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Island of Vice
"Island of Vice"; Belly Dancer, Library of Congress, c. 1900

Between allegations of unfair surveillance and his son's recent legal woes, it hasn't been a great year for police commissioner Ray Kelly. This said, it's never easy regulating one of the world's most unruly cities.

A new book, Island of Vice, explores a different (though no less maligned) NYPD commissioner: the pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt, who, in the 1890s, sought to sanitize a town that thrived on debauchery and crime.

As author Richard Zacks tells it, fin-de-siècle Manhattan was a pretty wild place. Drunken miscreants frequented all-night gambling halls, prostitutes ran the Tenderloin and the political machine known as Tammany Hall pretty much turned a blind eye. But then cocksure Commissioner Roosevelt arrived with his unflinching morals and doomed quest to clean things up.

Zacks is a copious researcher and gifted storyteller, and he clearly delights in describing the city's seedy underbelly--think "unspeakable odors" and games of naked leapfrog.

But as much as we love imagining such depravity happening in our own backyard (or where a Duane Reade now stands), you need not be a New Yorker to appreciate Island of Vice. It's simply a rollicking glimpse into a bygone era.

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