History in Review
Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York
By Richard Zacks
Reviewed by Herbert White - January 21, 2013
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 - 1919) is known for many things - being the 26th President of the United States, serving during the Spanish-American War and leading the Rough Riders on a calvary charge during the Battle of San Juan Hill, for being instrumental in starting the National Park system, and much more. He is not, however, well known for his time spent as a New York City's police commissioner. Appointed to office on May 6, 1895 by Mayor William L. Strong, Roosevelt took up the crusader's banner with the intent of cleaning up New York City's lucrative, and sinful vices from prostitution to gambling and even drinking on Sunday. The story of Roosevelt's efforts to turn this city of sin into a family friendly metropolis is chronicled in Richard Zacks's riveting book, Island of Vice.
Read by Joe Ochman, in this audio edition, this is a history book written with the skill of a novelist. The story is fast paced, engrossing, and both entertaining and informative. Roosevelt was a multifaceted, energetic and colorful figure, and his native energy and fanaticism is ably captured in this narrative. In trying to clean up New York City, Roosevelt would have to take on Tammany Hall, a slew of 'yellow' journalist, and police bribery, and the very nature of a city's populous who liked to have its fun. His success in eliminating vice, if any, is debatable. What is certain, is that he tried his utmost to 'clean' up what he saw as a major problem and in the process, annoyed a lot of people. How he tried to rid the city of its vice problems and the repercussions of these efforts to eliminate vice, make for an interesting and compelling story, and it provides insights into the life and make-up of a truly remarkable, although at times overly zealous, man.
While Roosevelt's story and his efforts to clean up New York City was fascinating, what I found to be even more interesting were some of the factoids that Zacks sprinkled this story with. For instance, according to Zacks research there were forty thousand prostitutes in NYC at this time. Assuming four assignations a day, this would have meant that about one in six men in NYC used the services of a lady of the evening, every single day! As well, the beer ration in Manhattan appears to have been "...about twenty pints or so per week per man and woman over the age of sixteen in the city." From beginning to end, I found Island of Vice to be an all around fascinating book and one that I highly recommend to anyone interested in a fascinating aspect of American history and the futility of trying to wipe out sin...
Also of interest:
Also of interest to students of Theodore Roosevelt is Edmund Morris's classic three-volume biography of "Teddy" Roosevelt:
Volume 1: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Covering the period from 1858–1901, this volume chronicles Teddy's early years, his education, and his rise to fame.
Volume 2: Theodore Rex. This volume covers the White House Years, 1901–1909.
Volume 3: Colonel Roosevelt. The conclusion to this trilogy covers the period from 1910-1919 and covers the postpresidential years through to his eventual decline.
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