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How a Sex Worker's Murder Brought Down Tammany Hall's Corrupt Political System

April 17, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

To the naked eye, it was nothing more than a case of simple prostitution: When the police officer burst into Vivian Gordon’s New York hotel room in 1923, he found her in bed with a man who wasn’t her husband. Believing her lover had paid her for sex, the police officer hauled her off to jail. She was imprisoned, convicted, and sentenced to time at an upstate reformatory.

But Vivian Gordon knew there was more to the story. She suspected that her estranged husband, a U.S. marshal, had arranged the arrest in retaliation for their upcoming divorce. And like hundreds of other women caught up in New York’s vicious cycle of “frame-ups,” she couldn’t do anything to fight it.

The cops were in on it. The judges were in on it. Even the lawyers who represented women accused of prostitution and petty crimes were in on it. But what Gordon could never have suspected was that her 1923 arrest would one day take down an entire political machine.

The front page of the New York Daily News on May 25, 1931, regarding the solved murder of Vivian Gordon.

Not that she lived to see it happen. When she was murdered on February 25, 1931, Gordon unknowingly became part of one of the city’s most famous corruption investigations—and a central figure in a scandal that helped put an end to the dominance of New York’s Democratic political machine.

Tammany Hall, the outgrowth of an 18th-century political society, had ruled New York’s Democratic Party (and the city itself) for over a century. In a time before public welfare, Tammany’s political bosses helped their hangers-on with everything from heating to health care, negotiating with landlords and sometimes paying in exchange for constituents’ votes. Party members provided strength in numbers, voting their candidates into office over and over again.

By the 1930s, Tammany had woven its way into every level of city politics—and it was controlled by the New York Mob. Graft and cronyism ruled many facets of city government, including the judicial system and police department. Elected officials handed out appointments to their friends, providing them with access to bribes and power, and most institutions prioritized helping Democrats who had shown their loyalty to Tammany instead of serving all constituents equally.

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