Part Six Of “Catholic Power: Irish American Politics” Series
Frank Hague’s critics claimed he was “New Jersey’s Hitler“, “Hitler on the Hudson”, and “Dictator – American Style“. His opponents also typically described him as a “fascist” and a “dictator”.
In 1937 when they accused Hague of breaking the law, he famously declared “I am the law!”
In a speech to the Jersey City Chamber of Commerce the next year, he added:
“We hear about “constitutional rights”, “free speech” and the “free press”. Every time I hear those words I say to myself, “That man is a Red, that man is a Communist.” You never heard a real American talk in that manner.”
In fact, Hague even advocated for concentration camps for communists to be built in Alaska.
American historian Dayton David McKean described Hague as “a Ruthless, two-fisted, unscrupulous, unlettered Irishman (who) rose from the slums of Jersey city to command his city and his state.”
Hague was born in 1876 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was the fourth of eight children immigrants from County Cavan, Ireland.
His mother made sure he attended mass, but no one succeeded in getting him to school very often. In the sixth grade, he was expelled for habitual truancy.
Hague saved money and purchased a few suits. He wore them to appear successful and was known for his “impeccably clean shirts and four-buttoned, double-breasted plaid suits.”
In 1896, his flashy appearance caught the attention of “Nat” Turner, a local tavern owner. Turner asked Hague to run for a city government position in an upcoming election against the candidate of a rival tavern owner.
Hague accepted and Turner gave him $75 for his campaign, which would be equal to $2,000 today. Hague won his first election with over 75% of the vote.
His wide victory got the attention of the local Democratic Party and boss “Little Bob” Davis. He asked Hague to help campaign for the 1897 Mayoral election. As a reward for his service, Hague was appointed Deputy Sherriff and became a local ward “boss”.
In 1904, Hague was approached by a woman with a son who had been accused of passing a forged check. Hague came up with an alibi and claimed he had seen her son on the day of the alleged offense.
Later, Hague was found guilty of contempt of court for ignoring a subpoena. He was fined $100 and stripped of his duties as Deputy Sheriff.
However, the incident actually boosted his reputation among ethnic Catholics because he “had gone out of his way to help a friend – had practically given his livelihood to aid a brother.” Hague was deeply embraced by his city and its people.
He advanced through the ranks of the local Democratic Party with the support of his community.
In 1913, Hague was named public safety commissioner, giving him control over the police and fire departments. He immediately reformed the Jersey City police force by hiring tough ethnic Catholic recruits.
Heague created a group of officers known as the Zeppelin Squad or “zepps”, who were personally loyal to him alone. The “zepps” would also conduct investigations and personally reported their findings to him.
Hague had little tolerance for his opposition. In 1920, he created a city ordinance which required anyone making political speeches to obtain approval from the chief of police. In 1930, he created another ordinance which gave himself the right to deny any permits for public meetings if he felt it was necessary to prevent “riots, disturbances or disorderly assemblage.”
Later, this ordinance was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States, but Hague ignored them and continued to do it anyways.
He also led crackdowns on prostitution and drug trafficking. In fact, Hague personally busted burlesque shows, marching onto the stage and disrupting the “girlie shows” as they were in process.
Hague earned a reputation as the man who cleaned up the police force and was chosen as the new mayor in 1917.
Technically, Hague’s only responsibility as mayor was to appoint the school board. Otherwise, he was merely first among other city council members, with no powers over and above others.
After taking office though, he quickly took control of the Hudson County Democratic Party. He rewarded friends and supporters with city jobs. His organizational skills and loyal supporters built one of the most powerful political “machines” in the country.
During the height of his power Hague’s political machine, known as “the organization,” was one of the most powerful in the United States controlling politics on local, and state levels. He nominated his “puppets” as governors and called the shots after they were elected.
However, Hague was not without faults. His desk in City Hall had a specially designed lap drawer which could be pushed outward towards the person with whom he was meeting. This allowed his “guests” to discreetly deliver bribes in the form of envelopes containing large amounts of cash. He was thin skinned and short-tempered. His off-the-cuff remarks were often profane and sometimes obscene.
However, Hague was a committed ethnic Catholic who was entirely devoted to his community. In 1940, Hague made donated a $50,000 altar to St. Aedan’s Roman Catholic Church in Jersey City.
Eventually though, Hague’s Republican opponents took control of the state government and began to pressure his “machine”. They launched several criminal investigations which eventually destroyed his reputation.
Hague died on New Year’s Day in 1956 at his Park Avenue penthouse in New York. Later, he was laid to rest at Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City.
While hundreds gathered to see the casket depart the funeral home, only four men were seen to remove their hats for the passing of the coffin. One woman present held an American Flag and a sign that read, “God have mercy on his sinful, greedy soul”.
This article is part six of the “Catholic Power: Irish American Politics” series:
Introduction: Jett and Jahn Media Presents “Catholic Power: Irish American Politics”
Al Smith: New York Governor
Father Charles Coughlin: Catholic Fascism?
John Fitzgerald: Boston Mayor
Joe Kennedy: America’s Royal Family?
James Michael Curley: Massachusetts Governor
Frank Hague: Jersey City Mayor
Joe McCarthy: Wisconsin Senator
John F. Kennedy: United States President
Richard J. Daley: Chicago Mayor
Martin P. Mullen: Pennsylvania State Congressman
Conclusion: Modern Catholics & Politics