Tammany’s Rebellious Scoundrel

William Sulzer is the only New York Governor to have been impeached. A product of Tammany Hall, he was known as a reliable and trustworthy member of that cigar-chomping institution…in other words, he was a hack.

After serving on the New York State Assembly (1889 to 1894), and as delegate to several Democratic National Conventions, he was elected to Congress and served in eight successive Congresses from March 4, 1895 until his resignation to serve as Governor of New York on January 1, 1913.

Once he became governor, Sulzer decided to (inexplicably) detach himself from Tammany Hall. He suddenly became a proponent of primary rather than convention-based elections, undermining the very essence of the political machine that made him governor. He openly refused Tammany-instructed appointments to office, defying the quid pro quo tradition of its members, making himself a pariah in the eyes of many within and outside the Hall.

Sulzer placed himself in direct opposition to Charlie Murphy (nicknamed “Silent Charlie”), Tammany Hall’s then current and most powerful boss. Unlike the raucous inebriates that preceded him, Murphy was a boss who brought an air of refinement, even honest respectability, to the organization. A soft-spoken teetotaler, he reformed Tammany by moving it away from the heavy-handed days of Boss Tweed toward a more progressive era of political patronage. To win the allegiance of the poor, Murphy championed crucial reforms such as child labor laws and factory safety. These and other measures drew votes and assured Tammany Hall’s viability until the early 1930s.

However taciturn Murphy may have been, it’s certain that he became glaringly vociferous whenever news of Sulzer’s independent escapades reached him. Treachery is an abominable offense in the most sophisticated of circles…of course, even more so in the pugnacious strata of Tammany Hall.

Murphy began probing into the very cellar of Sulzer’s political career, attempting to disclose whatever dirt there was to be found on him.  Unable to discover anything particularly damning on his own, Murphy arranged the appointment of a special investigative committee to dig into the renegade Governor’s past. The only item that the committee came up with was that Sulzer had misrepresented the source of his campaign funds for his gubernatorial race; an illegal, but not entirely damning, offense.

But it wasn’t the charges against Sulzer that led to his impeachment, it was his reaction to them; as if Murphy knew his enemy’s potential for self-destruction. Instead of defending himself and providing evidence to the contrary, Sulzer evaded questions, refused to release evidence in his favor and resorted to hysterical attacks on Murphy and Tammany Hall. This prompted further probing into his affairs, revealing, among other things, that he used campaign funds to speculate on stocks. This was indeed illegal and was the damning evidence that Murphy was looking for. On August 13, 1913 the New York Assembly voted to impeach Sulzer by a vote of 79 to 45.

Over the years, several attempts to vindicate Sulzer have invariably failed. Ironically, attempts at vindication further implicated him in criminal behavior along with raising questions regarding his sanity. Even though he was able to salvage portions of his political career (elected as an independent to the New York State Assembly on November 4, 1913 and being offered, but declining, a nomination for President of the United States by the American Party), he died a disgraced man. His official portrait is the only one of a Governor of New York excluded from the New York State Capitol‘s “Hall of Governors.”

Note:  The William Sulzer story is said to be the inspiration for Preston Sturge’s 1940 film THE GREAT MCGINTY. In CITIZEN KANE, the character Jim Gettys is based on Charlie Murphy.

Source: Wikipedia