Main image
28th July

First Published in The New York Sun, July 28, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

When Fernando was mayor, things were really bad.

How bad? It certainly wasn’t a good thing when two competing New York City police departments fought each other in the streets. A squad of 50 members of one of the two departments was dispatched to City Hall to arrest the mayor, only to meet up with 300 members of the other police force, there to protect the mayor from his attackers.

With the two police forces engaged in open warfare, the criminal element took full advantage of the lack of authority. New York’s legendary gangs fought using guns, knives, and clubs in what has been described as a “desperate free-for-all” that often had ugly ethnic overtones.
At the same time, the city’s economy was in a state of disarray. A terrible event spurred a decline in the city’s financial markets that resulted in a fullblown depression. Major corporations were failing, their officers looting corporate treasuries in an orgy of greed.

Meanwhile, the mayor was leading the opposition to a bloody war, urging that the army of the United States of America negotiate a settlement with the enemy.

No, we’re not speculating about the future of New York under the administration of mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer. This is not idle speculation, but history. If he is elected mayor, the former Bronx president will not be the first Fernando to occupy City Hall.That honor belongs to Fernando Wood, who dominated municipal politics in the years immediately prior to and during the Civil War.

These were not happy days, and Fernando Wood was a singularly ineffective leader.

Wood was born in Philadelphia in 1812. By 1821, his family moved to New York to seek their fortune, but young Fernando headed back to Philly when he came of age.When his father died in 1831, Wood returned to New York to support his family.

Wood tried his hand at business, but was unsuccessful on his own. His luck changed when he divorced his wife of eight years in 1839, and he went on to pursue a career in politics. The following year, he ran for Congress as the Tammany Hall candidate, and won. The new lawmaker soon found a new bride, Anna Richardson, the daughter of a well-to-do and influential upstate judge.

After losing his seat to redistricting in 1842,Wood became a dispatch agent for the Port of New York, a patronage position, and using his new wife’s money to invest in the markets,became rich.

Like his contemporary namesake, Fernando lost his first bid for mayor in 1850. But unlike Mr. Ferrer, who also lost on his second try,Wood was elected in 1854 and re-elected in 1856. It was in those turbulent years prior to the Civil War that, under Wood’s stewardship, the city really fell apart.

The municipal police department under Wood was considered so corrupt that the state Legislature abolished it,and created a new metropolitan police force to replace it. Of course, politics were involved, even in those pre-Tweed years. Wood was a Democrat, and the Albany Legislature was controlled by Republicans.

When Wood refused to disband his “Municipals,”the courts intervened and ordered his arrest. That spurred the now-famous confrontation between the state-backed “Metropolitans” and Wood’s “Municipals.” As the two forces competed, for months, and even after the “Municipals” were finally disbanded, the criminal element in the city had a field day.In what could be the ultimate free-enterprise cutthroat spirit, the two police forces would literally fight over arresting the city’s miscreants, like salespeople arguing over a commission.

Gangs like the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits united to fight their common enemy, the Bowery Boys. These were not of the fun-loving Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall variety. This was war, and the newly formed inexperienced Metropolitans were ill-equipped to restore order.

The failure of a major insurance company of the day, looted by its corporate officers, set off a huge financial crisis. As banks began to fail, a shipment of gold was ordered from the far west to meet the demand — those were days when the banking system was exclusively built upon gold and silver. But when the ship carrying the bullion sank,the city also plunged — into financial panic and economic depression.

Compounding these problems was the impending national conflict. Once the Civil War began, Wood became a leader of the “Copperheads,” pro-Confederacy Democrats who sought a negotiated settlement.

Mr. Ferrer has famously spoken of the “other” New York, but Wood actually tried to create one. He proposed that New York City, like the southern states, secede from the union. This plan went nowhere, and Wood was turned out of office in 1861.

But even though Gotham was not quite ready to leave the union, it was hardly a pro-union hotbed, either. Wood was returned to Congress as a “Peace Democrat.” At the 1864 Democratic National Convention, Wood was instrumental in the inclusion of a peace plank calling for a cease-fire and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy.

Although both the national party and Wood lost the election that year, once the war ended, the persistent candidate picked himself up, dusted himself off, and won back his congressional seat in 1866. He served with some distinction in the nation’s capital, serving a stint as speaker pro tem in 1875, and chaired the House Ways and Means Committee from 1877 until his death in 1881.

Should Mr. Ferrer become mayor of New York, it would be wise for him not to emulate the administration of his namesake. But if he were to dust off Mayor Wood’s portrait and hang it in his City Hall office, it might be time for wise folks to call the Seven Santini Brothers and quickly move out of town.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply