Henry Otto Wittpenn, a Democrat, became Jersey City's twenty-fourth mayor during years of intense partisan conflict in local and state politics. In 1907, he defeated the three-term Republican incumbent mayor Mark M. Fagan, who unseated him six years later. Wittpenn's four attempts to become governor of New Jersey in 1907, 1910, 1913, and 1916, during the Wilsonian era, brought him statewide recognition.
Born in the Bergen-Lafayette section of Jersey City on October 21, 1872, Wittpenn was the son of John J. and Rebecca Wittpenn, the eldest of five children. The German immigrant family lived above their corner grocery store at 320 Communipaw Avenue and Pine Street. Young Wittpenn and A. Harry Moore, the future three-time governor of New Jersey, were boyhood friends who grew up in the Lafayette neighborhood. Wittpenn graduated from Public School #13 on Pine Street (no longer standing), the High School of Jersey City (later Dickinson), and attended a German university to study languages and mathematics.
Wittpenn worked at the family grocery store. After his father's death, Wittpenn expanded the business to include a wholesale feed operation at Black Tom Island. He later sold the food establishment and helped start Houghtaling & Wittpenn for the manufacture and sale of face brick. It had offices at 44 East 23 Street in New York City and a factory in Pennsylvania.
Wittpenn got into local politics in 1903 as the Democratic party leader in the Lafayette section. He reportedly drew attention to himself that year after giving a spontaneous oration for the mayoralty candidate James J. Murphy, supported by Robert "Little Bob" Davis, the Democratic party boss of Hudson County ("H. Otto Wittpenn, Banker, Is Dead." New York Times 26 July 1931). Murphy was defeated, but Wittpenn's emotional appeal to the crowd at the Tabernacle Palace in Jersey City was not lost on Davis. Davis projected that Wittpenn could secure the votes of the city's German population in a county election.
In 1904, Wittpenn was drafted to run as the Democratic candidate for the office of Hudson County Supervisor, which he won by a plurality of 3,535. It was a significant victory. Few Democrats succeeded that year due to the presidential sweep by Theodore Roosevelt. Two years later, Wittpenn was easily reelected Supervisor of Hudson County with an impressive plurality of 20,449, carrying even the most heavily Republican wards.
Wittpenn became known for his seeming ability to transfer his business acumen and management style to local governance. But his independent action and use of his veto power over Davis' favored proposals before the Hudson County Board of Freeholders, to which there was no appeal, put Wittpenn in Davis' disfavor: The New York Times reports, "When Wittpenn looked upon the board's acts that he was expected to approve, he found much to criticise [sic], and felt forced to stand in the way of a lot of the board's schemes of extravagance or worse" ("Wittpenn Wresting Control from Davis." New York Times 5 September 1910).
Wittpenn and Davis were often at odds during Wittpenn's second term as County Supervisor. Davis recognized Wittpenn's growing popularity. Rather than attempt to turn Wittpenn out of local politics, Davis decided to support Wittpenn's ambition to become mayor of Jersey City--it would allow Davis to replace him in the County Supervisor's job. It also presented an opportunity to challenge incumbent Mayor Fagan, the New Idea reformer, who Davis tried to unseat in 1901, 1903, and 1905. In the mayoral election of 1907 against Fagan, Wittpenn won handily with a majority of 9,324 votes and carried every ward.
Success at the polls emboldened Wittpenn to make appointments to city offices independently of Davis. Historian Joan D. Lovero reports, "Wittpenn had been handpicked by the organization, but he had his own ambitions and was not the complete pushover Boss Davis had counted upon" (78). Wittpenn appointed Moore, his boyhood friend and chief political lieutenant, as his secretary and Davis as his City Collector, the position he had lost under Fagan's mayoralty. Wittpenn again defeated Fagan in 1909 for the mayoralty, capturing 56 percent of the vote (23,073 votes), and, in 1911, Andrew Knox, the Republican candidate, by 13,000 votes.
