CUNY Matters, Winter 2001 0
Winter 2001

Hearst's Flamboyant Run For City Hall in 1905


ow that former Vice President Al Gore has some spare time for reading, he might find intriguing a large recent biography of William Randolph Hearst by professor of history David Nasaw of the Graduate Center: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (Houghton Mifflin). One chapter will seem like unpleasant déja vu for him, though. It describes one of the wildest and most colorful mayoral campaigns in New York City history, one that, like our recent presidential election, ended in a near-tie amid wide controversy. In 1905 Hearst, proprietor of the New York Journal, ran on the ticket of his own Municipal Ownership League, a third party, against the powers of Tammany Hall. As a successful candidate for New York's 11th Congressional District in 1902, Hearst's John Corzine-deep pockets had been deployed with flair ($10,000 fireworks in Madison Square Park, free trips to Coney Island's amusements for every man, woman, and child in his district), but when "W.R." took aim at City Hall, Tammany's bosses, that establishment dowager the New York Times, and the big trusts-loving Republicans hardly knew what hit them. As New Yorkers look forward to a wide-open, contentious mayoral race, here, with permission of the publisher and adapted for CUNYoMatters, are highlights from Professor Nasaw's vivid narrative.

The campaign began on October 13 when the first Hearst expedition got hopelessly lost in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and had to ask a policeman for directions. But after this initial misstep, everything seemed to fall into place.

Author David Nasaw
Author David Nasaw

Hearst had become a terrific campaigner. If, as a candidate for the presidential nomination in 1904, he had been reluctant to speak in public, he now seized every occasion he could, buoyed by the enthusiastic crowds he drew all over the city. When his opponents claimed that he was incapable of saying anything not written for him in advance. . .he discarded his text and spoke extemporaneously. He conquered his shyness, learned to project his high squeaky voice beyond the podium, mastered the call-and-response format that was a staple of city politics, and managed to give each of his audiences precisely what it had come to hear.

Hearst delivered the same message wherever he went. He was beholden to no one but the people. If elected he would institute municipal control and ownership of municipal services and exclude the trusts from the business of providing the city with water, transportation, ice, gas, and electricity. Without the trusts, there would be no source of boodle for the grafters. Tammany and the bosses would be eliminated. . .

Hearst's popularity among the city's working people reached such heights that the newspapers in early November predicted that whoever won, Hearst would take over Tammany Hall after the election. The Democrats continued to fire away, accusing him of every imaginable crime, including President McKinley's assassination in 1901. The Tammany-run Daily News published a cartoon with the ghost of McKinley pointing a finger at a fleeing Hearst and "displayed [it] in huge posters on fences and dead walls all over New York City. . . .The Tammany managers tried to send out 300,000 copies of it on postal cards to voters, but they were barred from the mails as scurrilous matter."

Hearst with Winston Churchill and Louis B. Mayer
Hearst with Winston Churchill and Louis B. Mayer on the MGM lot in 1929; photo, Bison Archives.

Tammany's attempts to portray Hearst as a lunatic anarchist accelerated in the last week of the campaign. Bourke Cockran, Tammany's star orator, declared at a huge rally at 14th Street and Union Square that Hearst was. . . "an apostle of riot, an advocate of disorder, a promoter of Socialism. [His election] would be such a pronouncement of anarchy and riot that the very foundations of society would be shattered and the whole fabric of social order reduced to ruin."

Unfortunately, for Tammany and the Republicans, radical-baiting like this had no effect on the electorate. In his whirlwind month-long tour of the city, Hearst managed to be seen and heard by thousands of voters.

The truth was that, in person, Hearst did not resemble a bomb-throwing monster or a wild-eyed opportunist. He dressed like an undertaker, was soft-spoken, affable, and courteous. Instead of trying to disguise himself as a man of the people, he pointed to his wealth and social position as an argument for his solidity and his honesty: "I am not in this election because I have any itch for office or because I want the salary, but because I want to accomplish something for your benefit and win your approval. . ."

The Sunday before the election, the New York Herald declared in its pre-election survey that Hearst's enormous strength in Democratic districts had the pollsters confused: "Herald's Poll Shows Party Lines Thrown to the Winds. . . .Mayoralty Contest a Bewildering Puzzle. . ." Hearst scheduled no campaign appearances on the Sunday preceding Election Day, but offered his supporters instead a free concert at Madison Square Garden by the Metropolitan Opera House orchestra. The concert attracted a crowd of 50,000, with 500 policemen to keep order. Fifteen blocks away at the Hippodrome between 43rd and 44th Streets, Tammany was holding its own rally, also with overflow crowds. Only the presence of a huge police contingent prevented bloodshed in the streets as a thousand Hearst supporters, unable to get into the Madison Square rally, marched north to confront the Tammany supporters. . .

All over town on Election Day, there were instances of voter fraud, of poll watchers being chased away, of delays in reporting returns, of unopened and uncounted ballot boxes disappearing or being delivered to the wrong addresses or mysteriously turning up in a barber's shop, a tailor's shop window, and the East River. It was, the Independent declared, "the most extraordinary election ever witnessed in New York City." "Hearst watchers from the districts of Charles F. Murphy, 'Johnny' Oakley, and 'Big Tim' Sullivan," the New York Times reported on November 8, the next morning, "came into the Hearst headquarters. . .last night with bandaged heads. Some carried their arms in slings. At about ten o'clock in the evening a report was received that the returns were being held back from these districts." While Hearst poll watchers were being intimidated and worse-the Times reported that one, an R. Little, had "had a finger chewed off and his face cut"-Tammany flooded the polls with repeaters. . .

There were few doubts that Tammany had stolen the election, but even fewer tears were shed at Hearst's defeat. The day after the election, the New York Times, simultaneously with reporting on the numerous instances of voter fraud, editorially congratulated the city's voters on defeating Hearst: "Their votes have spared the city the humiliation, the trials, and the dangers of a four years' management of its affairs by a peculiarly reckless, unschooled, and unsteady group of experimenters and adventurers. . . It is certain that the election of Mr. HEARST to be Mayor of New York would have sent a shiver of apprehension over the entire Union."

Hearst put together a bipartisan team of politicians and civic leaders, with Republican candidate William Ivins prominent among them, to demand a recount. He held demonstrations throughout the city and attacked Tammany more furiously than during the campaign, vowing to put those who had participated in vote fraud behind bars.

Though in the first few days after the election Hearst was confident that the results would be thrown out, if not immediately in a recount, then through court action, he was wrong. There was no recount. While newspaper editorials and reformers prattled on about the sanctity of the ballot box, Tammany got away with robbery. On December 27, 1905, George Brinton McClellan was officially re-elected as mayor of New York City. His plurality, in an election in which almost 600,000 votes had been cast, was 3,472. Though Hearst continued to contest the election, in the end, neither the courts nor the state legislature were willing to overturn an election, unseat a sitting mayor, and replace him with William Randolph Hearst.