Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Was "Honest Jim Reilly" Really So Honest? Blacksmith and, Later, Politician in the Village of North Pelham Died in 1937

"Honest Jim Reilly" was a political force in the Village of North Pelham for nearly thirty years.  He served as President and, later, Mayor of the Village for twelve terms.  He served as a Deputy Sheriff for twenty-five years.  He served as a North Pelham firefighter for many, many years and was famed for operating "Jim Reilly's Boiler."  See Fri., May 22, 2015:  History of Pelham's Beloved "Nott Steamer" Known as "Jim Reilly's Boiler."

Clearly Honest Jim Reilly was a clever man.  He was the Village blacksmith in North Pelham in 1906 when he swept into office as Village President on the "Municipal Ownership" ticket and the "Independent Democratic" ticket.  He defeated his Republican and Democratic opponents in a most ingenious manner.  During a major snowstorm on election day, Honest Jim Reilly hired all available snow sleighs in the area to ensure that only his supporters could get to the polls easily.  I have written about his campaign and election that year on a number of occasions.  See:

Fri., Feb. 27, 2009:  More on the 1906 Village of North Pelham Elections in Which the Village Blacksmith Surprised Republicans and Democrats Alike and Won.

Jim Reilly came to America from Ireland when he was sixteen.  He lived for a short time in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he learned and practiced the blacksmithing trade.  In 1893, he moved to Pelhamville where he set up shop as the local blacksmith.  His shop became a local gathering place for residents interested in local politics and the latest local gossip.  

In 1906, Jim Reilly decided to throw his hat into the ring of local politics, but could not convince entrenched local partymen that he deserved their nomination and support.  Instead, he was forced to run on the "Municipal Ownership" and "Independent Democratic" tickets.  In the famed North Pelham election of 1906, he won the election for Village President by beating the Republican and Democratic candidates.  

Holding onto power, however, became difficult.  The following year (Village President elections were held annually at that time), the local Democratic and Republican leaders refused to back Reilly again.  He ran as an independent and was re-elected.

In 1908, local Republican leaders relented and nominated Reilly as their nominee for Village President.  Reilly won easily and carried into office with him the entire Republican ticket.  The following year, the local Republican Party re-nominated Reilly who won the position of Village President handily by a vote of 155 to 88.  See Mon., Apr. 13, 2009:  1909 Village Elections in Pelham.

The following year, in connection with the 1910 election, the local newspaper questioned the integrity of "Honest Jim Reilly" and accused him and his camp of voter fraud to gain re-election.  The Pelham Sun published a front-page exposé shortly before the 1911 elections accusing Jim Reilly and David Lyon of paying for an ineligible minor to vote in the 1910 election and arranging for eleven non-resident sewer laborers to reside briefly in a shack to to enable them to vote in the election.  Reilly chose not to run for re-election in 1911 and decided to depart for a lengthy holiday in Ireland.  Only days before he and his family departed, someone tried to burn down his house by pouring gasoline along the back of the home and lighting it.  Reilly and his wife were awakened by the flames and were able to extinguish them.

The arrangement of sewer laborers to vote in the 1910 election was quite interesting.  In 1908, while still Village President, Honest Jim Reilly was appointed inspector of the Bronx Valley Sewer Commission. . . . . 

In 1911, Reilly became Deputy Sheriff, in which capacity he served Westchester County for 24 years, until State laws compelled him to retire.  In 1920 Reilly "retired" from his blacksmith shop, but he did not retire from local politics.  

Mr. Reilly ran again for Mayor in 1931, but lost by 27 votes.  In March, 1937, he decided to fight North Pelham Mayor Dominic Amato in the Republican primaries, but finally withdrew on the advice of his physician.  In the November elections of that year, he formed an independent party and backed the Democratic ticket.  Out of office, Jim Reilly famously held court on "Reilly's Bench" at Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue.

On December 22, 1937, Jim Reilly died of a heart attack at his home located at 11 Chestnut Avenue in Chester Park.  He was seventy-two.  It was the passing of an era.

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Transcribed below are a host of articles that shed light on the life of 12-term North Pelham Manor Honest Jim Reill.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.  


That neither James Reilly nor Trustee David Lyon were elected by legally qualified voters is something that has been known to North Pelhamites ever since the election took place about a year ago.

David Lyon had a 'majority' of two over Dr. C. A. Pickhardt.  Besides the numerous sewer laborers who were placed in a shanty just previous to election and allowed to vote (at $2 per head, paid in Lowery's saloon) for the Republican ticket, minors were collared and, although challenged, were allowed to vote.

