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Fagan, Mark (1869-1955): Fagan, Mark (1869-1955)

Mark Fagan - Images

Mark Fagan

Mark Fagan
Courtesy, Jersey City Free Public Library

George L. Record

George L. Record
Courtesy, Jersey City Free Public Library

Mark Fagan

Mark M. Fagan
Republican Mayor of Jersey City 1902-1907; 1913-1917

Jersey City's newly-elected mayor in 1901 was Mark Fagan. He is notable as the third in the very brief list of Republicans who have held that office during the city's history. As both a Roman Catholic and an Irish-American, Fagan was a political anomaly among Jersey City Republicans. The more conventional route to elected office for someone of his ethnic and religious background was the local Democratic organization. For Fagan, it was the national attention he received for his New Idea initiatives and reforms in Jersey City. They are recounted by the journalist Lincoln Steffens in The Shame of the Cities.

Fagan became a standard-bearer for the New Idea movement, New Jersey's brand of progressive reform. High on the agenda were the issues of the conservation of natural resources, elimination of political bosses, direct election of US senators, labor laws, control of utilities, and aid for the poor. The movement attracted liberal Democrats and independent Republicans like the millionaire Everett Colby of Newark, who broke with the Essex County Republican boss Carl Lentz. It also set the stage for the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Fagan was born in Jersey City on September 29, 1869, to Irish-Catholic parents Michael and Mary McNulty Fagan. After the family moved to New York City, Fagin's father died. This placed on young Fagan the responsibility to support his mother and sister. He worked in numerous occupations as a newspaper boy, leatherworker, and picture frame gilder. Steffens claims it was the frame-gilder William B. Short, a Scottish immigrant, who awakened the teenager about the corrupt politics of Tammany Hall and made Fagan, "a Democrat by birth, breeding, and environment" a Republican (Upbuilders 5).

He attended night school at Cooper Union in New York City. In 1890, he moved back to Jersey City to work as an undertaker's assistant for his uncle, John F. McNulty, at 80 Brunswick Street, in the predominately Democratic Fifth Ward. His work among the Italian and Irish residents in the Fifth Ward introduced him to life's hard lessons about the industrial, immigrant city. It encouraged him to enter the political arena controlled at the time by Hudson County Democratic boss Robert "Little Bob" Davis. In 1896, Fagan ran as a Republican candidate for the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders without the support of the regular Republican organization. The party's success with William McKinley in that year's presidential election helped place Fagan into office.

According to Lincoln Steffens, "Mark Fagan was, above all, a political animal, whose instincts were attuned to the public pulse. He was a man who rarely acted precipitously" (quoted in Tobin," Progressive as Politician" 7). Not all would agree. Jersey City historian Thomas Fleming writes, "Except for his Irish-Catholic background, Fagan sounded at first like any other New Jersey Republican. He was not a reformer" (150).

Whatever his nature, as a newly-elected freeholder, Fagan had to face the realities of local politics. At first, he removed himself from "the combine" of freeholders of both parties, who sorted out the graft and political jobs, and even acted "as obstinate and obstructionist."  Then Fagan did an "about-face in the final eighteen months of his term" and voted with the majority on most issues like patronage and pay warrants (Tobin, "Progressive as Politician" 11).

Fagan's reelection bid in 1898 for freeholder failed, as did his try for a state senate seat in 1900 against Democrat Robert S. Hudspeth. Fagan did have a good showing at the polls by leading the incumbent Republican candidate President William McKinley with 1,100 votes among Jersey City voters. This brought him to the attention of the Republicans for the office of mayor.

