Incident leads to city magistrate's removal, mayor's resignation, Tammany Hall's defeat
|New York Times|
Seven gunmen entered a Bronx, New York, testimonial dinner for city Magistrate Albert H. Vitale early in the morning of December 8, 1929, and robbed the guests, including political leaders, well known hoodlums and one off-duty NYPD detective.
The testimonial, begun Saturday night, December 7, was drawing to a close at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning, when Vitale rose to make some remarks. At that moment, the seven men, who had quietly entered and positioned themselves at the rear of the second floor banquet room of Roman Gardens, 2401 Southern Boulevard near 187th Street, drew handguns and politely instructed the fifty attendees to turn over their valuables. One of the seven had a handkerchief wrapped around the lower half of his face. The others were not masked. Some accounts indicated that the partly masked gunman was the leader of the group. Working at a leisurely pace, they gathered several thousand dollars' worth of cash and jewelry and departed the restaurant at one o'clock.
Hours later, the service revolver taken by the robbers from Johnson was returned through Vitale at Vitale's office in the Tepecano Democratic Club, 187th Street, in the Bronx. Published reports indicated that much of the rest of the loot taken in the robbery also was returned. Rumors suggested that the influence of organized criminals, in league with Vitale, forced the robbers to send back the stolen items.
The robbery occurred just a month and a half after the Black Tuesday stock market collapse, when the U.S. was beginning to sink into the Great Depression and Americans were beginning to blame rampant lawlessness and official corruption for their economic woes.
After the robbery and related oddities were reported in the press, investigations were launched into Vitale's associations with crime figures. Special attention was given to the testimonial dinner and to reports that underworld boss Ciro Terranova and several of his men were in attendance. The situation also sparked a New York State Senate investigation (known as the Hofstadter Committee and as the Seabury Investigation) into corruption within the Tammany Hall-aligned administration of Mayor James Walker.
Suggestions of Vitale wrongdoing in connection with that event were unproven. Vitale's explanations for the presence of gangsters in the Roman Gardens restaurant hosting his dinner and for the return of the service revolver were accepted as plausible. But other examples of faulty judgment came to light.
In March 1930, the five justices of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division agreed that the Rothstein loan brought "the court into public disrepute and suspicion." The justices made Vitale an ex-magistrate but stopped short of disbarring him.
Vitale returned to a private law practice, while investigations led to the removal of a number of corrupt officials, to a reform of the city courts and to an end of Tammany Hall's domination of city government. Mayor Walker resigned in late summer 1932. He was immediately succeeded by Tammany nominee John P. O'Brien. After a year, La Guardia and a reform administration was brought in through the 1933 municipal election.