By Anya Schiffrin
Former May John Purroy Mitchel was honored last week at 258 Riverside Drive, the 98th street building where he lived for three years during his term as the “Boy Mayor” of New York City. A plaque noting his achievements was placed on the front of the building and remarks were made by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Speilvogel founder/chair of the NYC Landmarks 50 Alliance, Rob D’Alessandro, chairman of the US World War One Centennial Commission, New York Times reporters Sam Roberts and Dr. Peter van Alfen, from the American Nuismatic Society.
Mitchel, elected in 1913 when he was just 34 years old, was known as a progressive who packed his own pistol when he went to work — and once drew it after being fired upon. He served one term.
Building resident Jonathan Kagan had spearheaded the effort to get a plaque installed, something unusual in a neighborhood that doesn’t have very many plaques despite its plethora of famous inhabitants.
“I discovered Mitchel’s residency a number of years ago when I tried to find out a bit about the buildings architectural history. It may have been this site that tipped me off: https://www.newyorkitecture.com/peter-stuyvesant/ But it was a trip to London in May where I noticed a new blue historical marker on a building near our flat there (for one of the dambuster pilots) and the anniversary of WWI that made me think our building should do something now for Mitchel. I googled historical medallions NYC and found the NYC/50 Landmarks Aliiance and filled in their on line form suggesting Purroy. The rest is history,” says Kagan.
I was asked to make a few remarks and so spent some time at the Strand bookstore reading books about New York City around the time of World War I and got student George Grun, visiting from London, to examine papers in the rare books and archives collection of Columbia University library.
About five million people lived in New York City at the time and the city was extremely densely packed, especially in the Lower East Side. The subway was transformative as it moved people to different parts of the city and to the outer boroughs.
According to You Must Remember this: an oral history of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II, by Jeff Kisseloff, the architects who planned the Upper West Side were disappointed that despite the construction of some elegant buildings on Riverside Drive, this neighborhood never really took off. There were, however, tennis courts on 95th and 96th and West End Avenue that I imagine the Mayor would have passed every day.
According to letters kept in the Columbia library, Mayor Mitchel was not a great student. One of his classmates wrote that:
“He surely did not impress me as studious – rather as a brilliant fellow who learned easily and was more intent on having a good time than in standing at the head of his class. I should say he got along more than commonly well with less than common effort.”
“He was a lively member of the Phi Kappa Beta – a travesty of Phi Beta Kappa – and found keen zest in the mock ritual we so scrupulously observed – and also enjoyed the beer.”
“He loved to fence, excelled at debating, and went a lot to the theatre, but he was not a big reader – oftentimes a poor book would do him just as well as a good one.”
But his Columbia classmates rallied around him and backed his candidacy for mayor. The Columbia Alumni News on October 7th, 1913 printed a letter recommending Mitchel for Mayor. The class of ’99 formed Mitchel’s Classmates’ Club to support his candidacy for mayor:
“His public record has shown him to possess those qualities of forcefulness and earnestness and honesty which we, who are his classmates, have long known to be characteristic traits of Jack Mitchell. He has, moreover, preserved his faith in the incontrovertible value of making an unceasing fight against the tendencies and forces of that corruption which is an unfortunate part of civil institutions, and put into vital practice the ideals of free and honorable democracy.”
Mayor Mitchel came into his own once he took office. He put in long hours and began most mornings with a working breakfast at his apartment at 258 Riverside Drive.
According to the historian Thai Jones, author of a riveting account of political life in NYC and how it resembles today, More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy (Walker Books, 2012) New York was the site of massive popular unrest and demonstrations against income inequality, corruption and the powerful plutocrats whose interests were served by the corrupt Tamanny Hall political machine.
New York had a homeless population of about 30,000 (comparable to today’s numbers when adjusted for population) and 300,000 unemployed. During the snowstorm of February 1914, Jones recounts that Frank Tannenbaum from the International Workers of the World brought more than 100 unemployed people to four different churches, four nights in a row, asking for shelter and food.
Mayor Mitchel was snowed in upstate but the city’s 1% were enraged by and scared of this activism and furious editorials were printed in some of the New York newspapers. The city’s deputy mayor and Commissioner of Police, Douglas McKay, had Tannenbaum arrested. With bail set at $5000, Tannenbaum ended up in jail, not wanting to ask his friends for money. When Mayor Mitchel got back to the city he pressured the Police Commissioner to resign.
A Times article by Sam Roberts described the incident when Mitchel drew his gun.
On April 17, 1914, he and several other officials entered a Police Department car in front of City Hall to go to lunch downtown, when a man identified as Michael P. Mahoney, an unemployed Irish immigrant, fired a bullet that missed the mayor, but wounded the city’s corporation counsel in the cheek.
“Mayor Mitchel himself, leaping up in the automobile, drew a revolver,” The New York Times reported. Mahoney was quickly wrestled to the ground by the police commissioner.
Mayor Mitchel died tragically in 1917 in a plane accident when he was in training as an air force cadet. He had not fastened his seat belt.
Image of Mitchel via wikipedia.