Day 463

Mayor William Jay Gaynor

April 6th, 2013

Largely forgotten today, William Jay Gaynor, a former judge who served as the city's mayor from 1910 to 1913, was an incorruptible, brutally sincere, singularly courageous political reformer, not to mention a member of Louis Windmuller's Pedestrians Club, "the most exclusive, distinguished, and enthusiastic walking club in America". Early on in his mayoralty, he was known for commuting exclusively by foot to City Hall from his home in Brooklyn, saying "I walk because I've always walked."

After several months on the job, in August of 1910, he was shot by a disgruntled ex-watchman who had recently been fired from the city's docks, making Gaynor the only mayor of NYC to be wounded in an assassination attempt. He seemingly made a solid recovery — although the bullet stayed lodged in his neck — but then died suddenly a few years later, near the end of his first term, possibly from complications of the shooting (sources vary on this).

In a review of a book about Gaynor by Louis H. Pink (eponym of the Pink Houses), H.L. Mencken had this to say about the man:

Gaynor was that great rarity in American political history: a judge who actually believed in the Bill of Rights. When he sat on the bench in Brooklyn he tried to enforce it to the letter, to the natural scandal of his brethren of the ermine. Scarcely a day went by that he did not denounce the police for their tyrannies. He turned loose hundreds of prisoners, raged and roared from the bench, and wrote thousands of letters on the subject, many of them magnificent expositions of Jeffersonian doctrine. Unfortunately, his strange ideas alarmed the general run of respectable New Yorkers quite as much as they alarmed his fellow judges, and so he was always in hot water. When Tammany, with sardonic humor, made him mayor, he began an heroic but vain effort to give New York decent government. He might as well have tried to make the stockyards of Chicago smell like a field of asphodel. In the end, worn out and embittered by the struggle, he died unlamented, and today political historians scarcely mention him. Yet he was a great political philosopher and a great soul. It is the tragedy of the Republic that such men are so few, and that their efforts, when they appear, go for so little. Gaynor's life was wasted. But was it really? Perhaps some young man will read Mr. Pink's excellent account of him, and come away from it remembering that there is still such a thing as decency, and that even when it fails it is somehow glorious.
If you're interested in learning more about Mayor Gaynor, check out this fascinating collection of his letters and speeches. (He was a "prolific" and "perspicacious" letter writer who "spent a considerable amount of his workdays personally answering his constituents.")


  1. Sandi in Ashland says:

    Does the Pedestrian’s Club still exist? What an opportunity for you!

  2. Steve says:

    And we thought Mayor Koch was a ‘character’. His letters are so funny! Telling a rathcatcher to “come by some time and tell me about rats”, “do you live under a basket?”, “you owe him an apology”, “start reading proper newspaers” etc. I’m going to have to read the whole thing for all the insight it gives of the City at that time.

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