George Washington Plunkitt was a Tammany Hall politician who wielded clout in New York City for decades. He amassed a fortune by engaging in various schemes which he always claimed had been "honest graft."
When collaborating on an eccentric book about his career in 1905 he brazenly defended his long and complicated career in machine politics. And he suggested his own epitaph, which became famous: "He seen his opportunities and he took 'em."
During Plunkitt's political career he held a variety of patronage jobs. He boasted of having held four government jobs in one year, which included a particularly prosperous stretch when he was paid for three jobs simultaneously. He also held elected office in the New York State assembly until his steady seat there was taken from him on a very violent primary election day in 1905.
After Plunkitt died at the age of 82 on November 19, 1924, the New York Times published three substantial articles about him within four days. The newspaper essentially reminisced about the era when Plunkitt, generally seated on a bootblack stand in a courthouse lobby, dispensed political advice and handed out favors to loyal supporters.
There have been skeptics who claimed that Plunkitt greatly exaggerated his own exploits and that his political career was not nearly as flamboyant as he later claimed. Yet there's no doubt he had extraordinary connections in the world of New York politics. And even Plunkitt exaggerated the details, the stories he told of political influence and how it worked was very close to the truth.
The New York Times headline announcing Plunkitt's death noted that he had been "born on Nanny's Goat's Hill." That was a nostalgic reference to a hill that would eventually be within Central Park, near West 84th Street.
When Plunkitt was born on November 17, 1842, the area was essentially a shanty town. Irish immigrants lived in poverty, in ramshackle conditions in what was largely a wilderness far removed from the growing city farther south in Manhattan.
Growing up in a rapidly transforming city, Plunkitt went to public school. In his teens, he worked as a butcher's apprentice. His employer helped him start his own business as a butcher at Washington Market in lower Manhattan (the sprawling market along the Hudson River was the future site of many office buildings including the World Trade Center).
He later went into the construction business, and according to his obituary in the New York Times, Plunkitt built many of the docks on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
First elected to the New York State Assembly in 1868, he also served as an alderman in New York City. In 1883 he was elected to the New York State Senate. Plunkitt became a power broker within Tammany Hall, and for nearly 40 years was the undisputed boss of the 15th Assembly District, a heavily Irish bastion on Manhattan's West Side.
His time in politics coincided with the era of Boss Tweed, and later Richard Croker. And even if Plunkitt later exaggerated his own importance, there's no doubt he had witnessed some remarkable times.
He was eventually defeated in a primary election in 1905 which was marked by violent eruptions at the polls. After that, he essentially retreated from day-to-day politics. Yet he still kept a public profile as a constant presence in government buildings in lower Manhattan, telling stories and regaling a circle of acquaintances.
Even in retirement, Plunkitt would stay involved with Tammany Hall. Every four years he was appointed to make the travel arrangements as New York politicians traveled by train to the Democratic National Convention. Plunkitt was a fixture at the conventions and was deeply disappointed when ill health a few months before his death prevented him from attending the 1924 convention.
In the late 1800s, Plunkitt became quite wealthy by habitually buying up land which he knew the city government would eventually need to buy for some purpose. He justified what he did as being "honest graft."
In Plunkitt's view, knowing something was going to happen and capitalizing on it was not corrupt in any way. It was simply smart. And he openly bragged about it.
Plunkitt's openness about the tactics of machine politics became legendary. And in 1905 a newspaperman, William L. Riordon, published a book Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, which was essentially a series of monologues in which the old politician, often hilariously, expounded on his life and his theories of politics. His lively accounts of how the Tammany machine operated may not have been well-documented, but they give a solid sense of what it must have been like it New York City politics in the late 1800s.
He always steadfastly defended his own political style and the workings of Tammany Hall. As Plunkitt put it: "So, you see, these fool critics don't know what they're talkin' about when they criticize Tammany Hall, the most perfect political machine on earth."
"George W. Plunkitt Dies At 82 Years," New York Times, 20 Nov. 1924, p 16.
"Plunkitt of Tammany Hall," New York Times, 20 Nov. 1924, p. 22.
"Plunkitt, Champion of 'Honest Graft,'" New York Times, 23 Nov. 1924, p. 177.