John Purroy Mitchel: The Boy Mayor of New York

This post was written by Harry Kidd.  Harry is a volunteer at the National Archives working on textual and photographic digitization projects.  Harry is a former Navy photographer himself and came across this story while researching military photographers. 

John Purroy Mitchel (1879 – 1918) was a native New Yorker. Trained as a lawyer, he gained wide recognition as a reformer who began investigating corruption, incompetence, waste and inefficiency in the city government in 1906.  With the support of the anti-Tammany force, he was elected president of the Board of Aldermen in 1909 where he enacted fiscal reforms.

In 1913, based on his efforts to improve the efficiency of government operations, he was nominated as the Republican candidate for mayor.  At the age of 34 he was the second youngest person elected mayor and often referred to as “The Boy Mayor of New York.”

Original Caption: U.S. Commission to Russia and Mayor John P. Mitchel of New York. Left to right: George T. Wilson, Gen Hugh L. Scott, Oscar Straus, Elihu Root, Mayor J. P. Mitchel, Rear Admiral Glennon, Comptroller Prendergast, John R. Mott stands behind Mayor Mitchel, 1917. Photo by Paul Thompson. Local Identifier: 165-WW-133E-10.

Mitchel served as mayor from 1914 – 1917.  After failing to win re-election, he enlisted in the Army Air Service as a flying cadet. He completed training in San Diego and was promoted to major. 

Original Caption: Aviation School, North Island, San Diego, Cal. Picture shows Major John Purroy Mitchel, S.R.C.A.S., Ex-Mayor of New York City and his classmates being instructed on the airplane motor at North Island, San Diego, Cal. (Major Mitchel – is standing on the right near the display) Date: 3/14/1918 Photo by: Lt. E. N. Jackson, Sig, R.C. Local Identifier: 111-SC-6908.

On the morning of July 6, 1918, Mitchel was returning from a military training flight to Gerstner Field, Louisiana when his single seater scout plane went into a nose dive and crashed. The former mayor was unfastened in the plane and fell to his death at age 38.

Mitchel’s body was returned to New York where his funeral became a major event.  He lay in state at New York City Hall, followed by a procession up 5th Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a funeral service, followed by a motorcade to Woodlawn Cemetery.

Why are there so many photographs at the archives of this funeral?  The supposition is that in addition to the photo service companies, this major local event became a good training assignment for the soldiers in Still & Motion Picture photography school at nearby Columbia University.

Excerpt from “Funerals of Noted Individuals” Local Identifier: 111-H-1188.

Additional photographs of the Mitchell funeral can be viewed here.

Hazlehurst Field in Hempstead Plains, Long Island, NY was built in 1917 and later renamed Mitchel Field in honor of Major John P. Mitchel.  Mitchel Field continued operation as Army Air Base and later as Air Force Base.  Fight operations were halted in 1961 and the base was closed. In 1928 a memorial dedicated to John P. Mitchel was placed on the embankment of the Central Park Reservoir at 90th Street.

All photographs highlighted in this blog come from two photographic series: the American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs (165-WW) and the Photographs of American Military Activities (111-SC). Both series have been digitized in their entirety as part of the Wartime Films Project.* The Unwritten Record has highlighted a number of records related to World War I over the past two years which can be found here.

*Digitization of the WWI portion of the 111-SC series is ongoing and will be made available as it is scanned. Photographs from the 165-WW series are fully digitized and available on the National Archives Catalog.