At the turn of the 20th Century, New York City was held tightly in the grip of political corruption, with Tammany Hall acting as puppeteer over the city government, police department, and an extensive collection of corporations and industries. Fortunes were made and lost, and leaders rose and fell at the drop of Tammany’s hat. Or so it seemed until 1914, when an idealistic young man, recently graduated from New York Law School, briefly broke through the Tammany firewall and attempted to change the city’s approach to crime, punishment, and politics.
John Purroy Mitchel was born July 19, 1879, in New York City. The son of a Confederate veteran, he excelled in school, passing through Fordham Preparatory School and Columbia University before graduating from New York Law School in 1901. In 1906, he began his rise to prominence, garnering headlines for his anti-corruption investigations which ultimately led to the disgraceful ouster of the Borough Presidents of Manhattan and the Bronx.
Anti-Tammany sentiment had been growing in New York for years, since the collapse of Boss Tweed’s corrupt empire a generation earlier, and John Purroy Mitchel’s stance as a reformer caught the attention of those hoping to witness the final dismantling of the infamous Democratic machine. With their financial support, Mitchel was elected President of the Board of Aldermen in 1909 at just 30 years old.
In 1913, Mitchel ran for Mayor of New York and beat the Tammany-backed Democratic candidate by a margin of 57-37%. At 34 years of age, John Purroy Mitchel was the second-youngest mayor in the city’s history.
As mayor, Mitchel quickly set about enacting sweeping and far-reaching reforms, mostly aimed at rooting out corruption wherever he found it. The notoriously crooked New York Police Department was given a shake-up of leadership. The dreadfully mismanaged city budget was brought to heel and, once cleaned up, was distributed regularly to the public to prevent the widespread corruption which had ravaged it before. And as World War I began to envelope the globe, Mitchel called for universal military preparedness, and supported America’s entry into the conflict in 1917.
But Tammany Hall smarted at Mitchel’s determination to bring down their hard-won empire, and sought to oust him as quickly as possible. Using their pull in city media, representatives from Tammany alleged that the mayor’s proposed educational reforms would make it more difficult for poor Catholic children to receive a decent education. Most poor Catholics in New York at the time were immigrants from the many European nations embroiled in the Great War, and their support for Mitchel had already begun faltering due to his support of America’s involvement in it.
Under these circumstances, Mayor Mitchel in 1917 entered into his campaign for re-election against Tammany-backed Democrat John Hylan and Latvian-Jewish-born Socialist Morris Hillquit. His support greatly dented by Tammany’s ploys and by unrest caused by America’s declaration of war on April 6th of that year, Mitchel lost by a definitive margin to Hylan, and only barely beat Hillquit.
Abandoning politics, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Service in 1918. On July 6th of that year, while doing a practice run over Berstner Field in Lake Charles, Louisiana, 38-year-old John Purroy Mitchel fell from his plane and died on impact. It is thought that he forgot to fasten his seatbelt. His grief-stricken wife escorted his body back to New York, where it was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
News of Mitchel’s death was met with shocked grief by the city. His rejection of Tammany’s power and determination to rid the city of its plague of corruption marked the start of a slow wave of political reform which would transform New York politics over the following generations. And if it is true that winners write the history, then there is no doubt as to who won the battle of hearts and minds: Tammany Hall remains the embodiment of politics gone wrong, while John Purroy Mitchel is forever memorialized as “The Boy Mayor,” who heroically died in service of his country.