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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
John the Bold, full of bounce and pugnacious confidence, knew that the municipal election year of 1905 was his year. Every ward heeler and precinct worker sensed instinctively that Johnny Fitz would be a candidate, would be indeed the candidate for mayor. Collins had died that September, and the question for the bosses was: whom should they run against this dynamic challenger they had built up a decade before? Smiling Jim and P. J. turned to the Mahatma, and they picked City Clerk Edward Donovan.
Impelled from the clerk’s office to the hustings, Donovan scarcely knew what hit him. Johnny Fitz was off like a whirlwind on the most blatantly spectacular campaign Boston’s twenty-four wards had ever seen. Vacant walls were pasted with his posters twice as fast as opponents could tear them down. “Bigger, Better, Busier Boston” was emblazoned under the smiling Fitzgerald phiz, retouched to benignity by the photographer. The city marvelled at the roar of the first political motorcade. Honey Fitz toured the wards in a large red car, followed by flying squads of what the reporters described as “Napoleon’s lancers,” and was met in each precinct by crowds of militant Dearos.
For weeks Johnny Fitz made ten speeches a night, denouncing the bosses and the “machine,” and on the evening before the primaries he reached the almost breathless total of thirty. But for Lomasney he would have buried Donovan. Fitzgerald won the nomination, carrying twenty of the city’s wards, but it took a dozen wards to make up the votes he lost in Ward Eight.
The reform Republicans and the Good Government Association—a civic organization founded two years before by the Chamber of Commerce, the Merchants Association, the Associated Board of Trade, the Fruit and Produce Association, the New England Shoe and Leather Association, and the Bar Association—had succeeded in nominating the highly respected speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Louis Frothingham. Unreformed Republicans, with the concealed moral and financial encouragement of Fitzgerald, ran Judge Henry Dewey—already beaten by Frothingham in the primaries—as an independent Republican.
Frothingham represented all the things that Fitzgerald could ring the sour changes on—Harvard, blue blood, inherited wealth. Honey Fitz also spread thickly the unjustified rumor that his opponent was anti-Catholic and anti-Irish. He kept up his whirlwind campaign with variations, visiting department stores and glad-handing the salespeople, even inaugurating a “soda water campaign” with ice-cream sodas and refreshments for women’s groups in critical wards.
The battle cost Fitzgerald $120,000—twice as much as it did Frothingham. “But it was not money which won the campaign,” George K. Turner wrote in Collier’s . “It was action, ingenuity, and boundless, cheerful effrontery. For thirteen years Johnny Fitz had held Ward Six obedient and cheerful by public jobs. He extended that one basic system of ward politics over all the city.”
The new mayor took possession of the gray mockRenaissance City Hall on School Street like a conqueror exacting the submission of a defeated town. The Mayor himself kept control of all the city departments except the schools and the police. He replaced a physician with a saloonkeeper on the Board of Health; he appointed another saloonkeeper superintendent of public buildings; a whitewasher, superintendent of sewers; a bartender who had been expelled from the legislature, superintendent of streets. For deserving Dearos he created new offices such as that of city dermatologist. Eight additional deputy sealers were added to the Department of Weights and Measures—a department soon to erupt in open scandal. The vestiges of civil service were circumvented by the invention of novel job categories—tea warmers, tree climbers, wipers, rubber-boot repairers, watchmen to watch other watchmen.
In Johnny Fitz’s first administration, graft was blatant in all departments. During those two years the city lost $200,000 in dealings with a single coal company, whose manager later absconded. In subsequent investigations the Finance Commission discovered that Boston had been paying sixty cents a barrel more than the going price for cement—a $240,000 annual waste. There were dozens of strange land deals in which the city ended up paying three times more than anyone had imagined a given property was worth.
For most of the time the accumulating scandals seemed secondary to the dynamic ubiquitousness of the little man in the mayor’s chair. During his first term he is estimated to have attended 1,200 dinners, 1,500 dances, 200 picnics, and 1,000 meetings; made 3,000 speeches; and danced with 5,000 girls. He thought up Old Home Week and applied it first to Boston—even though Beacon Street held aloof. With his entourage he liked to drop in for a sudden meal, amidst the flattering bustle of the staff, at the various city hotels—the Adams and Parker houses; Young’s; Quincy House, the Democratic politicians’ eyrie on the fringe of the North End; the Winter Palace; and the South End’s naughtily Edwardian Woodcock. The Mayor excelled as a greeter, entertaining personally such varied visitors as Prince Wilhelm of Sweden and the magician Houdini. Between 1905 and 1907, Johnny Fitz made himself a city institution.