Clergyman and Reformer Charles H. Parkhurst Part 2

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


Clergyman and reformer.

To look at him, one could never imagine Reverend Parkhurst in any setting other than a schoolhouse or a church. His serious but myopic eyes stared out from behind his steel-rimmed spectacles. He habitually wore sober clerical clothing (including a black waistcoat and clerical collar); but with the help of a private detective, Parkhurst developed a sufficient disguise that let him enter all the places he had condemned in sermons but had never known firsthand.

The private detective who accompanied Parkhurst on his rounds later wrote: "Dr. Parkhurst was a very hard man to satisfy. 'Show me something worse,' was his constant cry. He really went at his slumming work as if his heart was in his tour." Brothels and saloons were the primary targets. Although Parkhurst did not object to saloons--in fact, he opposed Prohibition 30 years later--he was an ardent foe of these establishments' paying protection money to the police in order to violate the excise laws and, more importantly, the law forbidding their doing business on Sundays.

The same was true of his attitude toward houses of prostitution. He did not object so much to the houses themselves as he did to the police's collecting payoffs from them. It was well understood in New York that no prostitutes would be in business long if they did not pay the police. His visits to the whorehouses were, of course, what really captured the public's attention when the story of Dr. Parkhurst's crusade finally was published in the newspapers. He became the butt of a ribald song when it was known that he had witnessed a game of leapfrog involving the girls and the private detective who guided him on his slumming tour. Sung to the tune of the then-popular "Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay," it went: "Dr. Parkhurst on the floor/Playing leapfrog with a whore,/Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay/Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay."

On Sunday, March 13, 1892, Dr. Parkhurst preached his 2nd sermon on vice and the protection it received from the New York municipal administration. This time, however--in contrast to his sermon of February 14--he used affidavits from private detectives as evidence for his charges. He accused the police of being accomplices of the lawbreakers, and he defied Tammany Hall to dispute the particulars, which he could now document from his personal experience of the preceding weeks.

The 2nd sermon shocked the city even more than had Parkhurst's initial charges. Many people thought that the preacher was merely seeking publicity, and others who did not question the sincerity of his motives did question his choice of tactics; they thought it unseemly that a man of the cloth should enter such dens of iniquity, no matter how much good might come of it. Nevertheless, Parkhurst slowly convinced both the public and the state legislature that some drastic reform measures had to be taken. As a result of his efforts, the legislature sent the Lexow Committee to investigate municipal corruption. The investigation, of course, revealed an extraordinary amount of corruption. Fourteen police officers were indicated or dismissed between 1892 and 1895, and a reform ticket defeated the Tammany Hall candidates at the next municipal election.

The reform bubble soon burst, however. Most of the police officials who had lost their jobs were restored to duty, and the Tammany Hall mayoral candidate was victorious in 1897, prompting a torchlight parade of snake-dancing men and women chanting, "Well, well, well, Reform has gone to hell!" Dr. Parkhurst continued to speak out against corruption, but he was never again in the forefront of civic affairs.

Charles Parkhurst retired as a preacher in 1918, and in 1927--at age 85--he married for the 2nd time. His 1st wife had been a pupil of his at a Massachusetts high school; his 2nd was his secretary. On his 90th birthday Parkhurst appealed for the overthrow of the "New Tammany," which he felt was as corrupt as his foe in the 1890s. Less than 2 years later, while walking in his sleep, Parkhurst plunged 16' from his bedroom window to the sidewalk below and died.

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