WHEN I returned to New York in 1906 after resigning from the Consular Service, I had a definite plan worked out in my mind for my future. I wanted first to complete my education, get admitted to the bar, and then enter public service.
On my return to New York, I found it hard to get a job. The experience I had gained abroad was of little value in connection with available jobs in the United States. I soon realized that I would have to start at the very bottom of the ladder. I got a temporary job with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, translating parts of the French penal code pertaining to children. This paid me $10 a week. Then I got a job with a steamship company at $15 a week. I found that if I learned stenography I could earn more money. An ad in the newspapers offered a complete course in stenography for $7.50 at the Pratt School. I paid my $7.50 and at the end of six weeks got a job as stenographer with Abercrombie & Fitch, where I received $20 a week, which was considered good pay in those days.
In the meantime I had taken the United States Civil Service examination for interpreter at Ellis Island, Robert Watchhorn was then Commissioner of Immigration in New York. He was most helpful to me. Because I knew Croatian as well as Italian and German, my name was placed high on the eligible list, and soon Mr. Watchhorn was able to assign me to an interpreter's job at Ellis Island at $1200 a year. This enabled me to go through law school in night classes relatively free from economic worries.
On applying for entrance to New York University Law School I learned, much to my chagrin, that the certificates I had from the Arizona schools were not satisfactory to the Regents of the State of New York. I was therefore required to take Regents' examinations for the equivalent of pre-law school courses, and I had to do some boning. In one group of examinations I made all the points needed except four, and completed those the next term. The New York Preparatory School, which I entered for the purpose of studying for Regents' examinations, poured the stuff into us as fast as any individual could absorb it. My stay in Europe had not been entirely wasted, for besides my knowledge of languages, the general reading I had done in history came in handy.
I entered New York University Law School in 1907, taking my courses in the evening after my full day's work over on Ellis Island. The work on the Island was difficult and strenuous. For two years we worked seven days a week, for immigration was very heavy at this time. All of us were glad, however, to have the jobs, despite the long hours and tiring tasks. Immigrants were pouring in at the average rate of 5000 a day, and it was a constant grind from the moment we got into our uniforms early in the morning until the last minute before we left on the 5.30 boat in the evening.
Under the Immigration Law, contract laborers who have been induced, assisted, encouraged, or solicited to migrate to this country by offers or promises of employment are excluded. The application of the contract labor provision of the law during my day in the Immigration Service was anything but uniform. Some of the inspectors were clever about questioning the immigrants and trapping them into admitting that they had offers or promises of jobs.
It is a puzzling fact that one provision of the Immigration Law excludes any immigrant who has no job and classifies him as likely to become a public charge, while another provision excludes an immigrant if he has a job! Common sense suggested that any immigrant who came into the United States in those days, to settle here permanently, surely came here to work. However, under the law, he could not have any more than a vague hope of a job. In answering the inspectors' questions, immigrants had to be very careful, because if their expectations were too enthusiastic, they might be held as coming in violation of the contract labor provision. Yet, if they were too indefinite, if they knew nobody, had no idea where they were going to get jobs, they might be excluded as likely to become public charges. Most of the inspectors were conscientious and fair. Sometimes, I felt, large batches of those held and deported as violating the contract labor provision were, perhaps, only borderline cases and had no more than the assurance from relatives or former townsmen of jobs on their arrival.
While the application and interpretation of the contract labor law might seem on the surface to be extreme, even illogical, the history of immigrant labor in this country fully justified such a law. Before its enactment in the eighties, our country went through a period of exploitation of labor which is one of the most sordid and blackest pictures in our entire history. The railroads and our young industries were built by exploited immigrant labor brought here under contract. They were built with the blood and tears and sweat of underpaid, ignorant immigrants. The padrone system flourished for more than twenty-five years before it was weakened by our immigration laws. For some twenty years thereafter, the padrone system continued to operate in a milder form but in just as cruel and greedy a manner, and with just as disastrous results for the poor ignorant immigrants who were subjected to it. Though we have outlived systematized exploitation of labor, the contract labor provision still serves a useful preventive purpose.
