The strange death of an N.Y.C. mayor

In the June 13 edition of The Observer, I wrote a feature story about the misadventures of a young man who, in 1910, flew a small dirigible from Belleville to New York City, first trying to land in Manhattan, then crashing in Brooklyn.  He survived, apparently unscathed; the balloon did not.

The daredevil, Frederick F. Owens, was an employee of Hillside Pleasure Park in Belleville, a vast amusement complex that drew tens of thousands of visitors to the town in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Dirigible races above Washington Avenue were reportedly among the attractions.

Owens’ apparently unscheduled flight made headlines in the New York papers, including The Times, which reported that the pilot had hoped to “drop in on Mayor Gaynor” at Manhattan’s City Hall Park.

Mayor who? No first name was given, and I had never heard of a Mayor Gaynor.

Being a history buff,  I looked him up — and found an incredible story.

When the Google results popped up, there was this 2013 Smithsonian magazine headline: “An Assassin’s Bullet Took Three Years to Kill NYC Mayor William Jay Gaynor.”


Gaynor was 60 when he was inaugurated mayor on Jan. 1, 1910. He was a Democrat who had been nominated by the city’s infamous power brokers at Tammany Hall, but, as noted on Wikipedia: “Gaynor’s marriage with Tammany was short-lived; soon after taking office, he filled high-level government posts with experts, and city employees were chosen from civil service lists in the order they appeared, effectively curbing patronage and nepotism.”

Tammany fed on patronage and nepotism, but it was not the political machine that literally targeted the mayor; it was reportedly a disgruntled dockworker who had lost his job.

Gaynor was shot in the throat by the gunman on Aug. 9, 1910, just seven months after taking office, but he continued to serve as mayor until his death in 1913.

The Smithsonian article, written by Rose Eveleth, notes that, although Gaynor survived the assassination attempt, “the bullet stayed in his throat, slowly robbing him of the ability to speak. He remained a politician, though, and was a strong enough opponent of corruption that Tammany Hall Democrats refused to support him for reelection in 1913.”

[Note: Can you imagine a politician who couldn’t speak? Personally, I like the idea.]

Eveleth continues: “Gaynor ran anyway, announcing an independent run for mayor on the steps of City Hall. His secretary had to make his speech for him, but, according to the Bowery Boys [], as the secretary explained Gaynor’s plan to eradicate graft, the mayor leaped up and cried, ‘Yes, that is what we are going to do — shovel all those miserable grafters into the common dump!’”

Treating himself to a vacation before entering what would be a fierce election fray, Gaynor set sail for Europe aboard the RMS Baltic. Six days later, on  Sept. 10, 1913, he was found dead in a deck chair.  Notes Wikipedia: “After his death, doctors concluded that he died of a heart attack and that his old wound was at most a minor contributing factor.”

Weird sidelight: Gaynor’s body was returned to New York aboard the eventually doomed Lusitania.

Another oddity: Gaynor, ready for a European cruise,  had been shot aboard an ocean liner. the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, when it was docked in Hoboken prior to sailing. William Warnecke, a photographer for The New York World, was snapping pictures of the mayor and just happened to catch the very moment the would-be assassin struck. In the callous news biz, we call that luck.

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