The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
“The Bishop and the Butterfly reads like a cross between a whodunnit and a political expose. . . . unraveling one holds the key to unraveling the other.”
Even casual students of American history are likely familiar with Tammany Hall as a symbol of political corruption in New York City. From the overbearing and intimidating William M. “Boss” Tweed, who dominated in 19th century New York, to the gregarious and flamboyant Jimmy Walker, the Tammany machine rewarded its leaders at the expense of the citizens of one of the world’s great melting pots.
Despite being impervious to decades of efforts to strip it of its power, Tammany’s ultimate undoing would derive from an unlikely confluence of events: the murder of a tainted woman (the Butterfly), whose death opened a Pandora’s Box of damning secrets, and the appointment of a zealous investigator (the Bishop) determined to clean up the cesspool of New York’s politics. And the walls of Tammany, like those of Biblical Jericho, crumbled and fell.
In The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age, author Michael Wolraich tells the story in vivid detail, starting with the discovery of the body of a young woman one February morning in 1931. Using her fingerprints, police were able to identify her as Vivian Gordon, with a prior arrest for “vagrancy,” a euphemism for, among other crimes, prostitution. It was a dubious charge, at best, but not an uncommon fate for women of her ilk at that time and place, often set up by unscrupulous police officers to extort funds from young women. Such was the case with Vivian.
Her killers erroneously believed they had buried her secrets with her when they left her brutalized body in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, with a clothesline tightly wrapped around her throat. Instead, her discovery and unraveling the mystery of her demise was a driving impetus for a corruption investigation that ultimately toppled Mayor Walker and Tammany.
When Governor Franklin Roosevelt appointed former New York State Court of Appeals judge Samuel Seabury to lead a corruption investigation, no one knew where it might end. There had been previous efforts, and previous failures, to clean up Tammany. But what made this one different was Seabury, himself. Though sarcastically referred to as “the Bishop” for his lofty ideals, Seabury “didn’t strive to save souls or extirpate sins; ordinary vices didn’t concern him. What provoked his ire were corruption and inequality.” The death of Vivian Gordon was a case in point.
Official corruption had schooled Vivian for a life of crime—and she was an apt pupil. She had been imprisoned on a trumped-up prostitution charge, a catastrophic event in her young life that not only wrecked her reputation, but also resulted in the loss of custody of her young daughter. A daughter who later took her own life as a result of the burden of the shame of her mother’s life.
Upon Vivian’s release from incarceration, and desperate for a path to financial survival, she learned that “[g]olddigging and blackmail were far more lucrative than prostitution. . . .” She also learned that gathering information was even more valuable.
Just a few days prior to her murder, Vivian had been interviewed by Seabury’s investigators, whom she wanted to “help her right what she termed was a wrong inflicted upon her by reason of the charge of prostitution. . . .” The seemingly coincidental timing spurred rumors that she had been murdered by police officers to silence her. It had the opposite effect.
“Recognizing that the murder might precipitate political ramifications beyond New York City, FDR immediately resolved to apply the weight of the governor’s office to the homicide investigation.” Upon searching her apartment, investigators found leather-bound datebooks that contained names, dates, dollar amounts, and cryptic notations, a virtual treasure trove of police corruption—with a trail that ultimately led to the halls of Tammany.
The Bishop and the Butterfly reads like a cross between a whodunnit and a political expose. Both stories provide plenty of suspects, false leads, and rabbit trails, but unraveling one holds the key to unraveling the other. And Vivian Gordon’s tragic story is at the heart of it all.
Unquestionably, Vivian’s was a misspent life. But in her defense, she simply played the cards she was dealt—to great financial advantage but, perhaps, at the expense of her soul. Her gamesmanship ultimately shortened her life and left her body unceremoniously dumped in a park. Maybe, though, her death was not in vain but, instead, led to a greater good.
The author writes that, had Vivian Gordon not been murdered, Seabury’s investigation might have ended prematurely. But her death, coupled with her daughter’s suicide, “catalyzed the collective fury and frustration that had been simmering beneath the surface.” Following the ignominious resignation of Mayor Walker, and a place-holder for less than a year following a special election, Fiorello La Guardia, namesake of NYC’s well-known airport, was elected as mayor in November of 1933.
La Guardia immediately began a purge of corruption at all levels of local government, including within the police department. The author tells us that his most significant accomplishment might have been the “emasculation of Tammany Hall.”
An argument can be made, one supposes, that the Butterfly left a legacy that made New York a better place, as the ultimate result of the Bishop’s investigation might never have had its successes without the contribution of her untimely death. Let’s leave that one for the philosophers, theologians, and glass-half-full rationalizers to debate.