From Murder to Mob Ties, Three N.Y. Politicians Who Survived Scandal to Make Unlikely Comebacks
Disgraced former New York politicians Eliot Spitzer, left, and Anthony Weiner are looking to make their comebacks. Spitzer, the former governor, is now running for the office of New York City comptroller while the former U.S. congressman is running for mayor of New York. These men are only recent examples in a long history of New York politicians who have had to redefine their careers after scandal. Anthony Weiner photo by Mario Tama/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Before Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal, before Anthony Weiner’s ill-fated selfies, New York’s notorious politicians included “Boss” Tweed, whose image is most notable remembered wearing 19th century prison pinstripes and David Matthews, a Tory mayor of New York who was arrested for plotting to kidnap then-Gen. George Washington in 1776.
Historically, New York politics is a cavalcade of scandals.
As disgraced former officeholders Weiner and Spitzer campaign for their return to political office, the NewsHour sifted through New York’s distant past for some state officeholders who got a “second chance” (with varying degrees of success).
Illustration published in 1859 Harper’s Weekly that depicted the homicide of Philip Barton Key II by congressman Daniel Sickles. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
The congressman who murdered the son of an American hero
The political career of Daniel Edgar Sickles was equal parts achievement and scandal. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from New York in the years leading up to the Civil War. Before that, he was a New York state assemblyman and senator. In 1859, he shot dead Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, who penned “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In broad daylight, across from the White House, and in front of several witnesses, Sickles drew his pistol on Key, who was reportedly his wife’s lover, and said, “You have dishonored my bed and family, you scoundrel — prepare to die!” But the congressman was acquitted of murder charges in what was the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense.
It wasn’t the murder that stalled Sickles’ career in Washington. At the end of the 20-day trial, the congressman was greeted with congratulations outside the court. The backlash came when the congressman publicly forgave his wife months later for the affair. When Sickles returned for the fall session of Congress, diarist Mary Chesnut observed, “He was left to himself as if he had smallpox.”
But Sickles resuscitated his reputation when he received the Medal of Honor in 1987 as the “Hero of Gettysburg,” who lost his leg in the battle. Eventually, the decorated general would regain enough momentum to become a state representative again from 1893 to 1895, not before going through another set of scandals, among them, an affair with Queen Isabella II of Spain.
Photo of the short-lived New York governor, William Sulzer. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
The only New York governor to be impeached
After less than 10 months into his two-year term as governor, William Sulzer was impeached in 1913, found guilty on three of eight counts. The charges included failure to report thousands in campaign contributions. A day after he was removed from office, Sulzer said in a speech that his ouster was due to his defiance of Tammany Hall. “Had I obeyed the boss, instead of my oath to office, I would still be the governor,” he said.
Sulzer’s defiance stemmed mainly from his refusal to work with Charles F. Murphy, the boss of Tammany Hall, on state appointments. And Sulzer’s anti-Tammany rhetoric was consistent during his short-lived tenure as governor. Months earlier, Sulzer interviewed with a New York Times reporter, warning of Tammany machinations. The resulting headline was not subtle: “Plot to Murder Me, Says Sulzer.” Sulzer said he was accosted in public and sent threatening letters by his political enemies.
According to the Times, Sulzer’s popularity didn’t immediately diminish after his impeachment. Prior to taking office, Sulzer had served in the New York State Assembly. And like a homecoming fit for a “great war hero,” Sulzer was greeted by more than 15,000 people at the start of his campaign for re-election to the assembly. Just weeks after his impeachment, Sulzer reclaimed his assembly seat.
He ran again for the New York gubernatorial election in 1914, but lost. He also attempted to grab a third party nomination for president in 1916, but lost that as well. From there, Sulzer’s political career dropped off.
The mayor who sought refuge in Mexico
William O’Dwyer made headlines for cracking down on the underworld, namely mobsters from the crime syndicate, Murder, Inc. But it was also an association with organized crime that was his undoing later in his career.
Photo of New York’s 100th mayor, William O’Dwyer. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
The Irish immigrant was a Brooklyn policeman, lawyer and — after an unsuccessful New York mayoral bid in 1941 — a brigadier general before he became a milestone as the city’s 100th mayor in 1946. By the end of his first term in 1948, he was on the cover of Time magazine.
Shortly after, President Harry Truman named O’Dwyer as ambassador to Mexico “amid a cloud of accusations that were never fully answered.” Despite this, O’Dwyer was given a farewell parade in Manhattan. O’Dwyer remained in Mexico — even after he resigned as ambassador two years later — until 1960.