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Tammany Picked An Honest Man

July 2024
19min read

The 1910 race for the mayoralty of New York looked like a tough one.


In the early years of this century, the manager of Delmonico’s famous restaurant in New York was sometimes heard to lament that all his customers looked alike, dressed alike, and even talked alike. In 1910 there occurred an instance of individualism run wild, if not rampant and amuck, that sufficiently stifled his lamentations. This refutation was the unloosing upon the New York scene of William Jay Gaynor, the city’s new and extraordinary mayor. Delmonico’s served as background for the eruption.

In midsummer of 1909 the political situation in the city was violently agitated. An election was coming up in November, and Tammany Hall was faced with a three-front opposition—from the inchoate but belligerent Fusion forces, from the equally tumultuous Republicans, and from top-of-the-lungs publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was trying to carry off the acrobatic feat of planting his feet simultaneously in all camps and appearing to belong to none. In this emergency, Charles F. Murphy, Tammany’s taciturn boss, hit upon Gaynor, a veteran justice of the New York Supreme Court, as the candidate for mayor under the Democratic banner.

Judge Gaynor had built a reputation for nonconformity by the conscientious effort of a lifetime devoted to going his own way. He fitted into no category in heaven or on earth. Born poor, of an English mother and an Irish father, he had been reared on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York. He attended a one-room schoolhouse, decided to enter the priesthood, became a lay student of the teaching order of Christian Brothers, journeyed to San Francisco with the order, gave that up, abjured Catholicism, returned east, taught school, studied law, practiced successfully, engaged in politics in Brooklyn (where he made his home) with furious independence, happily sent several political sharks to jail, was elected a judge, and had established himself as the possessor of a hot temper, profound learning, and unrivalled powers of pungent expression. A master of the plain Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (“the short words are the best” was his rule), he was fearless in stating his views without deference to time, place, or the listener. He was not averse to treading upon any corn that was placed in his path, and with all his explosiveness was so transparently honest and ruggedly well-intentioned that he won friends while simultaneously infuriating them.

He knew more law than most of the lawyers who appeared before him, and did not hide it. He told the American Bankers Association, “Your reputation was bad before the time of Cato the Elder”; and when a startled reporter ejaculated “Who?” he turned to the representatives of the press and snapped, “Cato! Cato! Have you ever heard of him?” Without pause, he then favored the bankers—J. Pierpont Morgan sitting at his elbow—with a free translation of the passage in Cato’s De Re Rustica showing that in ancient Rome moneylenders were classed lower than thieves.

Although nominally a Democrat, Judge Gaynor was a thoroughgoing maverick whom no fence could hold within bounds. Consistently unpredictable, he had committed the heresies of supporting Henry George, the single-taxer, and William Jennings Bryan, the crusader for free silver. Above all abominations he hated peculating politicians, and said so on every available occasion. Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, rightly called Gaynor “nobody’s pocket judge”; he was nobody’s pocket anything. In private life he was erudite, read the classics for recreation (Epictetus and Cervantes were his favorites), took pride in operating a farm at his Long Island summer home (he often quoted in court the lessons inculcated by his geese), and domestically and among friends was affectionate, kindly, and generally good-humored. He had married, divorced, and married again, and had numerous children.

All in all, no less likely a man for Tammany to hit upon as its candidate for mayor of the city of New York could have been found; and when he was nominated, probably half of New York believed Tammany could not have found a worse candidate. Except for the World, the press was uniformly hostile when the nomination was made known, and Tammany’s potent district leaders had been frankly aghast when Murphy first proposed Gaynor: they were afraid of the man. But Murphy insisted that with Gaynor the Democrats could win against the Hydra-headed opposition; without him, probably not. In a private dining room at Delmonico’s the issue was threshed out, Murphy carried his point, and almost with a groan the party announced that Judge Gaynor would be their man in the forthcoming contest.

