Book Review: Island of Vice, by Richard Zacks

Originally published in the February 21, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.  Receive Shelf Awareness  in your inbox  by registering here.

There is no shortage of reading material on Theodore Roosevelt, but the majority of it glosses over his short but trying time as Police Commissioner in New York City. Historians who do address this difficult time tend to draw primarily on Roosevelt's own memoirs of the period, in which he portrays himself successfully cleaning up the city. In fact, as Richard Zacks (The Pirate Hunter) reveals in Island of Vice, Roosevelt's two-year term as police commissioner was a failure.

Zacks's coverage of this little-studied period of Roosevelt's career is lengthy but captivating, revealing the underbelly of 1890s Manhattan--the alcohol, the prostitution and the gambling--along with the systemic police corruption that allowed it all to flourish. Roosevelt's prudish, almost Puritanical efforts created an atmosphere that Zacks depicts as a vicious game of whack-a-mole; for every instance of vice suppressed, three new ones seem to have appeared.

The end result of Roosevelt's "doomed quest" was a Manhattan as steeped in sin as it was before his time there, and a deep rift between him and Republican leadership. In a bizarre twist of events, it was this intolerance that pushed Roosevelt into the vice presidency, a position Zacks notes was meant to keep him out of trouble more than give him power. And the rest, as they say, is history.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Washington Post


You might also like:
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


Island of Vice | Richard Zacks | Doubleday | $27.95 hardcover | 448 pgs | March 2012 | 9780385519724 | Buy from an independent near you


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