- Historic Sites
John F. Fitzgerald put his seal on his city, his times, and a political tribe that still increases. To foes he was “Fitxblarney” but friends called him
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
“Johnny Fitz” the gang called him; smaller than the other boys, he was quicker with his feet than with his fists. The teeming streets were his self-contained world. He tagged alter the older boys in their games along the docks. Masts and spars were part of his horizon. On winter days the fog would often blanket the North End. In the hot, breathless summer nights the boy lying in bed with his brothers could hear the long-drawn wail of steamship whistles, the clang of the East Boston ferry bell. Johnny Fitz felt the sea in his bones. He never forgot it. “My playgrounds,” he said years later, “were the streets and wharves busy with ships from every part of the world.” Early he showed that somewhat officious enterprise that is the mark of the embryo politician. The Fitzgeralds were, of course, regular attcnders at the North End’s St. Stephen’s, and Johnny was equally regular in attending all the parish social functions. So involved did he become in neighborhood affairs, so reliable was he in getting things done, that he was elected president of the Neptune Associates when most of the members were old enough to be his father. This was the strongest social and athletic organization in the North End.
Yet no one could say that Johnny Fitz was Alger all the way. At a time when most North End boys were considered fitted for life with a grammar school diploma, he attended the Boston Latin School, where, as a contemporary of Santayana and Berenson, he received a reasonably classical education. During those years he lost his mother. On graduating from Boston Latin lie entered Harvard Medical School, but at the end of his first year his father died, and he had to turn to and help keep the family together. He left Harvard —still a heretical institution to most of the Boston Irish—and took the examination for a job in the Custom House.
He came out near the top of the list on his examination and for the next few years served as a clerk in the Custom House, where he took the measure of the civil service. Then he resigned to set up an insurance office in the North End, specializing in fire insurance. In those willow years he joined every organization that came his way and made his own way to others: the Massachusetts Order of Foresters, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Knights of St. Rose, the Red Berry Club, the Heptasophs, the Royal Arcanum, the Charitable Irish Society, the Dorchester Catholic Club, the St. Alphonsus Association, the Catholic Union of Boston, the Young Men’s Catholic Association of Boston College, the Franklin Typographical Association, the Knights of Columbus, and others. He was glib and persuasive in casual talk, he was noddingly acquainted with almost all North End families, and he knew every voter by name.
The North End was still a slum. Johnny Fitz sentimentalized it even as he flattered its inhabitants. “Dear old North End” tripped so easily and so frequently from his tongue that his supporters there came to be known as “Dearos.” To those who were not his supporters, young Johnny became “Fitzblarney.” When he was twenty-six he married Josephine Mary Hannon, a young woman whose good looks became one of the inherited characteristics of the Kennedy clan.
Democratic Boston in the nineties had no consolidating and controlling Tammany Hall as did New York. Power was split among the ward bosses: in the West End, Martin Lomasney—the Ward Eight Mahatma- the most picturesque, the most notorious, yet also the best of the bosses; in East Boston, Patrick Joseph Kennedy, a genial saloonkeeper and the paternal grandfather of President John F. Kennedy; in the South End, at a later date, James Michael Curley.
Johnny Fitz, now set out to make himself the boss of the North End. In 1892 he got himself elected to the Boston Common Council. He hired a secretary and turned over most of the insurance business to his brother Henry. The shabby upstairs office became the Jefferson Club, where anyone in the North End was free to drop in at any time. Johnny was at every dance and caper. He kept a card index of everyone in his district who needed a job. At Thanksgiving and Christmas he was on hand with turkey baskets. No wedding took place in the North End without a prominently displayed present from him. Each morning he scanned the death notices in the Boston Globe , and he never missed a wake. Hc had the actor’s gift of easy tears.
In the summer of 1892 he announced he was running for the state Senate. Ward Six’s old-time leader died at this time, leaving the young councillor undisputed boss. “The North End Napoleon,” the reporters ticketed him, and Johnny Fit/ delightedly began to read up on Napoleon and even adopted some of his mannerisms.
Lomasney’s announcement from neighboring Ward Eight that he was supporting Fitxgcrald made the latter’s election certain. It was politician’s luck that the Mahatma had an old grudge against Honey Fitz’s opponent.