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The Political Machine Ii: A Case History “i Am The Law”
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
Time was running out for the antiHague men in Jersey City, and they knew it. The mayoralty election of 1917 found them in a frantic mood. Wittpenn and Mayor Fagan both begged President Wilson for help, but they could not agree on a united front. Wittpenn entered a slate of so-called regular Democrats, and Mayor Fagan headed a group of Republicans. Hague, with a prominent ex-Wittpennite, A. Harry Moore, firmly wedded to his standard, dubbed his Democratic slate “The Unbossed.”
Hague and his four candidates won easily. His style of reform—the swept sidewalk, the honest cop, the clean saloon, all of which the citizen could see with his own eyes—had won. The other reformers never had a chance. Moore ran slightly ahead of Hague— 19,883 to 18,648—in the final count. But when the city commission met to organize for the new administration, they ignored the tradition that the man with the most votes had the first call on the mayor’s job. In a tumultuous scene in the City Hall council chamber, which was packed with howling Horseshoe supporters, Hague was unanimously elected mayor. Three decades would pass before another man stood there to receive similar acclaim.
The man thus poised on the threshold of state power had, at first glance, some curious personal defects. He was still almost totally uneducated; some of his surviving enemies insist to this day that Hague could not read more than the headlines in the daily paper. Immediately after he became mayor he took some lessons in public speaking, but he never mastered the complexities of English grammar. He remained likely to declare: “One hundred ten thousand voters has endorsed my administration,” or to remark that the city commission “has went on record” regarding a particular issue. He once called Jersey City “the most moralest city in America.” Closing a radio address he said, “And thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for the privilege of listening to me.”
Nor was Hague personally popular, much less beloved, in the James Michael Curley Last Hurrah tradition. The stern aura of the reformer, the protector, the tough taskmaster who got results, was more in keeping with his personality. Even his closest legal adviser, John Milton, wryly called him “the Commissar.”
As the years passed, Hague became more arbitrary about inflicting his likes and dislikes on subordinates. Each year, he took the office workers of City Hall to Dinty Moore’s in New York for a banquet. Not a man was allowed to touch a drop of liquor as long as the Mayor sat at the table. Once he left, it was tacitly acknowledged that drinking could begin. In his later years, Hague even treated non-New Jerseyites this way. Once Dan Finn, a powerful Tammany politician, called on Hague for a New Jersey favor. The Mayor was lunching alone in New York City at the Plaza Hotel. Hague asked Finn if he would like to order anything. “I’ll have a Scotch and soda,” the chieftain said. “Not at my table you won’t,” snapped Hague.
Hague’s taste for personal violence was another unendearing trait. He was prone to punch, kick, and batter people who disagreed with him. He reportedly knocked one of his commissioners, Michael I. Fagen, cold on the mayoral carpet one day in 1929. Once, during one of his long walks around the city (always accompanied by bodyguards, at a discreet distance) Hague called an ambulance to see how quickly it would respond. It took fifteen minutes, and Hague began excoriating the interne in charge. “It took me a while to wake up,” the young man said insolently. Hague belted him into the gutter.
He was equally willing to condone violence on the part of the cops. He guaranteed their loyalty by making the police force the largest (for cities of comparable size) and best paid in the country. Jeff Burkitt, a cheerful Alabamian who fought Hague for almost a decade, was beaten up so many times that he finally went to the Mayor, his head wrapped in bandages, to ask Hague to be “a good sport” and let him have two or three street corners where it would be understood that the cops would not club him.
Hague began roaring with laughter. The battered Burkitt looked puzzled. “I’m sorry,” the Mayor said, his eyes streaming, “I just can’t help it. You look so goddamn funny with all those bandages on your head.”
But Hague did not win all his elections with night sticks. Although he obviously enjoyed violence (boxing was far and away his favorite sport), he reserved it for emergencies. The election of 1920 fell into that category. The country was tired of Wilsonian idealism. Even before Election Day, it became obvious that the entire Hudson County ticket was going to go down the drain. An order went out from City Hall—“Save Madigan.” Thomas “Skidder” Madigan was an old Horseshoe crony who was blithely running for sheriff of Hudson County, ignoring a disability that would have been considered something of a handicap by the average candidate: the Skidder could not read or write. His campaign slogan was unique, even for Jersey City—“He was good to his mother.”
As sheriff, Skidder would control an absolutely vital function in the Hague scheme of things—the selection of grand juries. All other candidates were abandoned to their fates. Using every electioneering technique at their disposal, including physical force, Hague’s lieutenants carried Madigan, the lone survivor of that terrible debacle, into office with a majority that was one hundred per cent stolen.