Ed. Note: Currently, a grand jury is investigating activities associated with Harrisburg’s near-bankruptcy. The city, however, has had a long history of corruption and dubious actions undertaken by colorful politicians. Gilded Age Mayor John A. Fritchey is a terrific example, as our writer relates in this article adapted from a recent lecture she gave for Historic Harrisburg Association.
Before City Beautiful, Harrisburg had “City Ugly” and a three-time mayor named John A. Fritchey.
John Fritchey was an upstanding citizen and corrupt to the core. A populist reformer allied with the state Capitol’s rotten political rings. A beloved physician who performed “illegal operations”—Gilded Age code for abortions.
To his friends, Fritchey was a powerful man who dispensed welcomed favors and patronage. To reformers such as City Beautiful founder J. Horace McFarland, he was “the unspeakable Fritchey.”
Fritchey was an up-from-the-streets success story, born on the eve of the Civil War to a butcher who achieved middle-class status and sent his sons to Harrisburg Academy and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. In the 1888 mayor’s race, the Harrisburg Patriot endorsed this promising City Council member, “a young man of ability and integrity,” who, the newspaper claimed, would not serve the corrupt rings running the city and county.
As mayor elected in 1888, 1893 and 1898, Fritchey established police and ambulance systems. He calmly directed rescue efforts during such emergencies as a May 1889 deluge that was also rumored to have caused “terrible destruction of property at Johnstown.” He ably managed the mayor’s “quick charity” fund that aided the destitute.
But Fritchey and his cronies also made sure that the quick charity fund and other revenue streams aided the not-so-destitute. Owners of speakeasies, gambling houses and brothels paid for police protection. Legitimate business owners wrote personal checks to Fritchey for the privilege of operating. Street peddlers paid “licensing fees” to the mayor and the police chief. Fines and fees went into envelopes that were deposited through a slot in the mayor’s desk.
In one instance, Fritchey convinced a grocer not to press charges against some misguided young ruffians who stole about $600. Before handing the grocer the recovered money, Fritchey peeled off a few bills for himself.
Fritchey was in his third term when Mira Lloyd Dock shocked Harrisburg’s businessmen out of their complacency with her photographic presentation comparing their garbage-strewn town to cities where manicured public spaces nurtured civic pride and thriving commerce. As City Beautiful gained steam, Fritchey conceded that a park wasn’t a bad idea, but his tepid support for a $1 million bond issue to fund improvements cooled even further when he learned that the money would be controlled by an independent authority.
In the days leading up to the inauguration of his successor, Fritchey’s clerk was seen burning ledgers in a furnace.
The next mayor was the reform-minded Vance McCormick, privileged son of a banking and iron manufacturing family. After his first few months in office, McCormick noticed that the $2,000 in fines his administration had collected dwarfed the $178.14 from the three years of Fritchey’s final term. McCormick reported to City Council that $1,282.42 in fees and $1,159.42 in fines were unaccounted for.
Fritchey was shocked that money put into the “supposedly trustworthy hands” of his subordinates didn’t make its way into city coffers.
The mayor had few executive powers, and McCormick could only wheedle Select Council—a sort of upper chamber in the bicameral City Council—into holding hearings on his reported findings. A subcommittee eventually ruled that Fritchey was responsible only for $686.51 in missing funds.
The Select Council chairman dismissed calls for further investigations. “You can’t dig up old things without having further odors,” he said.
Without fanfare, Fritchey paid the $686.51. In 1905, he ran for mayor again. He lost and never again ran for office, but that didn’t stop the intrigue.
First, there was his colorful personal life.
Fritchey’s first marriage fell apart when his wife had an affair with his chauffeur. He later briefly married the beautiful, much-younger Eleanor Shoop, building her an ornate brownstone mansion at 911 N. 2nd St., which still stands today. The 1906 building later became a frat house, then the Reese Funeral Home and now is Mayor’s Manor, the condo and apartment building recently restored by Chris and Erica Bryce.
Secondly, there was his professional life.
As a physician, Fritchey was well known for taking groceries to struggling families or declining to bill those in need. As for illegal abortions, people always knew where to go when a wife, daughter or sister was in trouble, and the railroad town of Harrisburg was convenient for women needing a secret operation. The sympathetic Fritchey would have understood the devastating impact of pregnancies on impoverished families or abused women. Maybe he also engaged in the lucrative practice because his second wife reportedly expected the finer things in life.
On Christmas Eve 1912, an 18-year-old milliner’s apprentice named Jessie Stroup died in Philadelphia. The physician and the magistrate called to her deathbed coaxed from her the details of an abortion performed a month earlier by Dr. John A. Fritchey, former mayor of Harrisburg. But the magistrate declined to declare her words as an official “ante-mortem”—the dying declaration that could be used in court against the perpetrator.
A constable named Saleranco escorted Fritchey and Jessie Stroup’s boyfriend, Jonathan Kerstetter, from Harrisburg to Philadelphia to face charges. Kerstetter couldn’t post bail and went straight to jail. The accommodating Saleranco posted bail for Fritchey.
It wasn’t the only string Fritchey would pull to stay out of jail. He was charged with performing an abortion on Stroup and on another woman from Chambersburg. His March 1913 grand jury hearing in Harrisburg featured 24 witnesses, but, as the proceedings neared the end, the Harrisburg Patriot reported rumors of “embracery,” also known as jury-fixing, practiced among “men active in politics.” The grand jury declared “not a true bill,” clearing Fritchey of all charges.
Fritchey continued practicing medicine (although it’s not known if he continued performing abortions). He died from heart and liver disease in August 1916, at the age of 59.
“The personal reminiscences of the ex-mayor, if put to paper, would have made one of the most interesting chapters in Dauphin County’s political history,” read one glowing obituary. “At one time, he swayed City Council, had a big influence in the school board and dictated terms to the county commissioners . . . He had political enemies and hosts of sincere friends and admirers.”
Diane McCormick adapted this article from her lecture entitled, “City Ugly: Mayor John Fritchey and the Deliciously Dark Side of City Beautiful.” A chance encounter with a 1912 account of the former mayor’s arrest for an “illegal operation” led her to research his life and times for her master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Goucher College.