To the naked eye, it was nothing more than a case of simple prostitution: When the police officer burst into Vivian Gordon’s New York hotel room in 1923, he found her in bed with a man who wasn’t her husband. Believing her lover had paid her for sex, the police officer hauled her off to jail. She was imprisoned, convicted, and sentenced to time at an upstate reformatory.
But Vivian Gordon knew there was more to the story. She suspected that her estranged husband, a U.S. marshal, had arranged the arrest in retaliation for their upcoming divorce. And like hundreds of other women caught up in New York’s vicious cycle of “frame-ups,” she couldn’t do anything to fight it.
The cops were in on it. The judges were in on it. Even the lawyers who represented women accused of prostitution and petty crimes were in on it. But what Gordon could never have suspected was that her 1923 arrest would one day take down an entire political machine.
Not that she lived to see it happen. When she was murdered on February 25, 1931, Gordon unknowingly became part of one of the city’s most famous corruption investigations—and a central figure in a scandal that helped put an end to the dominance of New York’s Democratic political machine.
Tammany Hall, the outgrowth of an 18th-century political society, had ruled New York’s Democratic Party (and the city itself) for over a century. In a time before public welfare, Tammany’s political bosses helped their hangers-on with everything from heating to health care, negotiating with landlords and sometimes paying in exchange for constituents’ votes. Party members provided strength in numbers, voting their candidates into office over and over again.
By the 1930s, Tammany had woven its way into every level of city politics—and it was controlled by the New York Mob. Graft and cronyism ruled many facets of city government, including the judicial system and police department. Elected officials handed out appointments to their friends, providing them with access to bribes and power, and most institutions prioritized helping Democrats who had shown their loyalty to Tammany instead of serving all constituents equally.
Allegations of judges and politicians beholden to gangsters prompted New York’s new governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to pursue a serious investigation of corruption in the city in 1930. In response, the New York State Legislature formed the Hofstadter Committee, a joint legislative committee headed by State Senator Samuel Hofstadter. It appointed Samuel Seabury, an anti-Tammany Democrat, prominent lawyer and past judge, as legal counsel.
The Business of Framing Women
Seabury’s first target was the magistrate court system. The commission interviewed over 1,000 witnesses from every level of the court system to find out if it was actually meting out justice. The task force suspected that the justice system and the rest of the city’s administration thrived on bribes and power shares that were handed out by Tammany Hall Democrats and which benefited party members. They quickly homed in on “frame-ups,” a practice by which police officers framed innocent women for financial gain.
Vice squad officers would find a woman to frame, then send a “stool pigeon” to trick the woman into entering a hotel room in which he had planted money. The police would burst into the room, purportedly to question the stool pigeon, and arrest the woman instead, accusing her of prostitution on the basis of the planted money. Corrupt bail bondsmen and lawyers would then charge exorbitant fees to get her declared not guilty, and the funds were distributed among all parties in the police and judicial system, from judge to bailiff, attorney to bail bondsman.
Seabury and the commission suspected frame-ups were common. But it would take a murder to illuminate just how unscrupulous the courts had become. The commission was already in full swing in 1931, when Gordon was found strangled to death in a Bronx park. Her death intrigued the public and caught Roosevelt’s eye. He ordered Seabury to look into her murder.
Investigators discovered that in the 1930s, Gordon had established a bustling business selling sexual favors, then blackmailing men who didn’t want their wives to learn about their relationships with her. She used the proceeds to curry favors with mobsters, lending them money and buying property throughout New York. Her address book, recovered at her apartment after the murder, revealed connections to over 300 mobsters, many of whom were her clients.
But the Seabury commission was less interested in Gordon’s prostitution than her 1923 arrest. She had long suspected she was the victim of a frame-up arranged by her ex-husband, John Bischoff. When Gordon was subsequently sentenced to a reformatory, Bischoff had gotten custody of their daughter, Benita. Gordon’s supposedly sordid life was justification enough for judges to repeatedly deny her custody over the years.
When Gordon heard about the Seabury commission, she wrote to both her ex-husband and the cop who had arrested her, telling them she planned to reveal the frame-up. She had even spoken with an attorney about testifying for the commission. Within days of sending the letter, she was murdered.
The Gordon case gave Seabury reason to dig even deeper into frame-ups. Special hearings about Gordon’s earlier arrest revealed that the police officer who had arrested her had received tens of thousands of dollars for his vice work despite a salary of $3,000 a year. They also provided Seabury with leads on the justice system’s connections to mobsters and party bosses.
“It is impossible to estimate how many honest women in this city have been gouged under threat of arrest or conviction of a crime which they were totally innocent;” wrote Seabury, “but enough testimony has been given on this subject to indicate that the business of framing honest women was very well established and lucrative.”
The Downfall of Tammany Hall
Encouraged by Seabury’s work rooting out corruption in the courts, Roosevelt expanded the investigation. Eventually it grew to include investigations into the District Attorney’s office and finally into every department in New York city government. The testimony of 1,000 New Yorkers revealed sheriffs with massive savings, loans to fictitious relatives and a rigged bidding process.
Finally, New York’s Democratic mayor, James J. Walker, found himself in Seabury’s crosshairs. A special investigation into his conduct revealed the existence of a slush fund politicians and businesspeople used to curry his favor and a record of dirty dealings with contractors. “All told,” writes Jonathan Mahler for New York, “the mayor himself had accepted $1 million in bribes.”
Walker stepped down in disgrace and Fiorello LaGuardia, a reform-minded Republican, replaced him. The scandal marked the end a political era. For years, Tammany Hall had put a price on every city service, from permits to political patronage. Now, its inner workings had been revealed. During the first term of LaGuardia’s mayorship, Tammany local organizational membership dropped 70 percent.
Disgruntled, Tammany Democrats tried to obstruct Roosevelt’s run for the presidency. Once he was elected, he remembered both their corruption and their uncooperativeness. “With Tammany Hall’s record of seamy corruption and relentless defiance toward Roosevelt,” writes historian Sean J. Savage, “it is not surprising that the newly-inaugurated president did not feel obligated to funnel federal patronage to Tammany Democrats.”
Eventually, Tammany’s dominance over New York politics—and party bosses’ grip over the public—faded out of public memory. The Seabury commission was the beginning of the end for the political machine that once reigned supreme.
Though the investigation revealed the true scope of the city's political corruption and deep mob ties before shutting down in 1932, Seabury’s commission failed to find the identity of Vivian Gordon’s killer. Though she helped unseat a mayor and tear down an entire political system, her case remains unsolved to this day.