This Year’s NYC Mayoral Election: Boring. Not So 100 Years Ago!

tags: NYC Mayoral Election, John Purroy Mitchel

David Pietrusza is the author of the fourvolumes (1920, 1932, 1948, and 1960) on 20th century presidential elections, as well as theforthcoming "TR’s Last War: Theodore Roosevelt and World War I: His Triumph and Tragedy" (Lyons Press, September 2018). He has appeared on CNBC, The History Channel, C-SPAN, NPR, and The Voice of America.

John Purroy Mitchel at City Hall on May 11, 1914

Some New York City mayoral elections are more interesting than others.

Twenty-seventeen’s has yet to prove interesting at all.

Nineteen-seventeen’s was unforgettable.

In 1917, reform Mayor John Purroy Mitchel reluctantly sought re-election. To say Mitchel’s background was eclectic was to understate the case. Mitchel’s paternal grandfather was a prominent Irish revolutionary; his maternal grandfather a Colombian diplomat (making Mitchel the city’s first Hispanic mayor). His father—plus two uncles—wore Confederate grey.

In 1913, former President Theodore Roosevelt entreated Mitchel, hitherto the Democrat President of the Board of Alderman (and a Woodrow Wilson appointee as Collector of the Port of New York), to run for mayor as a “fusion” candidate. He triumphed over Charles Whitman (then district attorney and, of course, an actual Republican) to secure the GOP endorsement. With Progressive Party support (though no formal endorsement), Mitchel—just thirty-four—won November’s general election by the largest popular margin in the history of consolidated New York.

His administration was not without accomplishment. The city’s milestone zoning law passed in 1916. The same year witnessed significant garment industry and transit strikes. Mitchel handled both evenhandedly. TR publicly praised Mitchel for providing voters with “the best administration the city has ever had.” 

But efficiency only goes so far in overcoming monumental political ineptness. Mitchel’s administration embroiled itself in a massive imbroglio with Catholic charitable institutions and ended up wiretapping two priests. It was, declared Brooklyn Bishop Charles E. McDonnell, “about the most outrageous offence on the constitutional rights of the people that has been committed here.”

Privately, Roosevelt condemned Mitchel’s “arrogance, . . . his being out of touch with the man in the street.” A modern historian assessed “The Boy Mayor” as “a one-of- a-kind amalgam of urban visionary and priggish dolt . . . .”

In 1913, New York American publisher William Randolph Hearst ardently supported Mitchel. By 1917, he merely derided him and seemed on the verge of running himself. But powerful elements within Tammany Hall—future Governor Alfred E. Smith included—not only opposed Hearst, they hated him. Eventually, Tammany and Hearst united behind a challenger, a remarkably unimpressive Kings County (Brooklyn) Judge named John Francis “Red Mike” Hylan (so dubbed for his hair, not his politics).

Lower East Side attorney Morris Hillquit ran on the Socialist ticket. Energized more by anti-war than socialist sentiment, his party filled Madison Square Garden at least a half dozen times. As the campaign drew to a close, city Socialists hosted 125 to 150 rallies per night. Publicity was no problem. Back then, Socialists boasted five daily newspapers in the city.

Against such competition as Hylan and Hillquit, TR gladly stuck with “The Boy Mayor” Mitchel, an early graduate of the famed Plattsburg volunteer officer training camp (Roosevelt’s son Archie had escorted him the train station to where he received his pup tent) and a foursquare advocate for Preparedness.

“A Vote for Mayor Mitchel is a Vote for the U.S.A.,” declared a Mitchel campaign pamphlet.

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Rabbi Stephen Wise warned a 3,000-person audience that in order to keep the City from becoming “the American suburb of Berlin, you have got to vote for Mitchel.”

Yes, John Purroy Mitchel was too foursquare for Preparedness in a city still featuring large segments of German, Irish, and Jewish anti-war sentiment.

