Worst 18th-Century Job: Philadelphia Mayor

There was a time when you couldn’t give away the city’s top office

No one wanted to be mayor of Philadelphia. It was a thankless job, which for the first 56 years offered an annual salary of zero. In 1745, two men turned down the position and instead accepted large fines. In 1747, Anthony Morris fled to Bucks County to hide and thus avoid notification of his election. After Morris’s disappearance, a new election was held, and William Atwood was re-elected.

Until 1839, Philadelphia’s mayors were selected by city council, not elected by the public, and until 1854 they served a one-year term (though they could be re-selected indefinitely). Robert Wharton was handed the position 16 times. Twice he refused it, but 14 other times he accepted the job, setting a terms record that Mayor Nutter could conceivably eclipse in 2067.

Nutter, who, barring an upset of Buster Douglas-style proportions will be re-elected today, is known for his rapping skills, but he’s far from the first mayor with an artistic side. Robert Conrad, who became mayor of Philadelphia in 1854, had previously worked as a writer and editor at Graham’s Magazine, where he edited the works of a writer by the name of Edgar Allan Poe.

Another interesting 19th-century Philly mayor was George M. Dallas. According to Andrew Heath, who teaches 19th-century American History at the University of Sheffield in the UK, Dallas was hated in Philadelphia. Dallas was “the closest a Philadelphia mayor has ever come to the presidency, as he served as James K. Polk’s veep between 1845 and 1849. His term as mayor in the late 1820s isn’t especially notable, but he does have the dubious distinction of being burnt in effigy in his home city, after he cast his deciding vote in the Senate in favor of a low protective tariff in 1846. He had pledged before the presidential election to defend Pennsylvania’s industrial interests, and the response to his betrayal suggests the behavior of the city’s sports fans had deep 19th-century roots!”

When it comes to sports fans, no mayor has been a bigger one than Ed Rendell, but Harry Mackey (mayor from 1928 to 1931) was probably the most athletic mayor. He played left guard and was captain of the Penn football team in the early 1890s, and he coached the University of Virginia team to a 9-3 record in 1895 before turning his attention from politics to football.

One of the most interesting men to hold the top office in Philadelphia was Samuel Davis Wilson. In 1935, the cigar-puffing Republican ran against John B. Kelly, an Olympic rowing legend who, at the time of the election, had a six-year old daughter named Grace. It was a tight race, but the brash, loud Wilson held off the gentlemanly Kelly.

Remember how, in 2003, the FBI placed bugs in City Hall, and inadvertently helped win the election for John Street? Well, it wasn’t the first time those tactics had been used. In 1937, Wilson announced that the acting governor of Pennsylvania, George Earle, had arranged for bugs to be planted in the phone of Wilson’s secretary. Outraged, Wilson decided to run for governor. He lost, but not before the state government tried to teach him a lesson, bringing him before a grand jury on frivolous gambling charges that were ultimately thrown out of court. Wilson died of a heart attack while still Mayor.

When Joseph Clark was elected in 1952, he became the first Democrat to hold the office since Samuel George King left in 1884. Thus ended a run of 14 straight Republican mayors. (Rudolph Blankenburg won on the independent Keystone Democratic ticket in 1911, but he was a Republican.) With Clark’s election the pendulum swung entirely the other way, as our last nine mayors have all been Democrats.

After Clark came Richardson Dilworth, whose term in office nearly came to a horrifying close just months after it began. He and his wife were on board the Andrea Doria when it collided with the SS Stockholm in July of 1956, six months after he had taken office. Forty-six people died in the collision, but Dilworth and his wife lived, and later had two poodles they named Andrea and Doria.

Our more recent mayors have taken on some interesting post-mayoral missions. After his one term in the early 1980s, William Green partnered with businessman Daniel Neduscin to open a restaurant in Manayunk called Arroyo Grill, which later became Carmella’s. (Today it is an empty building on Venice Island). Wilson Goode, Sr. decided to become a Baptist minister and dedicated his life to helping the children of parents who are in prison. Frank Rizzo hosted an extremely popular radio show, and Ed Rendell regularly appears as a football commentator on Comcast SportsNet.

We don’t know what Mayor Nutter will do after he’s done in office. But I am fairly confident that after tomorrow’s election, he won’t spend the next three days hiding out in Bucks County in an attempt to avoid taking the job.

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