There is no doubt that Frank Hague is Jersey City's most famous mayor. He served an incomparable 30 years as mayor from 1917 to 1947 for seven consecutive terms and half of his eighth four-year term in office. They included the critical years of the Depression and World War II. The mayor's tenure is known as the "Hague era" in Jersey City history and is identified with "bossism" in American politics. Hague's stranglehold on politics transcended beyond Jersey City to county, state, and national politics, bringing him significance and notoriety.
As the "boss" of Jersey City and Hudson County, Hague proved a masterful politician. Unlike other political bosses of his time who worked behind the scenes, he ran for office, testing his popularity with the voters. The historian and novelist Thomas Fleming credits Hague's popularity at the polls to his politically astute practices that went beyond the frequent stories of alleged electoral fraud. Hague managed to reorganize the Democratic Party in Hudson County to Jersey City's political advantage. He divided Jersey City into wards and smaller districts where neighborhood leaders, male and female, dispensed patronage in return for votes. Hague's machine perfected the often-used political tactics of canvassing, transporting voters to the polls, and telephoning potential voters.
Hague gained the support of the city's largely working-class population, who held him in high esteem. He championed their causes and obtained federal funding for their employment during the Depression. Political patronage became a form of "municipal socialism" and served as the "safety net," not yet in vogue for the federal or state governments to extend. Hague kept big businesses in check, especially the local railroads and utility corporations. At the same time, he stood in the way of labor unionism as synonymous with communism and anti-Americanism. Hague's legacy, aptly described by Fleming as a "blend of violence and benevolence" (37), will most likely continue to be the source of much lively debate among those interested in Jersey City's history. In a 2011 retrospective on Hague, the author Leonard Vernon calls Hague "the champion of the working man" and proffers that "Political corruption existed long before Frank Hague and it's not unique to Jersey City. The demonization of Frank Hague has prevented an objective look at the man and his administration" (quoted in Vernon interview with E. Assata Wright, Hudson Reporter).
Frank Hague was born on January 17, 1876, to Irish immigrants Margaret Fagen/Fagin and John Hague from County Cavan, the second of eight children. His father worked as a blacksmith and a bank guard. The family lived on a street of tenement houses called "Cork Row" in the Second Ward or "Horseshoe" district. Most of Hague's neighbors were recent immigrants, poor, and of Irish-Catholic background.
Hague's early life experiences in Jersey City's working-class neighborhoods often influenced his later public policies. Frank Hague and his mother Margaret, who died in 1921, suffered from poor health and could not afford medical care. As mayor, Hague was determined to construct a facility to provide quality-free health care for the city's poor. Hague was dismissed from the local school at age thirteen for poor attendance and unacceptable behavior. His youthful indiscretions are said to be the basis for his intervention on behalf of two troublesome young men who were to be institutionalized. The under-aged boys were ineligible for employment, and Hague argued for their release in his custody. His reported comment, "I'm the law in this case," became the often-repeated slogan "I am the law," which captured his unchallenged authority during the Hague era (Alexander 122). Hague later founded the Bureau of Special Service for troubled youth in the city.
Hague ventured into politics with little education, caution about taxing his health, and a flair for dressing well. His employment as a blacksmith's assistant for the Erie Railroad and as a boxing manager had quickly lost their appeal. Hague joined the local Democratic Party and was befriended by H. Otto Wittpenn, a reform Democrat and later mayor of Jersey City (1908-1913). Hague captured his first political victory in 1896 as a ward constable. Ironically, Hague's early benefactor was tavern owner Nat Kenny, the father of Hague's future nemesis John V. Kenny. The six-foot-tall Hague had impressed Kenny and his constituents with a combination of working-class "from-the-neighborhood" appeal and a sartorial appearance called "Hanky-Panky" (Alexander 9). His high-necked collar, pocket handkerchief, and later-acquired diamond stickpin became his trademark attire.
Hague's popularity brought him continued political success. He was appointed a deputy sheriff in 1898, precinct leader in 1901, and ward leader in 1906. Even though Robert "Little Bob" Davis, the Democratic "boss" of Jersey City, opposed the decision, Mayor Wittpenn appointed the nineteen-year-old Hague custodian of City Hall in 1908. Davis died in 1911, and Hague saw his chance to take on the role of a political boss. After being elected street and water commissioner in 1911, Hague broke with Wittpenn to join with other progressive reformers. Noting the rise to power of New Jersey's progressive reform Governor Woodrow Wilson, Hague championed charter reform for municipalities that would replace the mayor-council form of government with a commission government.
