The swindles of Tammany Hall.
The swindles of Tammany Hall.

FEW AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS ARE AS SYNONYMOUS WITH CORRUPTION AS TAMMANY HALL, the infamous New York City political machine that ran the city—and its coffers—throughout much of the nineteenth century. In 1905 Tammany operative George Washington Plunkitt explained the game of honest graf.

1905 | New York City

Taking Opportunities

There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity, and I take it. I go to that place, and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course it is. Well, that’s honest graft. Or, supposin’ it’s a new bridge they’re goin’ to build. I get tipped off, and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank.

Wouldn’t you? It’s just like lookin’ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year. I will tell you frankly that I’ve got a good lot of it too.


Fall 2010

GEORGE W. PLUNKITT, from an interview. A longtime Democratic state senator, Plunkitt was one cog in the Tammany Hall machine that helped run New York City for nearly a century. Members of the society remained in power by providing the immigrant constituency, largely Irish Catholic, with expedited naturalizations and financial support in exchange for votes.

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