Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Daniel Czitrom's "New York Exposed"

Daniel Czitrom is Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College, and the author of Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan. He was the history advisor on BBC America's production of Coppers.

Here Czitrom shares a scenario and dreamcast for a TV series adaptation of his new book, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era:
New York Exposed tells the story of how one man’s determination to uncover and end police corruption in 1890s New York upends the city and shocks the nation. Rev. Charles H. Parkhurst’s moral crusade to clean up New York reveals in unprecedented, headline grabbing detail, the tight links between police, politicians and the underworld. The city’s vice economy—including prostitution, the saloon trade, gambling, counterfeiting and more—thrives on servicing and conning thousands of New Yorkers and out of town visitors. All of this is managed by the New York Police Department, whose captains rule their precincts like personal fiefdoms.

Parkhurst’s fiery sermon of February 14, 1892 triggers widespread criticism and infuriates the District Attorney, who brings the minister before a Grand Jury. Can he offer any specific evidence about crimes back up his corruption charges? He could not, and is roundly denounced as a fraud, a “sensationalist” preacher making wild accusations based on rumors.

Dr. Parkhurst, isolated and under withering attack, faces a moment of truth. Refusing to back down from his claims that police and city officials routinely colluded with criminals, he must figure out a way to gather empirical proof for his charges. He resolves to get it by making a personal tour of the city’s underworld. He is accompanied by 26 year old Charles Gardner, a seedy private detective with a checkered past, and a young wealthy parishioner. Disguised as an out-of-town rube, Parkhurst and his friends spend four nights visiting cheap whorehouses downtown, expensive brothels uptown, after hours saloons, and a homosexual bar. On March 13 he preached another sermon, drawing an overflow crowd at his Madison Square Presbyterian church. In place of the usual prayer books on his lectern he had two thick piles of neatly typed affidavits. He announces creation of the City Vigilance League and prepares to challenge both the police department and the power of Tammany Hall, the nation’s strongest political machine.

Parkhurst’s crusade and the ensuing investigation by the NY State Senate’s Lexow Committee bares the full panorama of New York on the verge of modernity. Witnesses from all walks of New York life—brothel keepers, prostitutes, businessmen, police officials, counterfeiters—reveal with shocking and unprecedented detail how the police managed Gotham’s lucrative vice economy. As a result, Tammany Hall, whose control of the city seems impregnable, goes down to defeat in 1894. Parkhurst’s campaign kickstarts the Progressive movement around the nation and Theodore Roosevelt becomes president of the NY Board of Police.

The city in the 1890s is America’s first metropolis, its financial hub, its media center, and the political stronghold of Tammany Hall Democrats; all this makes the story a national one. New York is also riven by deep class divisions made rawer by the disastrous economic depression of 1893, the worst in American history to that time. Moral crusades offer simplicity and clarity of purpose. But to many working class and immigrant New Yorkers “reform” smells of repressive moralism, furtive surveillance, and the policing of personal behavior. Achieving real and lasting reform in 1890s New York proves as difficult then as it is today. Several themes in this story resonate strongly now: police violence; vote fraud and vote suppression; women as a new political force; the immigrant struggle; the muckraking power of journalism; corruption in politics; evangelical religion in American politics.

I imagine Gary Oldman as playing Parkhurst. Not the scenery chewing, eternally yelling Winston Churchill, but the Oldman who played Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in the 1995 movie of The Scarlet Letter. There he inhabited a minister torn between his public life and private passion. Parkhurst’s drama is a different one of course, but Oldman’s would no doubt find it and bring it to life. For Charles Gardner we’d need a younger actor with a cynical edge, such as Ben Foster or Miles Teller. There are very juicy roles as well in the two police brass, Thomas Byrnes (Tom Selleck), and the physically imposing Alexander “Clubber” Williams (Bradley Cooper), and Emma Goldman (Lena Dunham).
Learn more about New York Exposed at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue