Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia’s mayoral election of 1935 promised to be a contest of epic proportions. For nearly three-quarters of a century, since the end of the Civil War, Republicans had virtually controlled nearly every phase of city government. Their success had rested on their historical legacy as “the Party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.” By the early 1930s, however, Philadelphians were beginning to question the dominance of the Grand Old Party.

Corruption within Republican ranks, coupled with the precarious state of the economy, signaled a dire need for political change. Shifting allegiances within the traditional organization of party politics resulted in a climactic battle for the mayor’s office. John B. Kelly (1889-1960), a longtime member of the Republican Party who had recently turned Democrat, challenged Philadel­phia’s Republican machine and its candidate, S. Davis Wilson, a controversial but colorful city controller who, coincidentally, had recently defected from the Democra­tic Party.

Both contenders were political heavyweights. Kelly, a former Olympic athlete, an entrepreneur, and a sportsman, was the most representative Irish Catholic leader of his generation in Philadelphia. True to his working-class origins, he pledged to promote federal work relief programs, remove unnecessary employees from the city’s payroll, and make efficient use of the city’s abandoned subways.

Wilson, on the other hand, came from the more genteel, established ranks of society. Backed by Joseph N. Pew, the fanatically anti-FDR head of the Sun Oil Company, Wilson adopted the Republican’s obligatory opposition to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and promised to maintain city payrolls without increasing taxes, a measure that appealed to white and blue collar workers alike.

While Kelly ran a clean campaign by focusing on issues, Wilson succumbed to mudslinging that had recently become a trademark of Republican politics. Calling his opponent an “unmitigated liar” for making promises that he couldn’t deliver, Wilson attempted to show that Philadelphia Democrats were influenced by graft and bribery. Kelly’s witty comebacks – as well as his impeccable reputation as an upstanding civic leader and honest businessman – ­only served to frustrate Wilson’s efforts.

Unfortunately for Kelly, old habits died hard in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphians voted Wilson into the mayor’s office by a margin of less than fifty thousand votes, in spite of wide­spread belief that the Republican machine was corrupt. Kelly’s three hundred and thirty thousand votes were the most ever received by a Democratic candidate in Philadelphia. His achieve­ment marked the beginning of the end of Republican control in Philadelphia, and in less than twenty years, Democrats would dominate the city’s political culture. By the early 1950s, Kelly, too, would exert a major influence on Democratic politics on local, state, and national levels.

Several important demographic and economic changes during the late twenties and early thirties set the stage for the 1935 mayoral election. Like many northeastern industrial cities, Philadelphia witnessed a heavy influx of eastern European immigration. Russians, Poles, and Italians joined a significant population of Irish and Germans. As each new wave of immigrants arrived, they were drawn into the control of the Republican Party machine by ward leaders who provided employment and housing. Similarly, increasing numbers of blacks that had migrated from the South gave their support to the “Party of Lincoln,” which only served to tighten its stronghold.

By determining who was elected, who the city employed, and who received lucrative municipal contracts, the extraordinarily powerful Republican Party controlled Philadelphia’s local government at virtually every level. This kind of bossism was most apparent in the voting process where intimidation and ballot-box stuffing were commonly used to crush even the most subtle reform attempts. Impressionable immigrants who needed the Republican machine to survive in their new city formed an “unholy alliance” with the party which needed them for guaranteed voting allegiance. Worse, investigations revealed that Republican office­holders were repeatedly involved in embezzlement, kickbacks, and graft. Hundreds of politicians tied to the machine accepted bribes and shake­down money while local law enforcement looked the other way. Under these conditions, party loyalty became more important than public service, inevitably resulting in a vast, inefficient government.

Many public service projects were left unfinished or in disrepair. Philadelphia lacked a clean water filtration system, an adequate sewer system, and a well­-equipped police department. Garbage was collected by horse and buggy, streets caved in because of flooded subways, limited street lighting posed a threat to pedestrian safety, and business and tourism were in decline. And the Great Depression only made things worse.

As upper and middle class families left the city for the security and stability of the suburbs, they took much of Philadelphia’s taxable property and wealth with them. By 1933, the Philadelphia County Board of Assistance counted nearly one hundred and sixty thousand individuals on its rolls; 11.5% of all whites, 16.27% of all blacks, and 19% of all foreign-born residents were out of work. Government assistance was given begrudg­ingly and only to those who gave their unconditional loyalty to the machine. Nor did city government contribute anything to help solve the w1employment crisis, leaving that responsibility to the Commonwealth. Philadelphians began to wonder whether the Republi­cans had their interests at heart or even if they could turn to a political alternative for the problems that plagued their city. John B. Kelly emerged to address the widespread concern.

An ambitious bricklayer from a working-class Irish Catholic family, Kelly established a contracting firm, Kelly for Brickwork, and through hard work, personal charm, and the right connec­tions, he managed to build his business into the largest construction company on the East Coast. His success as an oarsman (winning the Olympic gold medal in the single sculls in 1920), dashing good looks, and business fortunes made John B. Kelly the toast of Philadelphia. He won election as a city councilman and became chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party in 1933. As chairman, he helped Democrats win the offices of City Treasurer, Comptroller, Coroner, and Registrar of Wills; he also helped quintuple Democratic registration in Philadelphia’s wards from thirty-three thousand in 1931 to slightly below one hundred and eighty thousand by 1933! But the greatest effect of Kelly’s work came in 1934 when George H. Earle (1890-1974), of neighboring Montgomery County, became Pennsylvania’s first Democratic governor in forty-four years. (Democrat Robert E. Pattison defeated Republican challenger George W. Delamater by sixteen thousand votes in the 1890 gubernatorial election.) The victory was largely credited to Kelly’s ability to turn out the Democratic vote in Philadelphia.

