York lawyer who had become a judge before entering electoral politics. He was also an ambitious and opportunistic member of the powerful local Democratic political machine called Tammany. The infamous leader of that organization had been Boss Tweed, a man of superlative greed and corruption whose misdeeds resulted in a prison term during the decade preceding the election which brought Van Wyck to office. Although an outcome of this Tammany defeat had been the election of a reform mayor in 1896, the organization had bounced back under the leadership of Richard Croker as Tammany managed to put Van Wyck in the Mayor's chair for a term. There, his actions so outraged the electorate that a second reform administration immediately followed. It's a bit comforting to find that my great-grandfather, Louis Windmuller, fought strenuously against the corrupt politics of Tammany, Croker, and Van Wyck.* Louis Windmuller may not have known he was a distant cousin of Van Wyck's; if he did, he did not admit it. It was Windmuller's wife, Annie Lefman, whose mother, Sarah Lenington Thorne, was a direct descendant of Theodorus Van Wyck.

Van Wyck hated speech making and didn't bother to court the voters during what passed for his electoral campaign. He merely carried out what boss Croker asked of him as a pliant, cooperative, unenthusiastic, colorless party tool.

His biggest offense against the law and human decency was to use his position to permit a business called the American Ice Company to create an iron-clad monopoly in the five boroughs. Refrigeration had not yet been introduced and New Yorkers had become dependent on cheap ice from states farther north to keep cold their food and beverages. When American Ice doubled the price to consumers, the impact was very serious. Van Wyck's reward for making sure that the company was able to do this with impunity was a gift of 5,000 shares of its stock. Allowing for inflation, the value of those shares would be considerably more than $12 million these days.

After his death in 1918, the New York Times summed up his corrupt actions in a short article. I quote here the whole thing. Note the links I've included to explain some of the details (well-known to readers of the time, not necessarily so today).

In the days of Robert A. Van Wyck, the first Mayor of Greater New York, now dead in Paris, this city had had neither a partisan nor a non-partisan government. Politics, as we understand the word today, had nothing to do with it. The city was swag, divided on the exact principles upon which Fagin used to divide the swag which the Artful Dodger and his pals brought home. Tammany had once been a political party, and now again has some resemblance to one, but in Van Wyck's day — that is, Richard Croker's day — it was simply a gang.

When, in 1897, Tammany won back the city, Croker and his associates went off to Lakewood, where they spent the next six weeks apportioning the spoil of victory. Some of it had been already apportioned. Croker had selected Van Wyck for the Mayorality, for instance, not permitting his name to come before the public until the day the so-called convention met. Van Wyck was thus appointed to the Mayoralty as Devery was later appointed Chief of Police and as other members of the gang received their several appointments. In no case was the appointment regarded by the recipient as one in which to perform a duty. He accepted it in a military spirit, as one pirate might have been told off by Blackbeard to watch the prisoners, another to run up the Jolly Roger, another to command a landing. Croker, had he chosen, might have appointed Devery to the Mayorality and Van Wyck to the Police Chieftainship. Each would have obeyed like a soldier.

Then began the partition of the city on a scale never seen before. It was scientifically mapped and surveyed. There bad been much spoil when Croker had control before, but except in the Police Department it was unscientific. Besides, Croker had not had full control. Now It almost seemed as if he had spent the three years of his retirement in devising a scientific plan for the making of fortunes out of every nook and corner.

In Tweed's time fortunes bad been made by the vulgar and easily detectable method of robbing the city treasury. The method under Croker was that of "assessments" levied upon individuals and corporations, and the city government was not used for robbery, but for the purpose of greasing the wheels of various schemes for which these contributions were collected. Never, under Tweed or anybody else, had the city been so systematically "worked." It was done almost openly, the gang apparently figuring that four years would be enough, and that at the end of that time it did not matter what the people would do. The people turned them out of office, of course, and Croker retired to Ireland and Van Wyck to Paris, each, doubtless, with a chuckle.

Van Wyck never for a moment regarded himself as Mayor of New York, but solely as the member selected by the chief to hold a certain post for the purpose of facilitating the work of the gang. He rendered faithful service and was liberally rewarded, especially in stock of the Ice Trust. New York had never seen such a Government as it had during the four years of his nominal Mayoralty. Although an educated man, and coming from good stock, his manners were coarse and his temper violent, and there was nothing to choose between his way of receiving a deputation or clergymen and an east side Police Captain's way of receiving a derelict at the station. His vulgarity was apparently acquired rather than natural. He kept constantly in mind the fact that he was in the City Hall to perform certain duties marked out for him by his superiors in Tammany Hall. It cannot be denied that he was staunchly faithful to such superiors as he acknowledged; if he had not been staunchly faithful be would not have been so richly rewarded.

