In a young America, not yet one hundred years old, the routine act of going to the polls on election day could turn into a raucous and even a dangerous experience. And in few other places could politics in the mid-nineteenth century be described as rough and tumble as they were in New York City. For, as the political elites of the previous century gave way to the growing might of the merchants, businessmen, and local saloon-keepers, the Democratic machine known as Tammany Hall tightened its stranglehold upon the city, bringing new players into the fold. This is a closer look at one highly influential, and now seldom-discussed player – Isaiah Rynders.
By the 1840s nearly all Democratic party nominations were controlled by political bosses and wards scattered throughout the rapidly growing metropolis of New York City. Wards like the Five Points (now present day Chinatown) and ‘The Bloody 6th,’ coupled political force with intimidation and violence to sway nominations and influence elections. These chapters operated much like street gangs, showing up at polling stations and at the rallies of political rivals to threaten voters into siding with their respective candidate. From this brand of campaign came men like Isaiah Rynders, nicknamed ‘Captain,’ a moniker he earned by once operating a sloop that carried merchandise up the Hudson, but a title he later solidified in far more frightening ways.
In his book Hanging Captain Gordon, historian Ron Soodalter writes, ‘Rynders was the main fixer for the corrupt Democratic political machine known as the Tammany Ring. Elections were sometimes bought but almost always directed by the presence at the polls of Rynders’ force of gang-based headbangers, shoulder-hitters, and repeaters.’ Though technically a ‘sporting man’ (a term for one whose profession is a loose mixture of gambling, politics, and horse racing), Isaiah Rynders and his Empire Club used various methods of intimidation at numerous political gatherings. He became an influential force even Tammany Hall was afraid to cross. In his book Five Points, Tyler Anbinder writes, ‘By mid-century, Tammany leaders made sure never to enter a meeting or convention without first trying to secure Rynders’ support.’
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The mid-1800s saw its share of hotly contested elections, particularly in New York, primarily between the Democrats of Tammany Hall and the Whig Party (predecessor to the Republican Party). After a failed attempt to gain a nomination for State Assembly, Isaiah Rynders, though failing to secure complete support from Irish-American Democrats of the Five Points, decided that he and his Empire Club could serve his party in a more heavy-handed capacity. Author Tyler Anbinder, in his book Contested Freedom writes, ‘[Rynders] and his followers believed wholeheartedly that their tactics were a necessary facet of popular politics.’
One well documented exploit of Isaiah Rynders was when he and his Empire Club showed up at a polling station where hundreds of people planned to vote. Sensing many in the crowd would vote for the Whig candidate, Rynders announced, ‘I am Isaiah Rynders! My club is here scattered among you! We know you! Five hundred of you are from Philadelphia – brought here to vote the Whig ticket! Damn you! If you do not leave these polls in five minutes, we will dirk every mother’s son of you!’ Minutes later, witnesses reported seeing five hundred men walk away without voting.
Isaiah Rynders sought to not only influence nominations and elections, but many of his actions included intimidation to influence policy as well. At an abolitionist meeting held by William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and attended by Herman Melville, Rynders and his group planned to shout-down Douglass as he spoke at the New York Society Library. It was only Douglass’ quick wit, in response to Rynders’ verbal haranguing, that saved the meeting from becoming a free-for-all. Melville was even noted as being disturbed that this would occur in a northern city like New York, and with little interference by police. In Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style, author Robert K. Wallace writes, ‘The fact that the police had let Rynders and his mob shut down free speech within the walls of the New York Society Library delivered some harsh truths about the city.’
Not all of Isaiah Rynders attempts at influence would end so peacefully. Rynders is noted to have instigated the deadliest race riot in New York City history – the Astor Place riot of 1849. Yet for all his rough house tactics, Rynders was known to be an eloquent speaker, who often injected lines from Shakespearean plays he could recite by rote. However, his methods of vicious influence, which by today’s standards would only be considered clear violation of voting law, far outweighed any charm Rynders might’ve possessed. And as his influence expanded, he was able to influence elections on a national scale. The Albany-born sporting man was able to frighten and intimidate enough votes in New York to swing 36 Electoral College votes to secure a victory for Democrat President James K. Polk, over his Whig challenger Henry Clay. Rynders was rewarded for his efforts by being made US Marshal by then-Democrat party leader James Buchanan.
Ron Soodalter further writes regarding Isaiah Rynders, ‘If any one man reflected chicanery, bigotry, racism, corruption, and violence that represented New York City politics in the mid-1800s, it was US Marshal Isaiah Rynders.’ Therefore, if there is any purpose a man like Isaiah Rynders may serve, it is as a sobering reminder that the right to vote is a truly special one, and historical figures like Rynders show that it is a right that should not be hindered by threats, violence, and intimidation.
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