Hon. John Purroy Mitchel, JD, Class of 1894
Mayor, New York City
During his brief life, mayor and reformer John Purroy Mitchel kicked up more political dust than most men who live to be twice his age. But then again, sitting quietly on the sidelines was simply not in his genes — on either side of his family.
Mayor Mitchel’s paternal great-grandfather, Rev. John Mitchel, an Irish Protestant minister, stood so strongly against the anti-Catholic bigotry of his age that he was smeared with the offensive nickname Papist Mitchel. The reverend’s son, John Mitchel, Jr., would grow up to be a famous Irish nationalist, a political journalist, and a vocal and undaunted leader of the Irish Independence Movement. It seems that John, Jr. maried a young woman, Jane Verner, Mayor Mitchel’s grandmother, who was no less strongheaded than he. Though her father forbade her to marry Mitchel, she would run away and elope. And when her father pursued her and dragged her back home, she ran away and again. The Mitchels would eventually find themselves banished to Tanzania, charged with sedition against the British crown.
A generation later in America, John and Jane’s three sons would passionately take up the cause of the South. Two of the Mitchel boys were killed; only James, Mayor Mitchel’s father, would survive, though he had lost had an arm in the conflict. After the war, seeking to put the past behind him and start a new life, James emerged in New York where he married and became marshall of the New York Fire Brigade.
As for the other side of the mayor’s family, Mitchel’s mother, Mary Purroy, was partly of Spanish and Venezuelan descent. Her grandfather was José Joaquin de Purroy y Ecea, a Spaniard who had studied law in Europe before crossing the Atlantic to settle in Venezuela where he would marry Maria Salomé Echezuria y Echeverria, and where their son, Juan Bautista Purroy, was born.
Moving to America, Juan Bautista married Irishwoman Catharine Dillon and they raised their family in a bilingual household in New York. Although becoming an American citizen, J. B. Purroy would serve as the Venezuelan consul to the United States for many years. Among the Purroys’ children were Henry Purroy, Prep Class of 1862, who would serve on the New York City Board of Aldermen, as County Clerk, and as New York City Fire Commissioner; Francis Purroy, a physician who in addition to having a private practice on Jerome Avenue also served as Fordham’s campus physician; Charles Purroy, who would serve as chief of the FDNY; Salomé Purroy, the principal of a later eponymous public school for 30 years during the 1800s; and Maria, or Mary Purroy, a schoolteacher who would marry James Mitchel.
These were the extraordinary families into which John Purroy Mitchel was born. Though history would remember James and Mary’s son as The Boy Mayor because he was elected to New York City’s highest office in the city when he was just 34 years old — he is still the second youngest person to have served in the position — the legacy of his short and youthful political career still echoes to this day.
Born in the Bronx on July 19, 1879, John Purroy Mitchel grew up on Webster Avenue, not far from the Third Avenue Gate of the Rose Hill campus. After attending local public schools, he entered the Second Division of St. John’s College, as Fordham Prep was known, graduating as a member of the Class of 1894. As would be noted by a biographer in the Columbia Alumni News, Mitchel was “quiet and thoughtful” as a boy. He would have been among the first Prepsters to attend classes in Hughes Hall, newly constructed in Mitchel’s day. In addition, the future mayor was a foilsman during his time at Fordham — fencing had been introduced as school sport a few years earlier during the presidency of fellow Hall of Honor member Rev. Patrick Dealy, SJ, Class of 1846.
After his Hughes Hall years, Mitchel went to Columbia, where he continued to hone his parrying skills with the Lions fencing team, afterwards earning his law degree at New York Law School.
During the next few years, Mitchel held several administrative positions in city government and became known for his honesty and idealism. In 1905, he led corruption investigations of the Manhattan and Bronx borough presidents, which ended with the governor removing both men from office. Mitchel’s reputation as a strong anti-Tammany reformer grew in 1909 when, as president of the Board of Aldermen, he prepared the City’s first comprehensive budget, notable for its complete and honest accounting of municipal finances. It was about this time that he also survived an assassination attempt.
1909 was also an important year in the personal life of Alderman Mitchel. In April of that year, he married Massachusetts-born Olive Child.
With the support of anti-Tammany forces and other reformers, Mitchel was elected mayor in late 1913 on a Fusion Party ticket. He drew nationwide acclaim for his continued housecleaning of city accounting practices, new waste-cutting measures and widespread reforms in the New York Police Department. He standardized work and salary requirements for all municipal employees and devised a zoning plan for city development — the first of its kind in the United States. Mitchel also appointed Katherine Davis as commissioner of corrections, the first woman to head a major city agency anywhere in the country.
Mayor Mitchel’s reforms infuriated the still-powerful Tammany Hall faction, and in 1917, he lost his bid for reelection in 1917. With the Great War ongoing in Europe, Mitchel enlisted in the Signal Corps Army Air Service. He died in a flight training accident near Lake Charles, Louisiana in July 1918, just before his 39th birthday. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
One can find testimonials to John Purroy Mitchel’s political and military service throughout the New York area. An elaborate memorial with a bronze bust of John Purroy Mitchel stands at the 90th Street and Fifth Avenue entrance to Central Park. Mitchel Square is a small park enclosed by St. Nicholas Avenue, Audubon Avenue and 168th Street. Mitchel Field in Mineola on Long Island is named for him, and the fireboat John Purroy Mitchel served the New York waterfront from 1921 until its retirement in 1966.
A hundred years after Mitchel’s election, as the 2013 New York City mayoral race began to take shape, The New York Times took uosome of the Prep’s research on Mayor Mitchel – notably the Prep’s suggestion that on account of His Honor’s Venezuelan heritage, John Purroy Mitchel could perhaps be considered the first person of Latino heritage to hold the highest office of New York City, or of any major US city, at that. After all, as quoted in a 1916 New York Herald article, Mitchel felt a strong connection to his Latin roots:
|I have personally a very deep interest in South America that springs of family ties and personal experience, as well as from that friendship which we all feel here for our neighbors to the south. My grandfather, John B. Purroy, was born in Venezuela and, though an American citizen, represented that government here for a number of years as its consul, and I look back as among the most pleasurable and interesting experiences of my life to my visits to South and Central America.|
Despite the hopes of some twenty-first-century candidates of becoming New York’s first Latino mayor, the Prep can proudly maintain that one of its own had taken that title a century before.
To close, the words of Presdient Theodore Roosevelt:
|No stauncher American, no abler and more disinterested public servant, and no finer natural soldier than Purroy Mitchel was to be found in all our country.|