Clergyman and Reformer Charles H. Parkhurst Part 1

About clergyman and reformer Charles Parkhurst, his biography and place in United States history as a political and police corruption reformer.


Clergyman and reformer.

A seemingly mild-mannered and scholarly Presbyterian clergyman, Charles Parkhurst shocked New York City in the 1890s when he launched a spirited crusade against police corruption, political connections with the underworld, and all forms of urban vice. Born in Framingham, Mass., Parkhurst lived the simple life of a farmboy until he displayed unusual scholarly ability. He was graduated from Amherst College in 1866 after having been rejected for service during the Civil War due to his severe nearsightedness. Following a trip to Germany to study theology, Parkhurst returned to teach Greek and Latin in Massachusetts high schools, but at the urging of an Amherst professor Parkhurst entered the ministry in 1874.

After preaching for 6 years at the Congregational Church in Lenox, Mass., Parkhurst was appointed pastor of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church in New York City. He preached his 1st sermon there in 1880, but it is fair to say that he created few waves and attracted little attention until February 14, 1892, when he delivered a blistering jeremiad directed at Tammany Hall and the entire New York municipal administration.

"They are a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, and libidinous lot," he roared to his congregation and to the reporter from the New York World who had received a tip that an extraordinary sermon would be delivered there that morning. The next day, the World published much of the sermon, and readers were astonished to find that a Presbyterian minister was charging the police department with protecting and profiting from the city's prostitutes, gamblers, and racketeers. Parkhurst was quoted: "... while we fight iniquity they shield or patronize it; while we try to convert criminals they manufacture them."

His attack swept the city with excitement, but Reverend Parkhurst soon found himself on the defensive rather than the offensive. The politicians, of course, denounced him and denied his charges, and most of the press took the side of the politicos. All demanded proof to substantiate the accusations. Called before the grand jury 9 days after his sermon, Parkhurst was humiliated when he could offer nothing that would stand up in a court of law to corroborate his charges. Tammany Hall sighed with relief as the grand jury criticized Parkhurst for making unfounded statements and thereby undermining the trust the citizens of New York had in their governmental officials.

Dr. Parkhurst, however, had lost only the opening skirmish; he was resolved to win the war. Since he knew that no one in official capacity would do anything to substantiate the facts regarding police corruption, he made up his mind that he himself would go underground to visit the saloons, gambling dens, and houses of prostitution; he would garner the evidence required to transform his general accusations into indictable charges.

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