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Tough Times for Tough Portsmouth Mayors


With another exciting election looming, I thought it was a simple question. When, I asked a few knowledgeable Portsmouth people, did we start letting the city councilor with the most votes become mayor? "I do not know," one former Portsmouth mayor posted on my Facebook page, "but I certainly would support changing it."  (Click title to read full article) 


Three ex-mayors and a bunch of lawyers later, I still had no answer. My usual sources all shrugged. We know that Portsmouth graduated from a town to a city in 1849 and Abner Greenleaf became its first mayor the following year. Born in Newburyport in 1785, not long after the American Revolution, Greenleaf was a tough newspaper editor and senator whose portrait hangs in the New Hampshire statehouse.  A Unitarian and a reformer, Greenleaf initiated the Portsmouth Police Department with a city marshal who was paid $200 per year and 22 "watchmen" at $50 per annum. Crime was everywhere. The city was growing up.

Portsmouth Mayor Evelyn SirrellBack then the mayor was a powerful guy. According to the 1874 Portsmouth ordinance that I found on Google, the mayor not only had the power of the purse, but he could veto any action by the board of aldermen, the original city councilors. Corruption, ballot-box stuffing, graft, and political intrigue reigned as one powerful and wealthy man after another took control.   

That changed in 1947 when, like many cities, Portsmouth adopted a city management form of government. Hired, not elected, the city manager works at the pleasure of city council. But as "chief executive" he generally rules the roost -- managing all departments, overseeing the budget, and keeping an eye on everything the city owns. 

The mayors we got in return, at least from my experience, have been gentler, more accessible, hard-working, volunteer mayors. They have less clout and their  election depends upon being the top vote-getter in a political popularity contest. As a former high school student council president, I can identify. And as a longtime local historian, I've found it easy to sit down and chat with pretty much every mayor since I arrived in town. We know where our mayors live. We have their number. 

One personal anecdote stands out. My politics did not always jive with the late Mayor Evelyn Sirrell (1998-2005). But we often had a friendly debate while she worked as a parking lot guard at the local bank. Once I complained that I could not find any affordable office space downtown to do my writing. No problem, the mayor said. I could use her office at city hall in the mornings, as long as I vacated the desk when she needed it. That's what I call small town government.   

By my count, 63 individuals have served this office so far. Initially it was a one-year term, today it is two. But when I searched the Portsmouth Athenaeum database for pictures of past mayors, only five came up. We can see their somber portraits hanging at City Hall, but who were they? A few loom large including brewer and business giant Frank Jones (1868-69) or Portsmouth Herald founder Fernando W. Hartford (1921-22, 1928-32) . We know that the legendary Eileen Foley (1968-71, 1988-97) cut the ribbon that opened the first Memorial Bridge at age five and cut the ribbon that opened the new Memorial Bridge this year at age 95.

Our mayors have been a diverse group. You may recall that Arthur F. Brady, Jr. (1972-73) owned a car dealership. But who remembers that Sylvester F.A. Pickering (1933) was a dentist. Weighing over 280 pounds and standing more than six feet, Dr. Pickering pulled many a tooth for 50 cents, but not without a lot of pain. Robert Morrison (1857) by comparison was a wiry little schoolteacher, but he could still thrash the biggest bully in the classroom or shut down the rowdy South End bars when the need arose.




Portsmouth Mayor and city council in 1921

Tough times, tough mayors

When I looked back through hundreds of articles I've written about Portsmouth history over the years, surprisingly few made any reference to mayors. And in almost every case, these mayors faced daunting challenges. Here are a few highlights from the "tough mayor" era.

--  Thomas E.O. Marvin may have faced the worst crisis of any Portsmouth mayor. During the winter of 1873 local citizens formed a lynch mob when murderer Louis Wagner arrived in town. Thousands of citizens rioted, hurling bricks and stones at the police marshals as they escorted the prisoner from the train depot to the police station. Mayor Marvin, with pistol in hand, helped fend off the bloodthirsty mob. The crowd was pushed back at bayonet point by military forces called in from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

-- Mayor Frank W. Miller faired little better the following year. The editor of the Portsmouth Chronicle, Miller has been described as a "vigorous, imaginative newspaperman who had a flair for making a dollar." He was elected mayor of Portsmouth by a wide margin in 1874, but that same year the Democrats gained control of the governorship and both legislative bodies in New Hampshire. Miller was targeted for his Republican views and gerrymandered out of office after serving only six months as the city's mayor.

