Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896/Chapter 8/Parkhurst

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VIII. Political Giants of the Present Day—

Charles H. Parkhurst

Charles H. Parkhurst[edit]

The Champion of Municipal Reform

Few names have of late been more prominently brought before the notice of the people than that of Charles H. Parkhurst of New York city, a reformer in the truest sense of the word. He was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, February 17, 1842. When he was about eleven years old the family moved to Clinton, in the same State. Here young Parkhurst attended school, was clerk for a time in a store, and prepared himself for college. He entered Amherst in 1862 and was graduated in 1866.

The Formative Period of His Life[edit]

He was Principal of the Amherst High School for two years, and continued in the profession of teaching for some time afterward; but feeling that he was called to the ministry, he went to Germany, studying at Halle, Leipzig, and Bonn. During this formative period of his life he was greatly influenced by his mother, who helped him with his studies, having been a teacher herself. But aside from home training, the most salient influences of his life came from his fortunate association while at Amherst College with its late President, Julius H. Seelye. It was on the recommendation of President Seelye that the Congregational Church at Lenox, Massachusetts, engaged young Parkhurst as their pastor on his return from Europe. Indirectly, President Seelye was the means of bringing the future reformer to New York. As a preacher his style is not specially finished, but his discourses are epigrammatic, independent, practical and full of force. He is far from being what is known as a popular preacher.

Municipal Reform[edit]

In the course of his parish work, he became much interested in young men, and was led to look into the opportunities which they had in the great city for rational enjoyment and recreation. He was much impressed in discovering how much vice abounded, and how great are the allurements in a large city to draw young men away from purity of life and manners. He found that within a very short distance of his own church there were haunts of the grossest vices, accompanied by manifold devices to attract and hold young men. In the course of further investigation he became satisfied that these places, though well known to the police, were left unharmed, or were connived at; that, of the numerous saloons, not a few were unlicensed, and that a large Sunday trade was carried on in spite of the law. He had become a member of the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime, and in 1891, on the death of its president, Dr. Howard Crosby, he was chosen to succeed him. He made a point of his acceptance that the society should devote itself mainly, not to the bringing of lawbreakers to justice, but that it should use all the influence and power it had to make those who were bound to see that laws should be enforced, do their duty. In other words, that the society should attack the police officers, and men who, in conniving at crime and infraction of the laws, were “the abettors and accessories of those crimes which are the result of the disposition to immorality, to gambling, and to drink.” “We shall never suppress these crimes,” he said, “until we suppress the influences which make it possible for them to exist.” As a part of the campaign he preached a sermon February 14, 1892, in which he attacked the administration of the city with unsparing hand.

“I Know”[edit]

During the next four weeks, through detectives and through personal visits, Dr. Parkhurst secured two hundred and eight-four cases of gross violation of law, and on March 13th he preached his second sermon, in which he could say: “I know.” When summoned before the Grand Jury, his testimony was unimpeachable and had great effect, for the jury in its charge boldly condemned the police. It is needless to say that Dr. Parkhurst's arraignment created a great sensation, for his sermons were reported and commented upon in every newspaper of the city. The individuals who were attacked at first smiled and paid little attention. Many who were his friends said he was righteous overmuch; others said he was an alarmist; others, that he sought notoriety; others ridiculed him, or showed indignation at his methods;

some even said he was a public nuisance. Still he kept on until by his charges and proofs he forced an investigation by the Legislature. The revelations made before the investigating committee abundantly confirmed Dr. Parkhurst's allegations. Police officers in high positions were brought to trial and convicted and others fled. The community was shocked and disgusted by the revelations, and, as a result of the movement begun by the fearless reformer, the elections of November, 1894, completely overthrew the political ring in control of the city, which was now placed in charge of men pledged to reform, and to honest and faithful administration of the laws.


It is not too much to say that had it not been for the able and untiring efforts of Dr. Parkhurst, this revolution would not have taken place. He well deserves the triumph he has gained. Every newspaper speaks of him with respect, and no one dares to ignore him. It is a personal victory probably unequaled in this country, and the effect has not been limited to New York. Encouraged by his success, men elsewhere, who were hopeless of accomplishing anything in the direction of reform, have been nerved to greater efforts, and good citizens have been roused to do their part in supporting Municipal Reform by their voice, their influence and their votes.