Partisan turkey, a viral gold watch, and Republican trolls in New England 130 years ago
This article was originally published in the Dig in 2018. It’s a great holiday feature, and you can expect us to trot it out every year around this time from now on. Enjoy …
For many a Boston politician, Thanksgiving is a prime opportunity for a photo op on a soup kitchen serving line, or to distribute poultry patronage to grateful constituents. But on Thanksgiving 130 years ago—that’s 130 years ago on Thanksgiving, as Arlo Guthrie would say—the city’s first Irish-born mayor took part in one of the strangest episodes in Boston political history, featuring a viral campaign story against the backdrop of intense xenophobia.
The Yankee Protestants had ruled Boston until the mid-19th century, when a devastating potato famine in Ireland sent an estimated 2 million in search of a new home. Because the famine coincided with the last decade in which fares from Liverpool to Boston were markedly cheaper than fares to New York—often less than $20—more Irish arrived in Boston than any other American port.
This wave of immigration radically changed the city’s political landscape. Between 1840 and 1880, the number of foreign-born and first-generation Bostonians more than doubled to 64 percent. As these Irish newcomers organized and gained political influence, the Yankee elite feared the sun would soon set on their beloved “old Boston.” Bemoaning these “undesirable” newcomers in 1881, Republican then-State Representative and anti-immigration crusader Henry Cabot Lodge called the Irish “hard-drinking, idle, quarrelsome and disorderly.” Sen. George Frisbie Hoar wrote to Lodge in 1883, “Unless we can break this compact foreign vote, we are gone, and the grand chapter of the old Massachusetts history is closed.”
Bit by bit, it appeared the Brahmin’s fears would come to pass. Running under the banner of a revitalized Democratic Party, Irish Catholic candidates reached the halls of city government, and in 1884, Boston elected Hugh O’Brien, its first Irish-born mayor. “Honest Hugh” immigrated from County Cork when he was five years old, attended grammar school on Roxbury’s Fort Hill, and won a seat on the Board of Alderman in 1875.
However, the Yankee elite had little reason to fear retribution. They still controlled the banks and the Legislature, and the incoming mayor could scarcely afford to alienate either institution if he wanted to succeed. So he triangulated.
Unlike James Michael Curley, who would decades later wield Irish resentment as a cudgel against the Yankee elite, O’Brien courted the Brahmin with talk about running the city like a business. “He gave particular attention to the finances, and Yankee thrift and good sense found in this Irish-born citizen a most worthy exponent,” the Springfield Republican reflected upon his death.
O’Brien laid the cornerstone for the new public library in Copley Square and hired Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, to craft the Emerald Necklace. In both cases, he appointed Yankee businessmen to oversee the projects.
“He is a man of the people,” one Charlestown paper gushed, “in full sympathy with their aims and aspirations, and a tried and trusted guardian of their rights, while nonetheless faithful to his office as the custodian of the interests of the wealthy classes.”
Evidencing his political savvy and connection to the public, on the eve of O’Brien’s ouster in December 1888, the Boston Daily Globe ran a series of stories about his chance encounter with Katie Gillette, an “estimable young lady living in East Randolph, Vermont.”
The only child of William F. Gillette, a “sturdy old Vermont farmer” of 12 cows and 300 sugar trees, Katie had light auburn hair and grey eyes. She had spent six months in New York City working as a typist before returning home to teach at the village school. The Gillette homestead overlooked the east branch of the White River, whose idyllic charm made one reporter swoon, “What a perfect garden of Eden that valley is, with its half decayed sleepy villages, and if you have ever stopped at any of the farmers’ houses you will not forget their good, old-fashioned, country hospitality.”
That year for Thanksgiving, Mayor O’Brien purchased a 15-pound turkey from his usual poultry shop in Quincy Market. Stuffed inside the bird’s cavity was a note from Gillette:
I am a young school teacher and have no watch. I have taken a winter school. What shall I do without a watch? … I hope some good Republican will remember me next Xmas. I don’t like the Democrats, but if one would send me a present, I should think better of them. I don’t think they like to give presents. Do they? I am a Vermont girl, and hope to hear from those who eat this turkey.
Gillette, 22, got the idea from her uncle in Dedham, who said he had heard about someone placing a note in a turkey and receiving a reply weeks later. She tried it three or four times before finding success. This time, though, O’Brien discovered the request, then purchased a gold watch and shipped it to Vermont with a note of his own:
I believe in you, Miss. Gillette, and excuse your dislike of Democrats because it has been cultured by that one-sided State in which you live, always pronounced Republican. … To show you that I am sincere, I send you a watch, which I hope you will accept from the Democratic Mayor of Boston. Please answer, and I hope that my Democracy may not prevent me from holding a place in your affections.
After that, Gillette was “ready to believe that all Democrats are good.” She tied the gold watch on a blue ribbon and carried it in her bosom. By week’s end, however, the schoolteacher had received “bushels of letters” from outraged readers—much to the chagrin of the mailman who had lugged the hate mail along his 17-mile route—calling her a “forward girl” for “begging presents of strangers and playing them for suckers.” Headlines in other papers mocked her, asking what time it was. She had gone viral.
“In some of her moods, she almost wishes all the watches and notes and turkeys and mayors in the world were at the bottom of the sea,” the Globe reported on page one. Gillette vowed she would never again make any such request from the ass-end of a turkey.
After four one-year terms, O’Brien lost to Republican banker Thomas N. Hart in 1888 and died seven years later.
“It was said of the late ex-Mayor Hugh O’Brien of Boston,” the Republican eulogized, “that, although born in another land, he was more Bostonian than many Bostonians.”