John J. Fitzgerald (1871-1926) was born in Pawtucket where he attended local public schools. A brilliant student, he was one of the state’s first Irish-Catholics to graduate from Brown University (Class of 1893). Fitzgerald earned a law degree at Georgetown University, established a hometown law practice, and in 1899 ran successfully for state representative. In 1900, he became the Democratic mayor of the city by espousing a populist agenda.
Fitzgerald was the most prominent critic of the Republican party’s political machine. He constantly badgered the statewide trolley company as part of that G.O.P. cabal, once ripping up sections of the company’s tracks in Pawtucket for not fulfilling its franchise obligations. In 1902 the mayor sided with striking motormen and conductors in a violent walkout that further galvanized public outrage against the transit system. He actually deputized striking transit crews. Some called the walkout, “Fitzgerald’s Rebellion.”
Fitzgerald personified and publicly championed the ethnic, blue-collar, urban political machines that for him represented change and popular reform government in contrast to the embedded G.O.P. and corporate power. He stated that “I believe in using heroic methods with these companies who feel that they are so strongly entrenched behind the unjust privileges granted them by past servile legislatures and contracts made by negligent city councils that they can defy the people and refuse them their just rights.” The heroic methods and speeches probably cost him the governorship that he unashamedly sought. Instead, Fitzgerald threw his talent and energy behind the less controversial candidacy of his law partner and alter ego, James H. Higgins, who became the state’s first Irish-Catholic chief executive in 1907.
After revitalizing the Democratic Party and satisfying their own political careers, Fitzgerald and Higgins formed a dynamic legal defense team for underdog clients and groups. Fitzgerald employed his legendary speaking abilities to impact party nominating conventions, voters, and juries. At the same time, he continued his popular and clandestine work on behalf of Irish independence. He reputedly hid Eamon De Valera, future president of Ireland, in his Pawtucket home. He also routinely added patriotic Irish planks at Democratic national conventions.
In 1902, John Fitzgerald married Clara Osfield of Pawtucket, daughter of a pioneering Irish-Catholic attorney and state legislator. The couple had seven children, all of whom were college-educated. Fitzgerald died in his prime on May 28, 1926, one day after his fifty-fifth birthday.