Frank J. Farrell was an underworld fixture known for his gambling prowess. “Big Bill” Devery was a controversial top cop with close ties to Tammany Hall.
Devery publicly clashed with former New York City police commissioner and future president Teddy Roosevelt, a spat described in the much-praised new book Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York.
“Above all, New York reigned as the vice capital of the United States, dangling more opportunities for prostitution, gambling, and all-night drinking than any other city in the United States,” author Richard Zacks notes in Island of Vice.
“A man with a letch, a thirst, or an urge to gamble could easily fill it, night or day. Saloon owners such as Mike Callahan, tossed their keys into the East River and never locked up.”
Mike Callahan was not the only Irishman who made Teddy Roosevelt’s New York such a colorful place – not to mention a nearly impossible place to cleanse of crime.
One reason New York was such a difficult place to police was because of, well, the police.
That’s where “Big Bill” Devery comes in. He “grew up neck deep in New York City vice, at least an Irish version of it,” Zacks writes, noting that an uncle who was not above making a buck on the wrong side of the law employed numerous members of the Devery clan.
Nevertheless, Devery went on to join the New York City Police Department. (More than likely, he bribed a Tammany operative in order to obtain the job.)
This is fitting because Devery would not only go on to become (as Zacks puts it) “the Tammany police captain,” he also fended off charges that he himself was not above making a buck on the wrong side of the law.
For what it’s worth, police officers often took bribes, in part, because it was so costly to attain the job in the first place.
Devery, who was born in 1855, began his career as a bartender in watering holes on the Bowery. He joined the police force in the late 1870s and in just over a decade he was a captain.
He was stationed in one of Manhattan’s most notorious districts and he took advantage of it. It was said that he partnered with a tailor and if you wanted a favor, all you had to do was purchase one of the tailor’s suits – for $1,000!
It didn’t take long before reformers targeted Devery and numerous other Tammany operatives.
Here’s where things get complicated. While it was clear that Devery and others were corrupt, it was also clear their enemies were not merely interested in cleansing the city of voice.
Often, anti-Tammany forces of reform dripped with barely-concealed derision, even anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments. Nevertheless, Tammany officials did not help the matter, engaging in blatant criminal activity.
Roosevelt and Devery had their most public clash in 1896. By this time the Lexow Commission investigating police corruption had laid out its case against Devery in particular and the NYPD as a whole.
Devery managed to avoid charges, thanks in part to his selective memory on the witness stand. Still, by the time Roosevelt had become head of the Board of Police Commissioners, he decreed that Devery not march in an annual, closely-watched police parade.
Nevertheless, not only had Devery evaded official charges, he decided to defy Roosevelt and march in the parade. He was, naturally, received warmly by the pro-Tammany crowd.
“The parade was a dark episode for (Roosevelt),” NYPD historians James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto have written.
When Tammany regained City Hall, Devery was named police chief, a post he held until 1902, when he lost the post under corruption charges.
Devery remained active in Tammany politics, but his legacy is most alive today up in the Bronx.
In 1903, Devery partnered with Frank Farrell to purchase a Baltimore baseball club for $18,000.
They moved the team to New York and renamed them the Highlanders, a name they kept until they were purchased by Colonel Jacob Rupert in 1915.
They went on to become the New York Yankees.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at [email protected] or facebook.com/tomdeignan)