San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
Frank Hague of Jersey City, New Jersey
Frank Hague came from a squalid Irish-immigrant slum area of Jersey City called the Horseshoe. The Irish had come to the area as workers for building the railroad lines that linked New York City with the rest of the country and settled there after the railroads were completed. Frank Hague's father worked as a blacksmith in the railroad yards of Jersey City.
Frank Hague was expelled from school in the sixth grade as a troublemaker and never returned. He worked for two years as a blacksmith's helper at the Eire Railroad yards, the only private industry job he ever held in his whole life. After he quit the railroad job he managed a prizefighter for awhile before being recruited by a local Democratic boss to manage a "social club" in the Horseshoe. The social club was in effect a street gang that could be called upon during political campaign to beat up opponents and intimidate the electorate. He soon broke with this boss over the matter of rewards for services and allied himself with other bosses. At 21 he ran for ward constable and won with a little help from a friend who stole a precinct ballot box and altered the ballots. But to young Hague's chagrin the position did not pay a salary. Despite his disappointment he organized his friends into a political faction and offered support to the leader of the county machine. They were so effective in getting out the vote in a sheriff's election that Hague and some of his friends were rewarded by being appointed deputy sheriffs at a salary that was three times the average workman's wage.
Shortly after this there occurred an episode that plagued Hague for years. A friend of his, Red Dugan, had been identified as passing fraudulent checks in Boston. Dugan prevailed upon Hague to go to Boston and testify under oath that he had seen him in a park in Jersey City the day the checks were passed. Unfortunately for Hague, after he returned to Jersey City Dugan confessed and the Boston court called for the prosecution of Hague for perjury. Hague was not extradicted to Boston so he never had to stand trial but the "Red Dugan affair" of 1904 was brought up time and time again. It didn't hurt Hague too much with the Irish voters because they understood that he had done it for friendship and, according to Hague, only because his mother begged him to do it.
The political machine of Hudson County, which includes Jersey City, had lost control of the mayor's office of Jersey City and Hague was brought into the machine to help win back control by electing the machine's candidate, Otto "The Dutchman" Wittpenn. When Wittpenn won the election Hague wanted as a reward for his help to be appointed custodian of the city hall, a job that had a good salary and whose duties could be left to 100 underlings of his own choosing. In addition this job offered the opportunity of doing favors for outsiders at city hall. The county boss denied Hague's request but the newly elected mayor granted it. This led to a political split between the county boss and the mayor of Jersey City he helped to elect. The county boss threatened to have the Hudson County Board of Aldermen pass an ordinance that would change the nature of the position of Custodian of City Hall such that Hague would be out of a job. Hague had a few people beat up as a warning to the Aldermen and they decided not to act on the proposed ordinance.
It was quite common for political allies to have a falling out over the division of the spoils of political victory. But after falling out over such matters they sometimes got back together out of political necessity. The county boss supported Wittpenn for re-election and Wittpenn won. Hague then urged Wittpenn to run for governor of New Jersey. The county boss feared this would give Hague too much power so the county boss refused to support Wittpenn's race for the governorship and supported Woodrow Wilson instead. Wilson was successful and later went on to become President of the U.S.
The county political boss died and Hague's political prospects improved. In 1911 Wittpenn ran again for mayor of Jersey City and Hague ran for a place on the five-member Street and Water Commission. Hague and Wittpenn campaigned on a platform of being against "bossism." Both won their campaigns.
Hague began a program of actally cleaning the streets and enforcing the city's anti-littering ordinance. Before Hague the streets were seldom cleaned and then only just before elections. Hague required the streets to be cleaned every night by hosing them with water from the fire hydrants. Hague achieved a reputation as an economizer by cutting the number of employees in the Street and Water Department from 218 to 116. But after the newspapers praised his economizing he quietly increased the number of employees to a higer figure than before.
Jersey City switched to a commission form of government from the city council type. By this time Hague and Wittpenn were political rivals. Hague ran a slate of five, including himself, called the the "Unbossed." All but one of the five commissioners were under the control of Hague. The commissioner elected by the largest vote became mayor. This time the mayor was not a Hague man, but in the election of 1917 the front runner, a Hague man, declined the mayor-ship in favor of Hague. Hague continued to be mayor of Jersey City for thirty years.
