Researching Peter J MCGuinness

Hi Readers,

Tomorrow I will be heading to Brooklyn College to peruse the papers of my favorite character from Greenpoint history Peter J. McGuinnness. I think he embodied the courage, humor and decency of the Greenpoint working class. He was also an unbelievable larger-tahn life-character who was the most colorful alderman in the history of New York City. His speeches in City Hall are the stuff of legend. he was accused of corruption based on his 1927 arrest for allowing gambling in his political club, but he was one of the few politicians to emerge vindicated from the Seabury commission’s investigation of New York City corruption.

He had scrapbooks, which I will read through. 

Below is a short bio of his life.

Peter J. McGuinness (1888-1948), born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York, was the third of fourteen children. He attended P.S. 31 and Philip’s Business School in Manhattan. Upon finishing grammar school (it was not unusual at the time for youngsters not to continue their education), Peter worked as an office boy for the R. H. Hoe and Company, then as a runner at Thomas Plunkett’s Celebrated Cigars, a bouncer on a steamboat, a middleweight fighter, and teamster for the S. Brinckerhoff Hay and Feed Company. In 1907, Peter PcGuinness married Margaret Lyons and began working on the docks at the John C. Orr Lumber Company. He became an official in the Lumber Handler’s Local 955 of the International Longshoreman’s Association. In 1917, McGuinness became a government lumber inspector. Around the same time, he and several other leaders in the community establishd the “Native Borns,” a community group that opposed the foreign customs of Polish and Russian immigrants moving into Greenpoint. A Democrat, McGuinness was instrumental in getting his friend, Republican John MacCrate, elected to Congress. McGuinness himself was elected to the Board of Aldermen representing the 15th A.D. (Greenpoint). In 1922, he proposed an ordinance prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to women, sparking a citywide controversy. During his term in office, McGuinness continued his battle to improve Greenpoint. He put much effort into having a new subway line built in the district; succeeded in persuading the city to construct a new bridge over Newtown Creek and one connecting Brooklyn and Queens (Meeker Avenue Bridge); three playgrounds were constructed and the McCarren Park pool was opened. McGuinness fought (unsuccessfully) to save the ferry to Greenpoint. In 1924, he defeated James McQuade and the county machine led by John McCooey as district leader. In March 1927, McGuinness’ Greenpoint People’s Club was raided and, to the delight of Police Commissioner McLaughlin, McGuinness was arrested for gambling. Although the charges were dropped, McGuinness claimed McLaughlin with trying to frame him. McGuinness was vindicated after testifying before the Seabury Commission. In 1931, McGuinness finally earned County Leader McCooey’s support. McGuinness was appointed Assistant Commissioner of Public Works for the Borough of Brooklyn and, two years later, was promoted to Commissioner for a brief period. In 1935, he defeated Fusionist candidate Harold R. Reynolds for the office of the Sheriff of Kings County. From 1937 to 1941, McGuinness was elected Register of the county, and, in 1944, in recognition of his vote-getting ability, was again appointed Assistant Commissioner of Public Works. McGuinness worked tirelessly for the people in his district. He trekked weekly around the neighborhood helping his constituents with their complaints and difficulties; his club handed out yearly Christmas baskets to those in need; he sponsored farm garden projects where local children grew their own vegetable gardens in McCarren Park. McGuinness, an old-fashioned Irish ward boss, was representative of the last of the old-time local politicians who were being replaced by a new breed of well educated professionals. McGuinness loved his district of Greenpoint; “… an enormous man with an enormous voice … with the bearing of a beefy Roman emperor … relished walking through Greenpoint –its lumber yards, varnish factories, dreary flats, and still dared to call the area ‘the garden spot of the universe.’ ” (TIME magazine). If there was ever a quintessential Brooklyn, from McGuinness’s point of view, “The Pernt” was it. Peter James McGuinness was fatally stricken by a heart attack in 1948 and died at St. Catherine’s Hospital on June 10th of that year. As his funeral procession moved slowly down Greenpoint’s streets, stores were closed, windows draped in black, flags flew at half-mast and thousands lined the curbs to bid their son a silent farewell. (TIME magazine).

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