|Political reformer William Hull Wickham seemed no match for notorious strongman Boss Tweed and his colossal New York City political machine. But when the dust settled, a disgraced Tweed was in jail and Wickham was Mayor of New York.
William Hull Wickham was born on July 30, 1832 at Smithtown on Long Island, but spent virtually his entire life in New York City. He was the son of Daniel Hull Wickham and his wife Ruth Hawkins, and had a sister named Julia. William's father was a New York City diamond dealer descended from an old colonial family that had settled the North Fork of Long Island in the 1600s. Some of his relatives, such as second cousin William Wickham, still lived on the East End of Long Island, while other relatives, such as third cousin William Hull Wickham (1846-1925), a prominent healthcare pioneer sharing his name who resided at 270 Park Avenue, also lived in the Big Apple. While not as wealthy as Manhattan's moneyed elite, William's parents maintained an affluent household at 71 West Eleventh Street and had family connections with many historic and influential individuals, including Thomas Wickham, who advised General Washington during the American Revolution, and John Wickham, the attorney who successfully cleared Vice President Aaron Burr's name during his trial for treason. His uncle was celebrated educator and clergyman Joseph Dresser Wickham. The Wickhams traced their ancestry back to Thomas Wickham (1624-1688), a Puritan English settler who established himself in Wethersfield, Connecticut in about 1648. Throughout his public career, William would rely on the time tested Puritan values of hard work, compassion, honesty, and ingenuity to guide his policy decisions.
During his early life, William worked as a ticket agent for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in the office of Howland & Aspinwall. Afterwards, he followed his father's footsteps and entered the jewelry business for several years, being a dealer in diamonds at 24 Maiden Lane. He was also a volunteer fireman for the New York City Fire Department. While service in the Fire Department was generally viewed as being for the lower-middle class, the Wickhams had an old-fashioned sense of public service and saw nothing wrong with rolling up one's sleeves to help a neighbor. William joined Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 in 1850 and became foreman, then resigned in 1854 and organized the Baxter Hook and Ladder Company No. 15, located on Frankfort Street, between West Broadway and Hudson Street. He then steadily moved up the ranks of the New York City Fire Department, being elected Secretary in 1858, Vice President in 1859, and President from 1860-61. He also married Louise S. Floyd of Long Island on September 8, 1857 and had several children with her including Louise Floyd Wickham, Julia Petrie Wickham and Stephen Hull Wickham, who worked as an auditor.
By the 1870's, William was Chairman of the Apollo Hall Democracy, a group dedicated to the overthrow of William M. Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed (see picture), who is probably the most notorious figure of all time in New York City politics due to a series of stupendous frauds tied to his name. Like William, Boss Tweed had come up through the ranks via the Fire Department, but there the similarities abruptly ended. Born in 1823, Tweed spent his childhood on New York's Lower East Side as a brawler and school dropout. After becoming the leader of the local volunteer fire company, he was elected to the Board of Aldermen, and then to Congress. He returned to New York and was elected to the Board of Supervisors, and then to the State Senate. Meanwhile, he became the leader (called the "Grand Sachem") of Tammany Hall, a political machine associated mainly with the poor and immigrants that controlled Manhattan's Democratic Party for decades. In 1871, it was discovered by investigators that Tweed had formed a "Ring" that included Mayor A. Oakey Hall to bilk the public out of as much as $300 million through bribes and kickbacks.
An outraged public formed a group called the Executive Committee of Seventy, of which William was a member, to obtain good government and honest officers. Their efforts to examine the city accounts got off to a rocky start when someone broke into City Hall and stole 8,500 vouchers relevant to the investigation, but in 1873 Tweed was convicted of forgery and larceny, and sentenced to jail. Meanwhile, Tammany Hall, which many thought would collapse under the weight of the odious revelations, made an extraordinary effort to reinvent itself under the leadership of John Kelly, who invited many of the reformers who had sealed the doom of Boss Tweed and his ring to join Tammany. The success of this effort and the continuing need for the working class and immigrants to have a political group dedicated to their interests resulted in a revival of sorts, and William eventually reconciled with the new leaders.
In the Autumn of 1874, William was nominated by the Democrats for Mayor, with Tammany's John Kelly giving the nominating speech, calling William "my candidate." To the astonishment of many who thought that the Tammany machine was down for good, William won the election by a wide margin, pulling in 70,071 votes, against 24,226 for Oswald Ottendorfer, the Independent Democratic candidate, and 36,953 for Salem H. Wales, the Republican. In the same election, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, a future presidential candidate who also helped put Boss Tweed behind bars, received Tammany's support and was elected Governor of New York. After William took office on January 1, 1875, the Republican-controlled New York Times immediately expected William to preside over a new round of scandals, but years later was forced to concede that what they uncovered "was not remarkable in any way" (see him at a reception). One of his most important appointments was to make anti-corruption crusader William C. Whitney the City of New York's legal counsel. A Harvard Law School graduate, Whitney went on to become Secretary of the Navy during the Cleveland administration. William also helped kickoff the fundraising for building the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Midway through his term, New Yorkers received the startling news that Boss Tweed had escaped from jail. Tweed fled to Spain and posed as a fisherman, but was recaptured and extradited back to the United States.
William declined to be renominated in 1876, and never again took much interest in politics, although he did speak out against the mayoral candidacy of William R. Grace. In 1890, he served as foreman on the Coroner's jury investigating a collision in the Fourth Avenue tunnel and for several years served on the Board of Education. In 1892, he was a member of the Committee of One Hundred for New York's Columbian celebration. Towards the end of his life, he also was a Director of the Consolidated Coal Company of Wyoming. During the last months of 1892, he became ill from a heart condition and by December was confined to his home at 338 Lexington Avenue. A trained nurse remained with him constantly and he was able to receive visitors, but on January 13, 1893 he suddenly died (see grave). As the New York Times worded it, "With no warning whatever, Mr. Wickham suddenly moved in his chair about 2:30 o'clock in the morning, and died in a moment." He was survived by both his parents, his wife, their only daughter, and his sister's three children, who he adopted after her death. Upon the news of William's death, Mayor Gilroy ordered that the City Hall flags be displayed at half mast. In December 1894, a steamer dubbed the William H. Wickham was put into service to ferry passengers from the East 70th Street dock to Roosevelt Island.