Ouch! This one stings. If you want to know the truth about the ugliness, the stinking rottenness that has built our
country's political industrial complex, this is the one to read. It is not really a book but a reprint of seven magazine articles (McClure's Magazine), by Lincoln Steffens, concerning six U.S.
cities that represent the epitome of corruption. Only one is about a city that had the courage to stop it—Chicago. Or at the time these pieces were written,
at least, which was around the turn of the century, 1903. (Of course now Chicago is one of the main mafia headquarters in the U.S..) The article on New York City (New York: Good Government to the Test,
November1903) is both positive and negative (although again, it's doubtful that in this current time this city would pass a truthful assessment). The exposé on
St. Louis is scathing, and equally bad about Minneapolis. Pittsburgh is the worst of the two previous named combined, and Philadelphia, at that time was the
most disgraceful city in America as far as corruption. Steffens makes a point of saying that what happens in these cities happens in most cities and he
simply chose these because they were such blatant examples. One would like to think that in over a hundred years we might have matured and chosen honesty and
integrity as the correct path, but, sadly, we have gone just the opposite direction, and even small towns and counties, such as my own are corrupt to the
core. And let me also warn you that even if you are one of the few people who perceive the world as it really is, not the fairy tale broadcast to us by the
media and all the major institutions, you will still find the material in these articles shocking.
There is so much information here that I can't possibly begin to cover it all, so I will discuss a few general themes, and also my own observations, thoughts and perceptions. Then I will give a bit of particular information for the cities discussed. One other point I want to make is the cover picture on the Dover edition really has nothing to do with the contents of the book. In fact, when I bought the book, I'm not sure I even was aware of what it was about. The photo is from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, but this book really is not at all about slums or poverty. (I own other books about that.) This one is strictly about corruption in the political and municipal organizations that run cities.
I realize the general population has their noses stuck in their cell phones and is too distracted with useless activities to even be aware of what is really going on before our very eyes, blatant, and in-your face crime in the guise of government. There are a handful of us who pay attention and are not only aware of the permeation of corruption, but also aware enough to know that we don't have a clue. The criminality is so deep and so routine that we cannot imagine the levels of shamelessness to which those in power stoop. This book is an eye opener, especially for people like myself who know we're being jerked but don't know exactly how. Even though these situations are over one hundred years old, they still apply, and much more now, no doubt.
We tend to blame Washington, or our individual state representatives for the messes, but as Steffens points out, it is, and always has been the wealthy business owners that are at the root of political corruption. Those in government can be bought and the businesses can afford to buy them. Certainly now it is at the multi-billion dollar global corporate level, but back then it was more local—and just as corrupt and powerful, given the industrial development at the time. One thing that I find particularly interesting is the role played by the railways. The more I read about turn-of-the-century corruption, the more I notice the involvement of this industry. Several years ago, I read Upton Sinclair's wonderful novel The Money Changers, based on the stock market panic of 1907, and it was all about railroads. I remember reading somewhere that the character in the story that ultimately orchestrated the disaster was based on J.P. Morgan. His name came up in this book, too. According to Wikipedia, from 1890 to 1913, "42 major corporations were organized or their securities were underwritten, in whole or part by J.P. Morgan and Company." 24 of those were railroads.
As an aside, even in Dostoyevsky's 1868 novel, The Idiot, the character Lebedyev, who considered himself to be an expert on the Apocalypse, believed "the star that is called Wormwood" was the railway lines through Europe!
But it doesn't matter what the industry, when business is allowed to govern, the entity being governed always loses. The point made very clearly by Steffens is that business owners care about their own profit, not about what benefits their city. This is the theme that runs through the entire book.
