One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor of New York turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. He dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. Her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick and her grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. ‘It’s a bad neighbourhood, your Honour,’ the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”
The mayor sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you…. The law makes no exceptions-ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero, saying, “Here’s the ten-dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore, I’m going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that forty-seven dollars and fifty cents was turned over to a bewildered old woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.