McGuinness, Edwin Daniel, 1856-1901
Mayor Edwin D. McGuinness (1856-1901), a native of Providence, was the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Rhode Island after fleeing the Potato Famine in the 1840s. His father, Bernard McGuinness, was a successful real estate agent who encouraged his son’s educational pursuits.
Edwin attended local public schools and graduated from Brown University in 1877, one of the earliest Irish-Catholics to matriculate there. He earned a degree from the Boston Law School two years later, and became a popular and successful attorney in Providence.
McGuinness joined the Rhode Island Democratic Party at an early age as a protègè of Charles E. Gorman and also took a leadership role in the state militia holding the rank of major. His legal training and political interests propelled him into a number of pioneering elected positions. In 1887 and 1890 as part of a reform slate, he became Rhode Island’s first Irish-Catholic general officer winning election as Secretary of State.
In 1889 McGuiness became a Providence city alderman, a position he held until he stepped down in 1893 to run for mayor. He was close but unsuccessful in his first two efforts, but in 1895 he won a narrow victory to become Providence’s first Irish-Catholic chief executive. He won again in 1896 with a plurality of 9,456 votes and a majority in every ward. At the same time the Republican presidential candidate, William McKinley, carried the city by 7,000 votes.
As mayor, McGuinness rose above party politics to champion the peoples’ interests. He fought the baneful corruption of public utilities, especially the transit companies, yet earned the respect of the state’s business community, usually aligned with the Republican Party.
McGuinness suffered a nervous breakdown in 1897 near the end of his second term, and he retired from politics. Twice he traveled to the South in a futile effort to regain his health. He died on April 21, 1901 in his forty-fifth year.
Throughout his career he was a bitter foe of machine politics in a city and state notorious for such conditions. He stayed close to ordinary citizens, participating in a plethora of civic, ethnic, and fraternal organizations. His funeral services were held at St. Joseph’s Church, a parish founded in 1851 by Irish-Catholic immigrants in the Fox Point section of the city. Even the Providence Journal commended McGuiness in an obituary that called McGuinness’s tenure as mayor “the first great triumph here for independence in politics,” and one that was “particularly commendable.”