Fagan's opposition in the 1901 mayoralty election was George T. Smith, the son-in-law of E.F. C. Young, the local financier, "a corporation magnate from top to bottom" involved in banking, railroads, and trolley lines (Sackett 182) and the financial backer of Bob Davis. Historian Eugene Tobin proffers that Fagan at this time was not yet a progressive reformer, a term that seemed to define him: ". . . Fagan considered himself a loyal Republican and '100 percent an organization man as mayoralty candidate'" ("Progressive as Politician" 12). His likable personality, determination to beat the odds, and relentless canvassing made the 32-year-old candidate the youngest mayor in the city's history. He won with a margin of 5,098, receiving 21,222 votes to Smith's 16,164. It is held that the Catholic vote in certain wards helped elect Fagan (Bauer 48). The Fagan election would be the first of his three successive two-year terms under the city's alderman system, during which he brought progressive reform to New Jersey.

Once Fagan was elected, Hudson County Republican party boss Colonel Samuel Dickinson introduced Fagan to George L. Record, who had just lost his bid for a state senate seat (1901). Fagan appointed Record as his corporation counsel, a decision that local historian J. Owen Grundy calls a "mistake" (48). Fagan's partnership with Record would have a profound influence on New Jersey politics that Dickinson could not have predicted; Dickinson was appointed New Jersey's secretary of state by Republican Governor Franklin Murphy (1902-1905).

According to Tobin, "In spite of his reputation for independence, few observers expected his [Record's] friendship with Fagan to lead to the development of a progressive movement that would ultimately divide the GOP, arouse the wrath of the state's railroads and utilities, and pave the way for the election of Woodrow Wilson as governor" (Record 12); "Record proved to be the moving intellectual force behind the Fagan administration and the gadfly of New Jersey progressivism" (Tobin, "Mark Fagan and the Politics of Urban Reform . . ." 48). In retrospect, claims Tobin, "Both men were mavericks in terms of Jersey City's political and cultural traditions" (Tobin 343).

Influence of George L. Record

Born in Auburn, Maine, on March 13, 1859, Record worked at various jobs to attend Bates College, studied law in New York City and later set up a law office in Jersey City. He entered politics as a reform Democrat but crossed ranks to support the Republican candidate William McKinley over William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896.

Together Fagan and Record served each other's purposes. In Tobin's estimate, Record was not able to get a foothold in politics. Fagan, on the other hand, had popular appeal and was electable. Record provided Fagan with a a financial reform plan for the city (Tobin, Record 18). It was based on the economics of Henry George and his single tax policy put forth in Progress and Poverty. Record concurred with George's view that a single tax on the unearned increment from unused land was the panacea for the disparity of wealth.

Fagan was burdened by the inequities of the tax structure in Jersey City. He wanted "the betterment of the physical conditions of life" in Jersey City and vowed to make it clean and beautiful (Steffens, Upbuilders 14-19). Fagan became familiar with the ideas of Henry George during his 1880s stay in New York City and joined the Anti-Poverty League of the Rev. Edward McGlynn. McGlynn adopted the single tax as a solution to economic and social inequities and publicly campaigned for Henry George to become mayor of New York City in 1886. The members of the League, including Fagan, were excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Now as mayor, Fagan's goal for Jersey City was "good government," but he found a lack of resources to finance the municipal projects to make it so. He knew the city was in need of a new hospital, new schools, parks and recreation, and comprehensive child welfare, among other facilities and services. The city's empty coffers would leave his campaign promises on the sidelines and jeopardize his political career.

Fagan's Jersey City already had one of the best known examples of social reform during the Progressive Era. It was the Whittier Social Settlement House founded by Cornelia Foster Bradford in 1893. Among the crises facing the city, amidst the challenges of immigration and industrialization, was the condition of crowded tenements. In 1902, Mary B. Sayles, a worker-resident at Whittier House studied the city's housing in the immigrant areas of "Gammontown" and "Little Italy." Her report "Housing Conditions in Jersey City" received national acclaim. The response by Mayor Fagan was to help initiate a Municipal Sanitary League and construction of a public bath to alleviate the situation. The New Jersey Legislature passed a Tenement House Act in 1904, but Fagan and Record seemed not willing to upset tenants with its required implementation and possible displacement of residents (Tobin, "Progressive as Humanitarian" 31-33).

