The Mail and Express reported appointment as a patrolman cost $300, promotion to sergeant, $1,400, and advancement to captain, $14,000. Policemen made back their investments by taking bribes.
As Luc Sante observed of Big Bill in his book Low Life, "It was well known that he was corrupt; he in fact admitted as much quite readily." By 1891, Devery was a captain. In 1893, he assumed command of the red-light district’s Eldridge Street Station. Reportedly, he told his men during his inaugural address: "If there’s any graftin’ to be done, I’ll do it. Leave it to me."
Devery believed in protecting lives and property while leaving vice alone. He favored segregated red-light districts to concentrate the whorehouses, gambling dens, and round-the-clock bars. As this was unlikely to happen legally, he chose to ignore sin, provided he was paid to ignore it.
His payoff routine was subtle. Sam Myers, his bagman, was a tailor. Anyone who wanted a favor from Devery went to Sam for a fitting. He charged one thousand dollars for an ordinary one-pants suit. Devery later stopped by and picked up the money.
By the early nineties, police corruption had become a little rank. In 1894, a State Senate investigating committee summoned him to testify. Devery "turned aside most questions with the insouciant assertion that ‘touchin’ on and appertainin’ to that matter, I disremember.’" The evidence against him was so strong that the Board of Police Commissioners fired him in 1894. He was then indicted for extortion. A jury acquitted him in 1895. Meanwhile, a State Supreme Court ruling had restored him to duty. The Police Commissioners then exhumed some old charges to try again. But Devery promptly obtained another Supreme Court order forbidding the Commissioners to bring him to trial.
Tammany regained City Hall in 1897 by electing Robert A. Van Wyck mayor. Van Wyck, a puppet of Tammany boss Richard Croker, appointed Devery chief of police. The mayor praised Devery as the greatest police chief New York ever had.
While he was chief, Devery boasted, there had been only two holdups and one safe blown, and the safe cracking had been a an honest mistake. Two days later the safecrackers sent Devery a note of apology, saying they were from out of town and meant no disrespect.
As M. R. Werner wrote in Tammany Hall, the Police Department under Devery "chartered vice and controlled graft." Devery, Frank Farrell, a professional gambler, and State Senator Timothy D. "Big Tim" Sullivan formed a syndicate to handle protection services for gambling establishments. In 1900, The New York Times exposed its activities. Herbert Asbury, in The Gangs of New York, broke down the syndicate’s monthly income from pool rooms, crap games, small and large gambling houses, pawnshop swindles, and the numbers. The annual grand total was $3,095,000. The scheme was airtight, since between Sullivan and Devery, the syndicate united the powers of the police, the legislature, and the State Gambling Commission.
Big Bill Devery remained chief of police until 1901, when a Republican state legislature abolished the office. Mayor Van Wyck then appointed Devery Deputy Police Commissioner, with even greater powers than before.
One of the Deputy Commissioner’s duties was presiding at administrative trials. He never fined a policeman for breach of duty, only for getting caught. Devery once suspected a policeman of being drunk. He ordered him to open his mouth and blow his breath in the Deputy Commissioner’s face. The policeman refused. "That is right, my man, " said Devery, dismissing the case, "keep your mouth shut all the time. If you do that you won’t get into trouble here."
He was fired in 1902 when reformer Seth Low, became mayor. Devery was now a rich man, dividing his time between a West End Avenue mansion and a profitable real-estate operation in Rockaway.
Devery always provided good copy for the newspapers and, like Barnum, took it all as advertisement. His admirer, "Dock Walloper Dick" Butler, described him around this time as "the John L. Sullivan of politics, a mountain of a man, a fine specimen of humanity, standing about five eleven and weighing about two hundred and sixty…He had a red face and a wavy black mustache…He was always smoking cigars…getting away with ten or fifteen before breakfast."
"Touchin’ on and appertainin’ to" was his way of beginning any discussion. In his speeches, Chief Devery included himself in "the Big Five": Napoleon, Washington, Lincoln, Grant, and Devery. His daily prayers ran thus: "God bless me and my wife, my son John and his wife, we four forever more, Amen." His office was a pump in front of a saloon on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street, where he stood nightly from about nine o’clock, transacting business.
Croker had been boss for nearly two decades when Tammany lost the 1901 mayoral election. He left the Hall on election night and never returned. On September 19, 1902, Charles F. Murphy, cold, silent, and ruthless, became the new boss. He believed Devery, the Deputy Police Commissioner openly allied with vice and gambling, a disgrace rather than an asset.
Despite the cold shoulder, Devery ran for Democratic district leader in the Ninth Assembly District in 1902. The Ninth took in Chelsea from Twentieth to Thirtieth Streets and from Seventh Avenue to the North River. He opposed Tammany incumbent Frank Goodwin, who had "borrowed" $25,000 from the Chief, promising to get Devery Tammany’s nomination for Sheriff. Goodwin failed to deliver or to repay the money.
The campaign would be spectacular. What Butler described as "the biggest political excursion in the city’s history" – all of it free – departed the West 25th Street piers around nine o’clock one hot July morning in 1902. There were nine boats, loaded down with 18,000 women and children.
