Coney Island - John McKane

The material is copyrighted © 1997 by Jeffrey Stanton.

John Y. McKane began his career as a corrupt politician in a very modest way. As a young man he started a small construction business in the village of Sheepshead Bay. He kept busy building ramshackle bathing establishments and lager-beer saloons for businessmen attracting the summer tourist trade. He was shrewd and knew how to judge character and when to advance credit. When people like the Vanderveers wanted to enter the bathhouse business, he built their structures on speculation. They not only paid him back in full, but became his political supporters when he decided to run for office. With the help of the local fishermen, blacksmiths, clam diggers, saloon keepers, and carpenters of the town, he was elected as Gravensend's third constable in 1868.

McKane, while not handsome, had strong features set off by a broad-brimmed hat, mustache and carefully trimmed black beard. He had married a local girl, Fanny Nostrand, when he was 24 years old and settled down to raise three sons and a daughter. He didn't smoke or drink and taught Sunday school regularly at the Methodist Episcopal Church.

John Y. McKane

He was honest at the time and felt that the town wasn't getting its fair share from leases on the town's common lands near the beach. His gripe wasn't that the town commissioners were dishonest, but that they were genteel farmers who knew nothing of the property's worth. He ran for office and at the 1869 town meeting was elected one of three commissioners. Within a year he doubled the town's rental income to $1511.50.

McKane was interested initially in making friends with the lessees and obtaining building contracts to build their establishments. But he also realized that many of these businessmen were sub-leasing their lots and making a substantial profit. He yearned for a way to obtain some of that profit for the town and even for himself.

The beach at Coney Island Point was booming because it was the close to Manhattan by boat. When Boss Tweed became mayor and lord of Tammney Hall then brought in his corrupt friends to begin an era of lawlessness, they began spending their summer weekends at Coney Island Point. Pickpockets, confidence men, gamblers, strong-arm men and rowdies began to mingle with the upper class who frequented the beach. The resort area was within McKane's jurisdiction, but he found it prudent to look the other way. Despite its bad reputation, the big gamblers, politicians and their girl friends continued to come, and in droves.

In 1873 McKane authorized a new and much higher lease for Coney Island Point. While the rent before was only $400 a year, Robert Furey paid Gravensend $6100 a year. He was friends of politicians and had become rich by being Brooklyn's Street Commissioner while being a principal stockholder in an asphalt paving company.

During the next three years, business men, notably William Engeman who acquired the title to Brighton Beach, and August Corbin, a rich banker who acquired title to Manhattan Beach, decided to develop their respective property. With development money flowing in and plans to build six separate railroads to the seashore, and two iron piers for docking steamships, McKane took a lease on a the lot adjacent to the one rented to the Iron Pier Company.

To gain political control of Gravensend McKane had to become supervisor, an office that had always been held by the Gravensend gentry. While the town's income from the common lands was now $17,500, the gentry was well aware that if the land had been leased at public auction, it would have netted them at least $200,000. Wishing to be rid of McKane, they had under estimated McKane's ability to cultivate generous friends. When election time came in 1876, McKane was swept into office.

When Corbin sought the town's common land east of his Manhattan Beach property, McKane seeking to show how good a friend he could be, tipped off Corbin that a sale could be authorized by a voice vote at the annual town meeting. Corbin packed the meeting with two hundred thugs armed with clubs. Amidst the confusion, they pushed a resolution through authorizing the sale of the property at a price determined by the town's appraiser who was in the pay of Corbin. While the land was certainly worth $100,000, Corbin greed to pay only $1,500. The town gentry was outraged and they called three separate town meetings to protest and reverse the sale. But each time Corbin's thugs obstructed their will, while McKane controlled the meeting and got his way. While no one knows how much Corbin paid to buy McKane, they each got what they wanted. McKane would control the political fortunes of Coney Island from that time on.

After 1878 the word got around that the fix was in. West Brighton, better known as Coney Island became the roughest spot on Earth. The change can be traced to when McKane got control of Coney's police force. Before 1881 when a bill introduce by McKane's friends in the State legislature created a separate police force, the beach had been patrolled by Brooklyn cops who weren't controlled by commissioner McKane. He named himself Chief of Police at no salary and built a shack to serve as his headquarters. The chief was practical when it came to controlling the carnival atmosphere. He pointed out that Coney Island was no Sunday school. Since people went to the seashore to have fun, he saw no reason to expect them to be more straight laced that they were at home in New York or Brooklyn.

McKane didn't need a salary because the money to support the police force came from licenses issued by him. The fees ranged from $50 for guess-your-weight concessions to $250 for ring toss boards. And licenses for dance and music halls, bath houses, shooting galleries, saloons and carrousels were higher. Everyone paid tribute to McKane and all learned to err on the side of generosity. McKane returned the generosity by issuing licenses to every low-life from every rat hole in New York who couldn't continue to operate a illegitimate business once the Tweed ring had been ousted. He granted them licenses to run saloons, gambling houses, carnival concessions and even fleabag hotels which were ripe for prostitution. They operated primarily along or near the Bowery and all were beholden to boss McKane.

