William Jay Gaynor

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William Jay Gaynor
Portrait of William Jay Gaynor.jpg
94th Mayor of New York City
In office
January 1, 1910 – September 10, 1913
Preceded byGeorge B. McClellan Jr.
Succeeded byArdolph Loges Kline
Personal details
Born(1849-02-02)February 2, 1849
Oriskany, New York, U.S.
DiedSeptember 10, 1913(1913-09-10) (aged 64)
On the Atlantic Ocean
Political partyDemocratic
Emma Vesta Hyde
(m. 1876; div. 1881)

Augusta Cole Mayer
(m. 1886)

William Jay Gaynor (February 2, 1849 – September 10, 1913) was an American politician from New York City, associated with the Tammany Hall political machine. He served as the 94th mayor of the City of New York from 1910 to 1913, and previously as a New York Supreme Court Justice from 1893 to 1909. As mayor he was noted as a reformer who broke ranks and refused to take orders from the Tammany boss Charles Francis Murphy.

Early life

Gaynor was born in Oriskany, New York, on February 2, 1849,[1] to Keiron and Elizabeth (Handwright) Gaynor.[2][3] He grew up on a farm with seven siblings. As a boy, he developed an interest in wandering the countryside where they lived, exploring nature and trying to figure out why things were the way they were.

He was a studious boy, a trait which his father encouraged. As he was on the clumsy side, when it came to farmwork, his brother Tom usually took on the heavier chores. For his education, he first attended the local public school, then was sent to the Whiteboro Seminary. The Gaynor family were Irish and devout Catholics, thus, when weather permitted, on Sundays they would head to the nearby city of Utica to attend Mass at St. John's Church on Bleecker Street. As William entered his teenage years, he began to show a religious fervor that led his parents to think that he might have a vocation to the Church. Both to test this, and for reasons of affordability, he was enrolled in the Assumption Academy in Utica. This was staffed by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, who had recently come to the United States from France in 1848. William flourished in that school, and soon decided that he did indeed wish to become a member of their religious congregation.

In December 1863, he was sent to New York City to enter the novitiate of the congregation. This was located at 44 East 2nd Street. The date of birth he gave at his admission was February 2, 1848, thus he was still fifteen at the time he was received. He was given the habit of the Institute, and named Brother Adrian Denys. He spent the next four years in this house, both in training and soon in teaching in nearby parish schools. In 1868, he was one of a group of Brothers chosen to be sent to San Francisco to take care of St. Mary's College there. They sailed from New York on July 16, aboard the SS Ocean Queen.

By this time, however, as well as the usual readings in history, philosophy and the Church Fathers suggested to the Brothers, Gaynor had been reading and absorbing the reflection of a wide range of writers, mostly the ancient Stoic philosophers. One lifetime favorite which he found was the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, where he found much that resonated with his own way of thinking. The book was to be his lifelong companion. As a result, however, by the time the small group of Brothers had arrived at their destination, Gaynor had lost his belief in organized Christianity and had decided to leave the Institute. Because of his youth, he had never taken religious vows, as he was too young to do so under the regulations of the Brothers, thus there was no canonical impediment to his departure.

He made his way back home to Utica, where his family now lived, arriving late that same year. How he managed that journey he never shared, other than to say that it had not been an easy or pleasant experience. His father welcomed him back and helped him to secure a position with the law firm of Horatio and John Seymour, that he might learn enough law to read for the bar. This was to be the start of his entry into the political arena, as Horatio Seymour had recently served as Governor of New York, and had just run as the Democratic Party's candidate for President of the United States against Ulysses S. Grant.[4]

In politics

Gaynor would disappoint Tammany Hall when they nominated him for mayor in 1909. Elected to the New York State Supreme Court in 1893, and appointed to the Appellate Division, Second Department in 1905, Gaynor's rulings were often cited around the country. His reputation as an honest reformer helped win him election as mayor in 1909.[citation needed]

Gaynor walks across the Brooklyn Bridge to his inauguration.

On January 1, 1910, he walked to City Hall from his home in Brooklyn (#20 Eighth Avenue, Park Slope)[5] – it was the first time he had ever visited the seat of city government – and addressed the 1,500 people gathered to greet him: "I enter upon this office with the intention of doing the very best I can for the City of New York. That will have to suffice; I can do no more."

In 1910 his daughter, Edith Augusta Gaynor, married Harry Kermit Vingut. They divorced in 1919 and she then married James Park.[6] One of his granddaughters, Jean Rennard, married actor Fred Gwynne.