Wittpenn's second term in 1910 seemed to forecast the end of a forty-year tradition of Hudson County political bosses: "Bill" Bumstead, "Billy" McAvoy, "Denny" McLaughlin, and Davis. The New York Times took note of his achievement: "Mayor Wittpenn is the first man in political, business, or social life who had dared to seriously challenge the supremacy of any of them" ("Wittpenn Wresting Control from Davis." New York Times 5 September 1910). The issue of patronage tested the relationship between Wittpenn and Davis. For example, Wittpenn rejected Davis' choice for City Hall custodian and appointed Frank Hague, then a constable, to the post. Davis' twenty-year tenure was also nearing an end due to his loss of control of politics in Bayonne, North Hudson, and Hoboken; the counterweight of Jersey City in Hudson County was eroding.
As mayor, Wittpenn aligned himself with the New Idea progressive reforms, but he was not the strongest of advocates to win both the regular and independent Democrats (Noble 98). Historian Ransom Noble remarks that "He had enjoyed a reasonably successful administration, and had carried on--albeit somewhat half-heartedly at times--the equal tax and public utility fights of his New Idea predecessor [Mark Fagan]" (97). In an article for John Muirhead's Jersey City of To-Day (1910), Wittpenn espouses progressive reform to meet the economic challenges to municipalities adjacent to Jersey City by creating "a greater, grander city, a consolidation of all under the corporate title of Greater Jersey City" (30). He also looked to the merchants of the Jersey City Board of Trade (predecessor to the Chamber of Commerce) to contribute to the betterment of the city.
Like Fagan, Mayor Wittpenn wished to beautify the city and began a Shade Tree Commission in 1908. He then appointed the landscape architect John T. Withers to the commission. He and other professionals planted trees and shrubs in the city's parks, including Bayside Park on Garfield Avenue, Leonard Gordon Park on Kennedy Boulevard, Riverview Park on Palisade Avenue, and along Montgomery Street and Communipaw, Bentley, Gifford, West Side, and Bergen avenues. To advance education in the city, Wittpenn appointed Cornelia F. Bradford, founder of the Whittier Social Settlement House on Grand Street, the first woman to the Jersey City Board of Education in 1912. Bradford had become synonymous with the ideals of progressive era reform. Wittpenn also oversaw the completion of the Jersey City Hospital began under Fagan's reform platform.
Wittpenn's first attempt to capture the Democratic party nomination for governor in 1907 was unsuccessful. Davis withheld his support believing Wittpenn would use the office to advance a progressive reform agenda. In 1910, as a second-term mayor of the state's second-largest city, he again sought the governor's office. In so doing, he clashed with Davis regarding delegates to the New Jersey State Convention. As a result, he recruited a delegation of his own and rallied the anti-Davis contingency to his support. With no political capital outside of Jersey City, however, Wittpenn made no inroads at the convention. It nominated Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, with the backing of the state party leader Senator James Smith and Boss Davis. Wittpenn recognized the odds against him and deferred to make his party's nomination for governor a unanimous choice.
When Governor Wilson ran for the American presidency in 1912, James F. Fielder, president of the state senate, became acting governor. The following year in the regular gubernatorial election, Fielder was the likely Democratic nominee, again derailing Wittpenn's quest for the position. Wilson supported Fielder while allowing Wittpenn to believe he would get the President's backing in the next gubernatorial election. Under the 1844 New Jersey Constitution then in place, Fielder was not eligible to run for a second consecutive term.
Back on his home turf in Jersey City, political changes were at work to drive Wittpenn further from his goal to become New Jersey governor. In the spring of 1913, Jersey City voters exchanged its mayor-council form of government for a commission-style government according to the Walsh-Leavitt Commission Government Act of 1911. The voters intended to reform Jersey City politics by ending boss rule. Under the plan, a mayor is chosen from five elected commissioners. Now out of office, Wittpenn prepared a slate of candidates that split the city's Democrats. Former Republican Mayor Fagan, seeking reelection, returned to the political arena with his slate of commissioners, which included James J. Ferris and Frank Hague. Fagan and others claimed the local race was being used merely as Wittpenn's springboard to seek higher office. Some opponents charged that Wittpenn was building a political machine of his own.