One of the first things Hague did was to try to increase tax revenues by increasing the assessed value of Standard Oil property, the public utility companies and the railroads the ran through Jersey City. He had them increased by a factor of about ten. These property owners went to the New Jersey Board of Tax Assessments and got the increases canceled. Hague then decided that he needed to gain control of the state government in order to prevent being thwarted in raising tax revenues in Jersey City.
The basis of a political machine like Hague's which was limited to Hudson County is that a political boss can deliver a large vote to his choice in the statewide election. There is a large legitimate vote in favor of the boss' candidate which can be enhanced, if necessary, by voter fraud. Usually the election returns from the boss' area are reported late, after the count for the rest of the state is known and the machine knows how much of a favorable vote has to be delivered. In the case of the governor's race of 1919 the candidate running against Hague's choice, had a 21 thousand vote lead in the rest of the state but the 35 thousand plus plurality delivered by the Hague machine was sufficient to win the election. In the next governor's race in 1922 Hague's candidate was behind 34 thousand votes in the rest of the state, but the 46 thousand vote lead in Hudson County was enough for victory for Hague's choice. In 1925 Hague's candidate was behind 65 thousand votes in the rest of the state but a 103 thousand plurality in Hudson County brought victory for Hague's choice.
The election-winning pluralities were achieved only in part by fraud. Hague had an army of election workers to get out the vote on election day. These had to be rewarded with jobs and so Jersey City had the highest level of public employees in proportion to the population of any city in the country. Many of the jobs held by Hague people had no duties.
The electorate itself also had to convinced to support Hague. This was achieved by a number of means. From the very beginning of his career Hague delivered on public services such as street cleaning, police and fire response to calls. Hague himself used to go for walks at night and call in emergency calls to the police and fire department and time the response. If the police or firemen were slow in responding they would be punished by Hague, usually verbally but occasionally physically with a punch in the face. Hague provided social services for the poor such as free food, clothing and coal and helping them find jobs. The rest got help with complaints about garbage collection and nonfelony problems with the police. He staged parades and excursions. He made the Catholic Church and veterans' groups allies by gifts and support. He courted the "mothers vote" by suppressing vices such as gambling and prostitution. He loved to say, "Jersey City is the most moralest city in the country." The gem of his regime was the 2000-bed Jersey City Medical Center, including the Margarite Hague Maternity Hospital named after his beloved mother. This was the equal of any medical center in the U.S. and most Jersey City residents got its services without charge. It cost about $3 million a year to run the medical center and it brought in only about $15 thousand a year in fees.
The cost of the Hague regime was not just in higher taxes, although Jersey City did have significantly higher taxes. Jersey City's budget was larger than cities with twice its population. The most serious costs of the Hague regime was in the loss of civil rights. Political opponents would be beaten without hesitation by Hague's political workers or the police. One may who tried to arrest an illegal voter in one election found himself arrested and held on $3500 bail. In an election in the 1920's the Honest Ballot Association sent 245 Princeton University students to Jersey City to act as poll watchers. Within one hour, five were beaten up so badly that they had to be sent to the hospital and all of them were excluded from the polling places.
Consider the case of poor, idealistic John Longo. In 1937 Longo put together an anti-Hague slate in the Democratic primary. Hague had Longo arrested on trumped up charges and a Hague judge sent Longo to jail for nine months. In 1943 the Governor of New Jersey appointed Longo as Deputy Clerk in Hudson County. Hague again had Longo arrested and six Hague-supplied witnesses gave perjured testimony and a Hague judge sentenced Longo to prison for 18 months to 3 years.
Hague also was quite determined to keep organizers for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions out of Hudson County. He could tolerate the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AF of L) and even work with them. But the CIO he considered to be communist-dominated. No meeting halls were available to the CIO and the police simply picked up the organizers, beat them up and deposited them outside of the county.
Hague himself was quite candid. Two of his statements most frequently quoted were, "I am the law," and "I decide; I do; Me!"
It was clear by this time to Hague's opponents, both locally and statewide, that if they were ever to win another election they would have to get rid of Hague. Investigations were launched into Hague's personal finances. On a salary of only $8 thousand Hague had managed to amass millions of dollars worth of property. The investigations were not able to provide sufficient evidence to indict Hague much less convict him.
It was observed after decades of rule by Hague that although the Statue of Liberty is visible from Jersey City its back is turned. Hague finally announced his retirement from politics at age 69 in 1947. In fact he continued to run the machine through his nephew, Frank Hague Eggers. The machine lost control about four years later and Hague died in 1956.
For the story of other poliical bosses and their machines click on Bosses
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