The fact that the nomination had taken place at Delmonico’s (the subsequent party convention in Carnegie Hall was only a clambake to keep the rank and file happy) reflected changing times. Charles Murphy, a ponderous man whose personality matched his physique, was a former saloonkeeper from the East Side. He had succeeded Richard Croker as the master of Tammany, and since his rise to influence and coincidental affluence most of his working days were as well regulated as a clock. Every morning he was to be found at Tammany Hall on Fourteenth Street, carrying out the multifarious duties of his position; but as the afternoon wore on, he would gather up his bulk (for he was a man of great dignity of person) and betake himself northward to Fifth Avenue at Forty-fourth Street for a drink and a dinner at Delmonico’s. This partiality for exotic food in surroundings alien to most of Tammany’s braves was regarded with repugnance at the Hall; daily association with “uptown swells,” it was feared, would rot the Boss’s moral fiber, and the practice was to be discouraged. But Murphy was unmoved by the criticism of his underlings: he was not a boss for nothing. Thus it was that Judge Gaynor was chosen in a cloud of fragrant cigar smoke at Delmonico’s, after the district leaders had enjoyed a most persuasive dinner.

When the word was carried back to them, the braves trembled for their sustenance. Edward Shepard, the man who made the nominating speech at the window-dressing convention held shortly afterward, put the case with candor and clarity when he exclaimed of the candidate he was offering to the party and to the city, “There is, I fancy, not a man whom he has not offended, myself included, many, many times.” Nevertheless, Gaynor’s nomination was dutifully confirmed.

Plunging into one of the most vituperative campaigns on record, Judge Gaynor soon proved that the nominating speech was a model of understatement. He broke all the rules, including his own. He had never been inside Tammany Hall itself (although he did know Delmonico’s), and deferred accepting Tammany’s invitation to visit there and address the faithful until the middle of the campaign. When he did arrive he was late, for, as he explained, he had been obliged to telephone to find out how to reach the place. Then, looking around curiously, while the sachems seated on the platform shifted in their chairs, he spoke up cheerfully: “So this is Tammany Hall … But where is the Tiger?—that Tiger which they say is going to swallow me up? If there happens to be any swallowing up, it is not at all unlikely that I may be on the outside of the Tiger.” In the silence that ensued, the only smile in the room was a tigerish grin on the face of Gaynor.

The Judge’s two opponents were the Republican-Fusion candidate and Hearst, who had allowed himself to be nominated by the ardent idealists and temperamental malcontents he had managed to coalesce under the alternative titles of the Independence League or the Civic Alliance. Hearst had entered the race purely out of spite, for he had been angling to get Tammany’s backing for his own free-wheeling aspirations. He proceeded to try everything that a disappointed, vindictive demagogue could to thwart Gaynor, without harboring the least illusion that he could be elected himself. Gaynor retorted with a ferocity that made the mealy-mouthed shudder. Of the adventurer from California (“who advertises himself like a patent medicine”) he said that “his face almost makes me puke,” and that Hearst was “filled up to the weasand, yes, into the goozle, with promises.” Hearst’s experts in billingsgate retaliated with their best—”pseudo-paranoiac,” “incapable of telling the truth,” “mentally cross-eyed,” and “an intellectual hypocrite.” Gaynor came back with, “I believe there are more hypocrites in this city than on the whole face of the earth outside of it,” and said of Hearst: “In no nook or cranny of his head or heart is there the slightest sense of truth or justice.” The Judge was said to have been one of the few political antagonists who ever got under Hearst’s hide. From that he derived no personal satisfaction, although a host of Hearst’s ill-wishers did.

How the Judge could ever win a popular election surpassed the imagining of most people. Snarled the Sun, impressed in spite of itself, “We doubt if even Gaynor ever realized, until just recently, how bad a man he could be, once he let himself go.” He made no effort to ingratiate, refused either to flatter or talk down to an audience, and remained aggressively a scholar and a gentleman when he was not exchanging scurrilities with someone. Hod carriers he treated to liberal doses of Epictetus and Lecky. He declined to limit his exercise of the right of free speech by anything short of the laws of libel, upon which he was an authority. If it was possible to affront, he chose the most effective time and place to do it. A meeting of Queens County voters he hailed as “Ye Long Island clam diggers!” Appearing before the convention of the New York State Federation of Women’s Clubs, many of whose members were ardent suffragists, he chided the delegates: “You people of these clubs think you are the whole of womankind, but you are not. I can see that some of you want to vote. We generally aspire to the thing we are least fitted for.” Speaking before the Advertising Men’s League, he applied Shakespeare to their occupation: “Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Unwilling to beg a favor from anybody, he almost defied people to vote for him— and in November he was elected by a margin of 73,000, although the entire rest of the Tammany ticket was defeated. On January 1, 1910, he took office as the most unconventional, picturesque, articulate, and controversial mayor New York City had ever had the good fortune to acquire.

