Timothy D. Sullivan, known as “Big Tim” Sullivan, Dry Dollar or Big Feller, was one of New York city’s most powerful politicians in the first decade of the 20th century. He was a state assemblyman, congressman, state senator. His most notable achievement was an Act of Government that would bare his name, The Sullivan Act.
Born and raised in the notorious Five Points neighborhood, his parents immigrants themselves from Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland, indeed Kenmare Street in New York was named in honor of his mother and in 2013, Kenamre in Ireland unofficially renamed the main street in the town, New York Street.
Big Tim Sullivan was more than just a slum politician with criminal connections. A key to Sullivan’s success was the quality of the services he provided to his constituents. He really did care for his loyal voters in a very personal way, for example by bailing them out of jail or by giving desperate mothers money to buy food for their children. He hosted immense Christmas dinners at which potato salad and turkey were on the menu. He helped finance popular entertainment, including sports and motion pictures.
Big Tim Sullivan, like his predecessors in Tammany Hall was an expert in using election fraud to gain and retain power.
The most common tactic was to use “repeaters” or repeat voters. Here’s how it is described in the book Rothstein by David Pietrusza. Pgs 53-55: “When you’ve voted’em with their whiskers on you take’em to a barber and scrap off the chin-fringe. Then you vote’em again with side lilacs and a mustache. Then to a barber again, off comes the sides and you vote’em a third time with the mustache. If that ain’t enough, and the box can stand a few more ballots, clean off the mustache and vote’em plain face. That makes every one of ’em good for four votes.”
But Sullivan’s life would end with a sudden and shocking decline. He began a steep slide into depression and mental illness. At some point during his career, he’d contracted syphilis, his health continued to deteriorate until he was judged mentally incompetent. In January 1913, Sullivan’s family had him committed to a sanitarium, where he was treated until he was transferred to his brother’s house in the Eastchester section of the Bronx. He managed to escape from his brothers house but within a few hours, his body was found on the tracks in the Eastchester area of the Bronx, New York. Apparently he had been hit by a train but not everyone bought that and his death was surrounded in controversy.
Image – Big Tim Sullivan (Left) Gus Roeder, journalist (Right)