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Tough Times for Tough Portsmouth Mayors


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 

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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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