Fagan did respond more aggressively regarding issues of child welfare, infant mortality, and juvenile delinquency. The problem of the adulterated milk supply passed onto Jersey City from New York City had been in place for years but continued during the years of his administration. A separate Juvenile Court, started in 1904, alleviated the confinement of juvenile offenders with adult prisoners but could not keep pace with the prosecution of cases and the ever increasing probationary case load (Tobin, "Progressive as Humanitarian" 31-33).


In 1903, Fagan ran against Judge James J. Murphy for reelection. In this campaign, Jersey City's Evening Journal supported Fagan boasting the dawn of a new day in the city's government and a challenge to machine politics (Tobin, "Progressive as Politician" 15). He challenged the city's property tax structure and took on the preferential treatment of railroads and major corporations, promising to take his cause to the state legislature; thirty percent of Jersey City property was owned by the railroads and taxed by the state rather than by the city. He won the election by more than 3,000 of the popular votes or 21,420 votes to Murphy's 18, 398. His success was among home owners in the residential wards after a tax rate reduction of fifty cents.

In 1904, the first year of his second term, Fagan with Record sounded more like a reformer. His focus was on a combination of "economic democracy" and "social justice" (Tobin in Tobin and Ebner 146). The lack of money drove Fagan to look to the inadequate and lopsided tax structure of corporations and local property. He tried to use what was available to him to bring about his reforms through education of the public, the press, state legislation, and the courts.

Hoping to garner support, Fagan and Record proposed a Mayors' Equal Taxation League representing North Jersey cities; it failed to win approval, especially among state Republicans who wanted no interference with the railroads. These and other reforms met the opposition of the Democratic party in Jersey City as well as split the ranks in Fagan's own Republican party between the "New Idea" Republicans and Dickinson's "Old Guard" (Grundy 49). The recalcitrant members of his party were "conservative" Republicans, such as those in South Jersey, who were disaffected by the concerns of the industrial sections of North Jersey (Tobin in Tobin and Ebner 146-147). When his reform proposals stalled in legislative committees and received no consideration, he tried the judicial route but found rejection there as well.

Fagan challenged the utility companies in Jersey City only to find himself faced with the newly formed Public Service Corporation headed by Thomas N. McCarter in 1903 and endorsed by Dickinson. The corporation brought together Prudential Insurance Company, Fidelity Trust and United Gas Improvement Company, thereby giving the state rather than municipalities control of electric light, gas and trolley service with the support of both political parties. The very businessmen he tried to rein in were involved in Public Service--E.F.C. Young and A.J. Cassat of the Pennsylvania Railroad as well as US Senator John F. Dryden. Thomas McCarter, the former attorney general, was replaced by his brother Robert McCarter. (Tobin, Record 15). When Fagan tried to use the courts regarding the railroads and the trolleys controlled by Public Service, he could not succeed.

Frustrated over a desired hearing to address railroad taxes, Fagan addressed his grievances in a letter directly to Governor Murphy who had been born in Jersey City (Olsen 142-144). Dated March 24, 1904, and reportedly written by Record, it was given by Fagan and Dickinson to the Evening Journal (predecessor to the Jersey Journal) prior to an attempt by Record to appeal to Murphy. Fagan laid out the problem quite succinctly declaring: "A Republican legislature is controlled by the railroad, trolley and water corporations. And the interests of the people are being betrayed" (quoted in Steffens, Upbuilders 29). He added: "As a public official I protest against this injustice done to Jersey City. As a member of the Republican party I deplore its subserviency [sic] to corporate greed and injustice" (30). Murphy's only comment to the public reprimand was "It [the letter] speaks for itself' (quoted in Olsen 144). Edward C. Stokes (1905-1908), also a Republican, became governor the following year and carried out the mandate of a commission started by Murphy to allow railroad tax reform, but it was not enough to bring the railroad to its knees and marked the weakening of Fagan's Republican base.

