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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

Descriptive Summary

Creator: Ahearn, John Francis, 1853-1920
Title: John F. Ahearn papers
Dates [inclusive]: 1904-1909
Abstract: Correspondence and scrapbooks documenting the career of Manhattan Borough President John F. Ahearn (1853–1920), who served 1904–1909. A former New York State senator and Tammany Hall leader, Ahearn was dismissed from the presidency in 1907 by Governor Charles Evans Hughes, who cited his incompetence, inefficiency, and wastefulness. Nevertheless, Ahearn was reelected to the position, sparking a two-year battle over the legality of his candidacy. Ahearn was eventually removed, but only in 1909, at the end of his term. The collection includes a 1907 volume of photographs taken during the construction of the extension of Riverside Drive between 135th and 158th Streets.
Quantity: 4.5 Linear Feet (9 volumes in 4 flat boxes and 1 document box).
Call Phrase: MS 3074

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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.

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Scope and Contents

This small collection of papers documenting the Manhattan borough presidency of John F. Ahearn (1853-1920) contains three volumes of letterpress copybooks, an album of photographs, and five volumes of scrapbooks.

The letterpress copybooks, spanning 1904–1905 and 1908–1909, preserve typescripts of responses sent by Ahearn and his subordinates (some are drafted and signed by secretaries) to fellow government officials, institutional administrators, prominent clergy, and private citizens, who wrote to request his consideration for job appointments, or to invite him to preside at civic and social functions.

The album of photographs, taken in 1907, records one of the largest public works projects of Ahearn's tenure as Manhattan Borough President: the extension of Riverside Drive between West 135th and 158th Streets. Engineer F. Stuart Williamson's name appears on the album cover alongside Ahearn's. The images capture construction of the drive's massive stone retaining walls, lookouts, and terraces, as well as some of the existing apartment dwellings along this western edge of upper Manhattan. And the final view shows the northernmost end of the project, where Riverside Drive curves to meet West 158th Street near Broadway; the visible steeple marks the 1872 Church of the Intercession at 3801 Broadway (replaced in 1911–1914 by the current Church of the Intercession in Trinity Cemetery, three blocks south).

In addition to transmitting Ahearn's achievements as Manhattan Borough President, the five scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, spanning mid-1906–1907 and 1909, cover the contentious period near the end of his administration, when the courts ruled that his reelection—after his dismissal by Governor Hughes—had been illegal.


The collection's nine volumes are grouped by format:

Volumes 1-3: Letterpress copybooks, 1904-1905, 1908-1909.

Volume 4: Photographs, 1907.

Volumes 5-9: Scrapbooks, 1906-1907, 1909.

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Access Points

Document Type

  • Letterpress copybooks.
  • Photograph albums.
  • Scrapbooks.

Subject Organizations

  • Manhattan (New York, N.Y.). Office of the President.
  • Tammany Hall (Political organization)

Subject Topics

  • Irish Americans -- New York (State) -- New York -- Politics and government
  • Political corruption -- New York (State) -- New York
  • Public works -- New York (State) -- New York.

Subject Places

  • New York (N.Y.) -- Politics and government.
  • Riverside Drive (New York, N.Y.)

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Administrative Information

Conditions Governing Access

Open to qualified researchers.

Photocopying undertaken by staff only. Limited to twenty exposures of stable, unbound material per day. (Researchers may not accrue unused copy amounts from previous days.)

Conditions Governing Use

This collection is owned by the New-York Historical Society. The copyright law of the United States governs the making of photocopies and protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. Unpublished materials created before 1 January 1978 cannot be quoted in publication without permission of the copyright holder.

Preferred Citation

This collection should be cited as the John F. Ahearn Papers, MS 3074, The New-York Historical Society.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of William J. Murray, 2018.

Processing Information

Archivist Joseph Ditta arranged and described this collection in November 2018.

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Container List

Container 1 Container 2   Title Date
Box: 1 Volume : 1 Letterpress copybook | "Completed. From January 5th, 1904 to February 1st, 1905."
Box: 1 Volume : 2 Letterpress copybook | "President Personal. From February 2, 1905 to November 14, 1905."
Box: 1 Volume : 3 Letterpress copybook | "President's Personal Letter Book from March 6th, 1908 to [November 24, 1909]."
Box: 2 Volume : 4 Photograph album | "Photographs During Construction of the Extension of Riverside Drive, City of New York, 135th to 158th Streets. 1907. F. Stuart Williamson, Engineer. Hon. John F. Ahearn, President of the Borough of Manhattan."

Scope and Contents

Twenty-seven mounted, 7.5 x 9.25-inch photographs.

Box: 3 Volume : 5 Scrapbook | "President. Borough of Manhattan. Newspaper Clippings. Commencing January 1st, 1906 to [July 18, 1906]."
Box: 3 Volume : 6 Scrapbook | [Newspaper clippings, July 19, 1906 to May 17, 1907.]
Box: 4 Volume : 7 Scrapbook | [Newspaper clippings, May 15, 1907 to December 20, 1907.]
Box: 5 Volume : 8 Scrapbook | "Clippings. January 1, 1909 to October 11, 1909."
Box: 5 Volume : 9 Scrapbook | [Newspaper clippings, October 13, 1909 to December 13, 1909.]

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