Gaynor's marriage with Tammany Hall was short-lived; soon after taking office, he filled high level government posts with experts and city employees were chosen from civil service lists in the order they appeared, effectively curbing patronage and nepotism. As mayor, he railed against efforts to thwart the further development of the New York City Subway system. A strong willed but compassionate mayor, Gaynor once remarked, "The world does not grow better by force or by the policeman's club."[7]

H. L. Mencken, who covered the police beat and City Hall of Baltimore in his early days as a reporter, and so learned to know the good, the bad and the ugly of the species, had great respect for Gaynor both as a judge and as mayor. "Gaynor was that great rarity in American political history: a judge who actually believed in the Bill of Rights. When he sat on the bench in Brooklyn he tried to enforce it to the letter, to the natural scandal of his brethren of the ermine. Scarcely a day went by that he did not denounce the police for their tyrannies. He turned loose hundreds of prisoners, raged and roared from the bench, and wrote thousands of letters on the subject, many of them magnificent expositions of Jeffersonian doctrine. Unfortunately, his strange ideas alarmed the general run of respectable New Yorkers quite as much as they alarmed his fellow judges, and so he was always in hot water. When Tammany, with sardonic humor, made him mayor, he began an heroic but vain effort to give New York decent government. He might as well have tried to make the stockyards of Chicago smell like a field of asphodel. In the end, worn out and embittered by the struggle, he died unlamented, and today political historians scarcely mention him. Yet he was a great political philosopher and a great soul. It is the tragedy of the Republic that such men are so few, and that their efforts, when they appear, go for so little."[8]

Georgist views on political economy

Gaynor read the first edition of Henry George's famous treatise Progress and Poverty said that Georgism was the "perfect" and "optimal" system ("admitted by philosophers and economists the world over"). However, he objected to what he perceived as George's intent to take all land rent for public use at once. Instead, Gaynor favored a slow transition over many years. He was unaware of fact that removing other taxes would increase land rent, yet by his calculations there was enough land rent to replace all taxes with a land value tax.[9]

Assassination attempt

Gaynor moments after the assassination attempt. August 9, 1910. At left is Edward J. Lichtfield, a neighbor of Gaynor's, and at right is Jacob Katz. A second picture of Gaynor after he was shot is at New York Tribune August 10, 1910.[10]

Early in his term, Gaynor was shot in the throat by James J. Gallagher,[11] a discharged city employee who had been a New York dock Night Watchman from April 7, 1903, to July 19, 1910.[12] Gaynor remains the only New York City mayor to be hit by a bullet during an assassination attempt. The violent incident happened on board the Europe-bound SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, which was docked at Hoboken, New Jersey. Gallagher died in a prison in Trenton, New Jersey, from paresis on February 4, 1913,[13] the same year as Gaynor's death.[14] Observing Gaynor in conversation, New York World photographer William Warnecke snapped what he thought would be a typical, if uneventful, photo of the new Mayor. Instead, Warnecke captured the very moment that Gallagher, at point-blank range, shot a bullet through Gaynor's neck. The rarely-seen snapshot remains one of the most highly praised photographs in the history of photojournalism.[15]

Death and legacy

Although Gaynor quickly recovered, the bullet remained lodged in his throat for the next three years. During his term as mayor, Gaynor was widely considered a strong candidate for Governor or President. Tammany Hall refused to nominate him for reelection to a second term, but after accepting the nomination from an independent group of voters, he set sail for Europe aboard RMS Baltic. Six days later, on September 10, 1913, Gaynor died suddenly on a deck chair aboard the liner. After his death, doctors concluded that he died of a heart attack, and that his old wound was at most a minor contributing factor.[16] Gaynor is interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

The Fire Department of New York operated a fireboat named William J. Gaynor from 1914 to 1961.[17]

A great-granddaughter of Gaynor, Angela Webb Kensinger, died in a plane crash in 2019 in Texas.[18]