Big Business and the Railroads

The absence of antitrust laws in New Jersey and a low tax rate on corporations allowed for big business combinations of trusts and holding companies to make it the "home of trusts." Jersey City office buildings, such as the Corporation Trust Company of Jersey City, became the "home office" for corporations across the nation who rented office space for their "principal offices" only to take advantage of the low incorporation rate but operated elsewhere. The corporations were chartered by the state and not subject to local control or property taxes. Opposition was muted as incorporation fees supplanted the need for statewide taxation to pay for state government and brought employment for workers. New Jersey's overall conservative states' rights position regarding regulation and the railroad tax disparities peculiar to the North Jersey area resulted in meager statewide appeal for reform; this affected the overall revenue for Jersey City

Record influenced Fagan to challenge the railroad and expose the longtime corruption extant between the city and the New Jersey Legislature. This, according to Fleming and Tobin, made Fagan the "reformer" highly touted by Steffens. In The Struggle for Self-Government (1906) Steffens weighed in on New Jersey and its easy incorporation environment for big business. Steffens called this treason and New Jersey "a traitor state." Furthermore, its corrupt practices polluted the nation by its example. According to Tobin, Fagan's solution was "equal taxation" through either legislation or litigation "as part of a struggle to shift the tax burden from homeowners onto railroad corporations" (Tobin in Tobin and Ebner 150-151).

New Jersey favoritism for the railroads dated back to the founding of the Camden & Amboy line (1834) that became the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the 1880s, New Jersey had more railroad lines than any state relative to its size. The railroads proceeded to lay track throughout Jersey City unfettered and exempted the railroad from paying millions in local taxes. The railroads owned some of the most valuable property in the city and paid considerably less or two-thirds of the taxes than other real estate owners. The exempt railroad property in Jersey City in 1882 was worth $19,934,546. The railroads exercised influence over the legislature in order to minimize taxes on their substantial landholdings in the state. The impact on Jersey City was a chronic shortage of funds for essential services.

Fagan and other New Idea reformers had no political base in the legislature, their arguments falling on deaf ears. After much dissatisfaction with the Duffield Railroad Tax Act (1905) and Perkins Act (1906) to fully tax main stem railroad property, Fagan pursued the courts. In Jersey City v. State Board of Assessors and the United New Jersey Railroad and Canal Co. (1906), Record argued successfully for a reclassification of property for increased taxation. The case was eventually overturned by New Jersey's Court of Errors and Appeals in an appeal by Attorney General Robert H. McCarter (Tobin in Tobin and Ebner 153).

In 1905 Fagan made a successful bid for his third two-year term as mayor. He was seen as a "reformer" as he enter the fray. Fagan beat coal dealer Archibald M. Henry, his Democratic opponent, by 3,500 votes in a poll of 42,000; he carried eight out of twelve wards as he had in the previous election. The New York Times called it "one of the hottest elections in the history of Jersey City" and reported "clashes at the polls in lower Jersey City" and "rioting at times during the day "("Fagan Is Re-elected Jersey City's Mayor" 8 November 1905). It was a test for the Democratic party machine at the county level against the Republican party's city machine. Fagan lost the endorsement of the Jersey City Evening Journal; it characterized Fagan as a proponent of socialism and running a negative campaign (Tobin, "Progressive as Politician" 18).

Fagan was perceived as far afield from Dickinson and the policies of the regular Republican Party. He came out against bossism, attacking Dickinson as a remnant of the old order that protected the big corporations and opposed equal taxation. Fagan went his own way forming the Jersey City Republican Committee to accommodate his New Idea program and broke away from the Dickinson Association. It was a splinter group of approximately 1,200 supporters citywide, but it hurt the regular Republican party at the time of the September 1906 primaries. Fagan only dug in his heels with a reform policy, prepared by Record, based on the New Idea proposing a three-cent trolley fare, city ownership of trolleys and public utility commission with rate-making authority (Tobin, "Progressive as Politician" 20). It was at this point that Tobin claims Fagan became more of the traditional boss than reformer: ". . . the Mayor was not averse to substituting his own following for the machine's, or in using municipal ownership as a bludgeon to secure better service and just compensation from the utilities" (21). The Evening Journal and the Republican party came down hard on Fagan for his own brand of bossism and an array of political shenanigans common to machine politics.