On the day of his inauguration, Gaynor told a friend: “For thirty years I have been thinking what I would do with this office. Now I am going to do it.” A yearning “to do things for the people,” he said, “had burned in my head like a live coal.” A few observers had sensed this consuming ambition to defend the “common man” against the depredations of a political plunderbund, and to it they ascribed the strange appeal Gaynor seemed to have for the average voiceless citizen—the decent, much abused, briefly flattered and quickly forgotten average man or woman, who nevertheless had the wit to distinguish between a political charlatan and a friend.

With a sweep like ten new brooms, Mayor Gaynor started an epic housecleaning. On inaugural day, while his office was buzzing with the chatter of hangers-on gloating over prospective spoils, a Tammany sycophant sidled up to the new mayor and inquired with a smirk, “And what can we do for Mr. Murphy?” Gaynor considered a moment, then replied sweetly, “I think we can give Mr. Murphy a few kind words.” And a few kind words was all that Murphy and his crew received for four long, dreary, hungry years. In the annals of Tammany, Gaynor’s ingratitude ranked among the great natural disasters, an affliction which the smitten could only contemplate with stunned incomprehension.

The new mayor made appointments for the good of the city, choosing men whom he deemed capable of carrying out their duties, and then seeing that they did. Some of these appointees came up to his expectations, others did not. He booted leeches and drones off the municipal payroll with the efficiency of a patented eviction machine. His eye penetrated nearly everywhere; no detail escaped his scrutiny and if necessary his personal attention. For the display, trappings, and pomp of office he cared nothing. Every day he walked to work, three and one-half miles across Brooklyn Bridge from his home to City Hall, spotless and trig in frock coat and top hat. Along the way he noticed whether the streets were clean—swept in summer, cleared of snow in winter. On the job at City Hall, he abolished or curtailed abuses of authority to the best of his ability. He curbed the tendency of the police to “throw their weight around,” and put a stop to the arresting of boys for trivial offenses. He personally ordered removed from the rogues-gallery files the photograph of a guiltless man that had been there for years, labelled “general thief.” He stopped leaks in the city treasury, saw to it as best he could that contracts were negotiated honestly, and in rapid order won the admiration of most of the forces who had denounced him hardest during the campaign, Hearst excepted. Hearst never forgave Gaynor.

The Mayor’s almost obsessive concern with civic responsibility he had outlined clearly during the election campaign. In a revealing letter to his brother, he recalled that years before he had noticed a line of people stretching for a block outside Brooklyn’s City Hall, and upon inquiring why they were standing there, had been told that they were waiting to pay their taxes, due that day.

“I walked along the line on the opposite side and looked at them,” he related. “There they were … good, intelligent people, whose lives are a continuous struggle to bring up their children and make both ends meet from month to month. Their bony hands and bent bodies gave evidence of their life of toil, and most of their faces were anxious. As I looked at them, my mind became filled with the awful baseness of men, who, having got into office by the votes of these people, turn around and betray and rob them of their hard-earned money paid in as taxes. I made a covenant then and there that from that time onward … I should … work against low, base, and corrupt officials and government.”

In August, 1911, after seven months of prodigious (and, for Tammany, shattering) labors, Mayor Gaynor achieved a unique place in history by becoming the subject of one of the most widely published photographs ever made. This was snapped by a cameraman who chanced to be on hand an instant after a dismissed jobholder stepped up behind the Mayor on the deck of the liner he had just boarded to sail for Europe, and shot him in the neck.

