“A Thanksgiving Croker”

December 1, 1883

Charles G. Bush

“A Thanksgiving Croker”

Civil Service Reform/Patronage; New York City, Government/Politics; New York City, Mayors; Tammany Hall, John Kelly; Tammany Hall, Richard Croker;

Croker, Richard; Edson, Franklin; Devery, William;

New York City;

Wasn't It a Dainty Dish to Set Before the Mayor!

Boss Waiter, J. K. "Take him in sections, yer Honor, if yer can't swallow him at one dose."

In order to prevent a split in New York City’s Democratic Party in 1882, Tammany Hall boss John Kelly secured the mayoral nomination for a member of the anti-Tammany Democrats, Franklin Edson, a businessman who had never held public office.  After winning the election, Mayor Edson initially placed Tammany men in patronage positions.  However, he increasingly exhibited his independence of the Democratic machine and within a few months was endorsing civil service reform.  The featured cartoon pictures Boss Kelly as a waiter serving Thanksgiving Day turkey—in the guise of Tammany men applying for patronage jobs—to a displeased Mayor Edson.  Although Edson continued his strong support for civil service reform, Kelly did pressure the mayor into appointing Richard Croker, the future boss of Tammany Hall, as fire commissioner.

Franklin Edson was born in Chester, Vermont, on April 5, 1832.  As a youth, he worked on a farm during the summers and studied during the winter, eventually becoming a schoolteacher.  When 20 years old, he went to work in his brother’s whiskey distillery in Albany, New York, and then became trustee of his brother’s estate.  (The “Tammany Sauce” alcohol bottle in the cartoon is probably intended as a negative comment on the Democratic machine, not on Edson’s past association with a distillery.)  In 1859, he founded a grain and produce business called Edson, Orr, & Chamberlain, and his business skills led to the accumulation of considerable wealth during the Civil War years.  In 1866, he moved the firm to New York City, and the next year assumed sole proprietorship under its new name of Franklin Edson & Co.  He served as president of the New York Produce Exchange, the city’s commodities market, in 1866, 1873, and 1874, during which he imposed regulations for grading the value of the grains.

Within two weeks after Edson became mayor in January 1883, Harper’s Weekly complained that his appointments revealed, “that the Mayor had shown himself to be the mere agent of those who bargained for his nomination.”  That the new mayor was only a tool of John Kelly and Tammany Hall was “a foregone conclusion,” the journal argued, given Edson’s political inexperience and the current charter under which the city government operated, which gave little independent authority to the mayor.  

However, in its March 3 issue, Harper’s Weekly was pleasantly surprised to report that Mayor Edson had proposed a new charter for the city government that was “the best charter which has been suggested for the actual situation in the city.”  It earned the paper’s praise by defining and concentrating power in the officer of the mayor, allowing him to appoint department heads and remove them under certain circumstances.  In May, Edson further pleased the national newspaper by urging that construction of the Croton Aqueduct not degenerate into a pork-barrel project.  A couple of weeks later, the publication reported that Edson, “as an intelligent and self-respecting man,” had broken with Tammany Hall, as had the Democratic governor, Grover Cleveland.

In September, Harper’s Weekly was heartened by Mayor Edson’s endorsement of civil service reform in city government.  In the December 1 issue, in which the featured cartoon appeared, the Mayor is quoted praising the application of the merit rules of civil service reform to the New York State government, and promising to adapt the reform rules to the city’s government in the new year.  In September 1884, the journal congratulated Edson on his appointment of talented reformers to the city’s civil service commission.  “The cordial cooperation of Mayor Edson in this good work, like that of Governor Cleveland, has been of signal service to a reform which is absolutely non-partisan, and which has been effectively supported by men of all parties.” 

Well, not by everyone.  Tammany Hall, of course, was furious over Edson’s support of reforms that threatened to undermine its power.  The divisions in New York City’s Democratic Party, which Kelly had temporarily united in 1882, severed completely in 1884.  William R. Grace, a former Democratic mayor, was elected mayor as an independent backed by anti-Tammany Hall Democrats, defeating the Tammany Hall and Republican candidates.  Edson thereafter retired from politics, returning to business and charitable pursuits.  He died on September 24, 1904, in New York City.

Robert C. Kennedy

“A Thanksgiving Croker”
June 17, 2024

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