Jersey City's adoption of a commission form of government in 1913 under the Walsh Act was an important stepping stone to Hague's political advancement. Hague, the reformer, was elected commissioner of public safety in 1916. In this capacity, he headed the police and fire departments. Hague controlled appointments to the two vital service areas, building a base for a patronage system that marked his political career. Commissioner Hague imposed a strict code of conduct on the police force after decades of neglect in pursuit of a lower crime rate. During his mayoralty, the city was said to be "crime-free" with stepped-up security of one (1) law enforcement officer for every 3000 residents and a cadre of plainclothes officers recruited from the horseshoe, known as "Zeppelins." They were invaluable to Hague's hard-fisted brand of law and order.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, ethnic and religious politics played a significant role in the change of political leadership in Jersey City. Irish Catholics formed the largest voting bloc in the city. Hague emerged as the promise of change after the city's long-term control by Protestant Republicans. According to historian Barbara Petrick, Monsignor John Sheppard of St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in the "Horseshoe," at 252 Ninth Street overlooking Hamilton Park, endorsed Hague in the parish bulletin when he ran for constable in 1908. Hague attended mass at St. Michael's, where he was baptized, with his mother until he married Jennie Warner in 1903 (Petrick 223). The approval of the local Church leaders and a promise of a "clean sweep" in Jersey City's politics advanced Hague's candidacy in the industrial Roman Catholic working-class community. According to political analysts Barbara G. Salmore and Stephen A. Salmore, "Hague embodied the resentment of Catholics and workers toward Protestants" (43).
In the 1917 mayoral election, Hague outmaneuvered Wittpenn and Republican Mark M. Fagan, the first elected mayor under the new city charter. Hague ran with A. Harry Moore on the Democratic Party slate using the campaign slogan "The Unbossed" (Fleming 34). Historian Thomas Fleming reports that "Moore ran slightly ahead of Hague--19,883 to 18,648--in the final count. But when the city commission met to organize for the new administration, they ignored the tradition that the man with the most votes had the first call on the mayor's job . . . . Hague was unanimously elected mayor" (Fleming 35).
Once in office, Mayor Hague sought to exercise his authority to select New Jersey's top statewide office in 1919. Salmore and Salmore observe, "Between 1916 and 1940, Democrats won six of the nine gubernatorial contests, and their victories were usually attributable to Hudson landslides" (39-40). One of Hague's ongoing battles with the state legislature was the lower tax valuation of the substantial percentage (30 percent) of railroad-owned property in Jersey City, especially on the waterfront.
The State Board of Tax Appeals held the line on the taxation of the railroads. Hague realized that to raise the tax valuation and obtain the much-needed revenue for the city, he needed to place a cooperative governor in the statehouse to appoint new members to the tax board. That candidate was Edward I. Edwards. Born in Jersey City, he had been president of the First National Bank of Jersey City and a state senator from Hudson County. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate carried Jersey City with 50,000 votes. It gave him a narrow but successful lead (217,486 to 202,976 votes) statewide. Soon after this demonstration of his ability to deliver votes, Hague became the head of the New Jersey Democratic Party delegation with the moniker of Hudson County as the "Gibraltar of Democracy."
In return for his political success, Governor Edwards (1920-1923) delivered to Hague the opportunity to raise tens of thousands of dollars in city taxes, not only on the railroads but also on the Standard Oil Company and the Public Service Corporation. Edwards also allowed Hague to name some members of the public utility commission and members of the Hudson County tax board and board of elections.
Two other governors in Hague's debt were George S. Silzer (1923-1926) and three-term governor A. Harry Moore (1926-1929, 1932-1935, and 1938-1941). During Silzer's term, Hague got to name the county prosecutor. Governor Moore, born in Jersey City, was a former secretary (1908-1911) to Mayor Wittpenn and City Tax Collector (1911-1913). In 1939, he appointed Hague's thirty-four-year-old son Frank Hague, Jr., a justice to New Jersey's highest court, the Court of Errors and Appeals, for an annual salary of $9000. Although Hague's son passed the New Jersey bar, he did not graduate from the law schools he attended. Furthermore, Hague's former corporate counsel, Thomas Brogan, was appointed chief justice of the NJ Supreme Court.