By 1887 McKane had become a man of importance. He had become one of Brooklyn Boss Huge McLaughlin's close friends and became a force to be reckoned with in county and state politics. He managed this discretely by delivering the votes at election time, especially for national elections. McKane would sit in the town hall and eye the voters as they filed in. One look at him and they knew how to vote. Besides he learned what every nineteenth century political boss knew; the more votes there were, the more votes could be stolen. He was so successful that Grover Cleveland carried New York state by less than 1200 votes in the election, and wouldn't have been elected president without McKane's help.

There were always investigations on the state level but McKane covered his tracks well. Then of course he was worried that the committee would investigate some of the criminals that were operating businesses in Coney. Somebody might talk.

When McKane was subpoenaed before the committee who were meeting in the chamber of the Brooklyn Common Council, he was determined to brazen it through. John Parson's, the chief council, strategy was to put on record McKane's corruption and lack of law enforcement. When they asked him about houses of prostitution located near his police headquarters, he stated, "I do not make inquires." On the matter of gambling joints he responded, "There are none that I know of." The audience thought it was hilarious. Then they asked him about the betting at the race tracks since he was paid $142,000 by the three tracks for construction work to build 125 book making booths. But when they asked him whether he knew that bets were being placed, he responded. "The way, as I understand the law now, is that you can't go and grab a man without a warrant...I may have went and got a warrant... but the racing was done for that day." Before the chief was done with him, he had convicted himself of dereliction of duty, venality, and complicity in the violation of half-dozen statutes.

McKane had nothing to fear from those who testified after him. He could control most of his henchmen by virtue of the mortgages that he held on their property, nearly one half the buildings in West Brighton (Coney Island). Each testified that he knew nothing or perjured themselves.

But the committee's lawyers seemed much more interested in the fate of Gravensend's common lands that McKane had sold to his friends and political allies five years earlier. Luckily for McKane, Garry Katen, who was in charge of common lands, managed to duck the subpoena when they came to his gambling joint and hid out in New Jersey during the investigation. But the stories of bribery and fraud still came out when an executive of a railroad company testified that he had to pay the Chief a $4000 bribe in order to buy one small piece of property. Although the testimony was damaging it wasn't until the next to the last day of hearings that McKane discovered his secret opposition.

George Tilyou, Peter Tilyou's oldest son, a successful real estate broker took the stand. He stood alone and scared, for he was the only one at Coney Island who dared to blow the whistle on McKane. He named names and places. He had been present when the trustees of the common lands had engaged in flagrant fraud. He told of McKane's police captain and others had frequented gambling joints and how they got kickbacks from sanctioning prostitution. What Tilyou knew of course was all common knowledge, but no one else was brave enough to testify. McKane denied all, but ended up convicting himself anew for dereliction of duty. The committee filed a report with the state Assembly assailing Coney Island as "a source of corruption and crime, disgraceful ... and dangerous." They stigmatized McKane as "an enemy and not a friend, of the administration of justice." They recommended that he prosecuted and when convicted, removed from office. They published their conclusions on May 11, 1887, and to gather public support and pressure the Assembly to act, spread them across the front pages of most New York daily newspapers.

While it was one thing for the committee to recommend, it was quite another for the Assembly to act. Fortunately for McKane, he was protected by the sturdy shield of Brooklyn's democratic boss, Hugh McLaughlin. In Albany, the committees's report was pigeon-holed. George Tilyou found it necessary to retire from the real estate business. Soon his father, through McKane's guile and strong-armed tactics, would be stripped of his beach property and forced off the island. Only the intervention of a friend's life savings enabled his mother to save the family home.

In 1888 McKane had another chance to cement his political alliance with those in power in New York City, this time for the Republicans. He had become increasingly friendly with John J. O'Brien because his brother James was married to the New York Republican's granddaughter. Since McKane's expanding influence as the Kings County Board of Supervisors had displeased Hugh McLaughlin, Brooklyn's Democratic leader, McKane and O'Brien conferred as the best method of rebuking McLaughlin. On the morning of election day, he instructed the voters in Gravensend to vote straight Republican for Benjamin Harrison. He sat in Gravensend's town hall throughout the long day as they trooped past to do his bidding. More than Gravensend's voters voted there that day for O'Brien provided transport for his faithful Republicans from New York's Bowery district to vote again. McKane returned the favor with his loyal friends. Tombstones, too, swelled the total further at Gravensend. To avoid suspicion great care was taken in copying half the names from Greenwood Cemetery and half from Washington Cemetery, thus mixing and combining Jewish and Christian names.

It turned out to be a close election where Cleveland won the popular vote, but Harrison won in the electoral college. It was New York's thirty-six electoral votes that won him the election. Without McKane's chicanery at the polls, Harrison wouldn't have become president of the United States. It was McKane's finest hour, for even the president acknowledged Coney's crucial contribution to his election victory.

But it was the election of 1893 that was McKane"s undoing. The state legislature previously had passed an election reform bill that was designed to stop his practice of sitting in the Town Hall where he could eye each voter. The law stipulated a sperate polling place for each of Gravensend's six districts. However, he flaunted the law by redistricting the town so that each ended with a ribbon of land that led into the seventy eight by thirty seven feet Town Hall via six doors.