 -- The city's hard-knuckle South End was in "a state of siege" in the summer of 1912. In just 10 days four marines were found dead in the region. City marshal Thomas Entwistle, who had long turned a blind eye to rampant prostitution along water Street, was ordered to resign, but he refused to go. When Mayor Daniel Badger reluctantly made the Water Street bordellos a campaign issue in the upcoming election, Portsmouth’s dirty little secret finally became a public issue. "As Mayor of this city," Badger announced, "I call on you to close forthwith and permanently keep closed all houses of ill repute in this city, and to close forthwith and keep closed all places where intoxicating liquor is sold illegally." Marshal Entwistle quit. Mayor Badger was re-elected. The "red light" district was shut down, and the area was renamed Marcy Street.

Mayor Charles Dale2-- Portsmouth politics was a men's club with spittoons on the floor until Mary Ellen Carey Dondero broke though. Although she never graduated from eight grade, by 1940 she was the first woman on the Portsmouth City Council as World War II loomed.  An Irish woman married to an Italian, Dondero represented the heart of immigrant Portsmouth. By 1945 she was it's feisty new mayor. Historian Ray Brighton described her as having "all the ruthlessness as any of the tough male politicians around town." Yet her honesty was unquestioned, and while she opposed the new city manager form of government, she exposed a political scandal that ushered that system into place in 1947, ending the "strong mayor" era in Portsmouth.

-- The founding of Strawbery Banke Museum was a clash between Portsmouth mayors. In 1957 former city mayor Charles M. Dale (1926-27, 1943-44) tore down one of the city's colonial treasures. The destruction of the beautiful 1765 mansion that Dale owned at the corner of Congress and Middle Street (across from Discover Portsmouth) set off a firestorm reaction. Preservationists rushed to save historic buildings in the 10-acre South End waterfront area. But the ambitious plan also displaced residents of the Puddledock neighborhood. Dale (also a lawyer and New Hampshire governor) owned property in the South End too. He fought the preservation project tooth and nail, labeling it "a pig in a poke." But Mayor Andrew Jarvis (1958-59) opposed Dale and became a founder of the nonprofit Strawbery Banke Inc., now a famous heritage destination.

 MAYORS continued 


mayor stereotypes

Winner takes over

What we don't know about our hard-working mayors would fill a book. And that book would tell us a lot about the evolution of our city. I'm still not certain why we adopted our winner-gets-to-be-mayor system. After 1947 it appears that the winning city councilors chose the mayor from among their own ranks. I'd like to have been a fly on the wall at those smoke-filled backroom sessions. Did they draw straws, vote, or arm wrestle?

Then in June 1963 we see an amendment to the Portsmouth City Charter approved by the state legislature. It appears under the heading "Election of Mayor." (See Chapter 430:1, Amendment Section 13 of the Laws of 1947.) It reads, "The candidate for councilman who shall receive the largest number of votes at any election... shall be the mayor." Runner up becomes assistant mayor. In case of a tie, the councilor with the longest record of service wins.

I'm not complaining. Our city council runs as smoothly as any other governmental body lately. I'm told that Dover and Portland considered switching to "the Portsmouth system," but changed their minds. I'm also told there is a movement afoot to undo the system here, but that story belongs to a real reporter, not the history guy.

And while the era of the "strong mayor" has passed, anyone running for city councilor this week must be a little bit nervous. Things have gotten pretty scrappy around here in recent months. If your name is on the ballot for city councilor, you might just wake up Wednesday morning to find yourself the mayor. So when the next frantic Portsmouth mob rises up, probably over some tall building or parking garage issue -- this time, your Honor, they will be looking for you.


Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS. 

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