When an NYPD Corruption Scandal Sent NYC’s Mayor Fleeing to Mexico

The police department’s penchant for corruption led to the political demise of William O’Dwyer, a former cop from Brooklyn who was elected mayor in 1945.

Theodore Hamm May 17, 2023

Mob-connected bookies taking bets from kids outside of schools. Scores of police inspectors protecting the predators in exchange for a piece of the action. City Hall turning a blind eye. 

William O’Dwyer in 1943. New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection

Although it is absent from most histories of the NYPD, the mid-20th-century corruption scandal ultimately brought down Mayor William O’Dwyer, a former police officer, judge and Brooklyn district attorney. It led to a major shake-up of the NYPD. 

And it might make the former cop currently presiding over City Hall a bit nervous. 

When the scandal broke in December 1949, O’Dwyer appeared to be sitting pretty. A month earlier, the Democrat had cruised to reelection. With Robert Moses calling the shots, O’Dwyer’s first term saw a wave of schools and hospitals built, along with the U.N. committing to build its permanent home on the East River. 

Born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1890, O’Dwyer had been a bartender at a Manhattan hotel before beginning his career in law enforcement. After he moved to Bay Ridge in 1916, O’Dwyer spent six years as an NYPD officer patrolling the mobbed-up Brooklyn waterfront. 

While serving as Brooklyn DA from 1940-42, O’Dwyer gained fame for his prosecution of “Murder, Inc.,” the Italian and Jewish syndicate based in Brownsville. At the same time, O’Dwyer was a member of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, which retained numerous connections to the underworld. 

In 1941, O’Dwyer and the Democratic machine mounted a respectable campaign against two-term incumbent Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a liberal Republican allied with left-wing labor voters. Soon after his six-point defeat, O’Dwyer took leave from the DA’s office in order to join the Army, becoming a brigadier general. After La Guardia opted not to run for a fourth term, O’Dwyer beat his opponents by 35 points. 

Despite his successful first term, in May 1949 O’Dwyer made a surprise announcement that he would not run for reelection because of personal health issues. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, then a large-circulation newspaper closely tied to the Democratic Party, quickly championed Brooklyn Borough President John Cashmore as O’Dwyer’s successor. After changing his mind, the incumbent mayor easily won a second term. 

Mobbed-up gamblers were making off with school kids’ lunch money while the cops took their cut of up to 80 cents on the dollar to look the other way.

“Lucrative Borough Rackets Feed Vast Crime Syndicate,” declared the Eagle’s cover headline on a Sunday in mid-December. Thus began a week of shocking stories, most notably “Gamblers Infest Schools, Prey on Kids’ Lunch Money.” A front-page photo of a betting card — with slates of college and pro football, and college basketball games — accompanied the frightening account. 

Working closely with Brooklyn District Attorney Miles McDonald, the Eagle’s lead reporter Ed Reid helped dramatize the scandal. “The crime bosses,” warned the hard-boiled Reid, “are taking our children, their pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. They are planting the gambling fever in them and hoping it burns forever.” 

Even more alarming was the role of NYPD brass in providing protection for the racketeers. An anonymous bookie told Reid that many of Brooklyn’s police inspectors and their underlings were on the take, collecting as much as 80 cents on the dollar, which amounted to a few thousand clams per week. 

McDonald assembled a grand jury, causing 500 cops to take early retirement rather than testify. The DA indicted 77 officers. The NYPD commissioner and chief inspector got the ax. Although McDonald’s investigation had implicated one of his longtime deputies, O’Dwyer’s connection to the scandal remained unclear. 

McDonald called on the mayor to testify in the late summer of 1950. But suddenly, in mid-August, President Harry Truman, a fellow Democrat, appointed O’Dwyer as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Before leaving town, O’Dwyer received a triumphant farewell, with 300,000 people turning out in triple-digit heat for a parade and speeches at City Hall. 

O’Dwyer’s demise nonetheless remains a mystery, given that nothing ever directly connected him to the NYPD scandal. Upon his announced departure, his hometown paper offered an explanation, however. 

According to an editorial in the Eagle, when O’Dwyer had initially decided not to run for reelection, he approached Brooklyn Borough President Cashmore to see if he would like to become mayor. O’Dwyer then “pulled the rug out,” causing “intense embarrassment” for Cashmore. 

Cashmore was also the Democratic Party boss of Brooklyn, and his support for McDonald’s investigation of the gambling racket rankled O’Dwyer. With the mayor’s ouster, Brooklyn, the nation’s largest Democratic county at the time, thus sacrificed control of City Hall until Abe Beame’s ill-fated term in the mid-1970s. 

Brooklyn has held down City Hall since 2014. During Bill de Blasio’s first term, a high-level NYPD corruption scandal nearly ensnared Phil Banks, the department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer. Banks, of course, is now the most-powerful deputy mayor in the Adams administration. 

A wide range of dubious allies have remained tied to Adams since his two terms as Brooklyn Borough President. It is unclear if any of his business dealings with Frank Carone, the Petrosyants brothers, or Bishop Lamor Whitehead will yield federal corruption charges. 

But given his criticisms of the Biden administration’s handling of the border crisis, it does seem quite unlikely that Adams will become U.S. ambassador to Mexico. 

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