Shipload after shipload of immigrants was brought into this country by contractors, or padrones, who had already made contracts with the railroads and other large corporations for their services. The wages, at best, were disgracefully low. In the eighteen-nineties these wages averaged $1.25 to $1.50 a day. The padrone was paid by the corporation. In addition to the low wages he paid the laborers, he took a rake-off from their meager daily earnings. In addition to that, be gave the immigrants board, for which he often made exorbitant charges, deducted, too, from their small pay. Often he had a company store as well, in which he sold them supplies at excessive prices. How they ever managed to save enough to send for their families is a wonder. The twelve-hour day was not unusual, and the seven-day week was common.
The parents of some of our splendid citizens went through a life of hardship and sacrifice. It is no wonder that so many of their children have made valuable contributions to American life, for they valued what they and their parents got after such effort. It annoys me greatly whenever I hear thoughtless people, often raised the easy way, who have never known any of the hardships these immigrant families endured every day, hurl insults at American citizens who have in many cases contributed much more to the welfare of this nation than those who turn their noses up at them. Look around you in any part of this country: the immigrants have contributed more than their share to building its power and its wealth.
The time is not distant when our country will want more immigrants. Within a few years there will be great need for more unskilled workers, domestic help, and manual laborers. Perhaps we shall have to work out a system of seasonal immigration for some workers. Before long there will be a shortage of labor in our coal mines, and these immigrants will have to be permanent residents. I hope that we shall learn from our past experience and build staffs of understanding, considerate men and women interpreting a careful, consistent body of immigration law adequate for the new immigration we shall require.
DURING the last year of my three years' service at Ellis Island, I was assigned to the Night Court as an interpreter. This was very helpful to me, for it permitted me to take my last year's work at law school in the daytime and saved me time going back and forth to Ellis Island.
The Night Court at that time, 1910, dealt exclusively with cases of commercialized vice. The Immigration Service was interested in aliens who were engaged in such practice. I had to interview defendants brought into Night Court and to ascertain from them their place of birth, and, if they were foreign-born, the dates of their arrival. If any of them had been here less than five years, warrants were issued, and upon proper proof they were deported. I interviewed an average of thirty to forty such persons every night for a whole year.
Some of these cases were very pathetic. In this work I got a liberal education in the ways of the Police Department, experience that was very helpful to me later on. I venture to state that the suppression of commercialized vice during my administration as Mayor was more efficient than at any previous time. We just did not tolerate police corruption and were determined to wipe it out.
That some of the police were corrupt in 1910 was easy to see. It was not at all unusual for a patrol wagon full of women to draw up to the Night Court. The policemen and the victims would suddenly learn that there had been a substitution of judges. A "jail judge" was sitting instead of a "fining judge." The clamor among the girls was then great. I used to see police officers reluctantly return money to the girls. When a "fining judge" was sitting, more cases were brought into court. The grafters were thus able to maintain their record for arrests and do a thriving business.
I can still see the faces of numerous men who practiced at the bar of this Women's Night Court. To me it was clear that thin was a dirty trade. Some of the lawyers were eventually disbarred. But, surprisingly, some made good. They would take cases in those days for anything from two dollars to about twenty-five, which was usually the fee for defending a woman on the charge of "keeping and maintaining" a house of prostitution. Some of these former gentlemen of the Night Court bar in 1910 hold high office today. One whose name I recall has an important judicial post. It was strange to me then, and it is strange to me today, how these individuals could justify their way of making a living. Though the procedure has been improved since 1910, it is by no means perfect. At least, there is an opportunity today of ascertaining disease and providing for proper cure, which did not exist when I was a young interpreter.