There were bars and bands playing dance music. Butler wrote, "As for free lunch, you never saw so much wholesome food in all your born days. Every barge had a counter on which were piled thousands of sandwiches and corned beef and cabbage, baked ham and beans, roast beef, tongue, cheese, clam chowder, hot ears of corn, kegs of pink lemonade, pickles, bottles of milk, hot coffee, cakes, pies, fruit soda, candy, ice cream, and ginger ale pop." The Chief and his lieutenants served the old ladies and the nursing mothers with infants in their arms. The rest could grab for themselves.
Ten hours later, they returned, fireworks, bombs, rockets, and Roman candles soaring and six bands playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Devery told the women that he hoped they had had a good time, that he knew they had not come to hear a speech, but if they had husbands and brothers and fathers, he would appreciate it if they would induce them to vote for the man who did things for the people.
On September 1, 1902, he held a beer fest and barbecue on a vacant lot at 10th Avenue and 29th Street. Devery went through sixty barrels of beer (20,000 glasses), two roast bullocks (1,700 pounds of roast beef), and 15,000 rolls. The Chief said, "When I get to the Tammany Committee and the State Convention, I’m goin’ to make it hot for a lot of people….And my partin’ advice to you people is to take the other fellow’s money, take anythin’ you can get, but vote Devery."
Primary Day, September 16, 1902, was riotous. Both sides, and especially Tammany, who needed fraud to counteract Devery’s generosity, used repeaters and floaters from other districts. Devery bought the votes of the Tammany repeaters and floaters. "There were twenty-six election districts," Butler wrote, "and nothing but fights in every one." Devery won a sweeping victory, polling more votes than there were men, women, and children in the district. He marched through the streets with torches and a brass band, and when he arrived at the Pump, five thousand were waiting for him.
All for naught. Murphy denied Devery his seat, ruling with a straight face that the Tammany committee was the sole judge of its own membership and that Big Bill was unworthy of it "on account of the wholesale fraud and corruption at the primary election." Devery lost in the courts (the case is still valid precedent in this state, although it hasn’t been followed since the Forties). The Democratic State Convention ejected his delegates despite the Chief’s rip-roaring oratory and a thumping new song from his ever-present brass band:
The delegates at Saratoga, They all must fall in line, They must vote with Mr. Devery, Mr. Devery, every time.
He ran for mayor the following year. He was enraged by Murphy’s refusal to accept him, saying, "I’ll run for mayor or turn flip-flops off the Flatiron Building. I’ll do anything for the people." Butler wrote, "Maybe it would have been better if he turned flip-flops. It cost him sixty thousand dollars to run for district leader on the slogan, ‘Everybody have a drink on me.’ Running for mayor on the same platform would have cost him two million dollars, and naturally he was beaten…in the primary."
He bolted the Democrats to run as the People’s Independent in November. His ballot symbol was the Pump. He declared himself vaguely in favor of municipal ownership (more patronage jobs), establishing a recreation pier or a free bath along every half mile of the City’s waterfront, the sale of beer after church hours on Sunday, and the free conveyance of children on street cars to and from school. "This is the occasion," Devery roared, "when the downtrod will rise in their might, an’ when they do that you kin bet that they’ll make the Charles Murphys…look like calico dogs stuffed with saloon sweepin’s." "In the political graveyard there won’t be anythin’ more interestin’ that Murphy’s sarcophagus," Devery said. "One of the lines on the stone will be ‘Devery done it.’"
Murphy’s orators replied that Devery, not Tammany, had been responsible for graft under Van Wyck. Devery riposted by successfully connecting Murphy to the ownership of a hot sheet hotel, saying, "The trouble with that feller is that he’s got a red light around his neck, and consequently he sees red in whatever direction he looks." On Murphy and graft, Devery said, "He’s goin’ through the bluff of bein’ decent, but look at his record….He’s for Murphy, an’ he ain’t satisfied to use his hands. He wants to get in and use a steam shovel."
And he made no impression at all. According to The Encyclopedia of New York City, Congressman George McClellan Jr., the Tammany Democrat, polled 314,782; mayor Seth Low, the Republican-Fusion incumbent, polled 252,086; and 28,417 votes were divided among Devery and the Prohibition, Social-Democratic, and Socialist Labor candidates.
Devery said, "I spent my own money, and I had some fun." He retired from politics and moved to Far Rockaway. With Frank Farrell, Devery bought an American League baseball franchise. They moved it to New York, named the team the Highlanders, and operated the team until 1912, when they sold it to Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Houston, who renamed the franchise the Yankees.
Devery became fond of poring over his thirty-six scrapbooks of press clippings which he had cross-indexed elaborately. He died in Far Rockaway on June 20, 1919. For years after his death, Dick Butler wrote, his friends remembered him by painting the old pump "red, white and blue on the Fourth of July and painting it gold and silver and decorating it with holly wreath on Christmas and New Year’s. On St. Patrick’s Day we paint the pump green."
Nothing of it remains.