John Lantier's Case.

A case in point is the one of John Lantier, a boy of 19, who not only voted last spring, but also last fall.  The boy comes from respectable parents in Long Island City, and although well brought up, appears to have fallen a willing victim to the wiles of the crooked North Pelham politicians.

When this boy voted last spring, he was promptly challenged, but with Jim Reilly at his back he swore in his vote and it was accepted.  Not only was John Lantier only 19, but he had no legal residence here, having been brought here by a man named John Gruber, who came from Union Corners and was given the job to take care of the fire horses.  

The John Gruber mentioned now lives in Reilly's old rooms over the blacksmith shop and is still employed in caring for the fire horses.  He is said to have married an adopted sister of John Lantier.

Lantier Gets Arrested.

The boy Lantier kept bad company, frequented saloons too much and went on a rampage in New Rochelle on September 19th last.  With a loaded revolver he tried to shoot some one, was arrested, charged with felonious assault and with carrying concealed weapons, and after a hearing before Judge Swinburne was held in $1,000 bail for the action of the Grand Jury.

Record at Police Station.

The blotter of the New Rochelle Police Station contains the following record of John Lantier's pedigree as given by himself when arrested:

Arrested, September 19, age, 19; resides at 123 Fifth street, Long Island City; charge, assault second degree and carrying concealed weapons.

David Lyon Steps In.

Village Trustee David Lyon, who together with Reilly had profitted by the boys illegal voting, after some persuasion from the inner circle of crooked politicians went Lantier's bail, and he was released and awaiting trial.  Lantier promptly showed up here at the election in November and voted ballot No. 57 against the protest of P. Ceder [i.e., Peter Ceder who opposed Jim Reilly in the election for Village President].  He claimed a residence with the above mentioned John Gruber, and swore he was 21.

Lyon Gets Scared.

About a month ago, David Lyon 'by advice of counsel,' (Harry A. Anderson) decided to be released from the responsibility of that bail bond.  And so a letter was sent to the boy Lantier in care of his parents at Long Island City, where he was living, telling him to come on to North Pelham as his case was to come up and would be 'settled.'  Unsuspectingly the boy responded to the summons, only to be taken into custody and lodged in the County Jail at White Plains.  David Lyon had surrendered him to the police.

Loughran Enters Here.

The boy communicated with a politician of some local renown named Dan Loughran, and the latter paid a visit to the jail, telling Lantier, so the latter says, that a short time in jail would do no harm, and ending by handing the boy a dollar bill 'to buy cigarettes for.'

Thoroughly alarmed and feeling himself deserted, the boy now wrote a pathetic letter to his mother at Long Island City, telling her to go and see Loughran.  Mortified and sorrowful, Mrs. Lantier arrived at North Pelham where she found a friend, Mrs. Joseph P. Ryan.  To her she confided her troubles.  Mrs. Ryan knows the boy John Lantier well, but never knew he had been or was in Pelham.

Joseph P. Ryan to the Front.

Mr. Joseph P. Ryan, thoroughly disgusted with the story unfolded to him and determined if possible to help Mrs. Lantier and her son, went with Mrs. Lantier one evening about three weeks ago to Dan Loughran's house.  Ryan demanded to know the whole story and why the boy had been abandoned.  Loughran telephoned for James Reilly, the worthy Village President, and he came at once.

'To Think He's Only 19.'

Mrs. Lantier, who was near a collapse from the terrible strain, after she had heard the charges against her son, cried out:  'And to think he's only 19 years old.'

'For God's sake, don't tell that, Madam, for he has already voted here twice.' promptly exclaimed Dan Loughran.

That made the mother still more miserable.

'Well, I thought he was 21,' carefully put in Mr. Reilly.

Ryan Bails Him Out.

It was finally agreed that Joseph P. Ryan should go to White Plains to bail the boy out the following morning.

'I will go with you,' volunteered Mr. Reilly.

And bright and early next morning Mrs. Lantier, the mother, and Ryan and Reilly went to White Plains, where before Justice Morschauser.  Mr. Ryan gave $1,000 bail for the boy, who was immediately taken home by his mother to Long Island City, although Mr. Loughran had expressed a desire to see him before he went to Long Island City.

Beecroft Intercedes.

