People & Events
John Y. McKane
The figure of John McKane--with his handlebar mustache, his beard and his broad-brimmed hat--was often seen around Coney Island in the second half of the 19th century, although usually he was looking the other way.
McKane's political career began shortly after the Civil War, when he was elected constable of Gravesend. A construction man and a regular churchgoer, he started out relatively honest, relying on locals who owed him favors and lobbying for better rental agreements on local properties. In 1869 he ran for town commissioner and won. Within the year, he was able to double the town's income from rents.
But the 1870s were also the heyday of Tammany Hall, New York's infamous political machine. McKane indulged the ruffians, pickpockets and prostitutes that operated around Coney Island with Tammany Halls tacit permission until--quietly, and then not so quietly--he began to master the art of corruption for himself. Soon, Coney Island was awash in kickbacks and rigged contracts. In 1878, when hotel developer Austin Corbin was looking to expand his properties east of Manhattan Beach, McKane arranged to sell him land through a vote at a town meeting. With the help of 200 armed thugs who showed up at the vote, Corbin was able to make his purchase for $1,500, even though the property was known to be worth around $100,000.
The turning point in McKane's career came in 1881, when he gained control of the Coney Island police force. From then on, licenses for everything from ring-toss concessions to music halls amounted to protection fees, which in turn paid the salaries of the police. After Boss Tweed was ousted from Tammany Hall, McKane welcomed any and all low-life refugees into his jurisdiction. His continued election, should any of this criminal element betray him, was ensured by a careful districting arrangement that required all of the citizens in Coney Island to vote at booths in Town Hall, where they could be more easily swayed to make the right choice. Names from the local cemetery frequently made their way onto the ballots as well.
Not surprisingly, McKane found himself on trial more than once in his career. In 1887, he was brought before the Brooklyn Common Council to answer charges of bribery and fraud. The crowd thought his performance hilarious when he claimed not to have made any inquiries into prostitution taking place in his jurisdiction, or to have been able to execute a warrant before the end of a business day.
Of course, everyone else called to testify had been bought off. Everyone, that is, except for one man. George Tilyou, son of the local businessman Peter Tilyou, faced a sea of McKane loyalists and gave names, facts, dates.
Thanks to his far-flung connections, McKane survived this trial and made sure that the Tilyou family lost almost all of its property. Several years later, however, McKane was again in the dock, this time for violating voting laws. A reformer, Alexander Bacon, had arrived with a court order to inspect McKane's novel voting arrangement, only to be told by McKane, "Injunctions don't go here." Unable to influence the jury with bribes, McKane was convicted in 1894 to six years of hard labor at Sing Sing prison. Crowds lined up to see him sent off to jail, and while some may have cheered, Peter Tilyou made a point of shaking his fist at his sworn enemy.
McKane was released from prison two years early for good behavior, but he never again held a place in public affairs. His reign was over, and the way cleared for George Tilyou, the lone man who had stood against him, to refashion Coney Island in another image altogether.