The probation system, too, was in its infancy at that time. Though it was unorganized, it was effective, and there was not so much so-called scientific approach. However, the system was tender and humane. Miss Alice Smith was the probation officer in the Night Court in 1910. She is the mother of probation in New York City. Miss Smith sat in a side room off the courtroom. In the back of the courtroom sat the representative of the Florence Crittenton Mission.
Welfare and religious organizations did not go in for that kind of work in those days, and nothing that exists today can take the place of the kindliness, hospitality, and understanding of that Florence Crittenton League of those days. It had a little home in Bleecker Street. Young girls who were immature first offenders were turned over to Miss Luther, of the Florence Crittenton Mission Home, at the end of the court session. Miss Luther would toddle off with them. There were no guards, no locked doors in that little house in Bleecker Street. That is why the girls didn't run away. There was always a pot of coffee on the stove.
Miss Smith, the probation officer of Night Court, would get to work to find the girls jobs in the effort to rehabilitate them. No public funds were available, but Miss Smith had friends who would always provide the money for a new outfit of clothes, shoes, dental work, or whatever else the girls desperately needed before they could get respectable work.
Among the people who supplied Miss Smith with funds for this worthy cause were Jules S. Bache, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Freedman, and Miss Kelso, who was one of the editors of Street & Smith publications.
The percentage of girls who were salvaged by this simple, humane probation work was very high. The hardened cases, the repeaters, would be the first to say to a "kid" in the station house, the patrol wagon, or the detention cell at Night Court, "Hey, kid, get out of this while you can. Tell the judge you want to talk to Miss Smith."
From my experience in the Night Court I would say that 95 per cent of such cases brought into court then were the results of economic pressure. Provided there is increasing economic security, and provided enforcement agencies keep after the professional procurers who exploit these unfortunate girls, there will be less and less commercialized vice in New York. Of the hundreds and hundreds of cases I interviewed, I do not believe that there were more than four or five above average intellect, or who had more than fifth or sixth grade schooling. The living wage now paid to many unskilled women workers is the greatest factor in reducing the number of these victims of social evil.
The White Slave Division of the Immigration Service was constantly on the alert for persons who imported immigrants for immoral purposes. Such systematized importation was pretty well broken up by the time I entered the service. It had flourished during the eighteen-nineties, but with the amendment of the Immigration Law, putting teeth in it and broadening the powers of the Immigration Service on deportation, organized importation of white slaves was rare in 1910, although there were some stray cases.
One of the Assistant United States Attorneys who prosecuted white-slave cases, and whom I got to know and remained friendly with thereafter, was a young lawyer of ability and sincerity. His name was Felix Frankfurter.
The inspector in charge of the White Slave Division of the Immigration Service was a man named Andrew Tedesco. He knew many languages, was unkempt and unprepossessing in appearance. But to Tedesco belongs most of the credit for preventing importation of white slaves from foreign countries on a systematized basis. He faced the opposition of hotels, resorts, and politicians. To all in those trades this white-slave traffic was potentially profitable. A lot of them weren't worried about how widespread the traffic became, so long as it went on quietly and did not interfere with the comfort or disturb the feelings of their other patrons, who did not know it was going on under the same roof where they were spending their holidays or leading their more respectable lives. Tedesco cleaned up the red-light district along Sixth Avenue, which was part of the notorious Tenderloin.
When I was first assigned to Night Court, Tedesco said to me: "You can get experience in this job, or you can make a great deal of money. I don't think you'll take the money. But, remember, the test is if you hesitate. Unless you say 'No!' right off, the first time an offer comes your way, you're gone."
I always remembered that bit of advice throughout my career. It is the first, instinctive reaction to dishonesty or indecency that always counts, and I have repeated Tedesco's advice to many men entering public service where they are subject to temptation.