The wound was grave but not fatal; the bullet could not be extracted, and months passed before the Mayor regained even comparative health; he never fully recovered. His voice was reduced permanently to a rasping whisper, and he was bothered by a spasmodic cough. How it feels to be shot from ambush he described in a letter to his sister that included some characteristic remarks: “They wanted me to lie down on the deck, but I said no, I would walk to my stateroom. … Finding my wound not immediately mortal, I had determined to make a fight for it.…”

His character seemed changed by the injury: his eccentricity and irascibility turned sometimes to venom and unreasonableness, and the bright hopes he had inspired at the outset of his term were imperfectly fulfilled. He was under much attack by self-constituted reformers, for whom he had no use whatsoever: to his mind, “prying” and “minding other people’s business,” whether done by government or by private agencies, were the capital sins against human dignity. Men and women are not perfect, he would point out, and there was no prospect that they ever would be; and he resented attempts to legislate them into purity.

One critic, the stridulous Doctor Charles Henry Parkhurst, from whose pulpit on Madison Square emanated a continuous clamor against real and supposed municipal wrongdoing, Gaynor accepted as his hairshirt, to be borne as patiently as possible. “Some people are altogether too good for this world; the sooner they are translated the better,” was his rejoinder. And again, “Doctor Parkhurst thinks he is pious when he is only bilious.”

An idiosyncrasy to which Mayor Gaynor gave full rein was letter-writing. He made a point of answering most of the letters that came to City Hall, and they poured in from all over the country. Who the writer was, or what the subject might be, made little difference; the answer came in Gaynor’s crisp style, terse, quaint, and always to the point. He handed out advice forthrightly, and discussed with chatty freedom public and private questions, views, tastes, facts, fads, delusions, and experiences that embraced a seemingly inexhaustible range of topics.

For example, he sided with small boys who wrote to him complaining that the police broke up their games in the streets. To five such youngsters—addressing each one of them punctiliously by name—the Mayor replied:

“Dear Boys—It is too bad that you cannot play ball somewhere in peace. Of course the police cannot always let you play on the street, but now and then they can wink so hard with both eyes as not to see you when you are doing no harm to passersby and the street is not crowded … So, boys, do the best you can, and I will help you a little now and then if you send me word.”

A letter from a man who objected to the loud striking of the great clock on the Metropolitan Life tower overlooking Madison Square (and adjoining Doctor Parkhurst’s place of weekly expostulation) received courteous consideration:

“You complain of the clock on the Metropolitan Building. You want me to stop it. You say it strikes 4 times on the quarter, 8 times on the half, 12 times on the three-quarters, and 16 times on the hour, making 40 times every hour, or 210 [ sic ] times from 8 A.M. to 12 noon every day. I am sorry for you. But really does the clock make as much noise as Doctor Parkhurst does? You know we all have to bear something, and I am willing to bear my share of it.”

Another correspondent who begged for relief from yowling tomcats drew this judicious response:

“I regret to say that I have so many official duties pressing upon me that I cannot just now devote any time to the tomcats, as you request by your letter. There are a few in my neighborhood, but I go to sleep and let them howl. It amuses them and doesn’t hurt me. But some say that it is the pussycats that howl, and not the tomcats. How is that? We must not kill Tommy for the sins of Pussy. And, also, remember that ‘the female of the species is more deadly than the male.’ ”

He wrote to the police commissioner urging that patrolmen be on the lookout for cases of cruelty to horses; advised grand jurors not to feel too grand; congratulated a little girl on feeling happy (“everybody ought to be happy”); regretted that he could not undertake to find a wife for a man in Arkansas City, Kansas (“How could I recommend any good girl here to you? You may not be so attractive as you think you are.”). He suggested that a public-spirited ratcatcher drop in and talk over his proposed bill to exempt ratcatchers from jury duty, and took issue with presumptuous judges who struck down as “unconstitutional” laws that had been enacted with the overwhelming concurrence of the “common people.” A woman who was looking for happiness in the shape of a husband who would measure up to her formidable matrimonial requirements the Mayor admonished: “You are looking for happiness in the wrong direction, my dear madam. I do not think there is any man living who would suit you.”