Now in his third term, Mayor Fagan made every opportunity to promote his reformist cause. In January 1906, he attended a gathering of the Young Men's Christian Association held at the Majestic Theatre; there Senator Colby, the New Idea leader of Essex County, introduced him as the only true reformer who taught him "the relation between decent government and good morals." Fagan responded by telling the men in the audience, "I believe it is just as sacred a duty for a Christian man to get into politics . . . as it is to be regular in his attendance at his church" (quoted in New York Times 22 January 1906).

In January of 1906, Mayor Fagan went to Washington, DC for lunch with President Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln Steffens. Steffens arranged for the meeting; he had hoped that the Republican president would side with Fagan as opposed to the regular Republican organization and that the message would be duly noted by New Jersey's top Republicans, Governor Edward C. Stokes and Senator Dryden. Roosevelt neutralized the event politically by inviting Stokes and Dryden to another lunch indicating that he was not siding with the "reformers" (New York Times 28 January 1906). That same year at the time of a fall election, he tried to keep the faith with the regular Republican party organization, claiming "that the fight we have been waging is entirely within the party lines. We are all Republicans and intend to act as such. . . . We merely sought to incorporate certain principles upon the platform of the Republican Party" ("Fagan Will Be Regular" New York Times 28 September 1906).

In 1907 Fagan tried for a fourth term as mayor of Jersey City, but his failed tax reform program and local politics derailed the campaign, among other factors. Fagan's New Idea program of equal taxation did not prove successful. Tobin explains: "Although the Perkins and Duffield acts had enabled the Fagan administration to lower the tax rate . . . , homeowners did not actually benefit from this apparent decrease. . . . ratables in Jersey City rose from $168 million in 1906 to $267 million in 1907, an increase of 58.3 percent" (Tobin in Ebner and Tobin 154). In addition, ". . . Jersey City voters responded unfavorably to proposals for fundamental change which exceeded their notions of municipal propriety" (Tobin, Record 17).

In her study of education in Jersey City, Barbara Petrick writes that "Fagan espoused all the costly school-related Progressive reforms like vocational education, health services in the schools, playgrounds, and kindergarten" (210). Although a Catholic, ". . . Fagan found no contradiction between his support of public schools and his Catholicism; in fact, he attributed his impulse to reform the schools to his religious values" (211). He wanted students in Jersey City to exit the public schools fully prepared for the changing economic environment, but it hurt his standing with the city's largest voting bloc of Irish Catholics.

Fagan also lost favor with the local Catholic Church for not enforcing the Bishop's Act of 1906 regarding the saloon closings and sale of liquor on Sundays. Fagan seemed to look the other way as the Jersey City Police Department kept its hands-off policy in the operation of taverns in the city. Historian W. E. Sackett explains: "They did not interfere if the doors were closed, the blinds drawn, the voices subdued, and there were an apparent compliance with Sunday closing regulations. . . . The magistrates the saloon element had helped to elect invariably refused to fine or imprison . . . . " (218). His main opponents were Monsignor John A. Sheppard of the Archdiocese of Newark and Rev. John J. Ryan of St. Bridget's RC Church, where Fagan was a communicant.

Claiming the need for "personal temperance" (Tobin 22), the Catholic Church caused the defection by Republicans and helped with the 1907 election of the German-Protestant H. Otto Wittpenn, whose Democratic party opposed temperance. Protestants in Jersey City favored the Bishops' Act as did the Republican party. The puzzling situation hurt Fagan as he campaigned for reelection. Fagan's organization eventually fell apart and the Republican party split. Wittpenn and the Democrats took over Jersey City for the next six years.

