With Boston electing only its fourth new mayor in 45 years, it’s easy to forget the rogues, hucksters, visionaries and prudes who were called ‘Mistah Mayah’ in decades past. We thought we’d refresh your memory – or give you an introduction – to some notable Boston mayors.
John Fitzgerald, “Honey Fitz,” a “charming, impish, affable lover of people,” was the first Irish-American mayor of Boston. His gift of gab was known as Fitzblarney, and his followers were known as “dearos,” short for the “dear old North End.” He was elected to a two-year term in 1906, defeated for reelection, then won two more elections in 1910 and 1912. His career as mayor ended when his affair came to light with a young lady named “Toodles” who worked at a casino dance hall. In 1914, James Michael Curley wanted to be mayor, and he announced that he would hold a series of lectures about “Great Lovers in History, From Cleopatra to Toodles.” Fitzgerald announced his retirement, but not from politics: He served for a short stint in Congress in 1919 and campaigned for his grandson and namesake, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in 1946. Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection
John Collins in 1959 was registrar of probate and not expected to beat the powerful Senate president, John Powers, for the open mayor’s office. Collins, though, was a clean-cut, wholesome-looking contrast to the tough, arrogant old Powers. Four nights before the election, the IRS raided gambling dens in East Boston. Collins went on the 11 o’clock news and held up a photo of one of the bookie joints with a “Powers for Mayor” sign on it, along with a photo of Powers with the owner. Collins won by 24,000 votes. Photo: City of Boston Archives
James Michael Curley, the Rascal King, was a favorite of Boston’s poor Irish, but loathed by the city’s establishment, especially William Cardinal O’Connell. He managed to serve four terms as mayor between 1914 and 1949, never consecutively and despite two convictions for corruption. He organized Irish immigrants into a powerful political force, spending freely on hospitals, parks and roads to create jobs. He liked call girls, speakeasies and fast cars, and several accidents that left people injured hurt his political career. Once invited to a Harvard commencement as governor, he wore knee breeches, stockings and a powdered wig. When the school’s marshals objected, he showed them a copy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter, which prescribed his dress as proper. Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones collection.
Frederick Mansfield (1934-38) was described as “spectacular as a four-day-old codfish and as colorful as a lump of mud.” He was believed to have the silent backing of William Cardinal O’Connell, the archrival of James Michael Curley, and later served as legal counsel for the archdiocese. A straitlaced Catholic, he banned a play called Within the Gates, which even the Watch and Ward Society approved. Forty-six theatregoers took the train to New York to see it there, prompting the New York Times headline, “46 Boston Rebels Elude Censor Here.” Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection
Kevin White: “Kevin from Heaven” brought Boston to life during his 16 years as mayor, not always in a good way. Elected mayor in 1968 at 38, he transformed a desolate wasteland into the popular Quincy Market, revitalized the waterfront, oversaw the development of multiuse Copley Place and began the gentrification of Boston Proper. He also presided over the anti-busing violence in South Boston. In 1972, White got word that the Rolling Stones were arrested by the Rhode Island police just before they were scheduled to play at the Boston Garden. White feared violence by the band’s young fans and convinced the police to release the Stones into his personal custody so they could play. He ran for governor in 1970 and was crushed by Frank Sargent, who blew him away by simply saying, “I am not a Boston politician.” He went on to serve three more terms as Boston mayor. Photo: City of Boston Archives
John Hynes was Boston city clerk when Mayor Curley was sentenced to prison for (what else?) corruption. Hynes was appointed acting mayor during the five months that Curley was a guest of the state. President Truman pardoned Curley, who then made the mistake of badmouthing Hynes’ performance. Stung by the criticism, Hynes challenged Curley in the 1949 election and won. He ran on an anti-tax platform, with a slogan, “We can’t afford the city bosses anymore.” He had the backing of a young Harvard Law School graduate, Jerome Rappaport, who would be rewarded for his support. Hynes ushered through the demolition of the West End, which Rappaport redeveloped into luxury condominiums and made a fortune. Hynes beat Curley again in 1951 and 1955, retiring in 1960. Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection
Maurice Tobin defeated James Michael Curley in his bid for a fourth term as mayor. William Cardinal O’Connell was invoked in a newspaper editorial endorsing Tobin as “an honest, clean, competent young man.” Tobin, a Boston College alumnus, was an ardent football fan. On Nov. 28, 1942 he watched Holy Cross trounce his beloved Eagles. Heartbroken, he opted out of the party planned afterward – at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, where a fire would kill 490 people in 12 minutes. Before the fire, the club’s owner bragged he didn’t need to adhere to the fire code because his friend Tobin would never close it down. Tobin narrowly escaped indictment and pardoned the club owner after he spent four years in prison. He went on to become governor and U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Harry Truman. Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.
John Phillips (1822-23). Boston’s first mayor thought the job would be a quiet, ceremonial honor that capped off his distinguished career as a state lawmaker. Shock and disappointment followed. He believed, he said in his inaugural speech, that city government didn’t have many responsibilities because its inhabitants were distinguished by “love of order, benevolent affections and Christian piety.” But Boston wasn’t a Puritan town anymore; it was a city of 44,000, many of whom were poor immigrants. The new city charter gave the mayor few powers anyway. Phillips was elected by an insurgent group of middle-class artisans and entrepreneurs, and he disappointed them with his passivity. A mysterious illness consumed him during his year in office, and he died shortly after stepping down in 1823. His son Wendell was far more forceful as the leader of Boston’s abolitionist movement. Photo: Boston Monthly Magazine, vol I, No. 4, 1825
Malcolm Nichols was the last Brahmin and the last Republican to serve as mayor of Boston. He had been a statehouse reporter for the Boston Traveler and political writer for The Boston Post , a lawyer, a state senator and a state representative. His wife, Edith, died in 1925; he was elected mayor the next year and married Edith’s twin sister. Photo: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.
Josiah Quincy: There were actually three Mayor Josiah Quincys, and yes, they were all related. They were also among Boston’s ablest mayors. The first, Josiah Quincy III, was “The Great Mayor.” He succeeded the hapless John Phillips in 1823 and served six one-year terms, during which Quincy Market was built, the fire and police departments reorganized, the streets cleaned, the municipal water supply conceived, brothels raided, the prisons reformed and the poor taken care of. His son, Josiah Quincy, Jr., mayor from1845-49, oversaw creation of the Cochituate Reservoir and pipes to bring municipal water to the city. His grandson, Josiah Quincy, “the last of Boston’s Brahmin Democrats,” served as mayor from 1895-99. He mobilized support for parks and subways, established the first municipal bureau of statistics and built schools and bathhouses. "Josiah Quincy," oil on canvas, by the American Gilbert Stuart. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.