Fagan received the highest number of votes (21,379) in the election, returning him to the mayoralty. The only Wittpenn candidate to win a commission was Moore, who became Director of Parks and Public Property. Joining the Fagan administration advanced Moore's career. It also brought him into a long-term association with Hague, the Director of Public Safety. The commission form of government also set the course for Hague's future as a reform politician. It was suggested that Wittpenn's failure to lead his slate of five commissioners, save one, to victory over Fagan's slate of commissioners was a sign of Wittpenn's decline in popularity in the city. When the Hudson County Democratic Committee met in July of 1913, they withdrew their earlier unanimous endorsement of Wittpenn in favor of Fielder. Wittpenn also found that nominating primary was to replace the state convention system on which he relied.
Despite his protestation, Wittpenn bowed out of the gubernatorial race in deference to Fielder upon the advice of President Wilson. The correspondence between Wilson and Wittpenn was printed in the New York Times. Wilson wrote to Wittpenn on July 23, 1913, explaining that it was "a practical political choice": "Fielder backed me so consistently, so intelligently, so strongly and earnestly throughout my administration . . . I feel that I would have no grounds whatever upon which to oppose his candidacy."
Wilson's choice of Fielder prevented a three-way nomination race with former mayor Frank S. Katzenbach of Trenton that Wilson wished to avoid. Wittpenn responded on July 25, 1913, that he would withdraw from the campaign for the good of the party and "that my continuation in the race would be unwise, and likely to cause factual strife and jeopardize the progressive movement in the state." As a conclusion to his letter, Wittpenn appealed to Wilson to continue the cause of the progressive movement for "good government and clean politics" in the state and Hudson County; they could only come about with the election of a progressive legislature as well as governor (quoted in "Wittpenn Listens to Wilson's Call," New York Times 27 July 1913).
In 1914, President Wilson appointed Wittpenn to the naval office of the Port of New York for a salary of $8,000 a year. Wittpenn's opponents referred to the position as a "sinecure" to remove him from active politics ("Family Plans Simple Rites for Wittpenn." Jersey Observer 27 July 1931).
In 1915, Wittpenn married Caroline Stevens Alexander of Castle Point, Hoboken. She was a daughter of Col. Edwin Augustus Stevens and Martha Bayard Stevens and a descendant of the inventor John Stevens, whose family helped found Hoboken. Caroline's mother, Martha, was one of three trustees who established the Stevens Institute of Technology (1870) through the bequest of Edwin Augustus Stevens. The couple met while Wittpenn was County Supervisor. The ceremony was at the Church of the Holy Innocents (Episcopal) in Hoboken, which her mother founded; it is now part of All Saints Parish.
Caroline Wittpenn used her services and resources towards a distinguished career in philanthropic and social reform work. She worked with numerous organizations seeking to improve the lives of women and children. They included: the Board of Managers of Clinton Farms Reformatory for Women, the New Jersey State Board of Children's Guardians, the Women's Reformatory Commission, and the New Jersey State Charities Aid Association, which she helped found. During World War I, she was a member of the European Relief Committee. During the administration of Herbert Hoover, she became the American Delegate to the International Commission for Criminology and Prison Management. On her 73rd birthday, Mrs. Wittpenn was recognized as the "best-loved woman in New Jersey" for her untiring public service ("Mrs. H.O. Wittpenn, Civic Leader, Dies." New York Times 5 December 1932.)
Now out of elective office, former Mayor Wittpenn looked to the 1916 gubernatorial election to resume his political career, his fourth attempt to seek office in ten years. He obtained the Democratic party nomination, ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, had the support of Essex County leader James R. Nugent, and mistakenly believed he had Hague's support (Weingold).