Commission Government

While out of office, Fagan was appointed a Hudson County tax commissioner. In November 1911, he ran for Hudson County Sheriff and was defeated by the Democratic candidate. Lincoln Steffens had published the Upbuilders (1909), a laudatory work abut the progressive reformers. In the work, Fagan became his prototype of a hardworking son of immigrants who struggled to overcome early hardships and directs his life to the betterment of others.

In 1913, Mayor Wittpenn decided not to run for reelection, hoping to succeed Woodrow Wilson as the state's governor. Fagan was successful once again, becoming the first mayor of Jersey City under the new commission form of municipal government under the Walsh Act-Leavitt Commission Government Act of 1911 that replaced the city's aldermanic plan. He was elected to the City Commission with the support of A. Harry MooreFrank Hague, George F. Brensinger, and James J. Ferris. In his position as the director of the Department of Public Affairs, Fagan resumed his social reform agenda. He reorganized the city's Health Bureau, City Hospital, Public Library, and Poor Department. After the investigation of the Poor Fund, he saw to the appointment Anita Grish who became the first Superintendent of the Poor. Her role, in essence, was to remove patronage from the distribution of food and services to those in need. Under the Health Bureau he revisited the problems of the city's milk supply and high infant mortality. The Board of Commissioners approved a comprehensive milk ordinance for the city in 1915; a program for milk clinics throughout the city, called "Fagan's Folly," followed under the Health Bureau.

Fagan's New Idea views and municipal ownership of public utilities, however, were lost on the City Commission and failed to galvanize Jersey City's working class. The railroads represented employment for the city,and he could no longer inspire the support of voters about his reforms. Their understanding of machine politics and its immediate results trumped the longer time requirement for true reform of the city.

Under the new Commission, Hague became the Director of Public Safety; he used his authority to control the police and fire departments, thereby building his Democratic base of support to succeed Fagan. The Democratic "Boss" Davis had died in 1911, and Hague now controlled the Hudson County Democratic Committee. He posed as a reformer who was cleaning up the "wide-open town" (Fleming 175) that Davis had allowed Jersey City to become.

In time, many of Fagan's initiatives came to fruition. Residents saw the reduction of property taxes, payment of back taxes to the city by businesses, repair of fire houses, and public baths on Coles Street. Construction was begun for the Jersey City High School (now Dickinson), the Jersey City Hospital at Baldwin and Montgomery avenues opened in 1909 , and Public School No. 11 (now Martin Luther King) and Public School No. 2 at Erie Street were rebuilt; the municipal parks of Riverview at Palisades Avenue, Columbia (former Greenville Memorial Park) between Winfield and Bartholdi Avenues and Kennedy Boulevard, and Dr. Ercel F. Webb (former Lafayette Park in 1902) at Manning Avenue and Lafayette Street were laid out for the community.

In Tobin's analysis of Fagan's tenure, it was not that the mayor had failed as much as Jersey City chose not to participate in his vision for the city: "Unable to capitalize upon its unequaled advantages as a transportation and industrial center, Jersey City emerged as a symbol of municipal indifference and progressive failure" (Progressive as Politician 23).

After his tenure with Fagan, George Record continued in public service. He was appointed to the Jersey City Board of Education and to the New Jersey Riparian Commission and State Board of Equalization of Taxes by President Woodrow Wilson. He seemed to be a perennial candidate but was not successful in his six attempts at elective office. Record died in Portland, Maine, in 1933, and is buried in New York Bay Cemetery in Jersey City.

Fagan returned to the undertaking business at 527 Jersey Avenue until he retired. He lived at 193 Mercer Street where he died on July 16, 1955. He was buried from Joseph Delaney & Sons Funeral Home at 340 York Street with a Solemn High Mass at St. Bridget's RC Church. He is buried in Holy Name Cemetery with his wife Mary Grimes Fagan and son Mark Michael Fagan, Jr. Fagan's Mercer Street home was razed and is now the site of St. Bridget's parking lot.

Mark Fagan - References

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