People familiar with New York history have heard the tales of “Boss” Tweed and Tammany Hall — the corrupt Democratic “machine” that ran — and robbed — the city in the mid-19th century. But fewer know about the “autocrat of Gravesend” – John Y. McKane, who wielded unprecedented control over the seaside town in the decades before it was annexed by Brooklyn in 1894 – the same year that law and order finally caught up with McKane. His trial came to a close on March 1, 1894, and the “boss” was sent off to Sing Sing.
Born in County Antrim, Ireland on August 10, 1841, McKane moved with his family to Gravesend before he was two years old. The southern Long Island town would become famous for the resorts and amusements of Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay.
His career seemed to start out honest enough — he learned carpentry and became a master builder. But he must have gotten a taste for power when he became constable in 1868. The following year he was elected town commissioner. He was town supervisor by 1879, and eventually headed the town board of health, the water board and served as the excise commissioner, meaning he was responsible for collecting taxes. He was even superintendent of the Sheepshead Bay Methodist Episcopal Sunday school. But he really consolidated his power when he became the chief of police in 1881.
His name was originally spelled McCain, but he changed it so he could claim citizenship when it was convenient for him (being sworn in as town supervisor), or deny it when it was inconvenient (being drafted to the Union Army).
‘Autocrat of Gravesend’
A large man with a florid complexion and a substantial beard and mustache, McKane could sometimes be seen patrolling the beaches in his swim trunks with a club in hand.
“For ten years prior to his conviction he was in every sense the autocrat of Gravesend” wrote the Eagle. “He was feared and to a certain extent beloved. No ruffian was so hardened as to refuse to obey the command when summoned ‘to see the chief at headquarters.’”
McKane’s rule was marked by fraud, extortion and gross financial misconduct. He left the town completely bankrupt with no credit. He may have collected as much as $100,000 in assessments on property owners for local improvements, but there were practically no vouchers for his expenditures, and he kept no bank account for the town, but kept all the money in his own personal account. A large number of the town improvement bonds went missing with no record of them available.
Highlights of his shenanigans include “without any authority of law” building an electric light plant in Gravesend at a cost of $200,000. He bought the land from himself. Other public works projects suffered from gross inefficiency, such as the new police headquarters built for $90,000 when it could have been done for $15,000, or the waterworks that failed to supply a sufficient amount of water.
Just about every theater, hotel, resort, restaurant, saloon and racetrack that set up shop in Gravesend had to pay McKane for “protection” or “favors,” and he found all sorts of self-aggrandizing reasons to charge “fees.” For example, after he established his own artificial ice plant on Coney Island, he imposed a license fee of $200 on every wagon peddling natural ice, putting them all out of business.
Of course if you could buy friendship with McKane, you could benefit greatly from his practices. When railroad developer Austin Corbin wanted to expand one of his resorts in Coney Island, McKane arranged for 200 of his thugs to come to the town meeting to vote for it. Corbin was able to purchase 100 acres of waterfront property in Coney Island for $1,500. It was worth $100,000.
Whereas Tammany Hall was firmly a machine of the Democratic Party – McKane controlled both Democrats and Republicans in Gravesend and his preferences vacillated. You could rest assured that whichever ticket he voted for, the whole town followed suit. All of the wards voted in the same building, making it that much easier for voters to be intimidated into voting McKane’s way. But it was election tampering that would be McKane’s downfall.
On Election Day, Nov. 7, 1893, Justice Joseph F. Barnard of the Supreme Court in Brooklyn issued an injunction that would have restrained McKane and his cronies from interfering with the Republican watchers that were sent to ensure an honest election. McKane refused to hand over the voter registry list and actually had the court’s delegation thrown in jail. McKane’s declaration, “Injunctions don’t go here,” would be frequently recalled in the press as the trial unfolded over the next year. McKane was indicted for election fraud with several of his “associates” in December 1893.
When investigators were finally able to get their hands on the voter rolls, there were many suspicious entries. Names such as “Ernest Look,” “Charles Faker” and “Eugene Easy” raised eyebrows, as did the high number of voters as compared to the actual voting population of Gravesend.
As the investigation carried on, the indicted election inspectors threw their loyalty to McKane out the window and testified to misdeeds that prompted the New York Times to call them “the most unscrupulous ballot box stuffers of the age,” responsible for one of “the most stupendous frauds in the history of New York State or the country.”
It was discovered that in the 1888 and 1892 elections, at least 1,000 bogus ballots were stuffed into the box in the second and third wards in Gravesend. Inspectors in the districts were instructed to leave blank spaces in the poll lists, which were filled in with false names, to match the number of bogus ballots. Also, people voted numerous times, some as many as 50 times, using different names.
No amount of favors or pay-offs could save McKane this time. And on March 1, 1894, at the closing of his trial, the “czar of Coney Island,” finally resigned himself to imprisonment. Dressed in a dark suit with white shirt and tie adorned by a sparkly diamond pin, he actually broke down and cried, reported the New York Times. He told reporters, “I am reconciled to my fate, and I now know there is no help for me. I must now go to Sing Sing … I can only say, as I have said already, that I had nothing to do with the crime of which I am convicted. I am innocent.”
He was sentenced to six years hard labor at Sing Sing, but was let out two years early for good behavior, arriving back home on April 27, 1898. John Y. McKane never again held public office. He died of a stroke at his home on the corner of Voorhees Avenue and 25th Street in Sheepshead Bay in 1899.
It is worth noting that the one man who ever stood up to McKane in Gravesend was George C. Tilyou. Tilyou owned a hotel in Coney Island and testified against McKane in an 1887 state investigation. As a result, he was thoroughly harassed by McKane and his thugs, who regularly found trivial reasons to arrest him. Tilyou filed a suit for $50,000 damages against McKane and sought an injunction against he and his men to prevent them from interfering with his business.
With McKane finally out of the way in 1894, Tilyou could practice business in peace and in 1897 he opened Steeplechase Park, one of the country’s first, and most famous, amusement parks.
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