Power, corruption, and Tammany Hall: sketches of lesser known New York City mayors, 1869-1913

Today the 109th mayor of New York City will be elected. In honor of this occasion, we delved into our portrait archive to find some of the most fascinating mayors whom you may not know.  So take a trip down memory lane to a time when New York City politics were run by Tammany Hall, where corruption, greed, and good old-fashioned dirty politics were the norm and most mayors were mere figureheads of a vast political machine. Precious few political figures actually sought to fix the system.

J. Gurney & Son. A. Oakey Hall. ca. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.813

J. Gurney & Son. A. Oakey Hall. ca. 1872. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.813

A. Oakey Hall –  in office 1869 -1872. A. Oakey Hall, by all accounts, should have been a fabulous mayor, and if it weren’t for Boss William M. Tweed, he might have been. He was dapper, debonair, and always so fabulously clothed that his moniker was “Elegant Oakley”. He was basically the 19th century version of Mayor Jimmy Walker. But he was more than a pretty face: he was a brilliant lawyer (he tried his first case in front of the Supreme Court at the age of 24), a prolific journalist, and even wrote and starred in a play. Hall’s political career was just as varied as his pursuits. He was a member of every political party finally settling on being a Tammany democrat when he saw Boss Tweed’s rise to power. Tweed, and thus Tammany, took notice of Hall because they could control him and indeed, control him they did. There are sources that say his cabinet was the most corrupt in all of New York City history, and that’s saying quite a bit.  Yet, there were still persistent rumors that Hall could become President of the United States one day. Sadly for Hall, that came crashing down, however, when he was indicted during the investigation of the Tweed Ring in 1871. After conducting his own legal counsel he was acquitted, but never sought political office again. He later moved to London where his mental health was the subject of many rumors.

Wilhelm. Hugh J. Grant. ca. 1889-1905. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.810

Wilhelm. Hugh J. Grant. ca. 1889-1905. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.810

Hugh Grant- in office 1889-1892. While it’s disappointing that this mayor wasn’t a mild-mannered, bumbling, English romantic hero, like our 20th century movie star with the same name, this Hugh J. Grant, at 31 years old, was the youngest mayor of New York City. (There is continuing controversy over who actually was the youngest mayor; read more here.) Grant had a meteoric rise through the ranks of Tammany in part due to his wealthy background and affable attitude. He is most known for enacting the law that required electrical lines to be buried underground after a terrible blizzard in 1888 knocked out power and communication for days which obviously benefited the City, while conversely turning a blind eye to (and participating in) the ever-present Tammany corruption.

Not everyone liked Grant and his Tammany cronies. On February 14, 1892, crusading reformist and general gadfly of turn-of-the-century New York, Reverend Charles Parkhurst of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, denounced his administration saying, “every effort that is made to improve character in this city, every effort to make men respectable, honest, temperate, and sexually clean is a direct blow between the eyes of the Mayor and his whole gang of drunken and lecherous subordinates.” He went on to call Grant and his political colleagues, “a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, and libidinous lot” of “polluted harpies.” (Taken from Parkhurst’s book Our Fight with Tammany.)

W. J. Gaynor. ca, 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.20

W. J. Gaynor. ca, 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.20.

William Jay Gaynor -in office 1910 to 1913. Champion of the underdog, weary of both politicians and reformers, Gaynor was a Brooklyn judge who was known for his creative, colorful, and frequent profanity and his tendency to quote ancient Greek writers in his courtroom. How could you not be fascinated by him? Due to his reforming ways Gaynor was an odd choice for Tammany, but in the 1910 mayoral election he defeated newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. A political outsider, the first time Gaynor went to City Hall was for his inauguration (which he walked to from his Park Slope home – to read about Gaynor’s love of walking, click here). He also turned out to be incorruptible. There were rumors of him literally throwing people out of his office who wanted to buy his support. Tammany was not amused. Gaynor tried to limit police brutality and corruption, abolished tolls on the East River bridges, and supported mass transit. He was also known as a constant letter writer. He would answer letters from correspondents ranging from a rat catcher trying to get out of jury duty to women seeking help finding a husband. (If you really want to get to know Mayor Gaynor’s voice and amazing use of sarcasm, his collection of letters is beyond entertaining. )

Gaynor is the only New York mayor to have an attempt made on his life. On August 9, 1910, Gaynor was setting off on a much needed vacation on the Europe-bound ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. He had been posing for photographers and talking to reporters and was still chatting with fellow passengers when a disgruntled, unemployed dock worker, John J. Gallagher, fired three shots at him.  What made this even more dramatic is that the immediate aftermath was caught on film. The story goes that William H. Warnecke, photographer for New York World, was running late and setting up just as the other photographers were leaving, allowing him to document the chaos immediately following the assassination attempt.

Gaynor survived the shooting but died three years later,  the only modern mayor to die in office.

William H. Warnecke. Reprinted by the Bown Brothers. Attempted assassination of Mayor William J. Gaynor. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 43.119.

William H. Warnecke. Reprinted by the Brown Brothers. Attempted assassination of Mayor William J. Gaynor. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 43.119.

Unknown. John Purroy Mitchel. ca. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.844

Unknown. John Purroy Mitchel. ca. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.844

John Purroy Mitchel – in office 1913-1917. Elected at 35, Mitchel was the second youngest person to serve as mayor of New York and is often called “The Boy Mayor”.  He rose to prominence after helping indict two corrupt borough presidents, and that was just the beginning of his quest to free the city from the holds of Tammany Hall. The public was apparently supportive of this, since Mitchel won the election by the greatest margin of victory in the city’s history. Mitchel immediately went to work fighting police corruption, enacting the first comprehensive zoning laws in the country, and balancing the city’s budget.

Unsurprisingly, Tammany didn’t like the direction Mitchel was taking their city, so they made sure he wouldn’t be a two-term mayor. After a brutally contentious war-time election, Mitchel lost by one of the biggest margins ever recorded. Tammany was back in power.

We Mourn our Loss, John Purroy Mitchel. 1917. 34.100.270U

We Mourn our Loss, John Purroy Mitchel. 1917. 34.100.270U

In keeping with Mitchel’s usual optimism and patriotism, he volunteered for the Air Service to fight in World War I.  Eight months after he lost the election, Mitchel was in Lake Charles, Louisiana doing routine flight training when, during a maneuver, he fell out of his single seat airplane and crashed to the ground, dying immediately. He had forgotten to fasten his seat belt.

Click here to see more images of mayors, both well-known and obscure.

4 responses to “Power, corruption, and Tammany Hall: sketches of lesser known New York City mayors, 1869-1913

  1. Incredibly interesting. Loved the profiles and the stories behind these colorful mayors.

  2. I see these politicians as having a distinct character or charisma before the television age,or at least the type has changed. Interesting men.

  3. Elegant Oakey Hall was quite a fellow, and if you read my book about the murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell (“Butchery on Bond Street”) you’ll learn a ton about this colorful Mayor’s personal life and political start as NY County DA responsible for and failing at conviction of Burdell’s accused murderess, his ex-lover Emma Cunningham. Hall is entombed in a magnificent mausoleum at the Trinity Church Cemetery uptown. As you enter the secondary gate thereof on the north side of 155th Street west of Broadway it’s on your right, a massive temple to a man who lived large, back in the day…

  4. Pingback: The Croton and Catskill Systems: Meeting the Demand for Water in New York City | mcnyblog

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