I profited greatly by my studies at New York University Law School. I had plenty of incentive to study law rather than merely to cram for a bar examination as many of my classmates were doing. It seemed to me then, as it has ever since, that too many lawyers were being turned out like so many sausages every year. It was obvious that many of the young men in our classes had neither the mental equipment nor the educational background needed to make good lawyers. Yet there they were, being turned out and going into active practice. After my three years of study at NYU, I had no trouble passing the bar examination and was satisfied that I had learned how to use "the tools of the trade."
I started in the law business on the first day I was admitted to the bar in October, 1910. I had two weeks' salary from my job at Ellis Island, amounting to a total capital of $65. I rented office space at $15 a month in the law offices of McIlheny and Bennett. I managed to get some letterheads and some secondhand furniture. The firm had a good law library, and I had a good legal education. I was hopeful, but I had no particular passion for the practice of the law. My practice, however, was most useful and gave me an opportunity to learn a great deal about conditions in New York courts and New York politics in relation to the courts, which came in handy later when I held office in New York City.
The more I got to know about lawyers and their ethics, the less respect I had for them. I needed business about as badly as any young lawyer in the game, but I look back now and am happy in the knowledge that I never took a case that I did not believe in.
I never accepted a retaining fee unless I was convinced of the rights of my client. I found that nine persons out of ten who consult lawyers have either no need for a lawyer or no case. I refused to take cases when I thought the client had no case or did not need a lawyer but could settle his differences himself. I lost many, many clients who became fine friends of mine in later years. They would seldom believe me when I advised them that they had no case, and would run to other lawyers, who would sometimes exaggerate the importance of their cases, talk a lot of legal gibberish to impress them, and take a fee which the client, in time, would have to charge off to experience. It would have been easy to build up a large practice if I had done the same as they, but I liked it better the other way.
Later, when I went to Congress, I saw how easy it was to exploit public office to get law business. But I thought there was only one thing to do and that was to devote my time to my Congressional duties. Even lawyers tried to retain me to appear in government cases or before government departments. Members of Congress are forbidden by law to engage in such practice. However, strangely enough, a great deal of it was going on during the seven terms I served in the House of Representatives.
Soon after I began to practice law, I got some familiarity with the workings of our courts in New York City. One of the first things that one noted was that knowing the judge did not injure any lawyer. I remember still my first case in the Municipal Court. I prepared it carefully, and the facts were properly presented. The judge decided it against me. I could not figure out why. The judge called me up to the bench. He knew I was a young lawyer recently admitted to the bar. He congratulated me on my presentation of the case. "Well, if I did so well, why didn't you decide in my favor?" I asked. "Oh, young man, I'll give you a break some other day," he said. What a hell of a way to dispense justice! I thought. This same judge is now on the bench of the New York Supreme Court.
I did not go in for criminal case, and I don’t suppose I ever had more than ten or twelve such cases to try. I do not remember ever having taken a fee for a criminal case. Most of those I tried were either assigned to me by the court or cases I accepted because friends or settlement house workers solicited my interest when the families involved hand no money to retain a lawyer.
The personality of the judge affected some of the interesting civil cases I tried. Because of the personal traits of judges one could never be sure that a case would be decided on its merits. I remember one case of breach of warranty in which there was a perfectly good defense because the goods sold and delivered by a wholesale grocery firm were defective, and the vendor had refused to accept return of the merchandise, which was a total loss to the purchaser.
At the end of the trial, however, the judge said to the jury: “Now, gentlemen, if you want to retire, you may, but I don’t think it is necessary. There is a very clear case of goods sold and delivered and not paid for.” But the jury did want to retire. The judge expressed surprise. It was late in the afternoon. Two or three times I noticed the court attendant come up and talk to the judge. The lawyer for the plaintiff was a former partner of this judge. Finally, the jury brought in a verdict for the plaintiff. I learned a few years later from one of the jurymen, whom I happened to meet, that the judge had sent word to the jury to hurry up with the decision and come in with a verdict for the plaintiff.
