What Marc Antony said about Julius Caesar in his famous play about the Roman dictator, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones,” is also true about Long Island City’s legendary Irish mayor Paddy Battle Axe Gleason. A deeply polarizing figure, Gleason was attacked by his enemies for his alleged corruption, buffoonery, and brawling. Gleason, however, was also adored by Long Island City’s Irish working class and especially its school children. Gleason remains one of the most colorful and charismatic figures in New York City history, but also one of the most reviled and misunderstood. Examining Gleason’s fascinating biography sheds light both on Irish and New York City history. Gleason was born as a twin in a farming family of ten children on about April 25, 1841, in Fishmoyne, Co Tipperary.
At the time of his birth, Tipperary was a place of violent conflict between Protestant landlords and their Catholic tenants, and between families like the Gleasons and the British imperialists who ruled Ireland. Gleason took after his father, a large, powerful man who defied unjust authority. He once stated that his father had always taken part in Irish revolutionary societies and was incarcerated by the Crown in 1807 for his part in a failed insurrection. The senior Gleason was said to declare in court that he was “‘the father of seven boys’” (later eight) and that he “‘thanked God that they were all rebels.” (Vaticano, P. 36)
Patrick, though the smallest of his brothers, stood 6’1 and weighed 250 pounds in his prime. He excelled at boxing and was a champion local shot putter. Gleason fought local injustice and was tried for shooting a landlord, but was acquitted. In 1862, sensing that he was a marked man, he sailed for New York.
Gleason arrived in New York following four of his brothers who would serve in the Union Army. Amazingly, his twin brother Phillip would serve in the Confederate Cavalry in an army fighting his twin and four siblings. Gleason enlisted and soon transferred to the New York 63rd Regiment, where his brother John was an officer of legendary bravery who had been recruited by Bishop John Hughes of New York City on behalf of Governor Edwin D. Morgan to fight for the Union cause during the Civil War. John Gleason, a hard-drinking, fearless 6-foot-7 behemoth of a man proved true to his Gleason rebel name, bringing his fighting experience as a Young Irelander rebel to the 63rd New York. John would show his heroism on the battlefield of Antietam on the bloodiest day of American history in 1862, where he fought at the center of the battle in a place called the Sunken Road. A huge target, nevertheless, he grabbed the American flag after the man holding it was killed and boldly advanced. In a few minutes, a bullet struck the staff, shattering it to pieces; Gleason tore the flag from the bottom staff, wrapped it around his body, putting his sword belt over it, and went through the rest of the fight untouched.
Thanks to his bravery and previous military experience, John would rise up the ranks from private to general. Patrick never won medals like his brother but made a unique claim. Gleason told a story of digging a trench not far from Washington D.C. while serving in the Army of the Potomac under General McClellan. A shadow fell over the trench and as he looked up, he saw a tall lanky fellow standing above and gazing down at him. “That’s a pretty tattered pair of breeches you have on,” said the tall man. Gleason agreed, but replied, “Uncle Sam seems short of trousers for us these days.” Lincoln asked him his name and company and Gleason returned to his digging. A few days later, Gleason’s captain summoned him to his tent and then informed him that he had a package from the White House. When Gleason opened the package, he found a pair of breeches with a note from Lincoln saying, “I think that you and I are of the same build, Private Gleason. When I got home I found this pair of trousers. They have been worn a bit, but they are better than the ones that you have. I hope they fit.” Abraham Lincoln. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle Archive December 5, 1941, Page 8)
After the war. Patrick returned to New York where he ran a distillery in Flushing and told stories for years about how he hid his profits from snooping government inspectors. Borrowing money to sail to California, Gleason found work in a San Francisco distillery whose owner paid him $5,000 to reveal his distilling secrets. Speculating in the stock market, Gleason amassed $30,000 a fortune at the time and returned to New York a wealthy man.
Gleason opened a tavern in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where in 1872 he ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for New York State Assembly. Gleason always claimed he received the most votes and was cheated out of his victory. After his defeat, Gleason moved across Newtown Creek into Queens, where he settled in the rapidly growing waterfront community of Long Island City. Gleason established a horse carriage line for families visiting their dead relatives nearby in Calvary Cemetery in 1874, making it the first trolley line on Long Island outside of Brooklyn
Gleason hoped to have more success in Queens politics than he had in Brooklyn. Long Island City was already infamous for corrupt politics. Its mayor, Henry S. Debevoise, was removed from office for his part in a money-laundering scheme, and in 1882, running as a reformer, Gleason won election as an alderman. That same year proved to be one of the most fateful in the history of Long Island City. New York City, in a rare burst of municipal virtue, had outlawed gambling and bookmaking, and to stay in business bookies moved to pool halls and saloons in Long Island City, where they were only a ferry ride away from their customers and the police could be bribed to turn a blind eye. Faro and roulette tables quickly began to appear and Gleason soon opened a gambling house conveniently near the waterfront.