As Hearst’s New York American jibed:

What impression does Mr. Mitchel bring to your minds when he puts himself up on the billboards dressed in [Plattsburg camp] khaki? What would you think of yourself if you had your picture posted everywhere in a khaki uniform trying to get votes posing as a hero? He wraps puttees around his thin legs, buttons on his person a khaki suit that looks like cotton goods wrapped around a piece of kindling wood, tops off the magnificent war-like picture with a slouch hat, and . . . says, ‘Vote for me, I’m a hero. Don’t you see my picture in khaki on the billboards?’

On Monday evening, October 29, TR addressed three three-thousand person crowds for Mitchel—twice in Harlem and then to Park Slope’s Prospect Hall to address Brooklyn Scandinavians. At East 126th Street’s Harlem River Casino, a Socialist heckler awaited his arrival. TR, reported the New York Herald, “walked over toward him, shaking his finger and prepared to take care of him.” Two men rushed to eject the trouble maker. TR shooed them away—he wanted his antagonist to hear him excoriate Hillquit as “the Hun inside our gates.”

More Socialists ambushed the Colonel (and Mitchel—and Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Sr.) at their next stop, before “3,000 cheering negroes” at West 135th Street’s Palace Casino. Harlem’s pioneering African-American weekly newspaper, the New York Age reported: 35th

These rowdies, who espouse the cause of the Socialist candidate, made themselves obnoxious by hissing and frequently interrupting the speakers, and had not three-fourths of the audience been decidedly friendly to . . . [F]usion the disturbance makers would have broken up the meeting, which they seem bent on doing.

Even Theodore Roosevelt, . . . the most fearless champion in America in demanding that the Negro be given a square deal, was insulted by these ruffians, [following] a programme . . . arranged some hours before. They insulted everybody, even the prominent colored ministers who spoke.

This element was made up of negroes who are seeking to secure a real democracy in this country by advocating violence and who are opposed to the right of free speech and their anarchistic tendencies were fully emphasized during the evening making a powerful impression on the minds of those who believe in law and order.

That Election Eve, fifty thousand John Purroy Mitchel partisans processed in five separate torchlights parades, featuring “the blare of a hundred or more brass bands,” all headed toward Madison Square Garden for one great, last-minute gesture. TR (a late arrival, having just also spoken in Astoria, Queens) personally commanded the contingent advancing down Second Avenue.

TR, who lusted to command a regiment on the Western Front, barely made it through Midtown East. “The marchers became excited,” noted the Herald, “and the organizations, moving in opposite directions, became entangled in a mass than held up traffic for more than fifteen minutes and almost exhausted their leaders before the jam was straightened out and the procession, in single colums [sic], began again its march behind Mr. Roosevelt’s automobile toward the Garden.”

There, TR addressed matters military not municipal, patriotism not potholes. “The American pacifist,” he thundered, “has been the great ally of the German militarists. If we don’t fight the war through to a successful conclusion, if we let it be a draw, . . . your children and my children will have to fight here beside their ruined hearthstones in the end to defend themselves.”

Respectful silence enveloped the hall, followed by a ripple of applause. Suddenly “a piping, rasping voice” in the second gallery interrupted: “Why don’t you go over, then, and fight? You go ahead over.”

“Instantly,” reported the Herald, “the great building was in an uproar. Flushed with anger, his jaws snapping and his eyes flashing the acceptance of the challenge which his voice could not carry over the din raised by the audience, Mr. Roosevelt pleaded for quiet.

“Mr. Roosevelt’s arms were outstretched as he futilely implored the crowd to let him answer. Charles E. Hughes, who presided at the meeting, was pounding his gavel for quiet which did not come. Thousands in the audience stood on their chairs and waved flags, one of which had been given to every one who entered the hall.”

“He [Roosevelt] wants to go over there!” a woman shouted.

“Just wait a minute,” bellowed TR, “I didn’t catch the question. You asked why I didn’t go over there? Wait.”

The crowd, the Herald reported, thundered “its applause in a manner that again brought virtually every person in the building to his feet shouting. Confusion was everywhere.”

“They wouldn’t let you go over,” a man yelled. TR grinned broadly.