In another cue I was trying, for a woman who was injured through the gross, negligence of a motorman on a Brooklyn trolley car, the judge was pretty rough to our side all the way through. The jury went out. I was in the hallway. The judge, on his way from the courtroom to his chambers, accosted the lawyer for the trolley line. "Was it all right, Joe?" he asked. Perhaps he didn't see me, but he ignored me if he did, and did not care whether I heard him or not. Then he added to his friend the traction lawyer: "Well, Joe, don't worry. If they bring in a verdict against you, I will set it aside."
Later I studied the system by which judges were selected for nomination and found that most of them were hand-picked by politicians. The bar association would go through the motions of endorsing or refusing to endorse candidates. I learned that any judge who had a chance of election was pretty sure to get the endorsement of the bar associations.
When I was Mayor, I consulted the bar associations on one of my first judicial appointments. I found that three out of five of the members of the bar association committee on appointments were candidates themselves for this judgeship! I thought maybe that was just a coincidence. But I did not get much help from the bar associations during my years as Mayor.
I also discovered, when I looked into the situation on selection of judges, that any judge who had served a term, no matter how bad he might be, had ninety-nine chances out of a hundred of getting an endorsement for renomination by the bar associations. I hate to say that. I have so many good friends who are prominent in the bar associations of New York City, and who are fine, upstanding men, a credit to their profession. Yet the fact remains that the caliber of the judges in New York State, on the whole, through the years, bears out what I say. Oh, yes, there are some excellent judges, scholarly, upright, hard-working, fair. They are the exceptions. Later, when I was a Congressman, I brought impeachment proceedings against several Federal judges. Some of those men in our high Federal courts were neither upright nor scholarly, and some of them bore no resemblance to Caesar's wife.
I often sought in later times to have a "Who's Who" of judges' secretaries drawn up and published. It would have been a shock to most citizens. My idea was never taken up. Some of the secretaries of judges, drawing around $10,000 a year in salaries, know no law. Most of them know the district leaders. Some of them have very little education of any kind. Some even have criminal records themselves. They are selected for their politics and their friendships, and this is one of the most pernicious results of the patronage system.
Someday the whole method of selection of judges, and of determination of their qualifications and those of their assistants in New York State, will have to be changed, if we are to attain an approach to decent justice.
I PRACTICED law actively from 1910 to 1916 and sporadically in later years when my political activity permitted. I did not accumulate much money, but I managed to live, found time for study and research, and certainly learned a great deal about the political and economic conditions in my city.
I joined the Republican Party because I could not stomach Tammany Hall. Let it be understood that when I say Tammany Hall I mean the Democratic political machine in all five boroughs of Greater New York. They are all alike.
I lived in a district in Greenwich Village where the Republican organization was exceptionally clean. It produced such fine men as Herbert Parsons, Fred Tanner, Henry H. Curran, and Frank Stoddard. However, we were a regular political club. History will bear me out when I say that the minority party in any large city can afford to be somewhat virtuous. But if it happens to get control of the city government, it will resort to the very same activities and indulge in the same bad habits as its rival, assuming it can control the elective officials.
I had been storing up knowledge, and I was eager to bring about better conditions, particularly a more equitable economic situation and less favoritism to special interests in the administration of the law. That was why I was determined to become a Congressman. From the time that I returned to New York after my experience abroad in the Consular Service, I read the Congressional Record and kept abreast of activities in Congress. I also made myself familiar with the legislative history of that period. Somehow - I did not know how - I had a feeling that some day I would get into Congress.
I kept my eyes open, but I felt that my chances in New York City were very slight. The Republican districts had their Congressmen, but it required a great deal more political influence than I had to obtain a nomination in one of those districts, where nomination meant almost certain election. It was hard to break down the Democratic majorities in their districts. For a time I thought I might go West to a younger state, where the chances were better.
