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Rating: 4.1 / 5.0 (61 votes)

Released: 2012-02-07

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Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks


When young Theodore Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner of New York City, he had the astounding gall to try to shut down the brothels, gambling joints, and after-hours saloons. This is the story of how TR took on Manhattan vice . . . and vice won.

In the 1890s, New York City was America’s financial, manufacturing, and entertainment capital, and also its preferred destination for sin, teeming with forty thousand prostitutes, glittery casinos, and all-night dives. Police cap­tains took hefty bribes to see nothing while reformers writhed in frustration.

In Island of Vice, Richard Zacks paints a vivid portrait of the lewd underbelly of 1890s New York, and of Theodore Roosevelt, the puritanical, cocksure police commissioner resolved to clean it up. Writing with great wit and zest, Zacks explores how young Roosevelt goes head to head with Tammany Hall, takes midnight rambles with muckraker Jacob Riis, and tries to convince two million New Yorkers to enjoy wholesome family fun. When Roosevelt’s crackdown succeeds too well, even his supporters turn on him, and TR discovers that New York loves its sin more than its salvation.

With cameos by Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and a horde of very angry cops, Island of Vice is an unforgettable snap­shot of turn-of-the-century New York in all its seedy glory and a brilliant miniature of one of America’s most colorful presidents.

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Editorial Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2012: Those living in New York City today may be surprised (or not!) to read about the state of their city in the 1890’s; overrun with prostitution, gambling, boot liquor and Tammany Hall, NYC was known as the “Island of Vice.” Enter the ever-ambitious Theodore Roosevelt, years before he became president, who stepped-in as the NYC Police Commissioner and made it his mission to clean up the city. Richard Zacks’ enthusiastic account of this period is a fun read—an adjective rarely used to describe history books. It would be difficult to invent a cast of characters as exuberant and flawed as those involved here, and Zacks brings them all to life with ease. He clearly enjoys the subject, elevating this well-researched book into something memorable. –Caley Anderson

A Look Inside Island of Vice

Thompson Street Bar Photo:
Jacob Riis called this Thompson Street joint “a downtown morgue.”
(Jacob Riis. Museum of City of New York [])
The Bowery Photo:
The Bowery, under the shadow of the elevated train tracks, bustled at night with colored lights and cane-swirling barkers in places such as the Lyceum Concert Garden. The joint then featured a minstrel show and cake walk.
(The New Metropolis by E. Idell Zeisloft (1899) p. 518.)
TR at desk Photo:
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), sworn in as police commissioner on May 6, 1895, soon decided to try to enforce every law on the books and every rule for police conduct. “New York has never been so shocked and surprised in all its two hundred and fifty years of existence,” commented one observer.
(Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library (560.22-001))

Book Details

Author: Richard Zacks Publisher: Doubleday Binding: Hardcover Language: English Pages: 448

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