See also


Explanatory notes


  1. ^ Caliendo, Ralph J. (2010-04-29). New York City Mayors: Part II: the Mayors of Greater New York From 1898. p. 26. ISBN 9781450088121.
  2. ^ "William Jay Gaynor as an intimate knew him. The Lawyer, the Judge, the Mayor, and the Man, Described by a Noted Editor-Author Whose Friendship with Him Covered a Long Period" (PDF). The New York Times. September 21, 1913. Retrieved 2007-06-14. Apart from his family and from one trusted protege outside of his family, William Jay Gaynor had no intimates. He was a true and lasting friend. He never forgot an unselfish service. "I have never forgotten, you for a single day," he wrote, four years ago...
  3. ^ "Mrs. Charles Gulden" (PDF). New York Times. July 22, 1941. Retrieved 2007-06-14. Granddaughter of Late Mayor William J. Gaynor Dies
  4. ^ Lately, Thomas (1969). The Man who mastered New York. William Morrow and Co., Inc. pp. 16–21.
  5. ^ "Brooklyn Stirred. Had False Reports. Rumors Caused Borough Hall Officials to Order the Flags at Half-Mast". The New York Times. 1910-08-10. Retrieved 2008-01-06. Brooklyn, Mayor Gaynor's home borough, was greatly excited and deeply shocked by the news of the shooting of the city's chief executive. The earliest reports to reach the borough said that Mr. Gaynor had been killed. These spread rapidly through Brooklyn, and the local newspaper offices, telephone exchanges, and Police Headquarters were soon inundated by a flood of Inquiries which poured in from all sections.
  6. ^ "Didn't Want Any of His Daughters to Wed Before They Were 25, the Delaware Version. Gave All the Details to the Attorney General at Wilmington Before the Marriage". New York Times. June 24, 1910. Retrieved 2008-12-08. An explanation was made to-day by Attorney General Andrew C. Gray, son of Federal Judge Gray, regarding the reason why Harry Kermit Vingut of New York came here yesterday with Edith Augusta Gaynor, daughter of Mayor Gaynor of New York.
  7. ^ Gaynor, William (1913). Some of Mayor Gaynor's letters and speeches. Greaves Publishing Company. p. 314. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
  8. ^ H. L. Mencken, "New American Statesmen," American Mercury, v. 25, no. 98 (February 1932) 252. A review of Gaynor (New York: International Press) by Louis Heaton Pink and some other books.
  9. ^ =Gaynor, William Jay (1913). Some of Mayor Gaynor's letters and speeches. Greaves Pub. Co. pp. 214–221.
  10. ^ "New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]) 1866-1924, August 10, 1910, Image 1". 10 August 1910 – via
  11. ^ "Los Angeles Herald 14 August 1910 — California Digital Newspaper Collection".
  12. ^ "The Salt Lake herald-Republican. (Salt Lake City, Utah) 1909-1918, August 10, 1910, Image 2". 10 August 1910. p. 2 – via
  13. ^ "The times dispatch. (Richmond, Va.) 1903-1914, February 04, 1913, Image 2". 4 February 1913. p. 2 – via
  14. ^ "Mayor's Assailant Dead Of Paresis. Gallagher, Who Shot Him on Board Ship, Dies in Trenton State Hospital". New York Times. Retrieved July 29, 2013.
  15. ^ "Story of Shooting told by Witnesses. Mayor's Official Family Relate What They Did to Aid Their Stricken Chief" (PDF). New York Times. August 10, 1910. Retrieved 2007-06-14. This is the story of the shooting of Mayor Gaynor as told by eye-witnesses, among whom were Robert Adamson, the Mayor's secretary; Corporation Counsel Watson, Street Cleaning Commissioner Edwards, and Water Commissioner Thompson. It was Mr. Edwards who beat the Mayor's assailant into submission. ...
  16. ^ "Mayor Gaynor Dies In Deck Chair On Liner. Stricken While Alone. Kline Sworn In As City's Head. Rufus Gaynor Finds His Father Unconscious. End Comes Quickly". New York Times. September 12, 1913. Retrieved 2007-06-14. London, September 11, 1913. Mayor William J. Gaynor of New York died in his steamer chair on board the steamship Baltic early Wednesday afternoon when the liner was 400 miles off the Irish Coast. His death was due to a sudden heart attack.
  17. ^ Clarence E. Meek (July 1954). "Fireboats Through The Years". Retrieved 2015-06-28.
  18. ^ Descendant of former NYC mayor among dead in Texas plane crash Retrieved April 23, 2019

Further reading

  • Finegold, Kenneth. "Traditional Reform, Municipal Populism, and Progressivism Challenges to Machine Politics in Early-Twentieth-Century New York City." Urban Affairs Review (1995) 31#1 pp: 20-42. online
  • Smith, Mortimer B. William Jay Gaynor: Mayor of New York (1951)
  • Thomas, Lately. The mayor who mastered New York: the life and opinions of William J. Gaynor (1969)

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
George B. McClellan Jr.
Mayor of New York City
Succeeded by
Ardolph Loges Kline
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