When the Irish ruled local politics

Baltimore Glimpses

March 14, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

WHEN TALKING about Irish-American politicians, people often speak of Boston's Kennedy dynasty or Chicago's Daleys. But few mention the hold that Irish-Americans once had on Baltimore politics.

From the early 1900s through the early 1930s, the Irish-American political machine here dominated like no single ethnic group had before. The history of this mighty presence begins with the Irish boss-of-all-bosses: John J. "Sonny" Mahon.

Mahon ran the city's Democratic machine for 20 years. The prototype of the neighborhood Irish tough, Mahon was born of Irish immigrant parents and grew up throwing bricks at rival Irish gangs on Frederick Street.

When Mahon died in 1928, obituary writers had little trouble digging up details; he had dictated his autobiography that appeared in four issues of The Sun in 1922. A colorful figure, who looked the part of a ward healer out of central casting, Mahon maintained a 22-room country home called Derbyshire in Pikesville from 1907 until his death. The estate, which had a long tree-lined driveway, was subdivided in the early 1960s.

The screened porch that stretched the length of the front of the huge estate was Mahon's summer headquarters. However, the rest of the time he was in the city. He died at the Hotel Rennert downtown (from whose lobby, without a secretary, a telephone or even a pencil he ruled city politics.)

He told The Sun that he had made his money "practicing politics" but claimed he never took from "the poor" or did anything illegal (though he said he came close).

Mahon became known as "King of the Irish family" -- which included fellow Irishmen John S. "Frank" Kelly and Daniel "Danny" Loden. Loden wore a derby hat and brightly colored socks and ties.

Kelly died in 1928, Loden in 1930.

And William "Willie" Curran! When Curran, who had been attorney general and an unsuccessful mayoral candidate, died in 1951 after an up-from-the-streets career that spanned half-a-century, his obituary said he commanded "the only all-weather, constantly functioning Democratic organization attempting to operate on a city-wide scale."

At word of his death, judges in the courthouse stopped all judicial proceedings to pay tribute to him.

Irish politics in Baltimore were centered in the old 10th Ward, around Valley and Biddle streets where the two major political clubs and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church shared power and were often indistinguishable from one another.

In a 1955 election, Arthur B. Price, city council president, accused the 10th ward Democratic Club at 928 E. Eager St. of "harboring ghost voters." Price listed the names -- all Irish.

The most prominent 10th Ward organization was the Hendricks Democratic Club, founded in 1888. From the Hendricks Club, William "Willie" O'Conor ruled the 10th Ward, found hundreds of jobs for his followers and nurtured his nephew and protege, Herbert R. O'Conor, who became state's attorney, and subsequently: attorney general, governor and a U.S. Senator.

As for Mayor (later Governor) Theodore R. McKeldin, 51 weeks of the year he would boast of being of Scotch (he'd say "Scutch") ancestry. But the week before St. Patrick's Day he'd insist that he was, "Skutch-Irish," and then he'd fall in comfortably with the wearers of the green. By the time McKeldin's first term as mayor (1943-1947) was over, no Irish kings or kingmakers were on the scene to fill the boots of the Sons of Erin who had stalked the corridors of City Hall.

The old Irish pols left us great legatees: J. Harold Grady (former mayor), Frank Gallagher (former city council president), Peter O'Malley (the former president of the University of Maryland's Board of Regents), the Currans, J. Joseph Jr. (attorney general) and J. Joe Sr. (a long-time city councilman) -- to name a few.

They left us, too, a million great stories.

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