On the state level, Wittpenn's 1916 campaign faced challenges at every turn. The Democratic party seemed divided by his candidacy. Charges of corruption erupted as two Boulevard Commissioners running on Wittpenn's ticket were labeled the "Asphalt Twins" due to the alleged misuse of funds in a Hudson Boulevard re-paving project. Wittpenn tried to counter by warning that returning the Republicans to the statehouse would bring back protection for trusts and big business (Weingold).
The Republican candidate Walter E. Edge was a two-term state Senator who had defeated Col. Austen Colgate from Essex County and George L. Record of Jersey City in the primaries. Edge and the Republicans were united on a platform that promised to run the state on a "businesslike basis" (quoted in Weingold) compared with the previous six years under the Democrats.
Edge warned that Wittpenn would "turn the state over to the mercies of the Democratic bosses in Hudson County" (quoted in Weingold). Edge pointed to Jersey City's adoption of the commission form of government as a strategy to remove Wittpenn's "incompetent administration" (quoted in Weingold). President Wilson supported Wittpenn as he had become more skeptical about Hague's rise to power in Jersey City and the potential negative impact on progressive reform. When Wilson campaigned for Wittpenn in New Jersey, Republicans charged it was a sign of Wittpenn's inability to win the race.
The 1916 (November 3) election gave Edge the governorship by a plurality of 69,047, winning with 247,343 to Wittpenn's 177,696. On the national level, President Woodrow Wilson successfully faced off against the Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes that same year, but he could not salvage Wittpenn's political career. After the Wilson and Fielder administrations, New Jersey voters looked to bring back the Republicans to the statehouse. Wilson lost New Jersey, and Wittpenn had only a 7,000 plurality in Hudson County. It was Wittpenn's last campaign and an advantage for Hague's political ambition.
After this final defeat, Wittpenn resumed a career in business and banking. He became the president of the First National Bank of Hoboken and the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company and a director of the First National Bank of Jersey City. Wittpenn continued to be civic-minded and was a member of the Chambers of Commerce of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Northern Hudson County and of the State Chamber of Commerce. He was president of the Hoboken Council of Boy Scouts. Wittpenn also spent his later years in charity work with his wife. He served as chairman of the Board of Directors of Christ Hospital and led a fund drive for a hospital wing and nurses' home.
Politics affected Wittpenn's relationship with his longtime associate and friend A. Harry Moore. When Moore ran for the governorship in 1925, Otto and Caroline Wittpenn did not support him. They instead supported Arthur Whitney of Mendham, a relative of Mrs. Wittpenn. Governor Moore, in turn, did not re-appoint Mrs. Wittpenn to the State Board of Institutions and Agencies. The friendship must have eventually mended as the Wittpenns supported Moore when he ran for governor again in November 1931.
In 1929, Governor Morgan F. Larson, a Republican, appointed Wittpenn to the New Jersey State Highway Commission, on which he worked for the construction of the Newark-Jersey City viaduct. During the same time, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) began working on several bridges to improve area transportation. One such bridge was over the Hackensack River that began construction in 1927. It opened on November 5, 1930, with Wittpenn attending the ceremony. A year after his death in 1931, the former Jersey City mayor was honored with the naming of the Wittpenn Bridge.
Wittpenn died on July 25, 1931, at his home in Castle Point, Hoboken. The funeral took place at Holy Innocents Church. He is buried in Hoboken Cemetery in North Bergen. Caroline Stevens Wittpenn died in Hoboken on December 2, 1932.
During their marriage, the Wittpenns lived at 125-127 Kensington Avenue until several years before Otto's death. Wittpenn's sister Edna Wittpenn inherited the house, which she sold in 1940. It was remodeled by architects Dodge & Morrison into a five-unit apartment building.
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Wittpenn Bridge: http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/wittpenn
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