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Name:  John Kelly

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Born:  April 20, 1822
Died:  June 1, 1886
 
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
John Kelly was the leader of Tammany Hall, the influential Democratic machine in New York City, after the fall of its corrupt boss, William Tweed. Kelly was born in New York City to Irish-Catholic immigrant parents, Sarah Donnelly Kelly and Hugh Kelly, a grocer. Young Kelly originally intended to enter the priesthood, but his father's death in 1830 forced the boy to drop out of parochial school and work at a several low-paying jobs to help support his family. After apprenticing as a grate-setter and soapstone cutter, he opened his own business in the trade which was so successful that he was able to move it to a larger facility when he was only 21. Meanwhile, he completed his education at night school. Kelly became popular in his ward as the captain of the local target-shooting club, a volunteer fireman, an amateur boxer, and an amateur actor (particularly renowned for Shakespearean roles).

Kelly entered politics in the 1840s, fighting against the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nativist movement. He lost two races for a seat on the city's board of aldermen (perhaps due to vote fraud) before being elected in 1853. As an alderman, he supported the measures of Tammany Hall, but in 1854 challenged their maverick congressman, Mike Walsh. Kelly won by 18 votes, becoming the only Roman Catholic in Congress at the time. He served on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and was reelected in 1856.

In 1858, at the urging of Tammany leaders, Kelly ran and won election as city and county sheriff, resigning his congressional seat in the final months of his second term. The sheriff did not receive a salary, but was paid with a percentage of all fees the office collected. Kelly's efficiency in the position brought him considerable wealth and the nickname "Honest John." Years later, unsubstantiated charges were made that he inflated the caseload to profit unfairly, but the sobriquet stuck.

Legally barred from running for reelection as sheriff, Kelly returned to his grate-setting business in 1861. Encouraged by Tammany boss William Tweed, Kelly ran and won another term as sheriff in 1864. He greatly expanded the office, hiring many deputies, including Isaiah Rynders and John Morrissey. Kelly generated a fortune for himself through his financial dealings as sheriff, businessman, and real estate investor, donating large sums to Catholic charities. In 1866, he was devastated by the deaths of his wife (name unknown) and his only son, both of tuberculosis.

In politics, Kelly had become increasingly dissatisfied with the way Tweed ran Tammany Hall, so in 1868 agreed to run for mayor on a Reform Democratic ticket against Tweed's candidate, Oakey Hall. After his electoral defeat, Kelly and his two daughters took an extended tour through Europe and the Holy Land, visiting church antiquities. When he returned to New York in the fall of 1871, press revelations of "Tweed Ring" corruption and subsequent legal prosecutions were crippling Tammany Hall as a political force. Democratic reformers who helped bring down Tweed and his cohorts, did not want to see Tammany Hall destroyed, so they offered Kelly leadership of the organization. His absence had left him untainted by the Tweed corruption, he could represent the city's largest ethnic group, Irish-Catholics, and he was a tireless, effective manager.

Kelly purged Tammany Hall of Tweed associates, and persuaded prominent, respectable Democrats, such as George McClellan, Horatio Seymour, and Abram Hewitt, to become members. Kelly consolidated power within the organization (becoming more of a "boss" than Tweed had ever been) and within the city's Democratic party by edging out rival machine, Apollo Hall. His control would never be complete, though, as he was forced to battle challengers, such as John Morrissey, founder of a competing Democratic political machine, Irving Hall. In 1876, Kelly remarried, to Teresa Mullen, the niece of John McCloskey, the Roman Catholic cardinal of New York; the Kellys had two children.

Kelly bedeviled Democratic leaders with his fierce independence in refusing to subordinate the interests of Tammany Hall or himself to the interests of the state or national party. After initially supporting the New York governorship of Samuel Tilden (1875-1877) and Grover Cleveland (1883-1885), he broke with both over patronage disputes and seriously impaired their presidential candidacies (in 1876 and 1884, respectively). In 1876, Kelly won election as city comptroller (treasurer), and during his four-year term reduced municipal debt by $2 million. In 1879, having broken with Democratic governor Lucius Robinson, Kelly's run for governor on the Tammany Democratic ticket against Robinson allowed Republican Alonzo Cornell to win the election. In the mid-1880s, Kelly suffered increasing ill health and transferred much of the Tammany leadership duties to Richard Croker, who became the new boss upon Kelly's death in 1886.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress; Harper's Weekly; and, Oliver E. Allen, The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall.

 

 


 

 
 

 

     
 

 
     
 

 
     
 

 

 

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