The Democrats nominated Gleason to run for Mayor by the Democrats, but then tragedy struck when his wife died, leaving Gleason a widower with a four-month-old daughter. Gleason was so shaken by the tragic death of his wife that he left politics, but not for long. In the next Aldermanic election of 1885 Gleason was elected and in November 1886, he ran for mayor as an independent without being nominated by the Regular Democrats or Independent Democrats, running against incumbent George Petry. He won 1436 votes to Petry's 1258 thanks to the vote of the working-class Irish. Gleason now occupied two offices at once: alderman and mayor; when asked to resign his council seat he refused on the grounds that there was no statute in the City Charter forbidding dual office holding which was true and Gleason's dual status gave him unique power; he could act as a legislator and then pass or veto his own legislation.
Years later, Gleason said that he had entered politics to help his friends and to reward his friends with jobs, he quickly expanded the size of local government, staffing every job with his friends and supporters, arousing the anger of his political opponents. (New York Times June 30, 1899, P. 8) Gleason’s years in office are a classic study in boss rule and a mirror image of the Tweed era in New York City. He viewed the city government as his fiefdom, not only returning the government to the corrupt ways of the Debevoise regime but doing so on an unimagined scale. Gleason made himself the master of the key departments of the city governments by appointing himself as presiding officer of the Board of Education, the Board of Water Supply, the Police Board, the Fire Department, and others. In others, he appointed loyalists who owed their jobs to him. Loyalty to the boss and to the machine came before all else; where he did not control jobs directly, he awarded contracts and licenses to his friends. The poor were voted for him because their own or their father's brother's livelihood depended on party loyalty, and Gleason ensured that enough money filtered down to them to reward their loyalty.
Gleason loved children and the area’s children adored him. Every time he saw children, he scattered all the coins in his pockets and the kids scrambled to collect his largess. He was especially remembered by the orphaned newsboys, to whom he gave out scholarships and seats at public events. He built local children gleaming new schools. His crowning achievement was the construction of schools, and his great legacy is P.S #1, which is now an art museum. Gleason realized on assuming office in 1887 that the schools in Long Island City were inadequate and that larger and more modern buildings were needed. He asked for an appropriation of $75,000 and it was voted to him without question. In 1889, he applied for an additional $120,000 and again received the money. In 1890, he requested yet another appropriation of $50,000, which was again approved by the Common Council. When the mayor demanded an additional appropriation of $175,000 in 1890 to complete the schools on top of the $245,000 already approved, a tax revolt erupted and a committee of prominent citizens, and, wrested from the mayor his power to build schools, transferring this function to a School Commission. (Seyfried, P. 126)
Gleason's control of the school system affected not just the awarding of contracts but also school staffing. Fewer than 10% of the teachers hired held state certificates; most were young girls whose only qualification for teaching was that they were the relatives or friends of Gleason's ward bosses. No licensing system of any kind existed at this period and continued employment depended on the goodwill of the machine and the good voting record of the family. (Seyfried 125)
The Fire Department was another area that Gleason controlled When he came into office, Long Island City had a well-organized and efficient volunteer system. Gleason eventually won approval from Albany for a paid Fire Department on the plea that $14,000 annually would be sufficient to guarantee a level of personnel and equipment equal to the old system. When the law went into effect, Gleason appointed George Casey as chief at $1000 and so many firemen at $800 a year that the whole $14,000 was used up just for salaries. Curiously, Casey’s grandson William would become Ronald Regan’s Director of Central Intelligence. The volunteer companies were disbanded, and their apparatus sold off. Gleason spent lavishly on steamers, trucks, horses, etc. so that by 1892, the fire department had a massive debt. Of course, the appointment of new municipal firemen and the awarding of contracts for apparatus was carefully monitored by the mayor, who made himself president of the Board of Fire Commissioners and controlled all appointments to the board.
Gleason’s popularity stemmed in part from his role as a champion of the oppressed. He had the fare on the ferry from Manhattan lowered to 3 cents. He attacked “soulless" polluting corporations like Standard Oil and fought to have some of their refineries in LIC removed.
He once attended a meeting of the city council and Standard paid several goons to intimidate him from speaking. Before rising to speak he glared at the thugs and whether anyone presents wanted a run-in. No one dared challenge him and after making a speech attacking Standard Oil his listeners cheered.