In 1932, Hague attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, supporting Alfred E. Smith, the Irish-Catholic governor of New York for president, as he had done at the 1924 and 1928 national conventions. As a staunch Roman Catholic, Hague identified with Smith's opposition to Prohibition, which some held was directed toward the new European immigrants.
With Smith's support, Hague became vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee. When Smith lost his bid at the convention to become the party's presidential candidate, Hague quickly defected and cast his future with the party's choice, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). As if to make amends with the Roosevelt camp, Hague offered to stage a rally for FDR at Sea Girt, NJ, the summer mansion of New Jersey governors. Hague had staged a rally for Smith at Sea Girt in 1928 and would hold one in 1939 for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Charles Edison, whom he grudgingly supported to please Roosevelt.
New Deal Politics
To FDR's amazement, 120,000 supporters arrived at the New Jersey governor's mansion at Sea Girt, NJ, on August 27, 1932. According to Bob Leach of the Jersey City Historical Project, "Most of the supporters had been brought in from Hudson and Essex counties on one hundred chartered trains and fifty buses" (70). Jersey City attendees traveled by the Pennsylvania Rail Road from Exchange Place. The rally advanced Hague and Jersey City as significant political forces. Hague proved himself a master politician. He could "get out the vote" by using strategies like canvassing, providing transportation, and other incentives on Election Day. These tactics allowed Hague to deliver a plurality of votes to Democratic candidates of his choice in local, state, and national elections.
Hague's ability to "get out the vote" invokes another acclaimed hallmark of the Hague Era: the misuse of the list of registered voters. One 1937 study claimed that Jersey City had 147,000 residents over twenty-one years of age, the legal voting age, while 160,050 residents were registered to vote (Alexander 11). The inflated voter registration numbers reportedly came from laxity in removing from the list either those who had passed on or moved away from the city under New Jersey's permanent voter registration law. When the state legislature voted to introduce using electronic voting machines as a means of reform, Hague is said to have gotten Governor Moore to veto the legislation that was subsequently re-passed over his veto. Hague claimed that replacing the ballot box was unconstitutional, and he managed to get the support of the Hudson County Board of Freeholders for his position. According to critic Jack Alexander, Hague even held that "40,000 of his humbler subjects would be disfranchised because they would find the pernicious voting machines too complicated to master" (119). By the 1940s, however, the virtual power of the paper ballot box in Hudson County gave way to technology.
Women became eligible to vote from the Suffrage (Nineteenth) Amendment in 1920, and Hague saw an opportunity to expand his voter-support base. The author Richard Connors notes that "Hague courted the feminine vote and made it a major prop of his local power" (85). Ladies' auxiliaries were added to Jersey City Democratic ward clubs in the 1920s. Hague also sought a role model for women to garner their support for his administration and anointed candidates. For this role, Hague chose Mary T. Norton, a community volunteer he had met during World War I, and convinced her to run as the first woman on the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1921. She convinced the county freeholders of the merits of constructing the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital, named for Hague's mother. Hague then advanced Norton's candidacy to represent his congressional district in the House of Representatives, where she successfully served thirteen consecutive terms (1923-1949). Norton's seniority in the House of Representatives during the Depression allowed her to secure funds for Hague's jobs creation program in Jersey City under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The federally funded program resulted in grants and loans to construct Jersey City facilities like the A. Harry Moore School, Roosevelt Stadium, and the completion of the Medical Center Complex begun by Hague. According to Fleming, "some $47,000 in WPA funds alone poured into Jersey City, enabling Hague to complete his medical center on such a large scale so that the hospital's staff frequently outnumbered the patients" (42). In 1940, a critic of Hague's gargantuan project, the third-largest hospital in the nation, reported that "the Medical Center is a costly experiment in socialized medicine" and was "disproportionately magnificent for the size of Jersey City, and it is a financial white elephant" (Alexander 121).
