Official Acts

I f you think Mayor Justin Elicker has his hands full these days, meet Mayor John W. Murphy. The son of a blacksmith and a domestic worker rose through New Haven’s Democratic Party to serve seven terms during what was arguably the most challenging stretch of the city’s history. First elected in 1931, the man former senator Chris Dodd described as “one of the outstanding mayors in the long history of Connecticut” shepherded the city through both the Great Depression and World War II.

“The victory of Mr. Murphy in this city was by a majority several thousand larger than that won by any previous Mayor,” The New York Times reported following the 1931 election that brought Murphy to office. That year’s turnout, with 51,230 ballots cast, was the largest for a city candidate in New Haven history, the Times reported.

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A New Haven native, Murphy was born in 1878 “in a small wooden-frame house on Blatchley Avenue,” according to the 1988 biography Saving New Haven: John W. Murphy Faces the Crisis of the Great Depression, written by his grandson, Mark J. Mininberg. An Irish Catholic, Murphy came of age in an era of strong anti-Irish and -Catholic sentiment. Through his work as a young man in the city’s cigar factories, he became a labor leader, securing “better ventilation and less cramped quarters” for his fellow workers. After a short stint as an insurance salesman, he returned to the cigar factories as a union organizer.

By the time of his election to the city’s highest office, Murphy had already served as president of the New Haven Central Labor Council and sat for 18 years on the Board of Aldermen, ultimately as its president, as well as filling in as acting mayor during the administration of David E. Fitzgerald. But nothing could have prepared the new mayor for the challenges awaiting him.

For one, he had inherited “the largest deficit in the city’s history”—according to Mininberg, nearly $900,000 on a budget of $9 million, with more than $14.5 million in debt. Layoffs followed, and Murphy asked city employees to support pay reductions. His labor background gave him credibility, and “all city employees agreed to take 10 percent reductions at a savings to the city of over $500,000,” Mininberg writes. But that would not be nearly enough. Unemployment rose like floodwater, and credit tightened. Murphy borrowed and borrowed again. Meanwhile, he refused to leave New Haven’s poor out in the cold. When he and his fellow mayors appealed to Governor Wilbur Cross for help, Cross suggested borrowing above and beyond the legally established limits. “Incredulous, the mayors replied that the problem was not any statutory limit, but the threat of bankruptcy from too much borrowing!” Mininberg writes.

So, Murphy made his next move: He asked Yale for help. From 1930 to 1933, Yale was undergoing a building boom, increasing its tax-exempt holdings by 20% as it constructed now familiar landmarks including Sterling Memorial Library, Payne Whitney Gymnasium and many of its residential colleges. New Haven “suffered less than the rest of the nation, chiefly because Yale University had received generous bequests from John William Sterling and Edward S. Harkness during the 1920s,” writes Michael Sletcher in New Haven: From Puritanism to the Age of Terrorism (2004). The projects provided about 1,200 construction jobs, Sletcher writes. But Mayor Murphy felt the university should be doing more in exchange for its tax-exempt status. “New Haven Asks Yale to Help City’s Funds; Mayor Makes Five Requests, Including Cash Gift and More Taxes,” The New York Times reported on May 7, 1937, a headline that could have been written yesterday. Yale declined.

By 1932, more than 16,000 workers in a population of about 162,000 total were unemployed, two-thirds of them “‘urgently’ in need of relief,” Mininberg writes. The city was providing 2,600 families with groceries each week and offering other support in the form of shoes for school children, medical aid, fuel and milk. Though he had saved the schools for last, Murphy was now forced to lay off teachers as well. Despite citywide hardships, these moves were viewed favorably by credit analysts Dun & Bradstreet, who noted in 1933 that the city “inspires much confidence” for its handling of the financial crisis, and Murphy’s next loan was taken at a significantly lower interest rate. That fall, “in spite of 15 percent pay cuts and a tax increase,” Murphy was reelected.

Not everyone approved of “Honest John.” A New Haven Register editorial at the time of his death in 1963 recalled Murphy’s “unswerving courage and determination… in the face of heavy criticism and carping complaint.” He remained at odds with Yale officials throughout his tenure. And, well-intentioned or not, he oversaw the first rumblings of federal funding-induced urban renewal, with the appointment of the first New Haven Housing Authority and the construction of the ultimately ill-fated Elm Haven housing project. “The demolition plans spared nothing, including the many small businesses on the east side of Dixwell Avenue,” wrote Yale professor Robert A. Solomon in a 1997 article for the Saint Louis University Public Law Review. Quinnipiac Terrace in Fair Haven and Farnam Courts on Grand Avenue followed in 1941. Families evicted in order for construction to occur had trouble finding other housing.

Nevertheless, Murphy’s accomplishments were remarkable. A biographical note from New Haven’s Ethnic Heritage Center enumerates some of them: “He reduced city debt by more than $8 million, built bridges and a sewage treatment plant, purchased fire equipment, established a housing authority, initiated a food stamp program, modernized the city airport, expanded recreational facilities and updated the building code.” As soon as funds became available, Mininberg writes, Murphy restored full salaries to city workers and added bonus payments in 1941 and 1942. He brought in a federal food stamp plan and successfully argued for greater funding to support it. He modernized the budgeting process and hired the first professional controller. And of course, he oversaw the city during World War II.

He apparently did it all—or much of it—with a smile. “Despite the problems with which he was burdened, John Murphy never lost the human touch,” the Register editorial recalled. “He loved people and people loved him, both for his kindly considerate manner and for his kindly deeds.”

Still, in 1945, apparently tired of 14 years of deprivation and unwilling to stick with the mayor’s plan to wipe out the city’s debt entirely, New Haveners elected Republican William Celentano over the 67-year-old Murphy. He spent six more years in politics, working for Senator Brien McMahon.

In its 1963 obituary, The New York Times remembered Murphy as “an economy-minded Democrat.” Grandson Mininberg memorializes him more grandly as “a veteran of many decades of class struggle, ethnic battle, and religious prejudice,” who “had learned that victory for his people meant simply the opportunity to work hard for a decent wage, live in peace with one’s neighbors, and practice freely one’s religion. He believed that such a victory could not be achieved by banishing one’s enemies, but by giving all groups a full share in the governance of the city.”

Sounds like a plan.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image features John W. Murphy, as pictured on the cover of Saving New Haven.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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