He famously attacked the Long Island Railroad, which brazenly fenced off its train line, allowing only ticketed passengers to cross its tracks and dividing the town from its waterfront. Gleason carefully orchestrated and theatrically staged a raid against the Long Island Railroad. in December 1888. The mayor and some of his workmen converged on 2nd Street and Borden Avenue and informed the railroad officials that they had just 30 mins. to remove their fences, tracks, and cars from 2nd Street. When the railroad failed to respond, Gleason, his Public Works Commissioner, and 12 police officer chopped down the fences and ripped up the tracks with crowds of delighted onlookers watching. When a locomotive and train of cars backed down the track, Gleason ordered the engineer arrested. The railroad sued the mayor in court but in the end, quietly removed its tracks. The raid on the railroad earned Gleason adulation and the nickname “Battle Axe. “Thereafter he proudly adopted the ax as his symbol, wearing a diamond-studded ax on his tie.
Gleason also made himself president of the Water Board. Neither he nor his bookkeeper Fiesel was bonded, and the books of the board stayed in Gleason's keeping. In the six years from 1887 to 1892, the board went from a surplus of $21,000 to a deficit in 1892. Although the law required the filing of an annual report, none was ever submitted; nor was there an audit of any expenditure made by the board. (Seyfried P. 126)
Gleason also controlled all the appointments to the Board of Assessors and used the board for patronage and his own purposes. The subservient board punished Gleason's political opponents by unjustly and inequitably raising the assessed valuation of their property while reducing the burdens of Gleason loyalists. Fighting these unjust valuations imposed heavy costs on his political enemies. Gleason himself paid no property taxes for years. (Seyfried 127)
In 1889, Gleason stood for re-election. His opponent was Frederick W. Bleckwenn, a stolid German-born business owner who deemed campaigning beneath his dignity. Although Gleason was pilloried in the press for well-documented corruption, he managed to win the election by showmanship and publicity. While Bleckwenn stayed home, Gleason merrily rode about the city pulled by his stallions Gladstone and Parnell, while hanging his own campaign posters, even in the city schools. He bought drinks liberally and won 2890 votes to 2557 for Bleckwenn.
A New York Times article on Long Island City described “Gleason’s Absolute Monarchy.”May 8, 1890) During Gleason's second term as mayor (1890-1892), Gleason rapidly lost much of the public esteem he had enjoyed in his first term. He not only engaged in unbecoming shouting matches but began to lose his temper in public and to physically assault opponents and employees. This undignified conduct in the top official in the city attracted the attention of the New York press which portrayed him as a buffoon and a common brawler and an offensive loudmouth. When the New York Times published an article exposing his graft, he purchased and destroyed nearly every copy distributed in Long Island City.
Gleason damaged his image greatly when he approached Associated Press reporter George Crowley in a hotel lobby in 1890 and berated him, then physically attacked him, throwing him against a glass cigar stand. Gleason was arrested and convicted of third-degree assault, and served five days in the county prison, and paying a fine of $250.
When Gleason went to prison for attacking Crowley he lived like a prince. He served five days and each day children came to the jail and serenaded him. He had champagne on ice each day and a friend who lived near the jail cooked all his meals. At the time he was rebuilding his Calvary Cemetery railroad line and his workers thinking that he was in prison and could not see them loafed. But Gleason kept tabs on them with a spyglass and docked those who loafed their pay. The following year, Gleason was charged for assault again when he dislocated the shoulder of a man at a meeting of the Board of Health. The responsible men of Long Island City became increasingly mortified by Gleason’s conduct and the damage he was doing to the city's image. The upper classes in Long Island City had always been embarrassed by Gleason's vulgarity, crudity, and his flagrant patronage, so they united to defeat him in the 1892 election.
Gleason always had a stunt to attract attention and win votes. During the election campaign, a newspaper reported on the fate of Jack Barry, a one-time racehorse owned by Gleason. The mayor had donated his charger to the Sisters of St. John’s Hospital, who found little use for a racehorse and raffled him off to raise money for their good works, When the election took place in November 1892, Gleason's corrupt administration weighed heavily against him and the local newspaper, the "Star", printed a devastating account of his misdeeds and his bullying, abrasive personality. Gleason’s own treasurer, Frederick Bleckwenn, attacked him during the campaign. As a result, he lost to another Democratic candidate, Horatio S. Sanford, in a three-cornered election: Sanford tallied 2679, Gleason 2495, and Manly, the Republican, 1483. Gleason boldly challenged the vote by claiming that 1191 ballots had Sanford's name misspelled and that they should be voided.
Gleason's City Clerk Burke obligingly refused to certify Sanford's election; Sanford submitted his case against Burke to the Grand Jury. To everyone's amazement, Gleason contrived to be seated as a grand juror and refused to heed the court's objection that he could hardly with propriety sit on a case in which he was vitally interested. The presiding judge put an end to the farce by ruling that Gleason was not able to serve. Gleason, nevertheless, refused to vacate the mayoral offices, barricading himself inside, and only when a policeman clapped a hand on his shoulder and made it clear that they were prepared to physically eject him did he yield. The new mayor learning that Gleason had taken the city’s financial record books had a warrant issued for Gleason arrest on a charge of larceny. Though the newspapers reported at great length about the abuses of power that occurred during his administration, Gleason, nevertheless, enjoyed support from working-class Irish people, many of whom longed for his paternalistic rule and Gleason determined to vindicate himself by running again for mayor.