-- WHEN VAN WYCK WAS MAYOR. New York Times, Nov 16, 1918, p. 12
Van Wyck's obituary in the New York Times fleshes out this colorful condemnation. Some extracts:
As Mayor, Mr. Van Wyck became involved in probably more administrative scandals than any other Mayor in the city's history.... The election campaign is still remembered because of the utter absence of any oratorical effort on the part of the Tammany candidate....Van Wyck weathered the Ice Trust scandal but the same year became involved in the so-called Rampo water steal. The Ramapo Water Company, a dummy concern,...was given a contract for $5,000,000 a year [and] the contract aroused public indignation to such an extent that the matter was taken before the State Legislature and the special privileges given to the company were revoked.... There was a big police scandal during the Van Wyck administration. "Big Bill" Devery was Chief of Police, and it was openly charged that under him the police were in league with vice and crime.... [Although the subway was begun in his administration,] Mayor Van Wyck was charged with trying to prevent progress on the enterprise [and was able to hold up work eighteen months]. Nearly every department head under the Mayor came in for public condemnation. It was charged of the Mayor that he was irascible and vituperative, and that he ignored demands for the removal of incompetent or guilty heads of departments....
-- ROBERT A. VAN WYCK DIES IN PARIS HOME; First Mayor of Greater New York Had Lived Abroad for 12 Years. HE WAS CROKER'S "CHOICE" His Administration Marked by SoCalled Ice Trust, Ramapo WaterSteal, and Police Scandals. In Administrative Scandals. Police Department Accused. Effort Made to Remove Him. New York Times, Nov 16, 1918, Saturday, Page 13
Robert A. Van Wyck

{source: wikipedia}

Boss Tweed

{Boss Tweed by Thomas Nast; source: aft586.wordpress}

Richard Croker

{Richard Croker; source: flickr}

Further reading:

Robert Anderson Van Wyck in wikipedia

The Van Wyck Question in The New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten on how to pronounce the name

Bangor men testified against ice monopoly on American Ice freezing out the state of Maine

One Hundred Per Cent. Rise in Ice; New York's Big Trust Limits Harves and Controls Distribution. Big Dividends and Market Manipulation the Cause. American Company Has a Monopoly and Squeezes Rich and Poor Alike. New York Times, Sunday, May 6, 1900, p. 18

The Case of the American Ice Company, The Nation, Nov. 29, 1900

Tammany Hall and Rapid Transit. New York Times, Sunday, November 3, 1901, p. 15

Mayor on the Stand, Van Wyck Admits That He Owns Stock In American Ice Company. How He Got Into The Trust. Van Wyck Says He Didn't Realize His Veto of Bills Would Personally Benefit Him. Brooklyn Daily Eable, Saturday, June 9, 1900, p. 1

Declines to Oust Van Wyck. Roosevelt's Decision in the Ice Trust Matter. No Proof Produced. Utica Herald-Dispatch, Saturday, November 24, 1900, p. 1. Governor Theodore Roosevelt determines that he cannot remove Van Wyck from office.

The Ghosts of Gracie Mansion: Robert Anderson Van Wyck by James Caldwell


Some previous posts on famile stories like this one: --------


* My grandfather fought for clean government in his writings and in his participation as officer in the Reform Club and the German-American Reform Union. See, for example:

1. FOR BETTER CITY GOVERNMENT; THE GERMAN-AMERICAN REFORM UNION ORGANIZED. Ready to Take an Active Part in the Movement to Improve the Conduct of Municipal Affairs -- An EnthusIastic Meeting at Which Many Well-known Citizens Were Present -- Thorough Organization to be Effected -- Mr. Windmuller's Figures. New York Times, December 10, 1893, Wednesday, Page 5. "A goodly number of American citizens of German birth or descent met at the rooms of the Reform Club yesterday afternoon to arrange for the organization of the German-American Reform Union as a local political body. The object of the organization is to take an active part in the attempt to secure reform in the conduct of municipal affairs."

2. FOR GOOD CITY GOVERNMENT; CHAMBER OF COMMERCE TO APPEAL TO THE LEGISLATURE. Resolutions Adopted Calling for Laws That Will Invite Capital to the City -- To Ask for a Single-Headed Police Department -- Mr. Windmuller Urges Separating Municipal form National Elections -- Col. Erhardt Against the Non-Partisan Police Bill. New York Times, January 26, 1894, Wednesday, Page 3

3. TALK OF A GREATER CITY; SUBJECT DISCUSSED BEFORE THE REFORM CLUB. Theodore Roosevelt Gives His Police Views and Favors a Single-Headed Commission -- Edward M. Shepard and Others Also Speak. New York Times, December 10, 1896, Wednesday, Page 8. "Greater New York was the subject of discussion last night at the dinner of the Committee of the Reform Club on Municipal Administration."

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