Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Oddments of Clara & William Sulzer

Clara Sulzer, around 1910

What is left of Clara and William Sulzer?

Scraps of silk and velvet, feathers, flowers—trimmings for Clara’s outré hats . . .  

The yellowed newspaper clippings about William's impeachment by the New York State Legislature . . . 

. . . and the usual Albany gossip perpetrated by the Tammany Hall Sachems.

Governor William “Plain Bill” Sulzer was born in 1863 in New Jersey, to a Frisian* mother and German father, and reared on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.** There he imbibed machine politics at a young age.  

Sulzer was a brilliant debater and orator who cultivated his physical resemblance to Henry Clay. Like Clay, he hoped to become President of the United States.

In the 1880s, having attended Columbia Law School, Sulzer became a protégé of Tammany Hall boss John Reilly. He bounded into the New York State Assembly, rising to the position of speaker, but set his sights on the House of Representatives. Sulzer would represent the Tenth District—largely Eastern European immigrants—for nine consecutive terms.

Governor Sulzer soon after his election

In Congress, Sulzer sponsored progressive legislation: creating an independent Department of Labor, setting an eight-hour workday for federal employees, publicizing campaign contributions. As chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, he endeared himself to Jewish voters by pushing for abrogation of an 1832 U.S.-Russia treaty that established reciprocity among citizens with passports.

The treaty was a problem because Russia had been denying entrance to American Jews and, to a lesser extent, Protestant missionaries and Catholic priests since the 1870s. The successful campaign for abrogation was led largely by the American Jewish Committee and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Sulzer’s future wife Clara Rodelheim was growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family. Her father, Max, was in manufacturing or possibly a liquor dealer.  

Clara became a nurse after attending the New York City Training School and might have met Sulzer in 1904 when he toured a Manhattan hospital. Or he might have fallen in love with her while he was a patient at the hospital and she his “tender and sympathetic” nurse. 

It may be that they met at a dinner party in Washington, D.C. in 1904. When he saw her again in 1908, he said, “Don’t you think it is time we were getting married? You know we have been engaged for four years.” 

These various tales appeared in newspapers. Once upon a time, public figures could get away with competing stories.  

Much to the surprise of the Rodelheim family, Clara and Sulzer were married quite suddenly in the parsonage of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

“We don’t want the wedding to have any publicity just now,” one of Clara’s sisters told a reporter at the door, pushing her chatty mother out of the way. 

In July 1913, a Wanamaker’s saleswoman named Mignon Hopkins sued Sulzer for damages. She alleged that Sulzer had proposed to her in 1906, that she had passed as his wife on several occasions, and that there were love letters. Sulzer, she claimed, had ruined her life.   

“Nothing to it,” Sulzer told the newspapers. Indeed, it was the least of his troubles. He knew what was coming.

Sulzer was elected New York Governor in 1912. He owed a great debt to Tammany but announced that he would be a reformer, independent of the machine. He pledged to “clean house” and called for honest, efficient government. For example, he demanded investigations into the prison system and the cost of rebuilding the burned-down state capitol building.

The Great Capitol Fire, March 1911

Tammany pushed back immediately in the form of the Frawley Committee, which announced its findings in August 1913. Sulzer was charged with making false statements, using campaign funds to invest in stocks, and violations of the New York Corrupt Practices Act. The committee announced it would pursue impeachment. Everything happened quickly.

From the 2 a.m. shadows stepped Clara, claiming that she alone had invested campaign funds in the stock market. In fact, she had forged her husband’s signature, she confided to the minority leader, a Democrat. She produced a chart that purported to show the money trail. Then she went into hiding and her doctor issued bulletins about nervous collapse, prostration, and grave illness.

In 1913, Mrs. Sulzer was the first recipient of
 a parcel post package on the New York City to Albany route.
(Library of Congress)

While Clara lay in bed, the French newspapers became obsessed with the case. The Journal des Débats commented curiously on the Governor’s wife and American culture:


This news deserves attention, as it shows a revolution in American conjugal life. Hereto our conception of the husband has been that of a breadwinner, a money maker and a check signer, happy with the fact that he was able to supply his wife with money to rain dollars in Europe, while we thought she ignored the origin of the dollars and often was almost unable to say what her husband’s profession was. We must now renounce this prejudice before Mrs. Sulzer’s detailed statement. Such accountantlike precision would be affecting anywhere but in New York it is sublime.

After Governor Sulzer refuted Clara’s confession, the investigative committee promised more revelations and Sulzer tried to bargain personally with Frawley. The vote was 79-45 to impeach.

Sulzer left office in October 1913 but within weeks he ran as an Independent to represent the Sixth District in Manhattan, which was 80 percent Jewish. Purportedly, six rabbis implored him to enter the race, which he won.

After serving one term in the state legislature, Sulzer moved with Clara to a small house on Washington Place. Incredibly, when he died in 1941 there were no obituaries in the New York papers.

Only the Times acknowledged him with a few paragraphs on the editorial page, which began:

          William Sulzer may be said to have been a ghost long before he died.

The ghost of Clara Sulzer

*The Frisian Islands are an archipelago along the coasts of Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

**He may have grown up on his parents’ farm in Elizabeth; accounts vary.

Thank you for the tip, Mark!


1 comment:

  1. I think this is the story prompted by the NYT archives I sent you? Worth the wait! I imagine you've accidentally wondered about writing a bio. Certainly a historical journal article. I love the "she's prostrate with nervous exhaustion" defense. And the French who find any mention of the wife at all so foreign.


The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...