Who's the Boss?

King of the Bowery
Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany Hall, and New York City from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era
Richard F. Welch
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, $50, 224 pp.

King of the Bowery is a lively, scholarly account of the life and times of Timothy J. Sullivan, a.k.a. Big Tim—a moniker that described Sullivan’s physical and political presence and distinguished him from his cousin and consigliore, Little Tim. It is also a necessary book for anyone unsatisfied by the usual histories of Irish-American urban political machines, which reduce some of the most successful and long-lived political operations in U.S. history to a tale of Caesarean simplicity: They came, they saw, they stole. (The coda hardly needs stating: good riddance.)

The Irish-American boss has rarely been awarded careful appraisal of the kind that Welch, a historian at C. W. Post College of Long Island and the author of several well-regarded books, gives Sullivan. In Mysteries of My Father, Tom Fleming provided an intimate picture of the Jersey City machine, and William Kennedy’s rendering of the Albany machine in his novel Roscoe is brilliant and far superior, in my judgment, to The Last Hurrah, Edwin O’Connor’s romantic fantasy about the last days of Boston’s James Michael Curley. (The real skinny on Curley is laid out with great detail and insight in Jack Beatty’s The Rascal King.)

As a general rule, however, the bosses (“If I were a Republican they’d call me a leader,” complained Tom Prendergast, the leader/boss of Kansas City) have been more...

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About the Author

Peter Quinn, a frequent contributor, is the author Dry Bones and Banished Children of Eve (both from Overlook Press), among other books.