The Depression and New Deal probably extended Hague's political tenure beyond his predecessors. By the end of the era, Hague won his sixth term as mayor in 1937 with 110,743-to-6798 votes or 94.2 percent of the votes cast--the height of his career. Ward leaders, who intervened at City Hall for those in need, distributed jobs, food baskets, summer picnics, excursions, and paid funeral and health care expenses. The city saw Snyder, Ferris, and Lincoln High Schools and five elementary schools built to enhance educational opportunities. Furthermore, Hague, who neither smoked nor drank coffee or liquor, fulfilled his reform pledge to the voters. He allowed no nightclubs or houses of prostitution in the city, kept the streets clean of litter and vagrants, and banned the presence of women in bars. He limited gambling to games of chance for churches and those, like the numbers' racket, from which he took profits. Each New Year's Day, the recipients of Hague's largesse had an opportunity to show their gratitude by queuing up at City Hall to shake the hand of the mayor who made it possible.
Hague undoubtedly controlled the city, and he frequently exercised that control with a denial of free speech to those with whom he disagreed. Hague was lukewarm about labor unions as he hoped to lure more industrial plants to his working-class community. This opinion led him to attempt to prevent the Congress for Industrial Organizations (CIO), which he opposed in 1937 as a communist organization, from founding a labor union in Jersey City. At the time, working conditions at the Harborside Terminal at Exchange Place were under CIO scrutiny. Hague invoked a local anti-littering ordinance. It denied the CIO police permit to hold a public meeting. It also prevented the labor union from distributing pamphlets explaining the rights of citizens to collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. When the Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas tried to campaign at Journal Square, Hague had him run out of town.
The American Civil Liberties Union challenged Hague for his denial of free speech and the use of a public facility. Hague responded by citing the case of Davis v. Massachusetts (1897), which held that a city had control over the use of public places. The dispute resulted in the US Supreme Court case Hague v. CIO (1939). The court ruled that Hague had "deprived respondents of the privileges of free speech and peaceable assembly secured to them, as citizens of the United States, by the Fourteenth Amendment . . . and [he] could not deny the public access to tax-supported public facilities for assembly nor free speech" (Hague v. CIO, 307 US 496,1939). Perhaps in deference to Hague for his years of support, FDR did nothing about the reported confiscation of CIO postal mailings in Jersey City. Roosevelt's restraint paid off. Roosevelt later ran for unprecedented third and fourth terms for the American presidency that required the support of the Hudson County "boss."
Hague and Roosevelt were not always in accord politically. In 1940, FDR chose to support the candidacy of Charles Edison for governor of New Jersey. Edison, the son of New Jersey resident and inventor Thomas A. Edison, publicly made it known that he was independent of anyone's influence and kept his distance from Hague. Once elected, Edison forgave the railroads millions of dollars in back taxes and proposed a state tax on municipalities where they operated. This irritated Hague, who found himself with no recourse. The railroad lobby controlled the state legislature, the branch of state government that Hague could not penetrate.
As Jersey City's mayor, Hague earned a reported annual salary between $7500 and $8000. But his lifestyle defied that salary range. He lived in a fourteen-room duplex apartment on the ninth and tenth floors at 2600 Kennedy (then Hudson) Boulevard. The top floor rooms offered the mayor a panoramic view east across the Hudson River, south to Bayonne, and west to Newark Bay. One main attraction on the ninth floor was a mahogany-paneled library. Hague had homes in Deal, NJ, said to cost $125,720, and in Miami Beach, FL. He also used a rented suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York City and took frequent vacations to Paris with his wife. Hague enjoyed the "sport of kings" and was frequently observed at the racetrack, ready to place his bets with $1000 bills. He donated a $50,000 marble altar at St. Aedan's Roman Catholic Church on Bergen Avenue in memory of his parents. Hague traveled in a bulletproof automobile and was flanked by bodyguards.
What was the source of Hague's wealth? Consistent with his anti-big business bias, Hague's wealth did not come from deals with major corporations of the time. The revenue for his extravagances, it is claimed, came from paybacks from real estate deals in the city, a percentage of the city's gaming operations (numbers' racket, card games, and off-track betting, frequently referred to as "Horse Bourse"), and local patronage. The latter came from the three-percent salary kickback, known as "rice pudding," charged to the annual salaries of municipal employees and the mandatory thirty-percent return on salary raises. Fleming claims this brought Hague between $500,000 to $1,000,000 a year (39-40). When residents inquired where money was spent, the response was they were used for "political purposes" (Alexander 121). In his study of comparable local American communities and their payrolls, Alexander claims Hague ingratiated himself from a bloated payroll of employees in city departments with questionable job descriptions and one of the best-paid police and fire departments.
