Governor, Senator, U.S. Solicitor General, and Attorney General, J. Howard McGrath had compiled an impressive resume by the time he reached his fiftieth year. Born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on November 28, 1903, he was the second son of Irish mill worker James J. and his wife Ida (May) McGrath. Leaving the Blackstone Valley area in 1904, the McGraths moved to Providence, where all five children attended parochial school.
J. Howard early on exhibited an aptitude for politics and showed promise while still in high school at LaSalle Academy (Class of 1922), where he excelled in oration. As a Providence College student (Class of 1926), he, along with classmate Gael Sullivan, established the Young Men Democratic League of Rhode Island, and captured the attention of Senator Peter Gerry. Rising to state chairman in 1930, the youngest in the country, McGrath navigated the rough and tumble of machine politics.
As U.S. District Attorney for Rhode Island (1934-1940), McGrath prosecuted many influential cases, including the notorious trial of known felon Carl Rettich and his gang following their theft of a Fall River, Massachusetts Brinks truck in January 1935. Exposing Republican Governor William Henry Vanderbilt misguided and over-zealous involvement in a wiretapping scheme to bring down Pawtucket mayor Thomas P. McCoy in 1940, McGrath and then-Senator Theodore Francis Green alerted the country to the evils of electronic surveillance.
Successfully defeating Vanderbilt for governor in 1940, McGrath ably served his state during the dark days of the Second World War. Instrumental in the passage of juvenile court and cash sickness legislation, he also secured balloting for the state soldiers and sailors serving oversees and fought to ensure that Rhode Island received its fair share of the rations.
Gaining national attention after he seconded the nomination of vice president Harry S. Truman in 1944, McGrath was destined for national office. Nominated by the new president to serve as Solicitor General in 1945, McGrath then stepped down to run for senator after his mentor, Peter Gerry announced his retirement in 1946.
McGrath earned his greatest fame, however, when Harry Truman appointed him Democratic National Chairman in 1947; during this period, McGrath ably orchestrated Truman successful election campaign the following year. Hailed throughout the country for his fine organizational skills, McGrath was then appointed by Truman to serve as Attorney General in 1949. His unfortunate demise amidst scandal in the Justice Department ended his public career except for an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senator in the 1960 Democratic primary, which he lost to Claiborne Pell, but his contributions to state and national government far outweighed this last dark chapter of his public life. The Washington County Courthouse in Wakefield has been named in his honor.
For these contributions to government and law, J. Howard McGrath was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1976. He died at his Narragansett home in Sunnybrook Farm on September 2, 1966 at the age of sixty-two and was buried in St. Francis Cemetery, Pawtucket.
Further Reading: Debra A. Mulligan. Democratic Repairman: The Political Life of J. Howard McGrath. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2019.
Debra A. Mulligan