Another point that amazed me was the unconcealed act of repeat voting. We know today that there is voting fraud. It's obvious to anyone who isn't comatose. Elections are a joke. Though this racket was practiced in all of these cities (and probably everywhere), the article Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented (July 1903) sums it up:
The assessor of a division kept a disorderly house; he padded his lists with fraudulent names registered from his house; two of these names were used by election officers. . . . The constable of the division kept a disreputable house; a policeman was assessed as living there. . . . The election was held in the disorderly house maintained by the assessor. . . . The man named as judge had a criminal charge for a life offense pending against him. . . . Two hundred and fifty votes were returned in a division that had less than one hundred legal votes within its boundaries.
Beginning with the first article from October 1902, Tweed Days in St. Louis, we hear about
boodling and grafting and a lot about Tammany. I had to do some research on these terms. Boodle is money for
political bribery. Grafting means "to gain advantage in business or politics through shady means." For readers in the
would probably be familiar. It was a powerful New York City political organization run by William M. "Boss" Tweed. Unless you are someone well
educated in political history, that name today would probably mean little.
In 1902, St. Louis was the fourth largest U.S. city. To give you a taste of the situation at the time, here is Steffens's description:
Taking but slight and always selfish interest in the public councils, the big men misused politics. The riffraff, catching the smell of corruption, rushed into the Municipal Assembly, drove out the remaining respectable men, and sold the city—its streets, its wharves, its markets, and all that it had—to the now greedy business men and bribers. In other words, when the leading men began to devour their own city, the herd rushed into the trough and fed also.
About that time, someone suggested a young lawyer, Joseph W. Folk, for Circuit Attorney. He had a thriving business in civil law, and really didn't want
the nomination, but upon being urged, he finally accepted. He promised, if elected, to do his duty.
Apparently those who nominated him were winking when he said that, and mistakenly thought he was winking back. He wasn't. Much of this article, and the follow-up article, The Shamelessness of St. Louis from 1903 is about his patient and perseverant drive to round up all the city's crud and send them to jail. Where are the Joseph Folks today?
It was a popular doctor, Albert Alonzo Ames, who brought about the outrageous reign of disgrace in The Shame of Minneapolis (January, 1903). At first, he was known as one who would serve the needs of his community at any hour, caring for the poor at no charge, and in general, gaining the reputation of a "good fellow." But, as Steffens points out, it is often these types that easily merge into the path of corruption. He also was known to help drinkers drink more and get thieves off the hook. He was loved by the upright and the low lives, (although he neglected his own family!). He served as mayor as both a Republican and Democrat. He separated from his wife, who later died. He was banned from the funeral but behaved deplorably anyways. He was aging and so was his reputation.
Between his outward popularity and a new law which mistakenly allowed either party to vote for either party, Ames, a Democrat in poor standing was nominated on the Republican ticket, and was elected mayor yet again. He decided to go out with a bang, and the first thing he did was to "turn the city over to outlaws who were to work under police direction for the profit of his administration." He appointed his brother as police chief. From there, the city went straight to hell in a handbasket.
In Pittsburg [sic]: A City Ashamed (May 1903) Steffens's opening paragraph sets the mood for an article telling of unbelievable disgrace:
Minneapolis was an example of police corruption; St. Louis of financial corruption. Pittsburg is an example of both police and financial corruption. The two other cities have found each an official who has exposed them. Pittsburg has had no such man and no exposure. The city has been described physically as "Hell with the lid off"; politically it is hell with the lid on.
But the one argument to which Steffens continuously returns is that all of this shameful behavior has been allowed
because of the apathy of the people. Then, and much, much more so now. It truly is the fault of the citizens that the politics and government at all levels are
in the process of literally destroying civilization as we know it. All great empires have fallen through the devolution of morals and integrity, but now it
Perhaps now the deviation from honesty is too far advanced, too much damage done to reverse it, but at the time, at least one city put forth an effort. Chicago: Half Free and Fighting On (October 1903) is a courageous example of citizens who reclaimed their power and worked in behalf of their city rather than selfish interests. Unfortunately, this trend was not to last, as mentioned at the beginning of this review.
Even though these articles were written over a century ago, they are still timely. I highly recommend reading this collection to gain a stronger grasp of the workings of the machine that runs our country, and the world. It is quite hideous.
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