John Kelly (U.S. politician)

For other people named John Kelly, see John Kelly (disambiguation).
John Kelly
Puck magazine caricature of Kelly (on grill), 1881
This cartoon describes the aftermath of the fight for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1884.

John Kelly (April 20, 1822 – June 1, 1886) of New York City, known as "Honest John", was a boss of Tammany Hall and a U.S. Representative from New York from 1855 to 1858. The title "Honest" was given to him during his years as New York City Sheriff, and was more ironic than truthful. John Kelly was able to amass a vast fortune estimated at $800,000 by 1867, through both ethical and questionable means. In addition, after having his methods questioned and his title insulted by Mayor Havemeyer, Kelly responded with a lawsuit for libel. On the day of the trial, the Mayor mysteriously dropped dead of apoplexy.[1]

Family Life

Kelly was born in New York City to Hugh Kelly and Sarah Donnelly Kelly. He received a parochial education but was forced to quit when his father died. He married Ann McIlhargy, to whom a son and two daughters were born. By 1872 his wife and children had died. He then fled the city overseas, a defeated man from the loss of his family. He returned to New York in response to the Boss Tweed scandal and eventually was remarried to Ann Theresa Mullen, the niece of New York's Cardinal McCloskey; a son and a daughter were born of that marriage.[2]


Kelly was apprenticed to the mason's trade, and engaged in business for himself at the age of twenty-one. Kelly, in response to anti-Catholic sentiment, was driven to politics and became a champion of Catholic and immigrant causes in the 1840s.[3] Kelly joined the influential Tammany Society and the next year he was elected alderman, and from this time until his death he was active as a Democratic politician. From 1855 to 1858 he served in Congress,[4] the only Catholic in the House of Representatives in that period of Know Nothing ascendency. Kelly later was elected Sheriff of the County of New York, and served from 1859–1861 and again from 1865–1867.[4]

During Kelly's time as sheriff, his wife and children died and he left New York for an extended overseas trip. After nearly three years,[3] he returned in 1871 and aided Charles O'Conor, Samuel J. Tilden, and their associates in the struggle against the Tweed ring, and Kelly cooperated with Tilden in reorganizing the political machine. The Tweed ring scandal destroyed the old Tammany leadership and shattered the democracy. It was a time of corruption and deceitful politics. Kelly was away and was seemingly untouched by this corruption and therefore was able to assume the leadership of Tammany Hall.[3]

By 1874 Kelly was in control of Tammany Hall, and for the next decade he was able to determine the course of New York City elections.[4] In 1876 Kelly succeeded Andrew H. Green, appointed by Mayor William Wickham,[1] as comptroller. Kelly was very successful as comptroller. Over the five-year period, the municipal debt was reduced by twelve million dollars.[1] During his time in power he was continually at war with Tilden's faction.[4] Kelly refused to support Tilden's candidate for governor, incumbent Lucius Robinson, and ran for governor himself as an independent. The result was the election in 1879 of Republican Alonzo Cornell, who won by a plurality. Kelly himself was city comptroller from 1876 to 1879.[3] Upon retirement (1884) he yielded his political control to one of his lieutenants, Richard Croker.[4]


  1. 1 2 3 Connable, Alfred, and Edward Silberfarb. Tigers of Tammany: Nine Men Who Ran New York. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967. Print.
  2. Jerome Mushkat. Kelly, John. American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Jerome Mushkat. "Kelly, John; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Web page titled "Post Civil War Cartoons: 1880s", at the "Authentic History Center" website, accessed June 22, 2008


Media related to John Kelly (U.S. politician) at Wikimedia Commons

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Michael Walsh
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 4th congressional district

Succeeded by
Thomas J. Barr
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