To those who favored extra-legal methods to combat vice and crime, Gaynor preached: “The only way to enforce the law is the way prescribed by law. That which cannot be done lawfully must not be done at all, by the police or any other public official from the President of the United States down.” His constant precept was, “Ours is a Government of laws, and not of men.” When a taxpayer expressed a wish that he might arrest wrongdoers, the mayor counselled him:

“My dear sir, let me tell you that every citizen has full legal right to arrest anyone whom he sees committing any criminal offense, big or little. The law of England and of this country has been very careful to confer no more right in that respect upon policemen and constables than it confers on every citizen. … Sail right in as hard and as fast as you want to, being careful, however, only to arrest guilty persons, for otherwise your victims will turn around and sue you for damages for false arrest. Policemen have to take the same risk.” He cautioned his own policemen that “not even a murderer can be arrested and imprisoned without evidence.”

In face-to-face confrontations, the Mayor was as brusque as he was in his letters. With Fusionists and other political half-breeds he had no sympathy—“mingle-mangle committees,” he called them; and when reporters begged to know what that word might mean, referred them to “one of honest old Hugh Latimer’s sermons to the King; it is there, look it up. I haven’t time to play dictionary with you.” He would not stoop to excuses or attempts to evade responsibility for his actions or those of his subordinates. He told an investigating committee: “I do not propose to be mayor and have someone else run the city. If it is run badly, here is the man responsible: right here.”

Then, going back to his office, he could enjoy writing to the Reverend Basil M. Kerbawy, of Brooklyn, on the vexing subject of beards:

“Reverend and Dear Sir—Your letter informing me that as you walk about the city visiting the homes of your parishioners people apply opprobrious names to you, and throw empty cans and rubbish at you, and otherwise assault you, on account of your beard, is at hand. You ask me, ’Is it a crime in the City of New York to wear a beard?’ No, it is not. I wear one myself and nobody ever takes notice of it. How is it that they take notice of your beard? Have you trimmed it in some peculiar way, contrary to the Scriptures? For you know the Scriptures say, ‘Ye shall not round the corners of your beards, neither shall thou mar the corners of thy beard.’ Yes, if they assault you, and throw cans at you, you have a right to defend yourself to the last extremity; but if you find it necessary I will have a detective go around with you for a few days until we arrest some of those who are wronging you. Are you certain it is your beard which is the cause of the trouble?”

Day after day, the letters streamed out, full of pith and curious humor, on serious subjects and trivial, and each correspondent was treated with respect and, where possible, salty sympathy. The public enjoyed it, and Gaynor enjoyed the role of omniscient counsellor. He wrote about books and reading; Don Quixote was his favorite character, and in his own makeup there was something of the noble knight whose pate was addled and whose heart was soft as a coddled egg. He expounded upon the spirit of Christmas; on roof playgrounds; on marriage fees; on banning books from libraries; on observing Good Friday; and on converting the Jews.

“It seems to me that this work of proselyting from other religions and sects is very often carried too far,” he advised the Reverend Thomas M. Chalmers, of Brooklyn. “Do you not think the Jews have a good religion?… I do not think I should give you a license to preach for the conversion of the Jews in the streets of the thickly settled Jewish neighborhoods which you designate. Would you not annoy them and do more harm than good? How many Jews have you converted so far?”

No sager counsel was ever contained in fewer words than Mayor Gaynor’s reply to the request of a newspaper syndicate for a message which might be of interest to their readers:

“Dear Sir—You ask me to give an interview saying ‘What I would say to the readers of 3,000 newspapers.’ I would say to them to be very careful about believing all they see in the newspapers.”

Another nugget of ultimate wisdom was his response to a question in the New York Times about the art of letter-writing: “What is the best way to write things, you ask? Often the best way is not to write them.”

In constant ill-health due to the irritation set up by the bullet in his throat, which made speaking painful, the Mayor was often racked by violent coughing fits; these sometimes lasted half an hour and left him limp, with nerves jangling. Life indeed had become difficult for him. But never did he lose sight of his fixed objective—to deliver the “common people” from political footpads. Friends bore his distempers with what patience they could; enemies, with furious impatience. As the New York World candidly put the case:

“If anybody chooses to say that Mr. Gaynor is irascible and irritable in his discussion of public affairs, we shall agree with him; but we are aware of no provision in the Constitution of the State of New York or the charter of the city which asserts that the mayor of New York must be sweet-tempered and gentle and lovable.”