In the election of November 1895 Gleason ran as a Democrat and his supporters showed their support of Gleason by putting axes in their windows. In a three-way election, Gleason scored his last personal triumph with 2550 votes. John P. Madden, the Jeffersonian Democratic nominee, had come incredibly close with 2520. Gleason's first act was to fire all the appointees of ex- Mayor Sanford. He made a speech to his supporters in which he attacked Police Chief Woods so viciously that the Chief successfully sued him for slander. Thanks to information leaked by a childhood friend who had turned against Gleason, the State Attorney General to begin ouster proceedings on the ground that he had never been properly naturalized as a citizen. (The Journal New York June 23, 1896)
Gleason again successfully defeated these attempts to remove him but took the precaution of applying for new papers. Gleason was in office only four months when the Consolidation Act for a Greater New York was signed into law by the governor in May 1896; the result of this historic piece of legislation made Gleason the last mayor of Long Island City and that his term was shortened to two years only instead of the usual three.
Troubles continued to mount for Gleason in his years. In 1896 he suffered a heart attack, probably brought about by financial worries and political harassment. Although his trolley line was carrying an average of 350,000 passengers a year, each year saw it sink deeper into debt, and The Long Island Loan & Trust Co., which had capitalized his electrification project, foreclosed in May 1895 and a receiver took over. On May 9, 1896, Gleason's property and franchises were sold at auction and bought in by William Steinway.
Perhaps the cruelest blow to Gleason was delivered by a champion of public morality and enemy of vice, Anthony Comstock who was Secretary of the New York Society for Suppression of Vice and empowered by New York State to carry out raids on gambling venues and other dens of iniquity. Comstock learned that gambling was rampant in Long
Island City, especially at a Gleason’s personal club on Front Street. In July of 1896, Comstock and his ten agents – including “the athlete “Joe” Jefferson, who could lift 1,500 pounds of pig iron with one hand,” disguised themselves as a funeral procession headed to Calvary Cemetery from Manhattan via the LIRR Ferry. Subterfuge was necessary because of a telegraph system that the syndicate had created, one that would signal the arrival of the Society and give them a chance to hide away the evidence of wrongdoing.
Comstock’s men raided four locations, including a Blissville Pool Room at 50 Greenpoint Avenue and Gleason’s office on Front Street. They seized an incredible amount of gambling equipment and cash during the raid. Comstock described himself as having delivered a “knockout punch” to the rackets in LIC, and to Gleason personally. The NY Times, which was both anti-Irish and moralistic, celebrated the raid in a July 9th, 1896, report.
Gleason ran in the first mayoral election of the new five-borough City of New York but only received about 800 votes, finishing a humiliating fifth. Gleason’s political fortunes soon began to fade rapidly. In 1899, his longtime political club was demolished and the night before its demolition, his few remaining supporters gathered for one last rally. His speech and brogue were cruelly mocked by The New York Times, which quoted him saying, “I am in politics and expect to stay in politics f’r me frinds, f’r thim thot has stud by me.” (NY Times June 30, 1899, P.5)
In 1899, Gleason was forced to declare himself bankrupt; He was so short of money that he had to sell his two beloved horses, Gladstone and Parnell. In desperation, he started a suit to collect his mayor's salary for 1898, lost by consolidation. His last political fight was an unsuccessful attempt to get a bill signed into law that would have reimbursed Gleason for water his company had provided to Long Island City. His old friend Senator “Little Tim” Sullivan pushed hard for the bill, but Mayor Van Wick, a political enemy, vetoed the bill. On three occasions Gleason was reduced to tears pleading with Tammany Hall politicians to get Van Wick to sign the legislation, but Van Wick remained adamant.
He died May 21st, 1901, in the Miller Hotel where he lived out the last days of his life. His funeral at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church gave Long Island City’s people, especially its children, one last chance to show their love for Paddy. The local schoolboys forced their principal to lower the flag as a tribute to Gleason and the day of the funeral they staged a mass walkout to pay their final respects to Gleason. Gleason’s coffin was followed by dozens of carriages filled with mourners and three carriages filled with flowers. Conspicuous amongst the flowers was a five-foot battle ax inscribed with the words” our chief.” Seventy-five schoolgirls paced solemnly at the end of the procession. Most remarkable were the hundreds of tearful children who lined the route to Calvary Cemetery and doffed their caps as their friend’s coffin passed by.
Seyfried, Vincent: "300 years of Long Island City History," Edgian Press, NY 1984
Vaticano, Patricia "A defense of the 63rd New York State Volunteer Regiment of the Irish Brigade"