- 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
All the political, historical, and sociological strands that make up the Boston ward boss can be seen in the career of Martin Lomasney. Yet of all the bosses he profited least from his position. An orphan bootblack, he started out in manhood as a lamplighter. Eventually he managed to become a city health inspector, and then, as the first step to controlling his ward, he founded the Hendricks Club (named after Cleveland’s Vice President, Thomas A. Hendricks, who had once made a speech defending the Irish). It did not take long before Lomasney was master of the West End. His formula was basic: know every family in the West End; help everyone who needed help. The Mahatma’s iron paternalism came to dominate the narrow xlum streets. There should be a place, he maintained, where a man could come when he was in trouble no matter what he had done. That place was for Lomasney the Hendricks Club. Hc wrote:From the standpoint of politics, the great mass of people arc interested in only three tilings—food, clothing and shelter. A politician in a district such as mine sees to it that his people get these things. If he docs, he hasn’t got to worry about their loyalty and support.
Lomasney’s cohorts were on hand to meet each immigrant ship as it arrived. The newcomers were welcomed, given lodgings and jobs, and their names were entered permanently in the Hendricks Club’s files.
For Lomasney, being a ward boss was an end in itself. Day after day he held court in the nondescript hall that was the Hendricks Club. His familiar place was behind a battered roll-top desk, a straw hat yellow with age tilted over the baldness of his long head. A drooping handle-bar mustache framed the jutting eminence of his pugnacious jaw. One by one the supplicants came to him, and his appraising blue eyes measured them through narrow, gold-rimmed spectacles. No one would ever have dared lie to the Mahatma.
Lomasney saw to it that Ward Eight was clean. There was no vice, gambling, rough stuff, no trouble about votes. Both the quick and the dead voted to his order, but he did not take graft. Money to run the Hendricks Club services came from two sources. Those who got jobs understood, although it was never mentioned, that something was expected in return. Lomasney also accepted donations from all concerns that did business in the West End. The firms made their donations voluntarily, even cheerfully, but they might have found reason to regret it if they had not.
There was surprise when the Mahatma decreed that he was backing Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was almost unanimously elected and spent two unspectacular years in the Senate quietly building up his machine for the next leap forward, using his statehouse opportunities to settle relatives and strategic supporters in plush jobs. With exemplary patriotism he sponsored the April 19 anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord as a local holiday; and with an eye to the Italians now appearing on the waterfront, he wangled the same favor for Columbus Day in October. In 1894, moving crabwise but with his eye permanently fixed on City Hall, Fitzgerald announced his candidacy for Congress. Again Lomasney backed him, opposing Congressman Joseph O’Neil, who was supported by most of the other ward bosses. It was a rough election as the Irish wards knew elections, but with the solid support of Wards Six and Eight, Johnny Fitz, “the boy candidate,” was not to be beaten.
Fitzgerald served as a congressman for three terms. He made no name for himself; his chief concern in Congress was to expand his political power in Boston. Brother Henry in the North End kept the machine well-supplied with oil. During the Washington years, Johnny bought a house in rural Concord, but he still kept his legal address in the North End.
In the 1895 election the time was not yet for another Irish mayor. Boston’s ward bosses picked and elected Josiah Quincy, a Yankee Democrat. Three bosses—no friends of Lomasney’s—did the picking: “Smiling Jim” Donovan, the chairman of the Democratic City Committee; Judge Joseph J. Corbett, the election commissioner; and East Boston’s Patrick “P. J.” Kennedy. Impressed by the rise of Fitzgerald, they were willing—if he would turn his back on the Mahatma—to admit the Congressman to their circle as the fourth mayor-maker. Honey Fitz was willing.
In 1901 the Big Four, still biding their own time, managed to persuade the austerely respectable Patrick Collins to be the Democratic candidate. Collins was easily if reluctantly elected. He always found the job of mayor distasteful. Smiling Jim he made superintendent of streets, but refused most other patronage demands. Johnny Fitz galled him.
Meanwhile Fitzgerald had bought a moribund neighborhood paper, the Republic , for five hundred dollars. This he turned into an Irish-American social weekly which he both edited and published. Nothing in it was of any great interest, nor did readers flock to it. Nevertheless, department stores, public utilities, and contractors hurried to buy half and full page advertisements. In spite of its small circulation and stiff rates, the Republic was soon netting its new publisher $25,000 a year.
In 1903 Fitzgerald moved back from Concord to Dorchester, a Boston suburb. The house he bought on Welles Avenue was a wooden château with a scrollwork porch, blank plate-glass windows, and a mansard turret. On the stair landing he had a stained-glass window installed with a Fitzgerald coat of arms and the Gaelic motto Shawn A Boo , “John the Bold.”