Politics was, and still is, the lifeblood of the North End. Since election season is here, I thought this would be an opportune time to remember our rich and incredibly interesting North End political history.
When the great wave of Italian immigrants began arriving at the end of the nineteenth century the Boston political establishment was controlled by the Irish who had wrested control away from the Yankee Republicans. Coming from a country that had an elected parliament, the Irish knew the importance of law and they took to politics in America easily and eagerly.
Italians came from a very different social and political system and were slow to embrace American politics which they found cumbersome and confusing. Historically, Italy was a collection of city states and provinces which were ruled by different European monarchs and was only unified in 1861. Italians first loyalty was to their families, then to their town or region. They were suspect of politicians and were more apt to join a secret society than a political club. By the early years of the twentieth century Italians were more adept at speaking English and came to realize that the real power in Boston was with the political establishment and that meant jobs.
A few months ago, my friend Jim Pasto gave me some archival material about the North End in the late 1930’s. Among the many items was this political flyer from 1937 which is absolutely fascinating and tells so much about Boston politics in the middle of the last century.
The flyer was sent out by the Ward 3 Democratic committee urging voters to support our State Senator, Joseph A. Langone, Jr., who was running for Congress. This was a special election because Johnny Higgins, a West Ender, resigned his Congressional seat to become Chief Justice of the State Superior Court. Nineteen people were running for his seat so the election was hotly contested. The flyer is signed by John I. Fitzgerald who succeeded Martin Losmany as boss or “Mahatma” of Ward 3 which comprised the North and West Ends. John I. was a great friend of my wife’s father and an important political figure in the West End. Note that John I. is urging his Democratic constituents to “forget their sectional and racial feelings.” At that time Boston was a collection of ethnic tribes each vying for political dominance. Here, John I. is asking the mostly Irish and Jewish West Enders to vote for a North End Italian, something they wouldn’t naturally do.
The other thing to note is that John I. stresses that voters should “vote early, and before going to work.” What an unusual thing to say but at that time voting early was vital to election success. Precinct captains would carefully keep a log of who voted and as the day progressed they would knock on doors and scour the taverns to get out the vote. By the end of the day it was not unheard of for mattress voters, runners and repeaters to suddenly appear and cast votes for the candidate chosen by the Ward Boss. Joe Langone carried Ward 3 but lost the election to Tommy Flaherty, a Charlestown boy. Langone served in the State Senate until 1940 when he was given the job of Election Commissioner by his friend Mayor James Michael Curley. He was forced to resign a few years later due to a misunderstanding about the names of deceased people showing up on nomination papers.
The Langone family was the most famous political family in the North End during most of the twentieth century. Senator Langone’s father owned the funeral home from where Sacco & Vanzetti were buried and his son, JoJo, was our State representative for many years. Another son, Fred, served many years on the City Council. One of my most vivid early memories is of Tony Taro driving around the North end in his car with rooftop speakers blaring out the Langone election song. I spoke to JoJo’s son, Lonnie, recently and asked him if he remembered the words to the song. Lonnie told me the song, named Hoop-De-Do, was originally composed for his grandfather’s campaigns back in the 1930’s. The words went something like this;
Joe Langone, Joe Langone, let’s tell the world about he’s one of our own.
Joe Langone, Joe Langone, he’ll give us all a break not just a high tone.
Make a note, cast a vote,
For one whose heart’s not made of stone.
Go into the voting booth that day.
Go right in and have your way.
Cast your ballot for Langone.
Of course, the wags in the North End changed it to;
“Joe Langone, Joe Langone, he eats all the chicken and leaves you the bone.”
Very funny, but Senator Langone and especially his wife Clemintina were revered in the North End.
The era of powerful ward bosses ended with John I Fitzgerald. Today we still have a Democratic Ward Committee, and it has an influential role in local politics, but it will never be like the old days when Martin Losmaney could consistently deliver 85% of the vote for the candidate of his choice. There may be a Ward 3 Republican committee but I’ve never heard of it. Our Ward is strongly Democratic and if there is a Republican Ward Committee they must hold their meetings in a telephone booth.
It’s time for another contest. I will send a snazzy NorthEndWaterfront.com baseball cap to the first person who can name the last Republican State Representative from Ward 3. Hint, it’s not Aaron.
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of the following people who helped me in researching this article.
- Jim Pasto of the North End Historical Society
- Tony Gaeta, JoJo Langone’s campaign manager
- Liz Fitzgerald Hebert, John I Fitzgerald’s granddaughter
- Joseph L. (Lonnie) Langone, JoJo’s son
- Paul Passacantilli, who knows more about North End history than me
- Joe McDonald who knows everything about Boston politics
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.