B'hoys Will Be B'hoys: The Roots of Muldoonery

March 13, 1994|By WILLIAM F. ZORZI JR.

St. Patrick's Day is upon us. The Maryland General Assembly is in session, and this is an election year. The "b'hoys" and "muldoons" are hard at work politickin'. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.

Well, almost.

It seems that the words "b'hoys" and "muldoons" are in danger of extinction. And if these terms are allowed to fade away, it would be a dark day indeed, one befitting an Irish wake.

The two terms -- whose roots extend to the glory years of Irish-American machine politics -- are so perfect in their description of political types that there are no adequate replacements.

Over the years, however, the definitions have become obscure to the point that editors here no longer want them on their pages, the once-powerful political machines have just about been dismantled, and the Irish hold on them has been diffused and become multicultural.

The names, faces and some of the practices have changed. But there are still b'hoys (gender-neutral to include the g'hirls, too) and muldoons, now of every stripe. And they still run this state.

So, with such a harmonic convergence of events as is offered this month, it seems an apt time to try to save these two words that are etched in Maryland's rich political lexicon.

To understand them fully, however, a little historical perspective is needed.

The Irish invented and fine-tuned the great urban Democratic machines -- a benevolent system of bosses and bosslets, ward leaders and precinct captains, that controlled cities, or portions of them.

It was a system, with its own pecking order, that counted on the "b'hoys," the boss' trustiest followers, to deploy the "muldoons," the foot soldiers, who worked the polls, their pockets stuffed with walk-around money, corralling the masses, handing out ballots and voting, sometimes early and often.

Oddly enough, while the Irish-led machines were growing in other urban centers during the last half of the 1800s, Baltimore was controlled by a transplanted Eastern Shoreman of French descent, I. Freeman Rasin, who ran the city for Maryland's capo di tutti capi, U.S. Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman of Howard County.

After the collapse of the Gorman-Rasin machine, though, the city boss' derby fell to a succession of Irish leaders, including John J. "Sonny" Mahon, John S. "Frank" Kelly (aka "The Kelly") and William Curran (once "Barefoot Billy" and later "Uncle Willie"), whose legacy was a system of district bosses who politically empowered the Italians, Poles and Bohemians, the Jews and eventually the blacks.

Politics in this city's Irish households over the years has been as important a staple as potatoes, particularly in East Baltimore's 10th Ward (now an urban renewal area known as Johnston Square), the one-time seat of the city's Gaelic political power.

There, on the corner of Biddle and Valley Streets, sat the Hendricks Club, a Democratic clubhouse known as the "Tammany Hall of the 10th Ward" that dated to 1888. It was that club that spawned the favorite son of Baltimore's Irish community, the late Herbert R. O'Conor, a former Maryland governor, U.S. senator, and boss, of sorts, in his own right.

One octogenarian long gone from 10th Ward recalled those days quite clearly.

"Remember the barber shop on Greenmount Avenue?" he asked. "Everybody voted out of the barbershop. I remember one election they voted the barber 35 times, and he'd been dead 10 years."

It makes perfect sense to Alan I. Lupo, an ex-Evening Sun reporter, now a Boston Globe columnist, who said, "As they say in Boston and Chicago and Cook County and elsewhere, 'Death should never stand in the way of anyone's ability to exercise one's franchise.' "

No wonder the 10th Ward's ballots were many times the last to be counted, and often put the "proper" candidate over the top.

The earlier part of this century was the heyday of clubhouse politics, full of b'hoys and muldoons, both of which are key to understanding the food chain of the all-but-dead political machines.

But to think the b'hoys and muldoons have gone the way of the machines would be a mistake: Both are still pertinent, particularly in the hegemonic legislative arena, where the b'hoys of "leadership" still call the tune, and the muldoons march in lock-step, voting accordingly.

The legislature's good government gadfly, state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Democrat from Bolton Hill, knows a b'hoy and a muldoon when he sees one, and over the years has not been shy about singling them out.

He defines the terms thus:

"I've always assumed a muldoon was a political workhorse, someone who works in the vineyard, someone who follows the boss' orders without question, not an original thinker, someone who follows what a political boss says . . . but someone who's getting a piece of the action.

"A b'hoy is a level above a muldoon," Mr. Lapides continued, "but part of the in-crowd."

But definitions are the easy part. Proving they exist as words is another story.

Of the two terms, "b'hoys" is the easier to trace.

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