Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan made opposition to large business associations (“trusts”) one of the cornerstones of his campaign. Republicans, though, attacked Bryan as a hypocrite because some of his key supporters were intimately connected with controversial business trusts. This cartoon criticizes Bryan for his association with Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine of New York City, which was generating a great deal of negative publicity for its role with the city’s “Ice Trust.”
In 1899, during hearings on Tammany Hall corruption, the state’s chief counsel, Frank Moss, asked Tammany boss Richard Croker and his deputy, John Carroll, whether they held stock in the Consolidated Ice Company. Carroll denied it, as did Croker at first before admitting that he had put it under his wife’s name. Moss later entered a document into the record showing that Carroll and Charles Morse, the president of Consolidated Ice, served together on a utilities board in Illinois. At the time, Moss’s inquiries seemed to have little bearing on the Tammany hearings, and did not stir public comment.
Nevertheless, investigative journalists from the New York World followed the lead, and in early 1900 reported that Consolidated Ice had become the American Ice Company, which had bought out virtually all of its competitors in the New York metropolitan area. Moreover, the newspaper alleged that the creation of the “Ice Trust” had been facilitated by giving shares of stock to influential political figures, who then provided political protection for the monopoly. The stock’s monetary value was considerable: $250,000 (or $5.3 million in 2002 dollars) for Croker’s wife; $500,000 (or $10.6 million in 2002 dollars) for Carroll; $678,000 (or $14.4 million in 2002 dollars) for Mayor Robert Van Wyck, a Tammanyite; and over $200,000 (or $4.25 million in 2002 dollars) for the mayor’s brother, Augustus Van Wyck, the 1898 Democratic gubernatorial nominee (defeated by Theodore Roosevelt) and a member of the Resolutions Committee at the 1900 Democratic National Convention. Other stock recipients included Frank Platt, the son of Senator Thomas C. Platt, boss of the New York State Republican machine.
Importantly, the dock commissioners at the New York City harbor, such as Charles F. Murphy, the future boss of Tammany Hall, and Peter Meyer, Croker’s real estate partner, had been given a cut, too. Therefore, they made sure that cargoes of the few ice competitors that had refused to be bought by American Ice were not unloaded at the piers and that those companies’ equipment was vandalized.
New York City residents had endured many Tammany scandals over the years, but they became outraged when the World and other city papers reported in early April 1900 that American Ice was doubling the price of its ice, citing an alleged shortage. In the days before refrigeration, ice was a necessity in every household for preventing perishable foods and medicines from spoiling, and it was especially critical to have a ready and affordable supply during the hot summer months, which would soon be upon the city. The newspapers fanned fears that the expensive ice would lead to massive illness and death. The public backlash forced American Ice to reduce its price (though it was still a third higher than before) and Croker to remove Carroll as his deputy.
However, the political damage to Tammany Hall had already been done. Reformers’ previous charges against the city’s major Democratic machine had usually fallen on deaf ears among its working-class and poor constituents, who viewed Tammany Hall as fighting for them, even if its leaders sometimes profited by graft. The Ice Trust scandal was different because it demonstrated that Tammany Hall politicians were profiting from corrupt practices directly adverse to the interests and well being of the city’s working class and poor. Coming on the heels of the 1899 corruption investigation, it was a blow from which Boss Croker never recovered politically.
In fact, Croker aggravated the situation through his involvement in Bryan’s presidential campaign. In 1896, with Croker out of the country, Tammany Hall had not supported Bryan. In 1900, the boss first saw to it that the New York delegation endorsed Bryan, and then played a major role at the Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, Republicans nominated an enemy of Tammany Hall for vice president: Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York. Roosevelt stumped vigorously throughout the country, continually assailing Croker, and Bryan for associating with the corrupt boss. The effectiveness of the anti-Croker campaign became apparent at a Democratic rally in Madison Square Garden during which Bryan ridiculed “McKinley prosperity” and lambasted “the trusts.” When the Great Commoner rhetorically asked, “They say we are prosperous. Who’s we?” A voice from the audience bellowed back, “Croker!” provoking a roar of laughter from the crowd.
In November 1900, Bryan lost the presidential election, and American Ice soon lost its monopoly status. In early 1901 Vice President-elect Roosevelt, in his final days as governor, fired the New York City district attorney, Asa Bird Gardiner, a Tammany associate, and signed legislation abolishing the office of police chief, thus turning out the current corrupt chief, William Devery, another Tammany man. In 1901, reformer Seth Low defeated the Tammany candidate, Edward Shepard, in the mayoral race. In early 1902, Croker resigned from Tammany Hall and moved to his estate in Ireland.