Before the consolidation of the City of Greater New York, the center of the world in Queens was in Hunters Point. This was where the docks were, and where the LIRR ferries discharged passengers coming from Manhattan. These passengers would ostensibly board the east bound trains, but an entire industry of saloons, bars, and hotels had sprung up in the area around the LIRR yard to keep them in the neighborhood. Now… remember that we’re talking about the 1870-1900 period here. Your best point of reference, from a modern point of view, for what such such establishments offered is fictionalized in Cowboy movies and the Boardwalk Empire television series. There was gambling, women, and lots and lots of liquor. This was, in effect, a frontier town – one which was ruled over by a clique of politicians whose antics would have made Boss Tweed blush. Notorious even amongst his fellows, the last Mayor of Long Island City was Patrick Jerome Gleason. He was called Battle Ax Gleason by friend and foe alike.
Gleason was personally responsible for the construction of the exquisite P.S. 1 school house pictured in the next shot, a terra cotta masterpiece which nearly bankrupted LIC – amongst other imbroglios. Dogged by claims and accusations (and at least one conviction) of corruption – Gleason used to sit in a barber chair outside the Miller Hotel – known today as the LIC Crabhouse – and hold court with constituent and passerby alike. This was his favorite spot by all reports, directly across the street from the LIRR train and ferry terminal.
He instructed those he met to avoid addressing him as “Mayor,” instructing them to instead to “Just call me Paddy.”
Long Island City, which existed as an independent municipality that stretched from the East River to Woodside and from Newtown Creek to Bowery Bay for just 28 years, was hardly a candidate for the good government award prior to Gleason. For some reason, he raised the ire of press and political player alike. Remember – this is during the golden age of Tammany Hall over in Manhattan. Bribes and graft were a matter of fact in this era, a part of doing business. Liquor and gambling were commonplace, along with prostitution, and this turpitude raised the ire of do gooders all over the state and nation.
Enter the assassin of joy.
By all accounts, Anthony Comstock would be considered something of a prude even by the standards of the late 19th century. By the standards of our own time, he would be thought of as a religious zealot and denied all standing due to his extreme views. Comstock fought against what he considered to be sinful, founding the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice with members of the YMCA in 1873. That’s their logo below, courtesy Wikipedia.
This was a private group of moral crusaders who were “chartered by the New York state legislature, which granted its agents powers of search, seizure and arrest, and awarded the society 50% of all fines levied in resulting cases.” Their greatest hits included shutting down Mae West’s Broadway show “Sex,” banning James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” and the prosecution of Margaret Sanger for distributing birth control information via the United States Mail. The sought out and busted up gambling operations, made life miserable for homosexuals, and prosecuted more than one suffragette.
Comstock and his group are credited with burning some 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing ‘objectionable’ books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures over the course of his career. He died in 1915, but the society continued on until 1950. The Federal Laws which govern obscenity to this day are the “Comstock Laws.”
Back to Long Island City, however.
Comstock’s ideas of what might be “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” were quite broad. During his time of greatest power, even some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service.
Comstock aroused intense loathing from early civil liberties groups and intense support from church-based groups worried about public morals. He was a savvy political insider in New York City and was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service, with police powers up to and including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either public distribution of pornography or commercial fraud. He was also involved in shutting down the Louisiana Lottery, which was the only legal lottery in the United States at the time and was notorious for corruption.
Now, back in the days of Battle Ax Gleason, modern day 2nd Street was called Front Street, and that’s where the action was. At 51-09 2nd, just down the block from the Crabhouse, this 1860 number incongruously persists. This two-story structure was actually Gleason’s personal office, HQ of his Long Island Express street car line, the principal occupation of which was taking mourners to and from the docks over to Calvary Cemetery. This was one of the LIC locations that came up on Comstock’s radar, and undercover surveillance of the spot reported gambling was taking place therein. One presumes that you needed to find some pastime while waiting for a coach to arrive.
In July of 1896, Comstock and his ten agents – including “the athlete “Joe” Jefferson, who can lift 1,500 pounds of pig iron with one hand,” disguised themselves as a funeral procession headed to Calvary Cemetery from Manhattan via the LIRR Ferry. Subterfuge was necessary because of a telegraph system which the syndicate had created, one that would signal the arrival of the Society and give them a chance to hide away the evidence of wrong doing.
Comstock’s men raided four locations, including a Blissville Pool Room at 50 Greenpoint Avenue and Gleason’s office on Front Street. They seized an incredible amount of gambling equipment and cash during the raid. Comstock described himself as having delivered a “knock out punch” to the rackets in LIC, and to Gleason personally.
The NY Times, which was in a decidedly anti Irish and moralistic editorial phase during the 1890s, offers an incredible account of the raid and the various Aldermen and Politicians it snapped up in a report from July 9th, 1896. Highly recommended reading, this piece is.
When the Tammany folks over in New York began the process of assimilating Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island into the City of Greater New York – a political storm had entered NY Harbor. Every one of the political operations in these independent cities would need to be appeased, somehow. John McCooey was handed a brass ring by Tammany and he became the “boss” of Brooklyn. George Cromwell became Borough President, a position he held on Staten Island for fifteen years. Over in LIC, Gleason was holding out for something bigger.
Richard Croker and the Tammany establishment were forced into promising Gleason that if he supported the consolidation that he would be their candidate to be the first Mayor of the greater City. As you may or may not know, Robert Anderson Van Wyck – a Tammany insider – was the actual first Mayor of the consolidated City of Greater New York. Old Battle Ax was left out in the cold in the new order, and would eventually stand “hat in hand” before the Tammany elite at Union Square begging for a pension.
Gleason died in 1901, and is buried over in Calvary Cemetery, that’s his tomb stone above. Isabelle was his wife, Jessie his daughter. The press of the era portrayed Gleason as a monster, but he was returned to office multiple times by his constituents, and was beloved in the tenements and poorer sections of LIC. One of his sentiments – which he’d express in an assumed heavy brogue – was that if you built schools that were palaces for the children of the poor, their parents would vote for you unquestioningly. This is why his schools were so ornate, expensive, and worth the trouble they caused him.
One of the few surviving shots of Patrick Battle Ax Gleason, from his final campaign in 1898.
I’ve read that on the day of his funeral, thousands of people lined Borden Avenue (including armies of school age kids), who were seeing Paddy off.
Anthony Comstock, photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.