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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 599

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This is the grave of John Fitzgerald, better known as “Honey Fitz” to the people of Boston.

Born in 1863 in Boston’s North End to upwardly mobile Irish immigrants, Fitzgerald did have a tragic childhood. Most of his brothers and sisters died as children and his mother died when he was 16. Another brother suffered such severe brain damage from malaria that he was barely functional. His father wanted him to become a doctor and he was on that path, having graduated from Boston College and enrolled in Harvard Medical, but then his father died in 1885. Fitzgerald withdrew from school and went into politics, taking a job as a clerk at the city’s Customs House and getting involved with the Democratic Party. He was elected to Boston’s Common Council in 1891 and to the Massachusetts state Senate in 1892.

Fitzgerald moved on to Congress in 1895 and served three terms in Washington. A pretty good player in Washington politics too, he played the leading role in convincing Grover Cleveland to veto a bill pushed by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to require a literacy test for immigrants, a sign of everything Fitzgerald battled against in the state’s politics. According to Fitzgerald, who could certainly spin a story, Lodge came up to him after the veto and said, “You are an impudent young man. Do you think the Jews and Italians have any right in this country?” That certainly sounds like the elite racist Lodge certainly was. Fitzgerald replied, “As much as your father or mine. It was only a difference of a few ships.”

Then, in 1905, he became mayor of Boston. As mayor, Fitzgerald became a local legend. First, it was a political revolution. A Catholic had become elected in Brahmin-dominated Boston, a city with its share of Know-Nothings a half-century earlier in a region still very uncomfortable with the waves of immigration that had changed it so much. Now, although Fitzgerald had charisma to burn, his first two year term was a disaster. He was always a machine politican, but to really succeed, one has to transcend that. Fitzgerald didn’t even bother. His whole first term was basically about expanding the city’s payroll to put other members of the local Democratic machine on the city coffers. So he lost his reelection battle in 1907 to an old-school Protestant and his reformer allies who sought to reduce machine domination of the city’s politics. One of the reforms was the mayoral term extended from two to four years, with a three-year term that meant a new election in 1910. Fitzgerald won office again that year, despite continuing bribery scandals from his first term.

Back in office, Fitzgerald was still a machine man, but he had learned a lot of lessons. He started developing real policies and plans. He convinced the state–many of whose leaders hated him for his religion, his class, and his machine history–to support an effort to develop Boston’s port. This paid off tremendously, both in terms of financial benefits for the state and for his political career. Despite a previous pledge to James Curley, another rising Boston Irish-Catholic star, to not run for reelection so that the latter could take over, Fitzgerald reneged on that. But Curley found out that Fitzgerald had been sleeping with a cigarette girl at a gambling club and threatened to expose it. Fitzgerald stepped away and Curley took over the office.

Well, that didn’t completely end Fitzgerald’s political career. But it was close. He lost a bid for Senate in 1916 against his hated enemy Henry Cabot Lodge. He lost his attempt to get back into the mayor’s office in 1917. It looked like he won a run for Congress in 1918, but then a recount exposed voter fraud and when those votes were thrown out, he had lost. He served about six months of the term in the meantime but was forced to leave Congress in October 1919. Then he lost a run for governor in 1922. He tried to run for Senate again in 1942, despite his advanced age and of course lost that.

But Fitzgerald still became the progenitor of a real legendary family of Boston politics: the Kennedys. In 1914, Fitzgerald’s daughter Rose married Joseph Kennedy, the son of another leading Boston Irish politician, P.J. Kennedy. This cemented an alliance between the two families that led to a president, an attorney general, one of the greatest senators in American history, and now an anti-vaxxer douche and a blowhard egocentric jerkoff who has decided he should run against the greatest environmentalist in the Senate because of his last name and good hair. Well, that’s hardly the fault of Honey Fitz. An old man by the time John F. Kennedy started his meteoric rise in American politics, he actively helped his grandson and namesake with strategy for his 1946 congressional election. When JFK entered the White House in 1961, he reanmed the presidential yacht the Honey Fitz. But Fitzgerald was long gone by that time, having died in 1950, at the age of 87.

John Fitzgerald is buried in St. Joseph Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other leading Irish-Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gene Kelly is in Los Angeles and F. Scott Fitzgerald is in Rockville, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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