Joe Bruno on the Mob — Big Tim Sullivan

“Big Tim” Sullivan was a Tammany Hall hack, who gave real meaning to the term “crooked politician.”

Sullivan was born in 1863 at 25 Baxter Street, one of the worse slums buildings in New York City. The squaller was so intense at 25 Baxter Street, in 1866 a New York Times article called it one of the “filthiest tenements in the city.”

Sullivan’s parents had just immigrated from County Kerry, Ireland, and with them being so poor, he was trust out in the streets at the age of eight to shine shoes and sell newspapers. Being the enterprising lad that he was, Sullivan soon saved up enough cash to start his own newspaper delivery business. He employed dozens of poor kids from the neighborhood to do his deliveries, and soon Sullivan was the owner of four local bars, the first of which he opened on Christie Street, just east of the Bowery. One of Sullivan’s bar customers was Thomas “Fatty” Walsh, a notorious ward leader in Tammany Hall. Sullivan fell under Walsh’s political wing, and in 1894, Sullivan was elected to the Third District’s State Assembly.

In a few short years, Sullivan became a big cog in Tammany Hall’s corrupt wheel and soon he was appointed District Leader of the entire Lower East Side. That was like giving the key to the candy store to an especially bad kid. Sullivan bridged the gap between public service and the common street thuggery, by recruiting infamous gang leaders like Paul Kelly and Monk Eastman to do his dirty work, which included “voter influence” at election sites, which basically meant their gangs beat up voters who didn’t exactly see things Sullivan’s way.

In return for using his influence to keep gangsters out of jail, Sullivan got a piece of all the illegal activities in the Lower East Side, including prostitution, gambling, loan sharking and extortion. To keep things looking on the up-and-up, Sullivan also entrenched himself in many legal endeavors, including becoming partners in the MGM and Loews cinema operations.

Sullivan did introduce a couple of key pieces of legislation, like one in 1896 that made boxing legal, only to see it made illegal again in 1900, because of several deaths in the ring. Sullivan also passed the dubious “Sullivan Act” in 1911, which made it illegal to carry guns, unless you could afford a hefty registration fee. Needless to say, Sullivan’s murderous cronies made so much illegal dough, they all were able to cough up the cash needed to carry guns legally, in order to enforce their illegal activities.

In 1911, Sullivan’s evil ways finally caught up with him. He contracted syphilis, probably in one of the many prostitution houses he had a piece of, and he suddenly became paranoid and delusional. He was judged mentally incompetent and removed from his senate seat. In 1912, his family placed him in a mental institution, which only made his condition worse.

In 1913, while the guards were playing cards, Sullivan escaped from the sanitarium. This was a fatal mistake. Less than a day later, his body was found near the railroad tracks in Pelham Parkway. For some reason, his body was not claimed, so the city declared him a vagrant, to be shamefully interred in Potter’s Field. A police officer at the morgue finally recognized his body and Big Tim was given a proper send-off, with 25,000 people attending his funeral ceremony at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on north Mulberry Street near Houston Street.


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