BIG TIM SULLIVAN
1862 – 1913
In order to delve any further into the genesis of Jewish gangsters and their rise to power, one must pause and reflect on the role played by the Democratic machine known as Tammany Hall, and specifically, Timothy Daniel ‘Big Tim’ Sullivan. Sullivan had a great influence on much early Jewish gang activity in its burgeoning years. He earned the name Big Tim from his six-foot-four frame that strolled Lower East Side streets, generally towering a full twelve inches over most of Eastern Europe’s generally small statured immigrants, who were somewhat awed by the large Irish fellow who greeted them into the new world. Big Tim was old New York, proud Irish/ American born right in the middle of the Five Points. He ran with the infamous Whyos gang as a boy and later showed unflinching charisma and political flair that would take him to the New York State Senate, and finally Tammany Hall. Sullivan represented the dream and possibility of America; born in dire poverty and rising to riches and power. The steps leading to the dream fulfilled is what made him a controversial and contradictory figure in New York politics.
Tammany Hall had a long history of corruption running through its corridors going back to the scandalous days of the William ‘Boss’ Tweed, New York’s most corrupt official that ever held office. It left a permanent blemish on the organization yet they got passed it and managed to tighten their position of power over the East Side in the old days of Ward politics, swiftly adapting to the new overflow of population that was pouring in from Europe. While the Irish community remained suspicious of these dark eyed strangers who spoke no English, Tammany, and specifically Sullivan, saw voter and exploitive potential. Shrewd maneuvering on their part helped keep a stranglehold on the new Jewish sector by setting them up with tenement housing, social services and some menial employment. Grateful new arrivals in turn gave them their vote, a newfound right afforded to them that was never an option in Eastern Europe. By setting up this false sense of democratic right, Tammany Hall reaped its rewards but very rarely ever kicked it back on any large scale. It would take almost two decades for the Jewish community to pull out from under the Tammany stranglehold and start taking political positions of their own in the community.
Sullivan’s days with The Whyos also helped shape his relationships with the emerging ethnic gangs, as he understood the mindset and power play. He developed a form of silent control over them by letting them go about their business, turning a blind eye as long as there was kickbacks and the arrangement worked to his benefit. He regularly employed Monk Eastman’s predominantly Jewish gang and the rival Italian Five Pointers, of whom a young Al Capone was a member. These two rivals proved beneficial to Sullivan especially when it came to Election Day. Persuasion through intimidation was their specialty, and under Sullivan, these gangs also helped define the art of the ‘repeater vote’. Seeking out bearded individuals or enforcing some to grow beards a few weeks prior to voting day, and then send them to the polls on three different occasions by shaving away various parts of their facial hairs. Gang leaders came and went and Sullivan adapted to each new shift in power, instrumental in shaping the criminal careers the likes of Big Jack Zelig and Arnold Rothstein. He also had many ties to gambling and vice. He helped Herman Rosenthal set himself up as gambling house operator and directed Charles Becker’s police career. They all owed a debt, literally, to his patronage.
Despite backroom deals and shakedowns, Sullivan’s reputation with the poor was one that made him out to be an inner city Robin Hood, except that he wasn’t exactly stealing from the rich. There was no doubt Big Tim’s heart was big, and despite his corruptible nature, he put much of the ‘tribute’ money he collected to great use. To many, he was King Of The Bowery. He claimed his favorite book was Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and he never forgot his poor upbringing, proving to be very generous to those less fortunate. He donated out almost $ 25,000 annually to charity, and often handed out food, clothing, and found employment for the needy. Sullivan also held his famous annual Christmas dinners that fed over five thousand of the city’s homeless who lined up along the Bowery. Along with his cousin, Little Tim Sullivan, who was his exact psychical opposite, they also staged vaudeville shows and sporting events, especially prize fighting which was becoming very popular by the end of the 19th century. He was also responsible for introducing the Sullivan Act, perhaps the most ironic political move of his career considering his underworld ties. It was a state law that required a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and was passed on May 29, 1911. It proved hazardous for many gangsters who found themselves dragged off to the Tombs as police routinely dropped guns into their unsuspecting pockets as a means of rounding up undesirables.
Sullivan prospered greatly during the early days of Jewish gangster activity, but his tenure would come to an end just as the matter of Herman Rosenthal and Lieutenant Charles Becker was coming to a boil. Both men had strong ties to Sullivan and their feud was escalading uncontrollably. However Sullivan, perhaps the only man able to settle the disruptive dispute, was mentally gone, suffering from a form of syphilis, and mental instability that ran in his family. He had started to change and act in bizarre ways by the start of 1912, and street associates were seeing less and less of him. Tammany eventually had him committed to a sanitarium, as it proved too difficult to keep his condition from public view and were despondent to see such a proud man deteriorate in such a manner. On the hot summer night of July 15, 1912, when the Herman Rosenthal affair reached its climax in front of the Metropole Café, Sullivan sat under guard in a convalescence home in Eastchester, far and disconnected from a world he helped shaped and that had just imploded. He would remain committed to a sanitarium for the entire next year.
In mid-August of 1913, Sullivan kept his guards up with an all night card game and managed to escape the slumbering orderlies in the early morning dawn. He went missing for two weeks afterwards before his body was eventually found in a freight yard in the Bronx. Initially believed to be an unlucky tramp that had been hit by a train, his body lay at the morgue for thirteen days before being identified and claimed by his stepbrother. 25,000 people turned out for his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral located on Mott Street. Calvary Cemetery in Long Island City was his final resting place. The King Of The Bowery and an era was dead; Tammany Hall’s grip and influence loosened considerably in the aftermath of his death and the Rosenthal / Becker affair, as new Jewish gang leaders emerged with new sights on the horizon.