In 1910, a mayor was shot in Hoboken. The victim was the mayor not of Hoboken, but of New York: William Jay Gaynor (1851-1913). Gaynor has been portrayed as “the most cantankerous man ever to rule his city, his temper tantrums said to make even Peter Stuyvesant and Fiorello LaGuardia look like altar boys.”
He liked children and adored pigs, and while serving as a judge he once threw an inkwell at a man in open court. Gaynor was of a philosophical bent, read widely in the classics, and concealed his malicious humor behind unsmiling blue eyes.
The plot thickens
After having worked seven months on municipal affairs, Gaynor decided to vacation in Europe. On Aug. 9, 1910, accompanied by his son Rufus, Gaynor boarded the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse at its pier in Hoboken. A natty dresser, with his outfit topped by a black derby, the mayor stood on deck. He chatted with friends, three city commissioners, his corporation counsel, and his male secretary. A New York World photographer, William Warnecke, raised his camera to take a picture of the group.
At that moment, an untidy little man stepped up behind the mayor. The intruder turned out to be James J. Gallagher, who had been fired from his job in the New York City docks department and who blamed the mayor for his troubles.
Gallagher pressed a gun to the back of Gaynor’s neck and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered behind the mayor’s right ear.
Gaynor later wrote to his sister:
My next consciousness was of a terrible metallic roar in my head… It was sickening, but my stomach did not give way. I was meanwhile entirely sightless. I do not think I fell, for when I became conscious, I was on my feet… My sight gradually returned, so that after a while I could see the deck and the outlines of the crowd around me.
I became conscious that I was choking. Blood was coming from my mouth and nose and I tried all I could to swallow it so those around me would not see it. But I found I could not swallow and then knew my throat was hurt… I struggled to breathe through my mouth, but could not, and thought I was dying of strangulation… I was not a bit afraid to die if that was God’s will of me. …In some way I happened to close my mouth tight and found I breathed perfectly through my nose.
The World photographer, who clicked his camera two or three seconds after the would-be assassin fired, got one of the most notable pictures in journalistic history.
At the time, the World‘s city editor was Charles E. Chapin, a brilliant but cynical man who later murdered his own wife. When Warnecke’s print was developed in the World office, Chapin grabbed it and reportedly exulted, “What a wonderful thing! Look! Blood all over him – and exclusive too!”
To St. Mary Hospital
Aboard the liner in Hoboken, “Big Bill” Edwards, the New York street-cleaning commissioner and a former Princeton football player, grabbed Gallagher and held him until the police arrived.
The mayor was urged to lie down on the deck, but refused. He couldn’t bear to have people see him in his horrible condition.
He was led to his stateroom and lifted into bed. Because he was choking, they had to prop him up. The ship’s doctor washed Gaynor’s face and beard and bandaged his wound.
An ambulance took the mayor to St. Mary Hospital. He remained there for about three weeks.
Haggard but crusty
When Mayor Gaynor returned to New York’s City Hall on Oct. 3, a crowd gathered to cheer him. Although the mayor looked haggard, he was as crusty as ever. Hearing an officious policeman bellowing at people around his car, Gaynor poked his head out a window and snapped, “None of that, now! None of that!”
Surgeons were unable to extract the bullet from his throat, and he was a sick man the rest of his life. When he didn’t want to talk about an unpleasant subject, Gaynor would croak, “Sorry, can’t talk today. This fish hook in my throat is bothering me.”
His temper, which had been brittle enough before, now shattered at the slightest touch.
On Sept. 4, 1913, three years after the shooting, the exhausted mayor boarded the steam-ship Baltic for a restful ocean voyage. Six days later, 200 miles from Liverpool, Mayor Gaynor finally succumbed to the bullet.
Editor’s note: A full version of this column was originally printed in Hoboken History Issue No. 11, published by the Hoboken Historical Museum. Please visit the museum at 1301 Hudson St. for more information. To read past columns from this year-long series, visit www.hobokenreporter.com.