Having secured a strong political base among Democrats both at the city and state levels, Kelly was ready to challenge Philadelphia’s Republican hegemony and declared himself a candidate for mayor in 1935. His engaging, charismatic personality was a sharp contrast to the older, corrupt Republican bosses who opposed him and thus, he had the aura of a successful outsider challenging an entrenched, failing system.

He entered the election driven by a strong desire to put an end to the ineffective municipal government. Unlike his Republican opponents, he orchestrated an issues-oriented campaign that addressed the needs of the people. With a poor economy and rampant unemploy­ment, Philadelphians desperately wanted federal assistance for local relief pro­grams. If elected, Kelly promised to apply for federal assistance for local relief programs, making Roosevelt’s New Deal policies a central component of his campaign. He promised to end corrup­tion in city government by removing needless personnel, eliminating kick­backs and graft, and canceling wasteful public works projects. Because he refused to defer to Philadelphia’s monied politicians, supporters hailed Kelly as a “pure knight” in a land of “political dragons,” and as a “man who would keep his promises.”

Throughout the campaign, Kelly’s opponents went to great lengths to discredit him and his allies. They attacked him with allegations of ques­tionable past political involvement, but were unable to find any trace of unethi­cal behavior, let alone a full-blown scandal. Frustrated, they turned their attentions to Kelly’s most ardent sup­porters. City Treasurer Will Hadley, a Republican who was supporting the Democratic candidate, was their first target. Wilson accused the Democrats of paying Hadley twenty-five thousand dollars for his support. Hadley immedi­ately refuted the charge, insisting that Wilson intended to “use the people of Philadelphia as stepping stones to further his political ambitions,” and that the Republican mayoral candidate “turns with the political winds in order to create votes for himself.” Wilson also attacked Matthew McCloskey, Kelly’s chief financial backer, insinuating that his construction contracts were awarded as bribes. Even Governor Earle was accused of being “incompetent” and “inefficient,” and of wanting to “saddle taxpayers with one hundred million dollars of new debt.”

While Kelly managed to steer clear of scandal, he could not dethrone the Republican machine, losing an extremely close election to Wilson by a count of 379,222 to 333,825. Compared to the previous election, in which the Republi­cans won by a margin of three hundred and thirty-one thousand votes, Kelly’s showing was impressive. It also led many to question the validity of the Republican victory.

On the day of the election, Kelly complained to a Philadelphia judge that the Republicans were giving illegal assistance to voters who claimed they could not operate the voting machines. While machines were used in forty of the city’s wards, paper ballots were used in the remaining eight. According to the Committee of Seventy, a watchdog group that monitored the election process, paper ballots often lent themselves to fraud. In this particular case, those paper ballots could have easily accounted for the fifty thousand-vote-margin that gave Wilson the victory, although it was never proven.

“Our total vote today should hearten our party,” said Kelly after his defeat. “It is the highest vote ever cast in this city for the Democratic Party. To them, I pledge we will devote ourselves to the best interests of Philadelphia in the future. We have only begun to fight.” Kelly’s graciousness in defeat, as well as his continuing willingness to work for more efficient city government, persuad­ed many Philadelphians to join the Democratic Party. It also earned him the praise of Democrats nationwide, includ­ing President Roosevelt.

John B. Kelly’s rise in Democratic politics symbolized a dramatic change in Philadelphia’s political climate. His campaign forced the Republican Party to reconsider its policies. When he took office in January 1936, Mayor Wilson realized he could no longer maintain the Republicans’ anti-New Deal stance and accepted nearly two million dollars in Works Progress Administration funds to put unemployed Philadelphians back to work. In so doing, he unwittingly paved the way for bringing the Democratic National Convention to the city later that year. The Democrats, under Kelly, had established a new agenda for Philadel­phia politics.

The following three mayoral elections were extremely close and, finally, in 1951, the Democrats prevailed, sending Joseph S. Clark to City Hall as mayor. Kelly went on to serve in Governor Earle’s cabinet as Secretary of Revenue and, later, as National Health Director for President Roosevelt, but he had made his greatest political contribution in Philadel­phia. He was the first person who dared attack the walls of the Republican citadel, serving as the catalyst for the resurgence of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party. Except for three slim Republican victo­ries between 1939 and 1947, the Democrats have controlled Philadelphia City Hall to this day, thanks Largely to John Brendan Kelly.


For Further Reading

Baltzell, E. Digby. Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia. New York: Free Press, 1979.

Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadel­phians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.

Lewis, Arthur H. Those Philadelphia Kellys. New York: William Morrow, 1977.

McCaffery, Peter. When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine, 1867-1933. Universi­ty Park: The Pennsylvania State Universi­ty Press, 1993.

McCallum, John Dennis. That Kelly Family. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1957.

Weigley, Russell F. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: Norton, 1982.


The editor thanks regular contributor William C. Kashatus for his assistance in acquiring and editing this piece for publica­tion in Pennsylvania Heritage.


Jesse T. Rendell, Philadelphia, is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.