After thirty years in City Hall, Hague retired in the middle of his eighth term as mayor on June 4, 1947, at age seventy-two, in what Thomas Fleming called "a great smokescreen" (44). The continuum for his behind the scene control was arranged with the city's Board of Commissioners. It appointed Hague's nephew Frank Hague Eggers as his successor and John "Needle Nose" Malone as deputy mayor. Many pundits hold that Mayor Hague was tired of the political arena. Others contend that after thirty years of vying for power, he lost the will to power. Hague was frequently away from Jersey City, vacationing in elite places such as Paris. He continued as chair of the state and county Democratic parties and vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee until 1949.
Various reasons have been given for Hague's decline. Jersey City's population reached its nadir during the 1930s. However, in 1940 the US Census Bureau reported a population decline of 15,000 to 301,012. This represented a loss of property owners and voters and affected the city's revenue base. Postwar Hudson County was changing. Older ethnic groups in Jersey City were leaving for the suburbs and replaced by Polish, Italian, eastern Europeans, and African Americans. Hague's failure to recognize the new constituents with representation in his administration grew stale at the polls. Returning veterans to the city began to react to machine-run politics. Hague's municipal socialism, called "Hagueism," became outdated. New government-sponsored social services offered assistance that patronage through the ward leaders once provided.
Hague's last political stand on behalf of the city was the debacle over the revision of New Jersey's second Constitution adopted in 1844, which he opposed. Among his early concerns in the proposed new constitution were provisions for a state income tax, changes regarding the tenure and pensions of public employees, and taxation of church property. In 1947, Republican governor Alfred E. Driscoll (1947-1954), who led the movement to rewrite the constitution, met with Hague to ensure the mayor that his concerns about the proposed state constitution would be honored. There would be no special treatment for railroads whose taxes were essential to municipalities like Jersey City. Also, the status of gambling in the form of legalized bingo and other games of chance that benefited churches and charities would not be banned. Hague's nephew, Mayor Eggers, was invited to represent Hague at the constitutional convention held at Rutgers, the State University.
On October 7, 1948, Hague staged his last political rally for Democratic party candidate President Harry S. Truman. A torchlight parade began at Montgomery Street near McGinley Square and ran along Monticello Avenue. The festivities, which included fifty bands and fireworks, attracted 200,000 spectators. It culminated with a rally at Lincoln High School auditorium for 2000 attendees.
End of an Era
After Hague left office, he divided his time between his home in Key Biscayne, FL, and his Park Avenue penthouse. He stayed away from Jersey City because of pending legal suits against him regarding salary kickbacks. His "cash" operations had long confounded federal and state investigations into his financial affairs. Hague managed to avoid prosecution despite the many charges of corruption and impropriety. Many of his political tactics were not yet subject to the criminal code, and possibly incriminating documents at City Hall were destroyed.
Hague's control of Jersey City formally ended with the mayoral election on May 10, 1949. John V. Kenny, who campaigned on the Freedom Ticket, removed Hague's successor Eggers by a margin of 4-to-3 or 22,000 votes. Kenny, also from the Horseshoe, had been one of Hague's lieutenants, known as the "Twelve Apostles." Kenny presented himself as a reformer as Hague had done. To the surprise of many, Kenny carried the Second Ward where Hague had started his iconic career.
Hague died at his apartment at 480 Park Avenue, New York City, on January 1, 1956, at age 79. A high requiem mass was celebrated at St. Aedan's Church. He is buried in an impressive mausoleum at the north-central part of Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City. Arrangements for the funeral were made by the Lawrence G. Quinn Funeral Home, 298 Academy Street. He was survived by his wife, son Frank Hague, Jr., and adopted daughter Ann "Peggy" Loughran (d. August 25, 2016).
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"Political Chiefs Eulogize Hague." New York Times 3 January 1956.
Quinn, Dermot. The Irish in New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2006.
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