April 9

Official portrait of James Harper as New York Mayor in 1844.

Shortly after Charles Dickens called New York City the most prosperous and worst-managed city in America, and another contemporary critic had complained, “She’s had, as far back as I can remember, the reputation of being the dirtiest city in the Union!” A reform mayor was elected, on April 9, 1844, in the person of publisher James Harper. A founding partner of the famous firm, Harper & Brothers, James had left the farm just thirty-four years before to become a printer. Possibly his standing as a native-born businessman, Whig, and Methodist had more to do with his election then his skill as a printer, and certainly more than his skill as a politician.

In accepting his nomination, compositor Harper stated: “Gentlemen, I feel highly complimented that the mayoralty convention of the American Republican Party have honored me with the nomination for the office of mayor—I may add that such high honour I never expected—Gentlemen, if our fellow citizens confirm the nomination by electing me it will be my study to discharge the duties in conformity with the principles of our party—being a plain Mechanic I have rather been accustomed to doing than talking—you will therefore excuse my brevity.”

The voters also excused it, apparently, as he was elected with a 4,000 vote majority, even though he scarcely campaigned. City Hall was once more safe from the domination of the foreign-born citizens who were at that period beginning to feel their muscles in municipal affairs and who were courted in their ambitions by the Democrats. Possibly the splendid Illuminated Bible which the Harper firm was then producing with a great fanfare of publicity had more to do with his election than the few speeches the nominee did make.

Harper did indeed live up to his billing as a reformer by removing the pigs from the city streets and eliminating cattle driving during daytime hours south of Fourteenth Street. He also hired 350 men, presumably loyal Republicans, to sweep those same streets. By ordinance he put in a contract system under which garbage was not allowed to accumulate. Mayor Harper also put the policemen—all two hundred of them—into uniforms for the first time, choosing blue coats with the large letters M.P., standing for Municipal Police, but which quickly converted to “Mayor’s Pups” by the more waggish citizens. Another police department innovation of Harper’s was the dividing of the city into police districts with a headquarters in each.

Printer Harper’s Methodist upbringing apparently was of sufficient strength to make him shy away from a traditional printer’s pastime, the enjoyment of the jug. A tee-totaling printer was one thing, but the same failing in a mayor aroused indignation in certain quarters when he cracked down on disorderly grog shops, closing the saloons on Sundays and even on the Fourth of July, a day for great, and alcoholic, celebration by the populace. Edgar Allen Poe protested the Sunday closings with the argument that if the saloons were wicked enough to be shut down on the Sabbath, then why not on weekdays too? By decree of the mayor, the huge thirst of the city was to be assuaged by drinking from the large basin in the park which was filled with Croton water and supplied with tin cups chained to the sides. The water was cooled by cartloads of ice dumped in at regular intervals.

At the next election the city lost its printer-mayor. Reform mayors are rarely returned to office in New York.

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