That November he received a warning that a group of Republican reformers were planning to observe the election in Gravensend. Naturally McKane wasn't going to let in happen and instructed 150 of his henchmen armed with clubs. to make sure that no strangers approach the Town Hall. He was particularly worried because he had 6,218 voters registered when there weren't more than 1,500 legitimate voters in all six districts.

Three carriages filled with strangers approached the Town Hall at sunrise and were met by a hostile crowd of 300 men, led by fifty policemen. The reformer's leader was Colonel Alexander Bacon, the same man who five years earlier headed the committee attempting to expose McKane's corruption. The Colonel and a dozen or more, lawyers, physicians, merchants and clergymen had come armed with an injunction from Judge Barnard to lawfully observe the election and make sure it was honest. When the colonel told McKane that he had an injunction for him, McKane with his hands firmly clasped behind his back, confidently proclaimed that "Injunctions don't go here." Bacon held out the paper and lunged forward to serve with it by slapping him with it on the chest and shoulders. McKane, as arrogant as ever, arrested them but not before McKane's men shoved and pushed them, knocking them down and even hitting the men with their nightsticks. They were arrested for disturbing the peace and put in a cell. McKane celebrated his latest triumph and opened the polls.

One stranger escaped and the story was carried back to the righteous editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. By noon he printed a special edition about the incident at Coney Island with the headline "Injunctions Don't Go Here!". The wire services picked up the story and by the end of the day the entire country was reading about it.

McKane was confident that the incident would blow over in a day or two. However, reformers swept into office both in the State Supreme Court, state attorney general's office and in the mayor's office of nearby Brooklyn. Worse for McKane, the reformers were howling for blood. Newly appointed assistant attorney generals summoned an extraordinary grand jury into session.

On December 31st the extraordinary grand jury handed up its indictments. There were eleven counts against McKane, his lieutenants Newton and Sutherland, and eighteen prominent citizens of Coney Island who served as election officials. McKane was the only one required to stand before the bench to answer the indictments. He thought his friends would turn up and bail him out of trouble, but he was wrong.

The trial began on January 23, 1894 in the old Brooklyn Supreme Court House. It was packed with McKane's friends and sympathizers who thought that stealing votes was the normal state of affairs. Besides McKane always looked the other way and permitted innocent gambling at the horse racing tracks, sanctioned prize fighting and ignored Sunday Blue Laws. In short, they felt that Coney Island's way of life was on trial.

The election watchers testified first, and while it was damming, it might not have convinced the jury. Then they asked McKane if he had ever actually seen the voter registration lists. He stated under oath that he had definitely never inspected them. That was a big mistake because the special attorney-general, Benjamin Tracy, pulled out McKane's own affidavit, in which he had sworn only two months earlier that he personally inspected all Gravensend's registration lists. McKane flushed deep brick-red. The gavel banged and the court adjourned for the weekend.

When McKane took the stand on Monday he was again caught in a web of his own lies. It was established that the Coney Island policemen that attacked the poll watchers were paid by checks drawn on McKane's personal bank account, and that he padded the voter registration rolls by more than 200% in three years. After a six hour impassioned summation, Tracy rested his case. Now it would be up to the jury.

When the jury didn't reach a verdict the first day, it was speculated that at least three of the jurors had been bribed to hold out for McKane's acquittal. The following afternoon the jury reached its verdict. Everyone filed back into court, but they had to wait ten minutes before McKane arrived. The jury filed in and the foreman of the jury stood to read the verdict. "Guilty," said the foreman. McKane stared unbelieving, for he was sure that at least one of the three jurors that he offered a house and land to, would take the bribe..

McKane was also sure that he would somehow elude punishment. There were even rumors that his Coney Island gang planned to raid the jail and whisk him off to Cuba. But on Monday, February 19th he was sentenced to six years in the Sing Sing state penitentiary, at hard labor. Crowds lined the Brooklyn streets to watch him being escorted to prison. One happy man was old Peter Tilyou who turned up at one street corner after another to shake his fist and grimace at the dethroned boss.

His lieutenants were also tried. Kenny Sutherland was found guilty, but he jumped bail and fled to Canada before he could be sentenced. Dick Newton turned state's evidence and pleaded guilty. Others pleaded guilty or turned state's evidence, and were let off with relatively light sentences. McKane and his henchmen's political reign had ended.

On April 26, 1894, a bill passed in the New York state legislature that annexed Gravensend and Coney Island to Brooklyn. Prison crushed McKane's spirit. He refused to allow his wife or children to visit him because he didn't want to be seen in prison stripes. Besides receiving no visitors, he had no real friends among the inmates. McKane was released two years early for good behavior from prison on April 30, 1898.

He returned to Coney Island but all had changed. He was old and embittered and his friends were gone. He began selling life insurance policies to keep busy for he didn't need the money; there were plenty of mortgages that were in his wife's name. He suffered a stroke in August 1899 and died after a second stroke a month later.

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