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Guide to the John F. Ahearn Papers
 MS 3074

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Joseph Ditta

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on December 20, 2018
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical / Historical

John Francis Ahearn was born in Manhattan on 18 April 1853 to Irish parents Thomas and Ann (McBennett) Ahearn. After gaining an education in the City's public schools system, Ahearn sought a career in business, working as a clerk and managing several firms. He entered politics as a member of the New York State Assembly, representing New York County's 4th District (1882). Following that he was appointed to a New York City Police Court clerkship, where his popularity helped him to win a seat in the New York State Senate, representing the 6th District (1890–1893). Ahearn went on to represent the 8th District (1894–1895), and then the 10th District (1896–1902). At first a member of the "County Democracy," the anti-Tammany faction of New York Democrats, Ahearn eventually came under the influence of Tammany Hall, and exemplified the Tammany style of leadership through his devotion to the needs of his constituents in exchange for their loyalty on Election Day. He preferred to be called "Senator" even after he no longer filled that role.

Ahearn was elected President of the Borough of Manhattan in 1903, and soon came under the scrutiny of the Bureau of City Betterment. The Bureau's secretary, tasked with investigating the management of public baths, was repeatedly refused access to relevant records by President Ahearn's office. In response the Bureau took to the streets to record firsthand the sorry state of the City's infrastructure. The result was an illustrated pamphlet, How Manhattan is Governed (1906), which claimed that Ahearn selected "as his aides associates in practical politics," and made "allegiance to his political organization the test for promotion among his subordinates." More damning were the charges of rife expenditure: $1,022,947 spent without public letting, and $41,000 gone for "incidentals," chiefly carfare. Inexplicably, Ahearn charged $15,000 of the latter amount to the Bureau of Buildings.

John Purroy Mitchel (the future mayor), acting on behalf of New York City corporation counsel William B. Ellison, began a formal investigation of Ahearn's alleged incompetence. His report led New York State Governor Charles Evans Hughes to dismiss Ahearn in December 1907, citing his flagrant inefficiency and wastefulness, but relieving him from suspicions of personal dishonesty. Remarkably, the Board of Aldermen reelected Ahearn Manhattan's Borough President, a move that began a two-year battle over the legality of his candidacy. In December 1909, at what would have been the natural end of his term, Ahearn was forced to accept that the courts agreed with Hughes.

John Francis Ahearn died in Manhattan on 19 December 1920, age sixty-seven.