“Wait a minute, friend,” the Colonel begged his audience, “wait a minute. Let me answer. Don’t put him out. Let me answer him. Now, wait a minute please! I understand the gentleman to ask why I don’t go over there; you have got to ask somebody else that question.”

Twelve thousand voices drowned him out.

“I did my level best . . . .”

Again, came a deafening roar.

“I asked not only to go over, but I came with a hundred thousand men in my hands to help.”

“Here’s one of them, Teddy,” a doughboy in the audience shouted, literally waving the stars-and-stripes above his head. Another ovation roared through the Garden.

“Wait a minute,” TR pled, “I found that as I was concerned, this was a very exclusive war. And I was blackballed by the Committee on Admissions. But I will tell you, you man over there [here he pointed an accusing his finger at the heckling Socialist] I have sent over my four sons!”

That blew the roof off Madison Square Garden. “[S]houts to have the socialist put out of the place,” noted the Herald, “became so multiplied that a squad of policemen and detectives hurried up to the gallery where the offender sat.”

“I have sent over—” Roosevelt continued, barely heard above the tumult.

“Let that man stay here and listen,” TR insisted, “I have sent over four boys, and each of whose life I care a thousand times more than I care for my own if you can understand that, you man over there!”

Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Evans Hughes, and even TR’s 1904 opponent, Alton B. Parker—so many of the best people—supported Mayor John Purroy Mitchel that Monday evening of November 1, 1917. So did William Howard Taft and Root and Charles Whitman. After all, who else stood between City Hall and “Hearst, Hylan, the Hollenzollerns, and the Hapsburgs”?

Hylan maintained a maddening silence during the campaign. Morris Hillquit turned his guns on TR, who he termed “the most serious menace to American Democracy.”

“It is not socialism,” he charged, “but Rooseveltism that is the true enemy within the gates.”

On Election Day, November 2, Tammany’s “Red Mike” Hylan crushed Mitchel by a two-to-one margin. The “Boy Mayor” incumbent barely garnered ten thousand votes more than Hillquit. He finished third in the Bronx and barely ahead of Hillquit in Brooklyn and Queens.

And spent a million dollars doing so—a phenomenal $8.60 per vote.

Which was horrible enough. But anti-war Socialists re-elected anti-war Lower East Side Congressman Meyer London and sent eleven party members to the State Assembly and seven more to the City Council. Worse, Mitchel faltered in that September’s Republican primary, narrowly beaten by an obscure former Manhattan state senator. A week later, TR (who had predicted that Mitchel would not even have a primary) confessed that “the direct primary, . . . initiative, referendum, and recall . . . should all be exceptional remedies. It should be possible to invoke them in exceptional cases to control the boss and the machines; but they simply do damage if habitually invoked.”

Or when they fail to support his own favored candidates.


More transpired at the ballot box that November than a vote for Mayor. Al Smith won promotion to the citywide position of President of the Board of Aldermen, the same position Mitchel held before him—and Fiorello LaGuardia would hold a few years hence. Statewide, voters provided future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo with a fourteen-year term to the state’s highest court and gave women the right to vote. Two years previously, the same proposition had sunk like a rock.

Fast forward to 1918. That December, repaying re-paying favors tendered, Mayor Hylan would elevate a hard-drinking Brooklyn lawyer named Bernard Douras to the Magistrates Court—said appointee being the father to Hearst’s showgirl mistress, Marion Davies.

On July 6, 1918, John Purroy Mitchel, now an overaged Army major flight cadet, trained at Lake Charles, Louisiana’s Gerstner Field. His plane lurched into a tailspin. Having neglected to fasten his seatbelt, he plunged five hundred feet to his death. Five days later, the City of New York turned out for the Boy Mayor’s funeral as it had not for his re-election. A million souls lined city streets, from City Hall to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, silently witnessing the horse-drawn gun caisson that bore Mitchel’s flag-draped casket. Their numbers—larger than those mourning either Grant or Sherman—stunned observers. Theodore Roosevelt served as honorary pallbearer.

Some politicians, after all, are more loved dead than alive.

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