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Voices: Boston: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Irish ascendancy and Honey Fitz

Second in a series

BY: James Aloisi


The election of 1909/1910 represented a number of firsts and lasts: the first election where the winner would receive a four-year mayoral term; the first election under a city charter that gave unprecedented powers to the mayor rather than a common council; the last gasp of Yankee political power in the city, and the last time John Francis Fitzgerald won an election.

John Francis Fitzgerald – the fabled “Honey Fitz” – rose from the dark and dreary North End tenements that housed thousands of Irish immigrants in the 19th century to become the political boss of Ward 6 and then, twice, mayor of the city. John Fitzgerald’s life and career has been subject to a high degree of interest and scrutiny because his daughter Rose became the mother of the three extraordinary Kennedy brothers. Yet even had there been no link to the Kennedy legacy and lore, Fitzgerald would still be remembered today as a central figure in Boston’s history. He was a formidable political force, a charming pixie of a man with a high-pitched voice and a talent for regaling audiences with boisterous renditions of Sweet Adeline. And he had the common touch: it was said of Fitzgerald that he never forgot to waltz with the wallflowers at Irish social events. His daughter Rose said that there was “no one in the world” like her father, that “wherever he was, there was magic in the air.” Such a man could – and did – hold the city in his thrall.

Honey Fitz was a true and natural ward boss, the unchallenged leader of the Democratic Party apparatus in the North End. He knew how to maintain political discipline, bring out the votes on election day, reward the loyal, and teach potent lessons to those who would stray from the political hegemony he and his ward boss peers brought to their respective neighborhoods. He was also the first son of Irish immigrants to become mayor. Fitzgerald’s election marked the apotheosis of the Irish ascendancy in political Boston, and throughout most of the 20th century the sons and grandsons of Irish immigrants would rule the city with only infrequent and inconsequential disruption. Not until 1993 and the election of Tom Menino would the spell be broken.

Every Bostonian who knows something about the city’s politics understands that for most of the 20th century, it was dominated by the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants who came in a flood during the second half of the 19th century. Over 37,000 came in 1847; by 1855, more than 50,000 Irish – over one third of the city’s total population – called Boston their home. These immigrants embraced Boston as their home and, in that embrace, they were determined to set their own course for the city. If this was to be their home, they would govern it.

The Irish experience is a distant mirror of today’s arguments over immigration, and its impacts on communities. Like many of the stereotypes that fuel anti-immigrant feelings today, the Irish were victims of misinformed views, often typecast as hard drinkers and fanatic Catholics. One Boston citizen wrote of the feeling of “terror” he experienced when brought into contact with the “low-browed, dirty, hard-handed animal sons of toil” from Ireland. This attitude toward the Irish contributed to their harsh living and working conditions. To say that the lives of these immigrants were challenging is to engage in understatement. Work was scarce, and those jobs that could be had were largely in hard labor or domestic service. Households were crammed into dark, airless tenements in the North and West Ends. Illness and early death were commonplace.

The Irish looked to the municipal government as an efficient and accessible way out of servitude. Fitzgerald entered politics, like many others of his era, because it was a proven way out of poverty. For the Irish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, politics offered the prospect of steady work, power, opportunity, and the excitement and camaraderie of the battle. The legendary Mayor James Michael Curley recalled that he entered politics “because industrial conditions were deplorable, and prospects of ever getting anywhere seemed remote.” In politics, if you worked hard, had the right instincts, and were lucky, you had a better than even chance of controlling your own destiny.

Why were the Irish Democrats? In Massachusetts in the 1850s, Irish immigrants learned to fear and despise the nativist, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party. Also known as the American Party, the Know-Nothings were driven by jingoistic impulses, and were particularly alarmed by the recent flood of European immigrants. Anti-immigrant feeling in Massachusetts was so strong that it was the only northern state in which the Know-Nothings had sufficient strength to win a statewide election. In Massachusetts in 1857, the Know-Nothing governor, Henry J. Gardner, railed against “aliens born, aliens unnaturalized, and aliens entirely ignorant of our institutions.” The divide between the Irish immigrants and their Massachusetts neighbors was deepened by Irish ambivalence – and sometimes opposition – to the growing anti-slavery movement. The historian Eric Foner has noted that Irish views toward slavery were formed as a by-product of “a culture characterized by hostility to reform, and deep respect for class distinctions.”

The benchmark date that marked the beginning of real Irish political power in Boston came in 1885. In January, Hugh O’Brien was sworn in as Boston’s first Irish (born) mayor. Later that year, in the crowded and multi-ethnic West End, Martin Lomasney formed his famous Hendricks Club, the great political machine that, with rare exception during the next 40 years, would deliver its substantial vote in a bloc dictated by Lomasney.

If ever there was a caricature of the Boston ward boss it was embodied by "Fighting Martin" Lomasney. Also known as the "Mahatma," Lomasney understood that, as he put it, "From the standpoint of politics, the great mass of the people are interested in only three things: food, clothing, and shelter." If a political leader could deliver these basics, he would earn the unfailing support of his constituency – support that meant unchallenged power. Lomasney would meet his future constituents as they disembarked at the wharf, “shepherd them to his club, find jobs and living quarters for them, and see that they became citizens.”

Lomasney’s approach to developing political loyalty was straightforward:

“Is someone out of a job? We do our best to place him and not necessarily on the public payroll. Does the family run arrears with the landlord or the butcher? We lend a helping hand. Do the kids need shoes or clothing, or the mother a doctor? We do what we can . . . . [I]n every ward [there must be] somebody that any bloke can come to - no matter what he’s done - and get help. Help, you understand, none of your law and your justice, but help.”

Unlike the help that came from charitable institutions, Lomasney’s help came with no questions asked. Many immigrants preferred to receive assistance from an organization that asked only one thing of them – a vote (at least one, often more) on election day. Lomasney was but one of a small group of influential ward bosses – Lomasney (West End), Patrick Kennedy (East Boston), John Fitzgerald (North End), Joseph Corbett (Charlestown), and James Donovan (South End) – who dominated the city at the turn of the 20th century.

Fitzgerald would become the first ward boss to win the mayoralty. He was first elected mayor in 1905 when he took advantage of a vacancy left by the sudden death of Mayor Patrick Collins. Fitzgerald won on the optimistic pledge to build a “Bigger, Better, Busier Boston” and pledged in his inaugural address to lead the city “with imagination and risk.” He more than fulfilled his pledge, though not as some might have hoped. In office for two tumultuous years, Honey Fitz took great risks stretching the power of the mayor’s office as he brought plenty of imagination to his approach to political patronage.

City Hall under Fitzgerald was a veritable jobs factory. When existing patronage slots were filled, the mayor simply made up new ones, creating the positions of city dermatologist, tea warmer, and rubber boot repairer. Fitzgerald’s Superintendent of Supplies, Michael Mitchell, a man profoundly unqualified to serve as the city’s chief purchasing agent, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the city after it was discovered he had issued a no-bid contract for flagstone to a company that was charging the city double the price of the prior vendor. Fitzgerald was called to testify before a grand jury (the first mayor to enjoy this dubious distinction), and he denied knowledge of wrongdoing in Mitchell’s department, leaving his former superintendent twisting in the wind. A full-blown scandal bloomed from the grand jury testimony, and the cloud that enveloped Fitzgerald (the grand jury went out of its way to point its finger in his direction) was enough to deny him re-election by a slim margin.

Fitzgerald was not finished with politics – as we shall see in the next installment in this series. Honey Fitz would become Boston’s first “comeback kid” in the critical election of 1909/1910.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.
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