One night I happened to be in the clubrooms of the 25th Assembly District, my own district, where I was an election district captain for a time, when the boys were filling in petitions for the nomination for Congress. It was in the late summer of 1914. The petitions were printed, and the names of state and county candidates appeared on them. There were blanks left for the local candidates for the State Senate and Assembly and for representatives in Congress.
Someone hollered out, "Who is the candidate for Congress?" The leader of the district - I think it was Clarence Fay - came from his backroom office. He shouted out, "Who wants to run for Congress?" That was my chance. "I do," I said. "OK, put La Guardia down," Clarence said. That was all there was to it. But I darn near missed out even so. One of the men asked, "Hey, La Guardia, what's your first name?" I said, "Fiorello." "Oh, hell," he said, "let's get someone whose name we can spell." I spelled the name carefully and slowly and had to argue hard to get it on the petitions.
I took my nomination seriously. I soon learned that I was not supposed to take it seriously. When September came along, I attended my first political meeting. It was in one of the district clubhouses. Pamphlets were distributed throughout the district announcing the meeting and stating that all the prominent candidates would talk. I was there bright and early. The meeting started. Candidate after candidate spoke. The state candidates came in, and they had the right of way. I waited and waited for my turn. Two or three times in the course of the evening I was sure that I was next when the chairman would say, "And now we will hear from a young and promising candidate." I would get up each time, only to see that someone else was being introduced.
The meeting ended around 11.30 that night. I had not been called on. I protested to the chairman, who was talking to the district leader. "How come?" I asked.
Everybody had a good laugh. "Why, Fiorello, you haven't a chance of winning," they told me. "We've never elected a Republican to Congress from this district. Now, what you should do is go out and campaign for the State Senator and Assemblyman, help elect the ticket. That is all you can do."
"Could I try?" I pleaded.
"Oh, no, don't be foolish. You just go out now and help the others, and some day you may get a nomination for an office you can win."
I didn't think that was quite on the level. A few of the boys in the district agreed with me, among them Harry Andrews, who was district secretary, Louis Espresso, and old Mike Kehoe. Kehoe, who was in his late seventies, was a mastermind and a good political strategist. He was very much amused at my predicament. "Kid, don't be discouraged," he said, "but go out and try."
I discovered that the procedure at that first meeting was repeated at all the regular party meetings. I was not to get a chance to speak at any of them. I went out and bought a secondhand Ford. Harry Andrews and I plastered it with signs, and I started out on my own private, individual campaign. We went from corner to corner every night in that district, and we never missed a wedding, a funeral, a christening, or any other kind of gathering we could get into.
The 14th Congressional District ran from the Hudson River clear across Manhattan to the East River. It included some of the tenement sections of the lower East Side, teeming with Italian and Jewish immigrants. My knowledge of Italian and Yiddish came in handy. I rang doorbells and talked to the immigrant families. At outdoor meetings I would wait until the regular political rally had ended, pull up in my Ford as the people were leaving, gather a crowd, and do my talking.
My opponent was Congressman Michael Parley, a popular saloonkeeper and president of the National Liquor Dealers' Association. He had been the regular Tammany representative in Congress from that district for some time. I was called down once or twice for being "too rough" on him. Distinguished and serious gentlemen in the community pointed out to me that the retail liquor business was a lawful occupation and urged me not to disparage the Congressman who was in that business. I did not disparage him. I merely pointed out that he was not a good Congressman and wasn't even a good bartender.
When the votes were counted that November, 1914, Congressman Parley was re-elected by the small margin of 1700 votes. Never before had the Democratic majority in that district been less than 16,000 votes. Both my Republican colleagues and my Democratic opponents began to take notice of me. The Republicans began to think that maybe I had a future in politics because I could put on campaign that got the public interested, and therefore it would be wise to keep me in the political family. The showing I made attracted enough attention among the politicians to make them think it worth while to give me the appointment of Deputy Attorney General of the State of New York.
(To be concluded)
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.