An end to the long drought at Tammany Hall appeared likely when in 1913 another election drew nigh. Murphy had been hard put to hold his parched and ravenous district leaders in line, and around the wigwam there was an impression that Delmonico’s was to blame for their emaciation: it was their leader’s pernicious eating habits that had brought upon them the blight of Gaynor. Nevertheless, it was again to a private dining room at Delmonico’s that the leaders were bidden in midsummer of 1913 to decide upon their candidate for mayor this time.

Upon one point they were united: never again would they make the mistake of winning an election with the wrong man. Many cigars were reduced to ashes while the meeting congenially tore to shreds the mayor who had let them down. Only Murphy had a few kind words to say for Gaynor; for the Boss had a sneaking regard for any man who would not be bossed. The vote was taken, and Gaynor was consigned to a Gehenna which all trusted would be as hot as the last four years for them had been lean. The mayoral nomination was handed to a party spear-bearer, a lawyer named Edward E. McCall.

Gaynor had wanted renomination. Despite the clangor of critics, he believed that the “common people” were with him—“the people in general,” who were too engrossed in their own affairs “to bother their heads very much” about the tribulations of their mayor. In a showdown vote, Gaynor was confident he would be upheld, and he would not willingly be turned out without a fight.

A number of admirers, including many important New Yorkers, organized to run him independently for a second term. On September 4 he accepted this nomination in a ceremony held on the steps of City Hall before a large gathering of people. His appearance shocked his friends—the haggard air and, still more startling, the rumpled clothing. It was a sad decline from the days when he could confidently castigate the mind of Hearst as “a howling wilderness.”

Too feeble to speak, he had the few words he had scribbled down read for him. They were like a letter addressed to the people:

“How different this vast impressive scene is to the little scene which occurred in a room at Delmonico’s one night a week ago. There sat at a table eight men to decide who might run for mayor and other offices. They were all of one stripe, and of a kind to cast lots for the garments of the city. Let me read their names to you lest you have forgotten them: Charles F. Murphy, John H. McCooey, Thomas Foley, Philip Donahue, Edward E. McCall, John Fitzgerald, Arthur Murphy, John Galvin. There was no room for anyone except themselves. None of you were invited. None of you were allowed to make a suggestion. But here today all representative men have a voice. … The people of this city are going to shovel all of these miserable little political grafters into one common dumpheap.”

Next day he boarded a ship for Europe, to get two weeks of rest and collect strength for the coming campaign. “I cannot possibly get any privacy on land, so I am going to spend two weeks on the ocean, where nobody can get at me,” was his parting statement. “Murphy and the chaps that sat down with him at Delmonico’s the other night and guzzled and abused me until their faces were red were ready to cut me up, I am told, and yet I never did anything to them except what tended to make them look respectable.”

Shortly after the ship left port, a message came back, addressed to a newspaper: “The rentpayers and taxpayers of New York City will not throw the government of their city … into the control of a vulgar gang of grafters, all of one stripe, such as met at Delmonico’s. Give them the shovel;/No king, no clown/ Shall rule this town;/That day is gone forever . W. J. Gaynor.” It was his last public word. In mid-ocean he was found dead, slumped in a deck chair, a volume of Emerson open on his lap.

From two sources came appropriate epitaphs.

The New York Sun, which on the day of his election four years earlier had called him “certainly the most unfit candidate for the mayoralty in the history of the community,” on the occasion of his death published this different estimate: “First and foremost, he was, as no other mayor ever was, the people’s champion, the actual father of the city.”

Tammany’s Thomas Foley, afterward New York surrogate and the man for whom Foley Square was named, also paid his tribute: “I will say this about Mayor Gaynor; he did more to break up the Democratic organization than any other man ever has in this city.”

Gaynor’s own summation had been phrased in his familiar, terse style: “I have had a pretty hard time for four years to hold my own against all comers, and against every corrupt influence, but I have been Mayor.”

Gaynor’s goodness glowed in the memories of many humble New Yorkers for a long time. They relished his way of dealing with the self-righteous, the “unco guid”—“these few virtuous persons,” he called them, who “think that we ought to be able to make everybody as virtuous as they are, or rather as virtuous as they think and pretend they are. Now these people we forgive, of course, twice a day. We forgive them, but we desire to have nothing to do with them.”

Best of all, perhaps, was his jaunty conclusion, “There is less misery in the world than some miserable people think.”

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