Supervisor Beecroft was asked to intercede for the Lantier boy, and he did so, but of course was not apprised of the fact that the boy had committed the crime of voting illegally herre.  His case was simply presented to Mr. Beecroft as that of a wild boy, who was not really bad, but had gotten into an unfortunate scrape.  On Monday last Mr. Beecroft pleaded the boy's case before Judge Platt, who upon the defendant's plea of guilty as charged in the indictment, fined him $30.

Who Are the Guilty?

As to the instigators of the boy's illegal voting will shall give further particulars, based upon Lantier's own statement, in next week's Sun.  

At the same time we shall give the names of eleven other individuals, who voted at the village election a year ago without any other right than that they were paid for voting.  Extracts from the minutes of the Grand Jury investigation of testimony given by some of these individuals themselves will make interesting reading and show conclusive that both Lyon and Reilly were put into office by fraudulent votes."

Source:  HOW MINORS WERE IMPORTED TO VOTE IN NORTH PELHAM, The Pelham Sun, Mar. 4, 1911, Vol. 1, No. 48,, p. 1, cols. 1-2.  

Interesting North Pelham News via Mount Vernon.

The Mount Vernon Argus of yeterday contained the following:

'North Pelham, March 3. -- President Reilly and the members of his family had a scare at 5.15 o'clock this morning when the rear part of their residence in Chester Park was found to be on fire.  The rear stoop had been smeared with gasoline which was also spread along the foundation and the woodwork.  There is no doubt in the mind of President Reilly but that the place was set on fire and he told a reporter that he had his suspicions as to who was responsible.  The flames were discovered and extinguished by Mrs. Reilly with several pans of water.  The loss is about $100.  The fire department was not called out.  

'It was fortunate that the fire was discovered when it was for the reason that the flames were making considerable headway.  Mrs. Reilly was awakened by a glare against her bedroom window.  She aroused her husband and opening a rear door found the sloop, and a part of the lattice work underneath the kitchen window, and one blind burning.

'She filled a pan full of water and extinguished the flames on the stoop.  Then she with the assistance of her husband poured more water on the flames and the fire was soon out.  The glass in one window in the kitchen was broken and that in a window in the dining room was cracked.

'President Reilly said that there was no doubt in his mind but that the place was set on fire.

'That there had been a fire at the home of Mr. Reilly was not generally known in the village until this afternoon.  His residence in Chester Park is a comparatively new one and is located next to the home of Eugene Lyon.  President Reilly sails for Ireland tomorrow morning and expects to be back late in April.'

The above appears on the first page of the Argus, and on an inside page the following item appears:

'Will Nominate Reilly.'

'It was stated yesterday afternoon by Trustee David Lyon who is also a member of the primary committee of the Republicans that President Reilly will be nominated to succeed himself at the Republican primary next Monday evening in the town hall.'


Now, who is telling the truth.  Jim Reilly or David Lyon?

Can it be possible that Jim is running away from his boast that he would run against Ceder?  Or is he going over to Kilkenny county to run for M.P.?"

Source:  WAS REILLY'S HOUSE FIRED?, The Pelham Sun, Mar. 4, 1911, Vol. 1, No. 48, p. 1, col. 3.  

"Will Jim Reilly Retire?  Only As Deputy Sheriff
Village Blacksmith Deserted Forge to Enter Politics; Has Served as Deputy Sheriff for 24 Years.


Jim Reilly's retiring.  Well, we wonder. 

On Monday morning Pelham's most picturesque political figure began his last month as a deputy sheriff.  Jim's 70 now, and is eligible to retire on a pension, but somehow, even at 70, we can't believe that 'Honest Jim' is entirely through.

He said that he was through when we interviewed him on Monday, but he added, 'I feel just as young as I ever did,' and all of Pelham will agree that in spite of his gray hairs, Jim has been pretty active.  There have been few political campaigns recently in which his interest has not been felt.  If memory serves us rightly, Jim 'retired' in 1925 and again in 1929, but there he was back in the middle of things in the last race for the Republican nomination, and he came within 36 votes of getting it, too.

Jim retire?  Why even those who have been his bitterest opponents would not quite want to see that. 

'Honest Jim' Reilly, former village blacksmith, had such a keen political sense that the Republicans selected hi as their candidate for President of North Pelham in 1906, and he was elected, and that was the first of his 12 terms. 

In 192 he decided to quit, and a farewell banquet tendered to him at the New York Athletic Club at Travers Island, was attended by notables from all over the county.  But Jim couldn't remain out of things for long, and he was back again in 1927 as an independent, and he won.  He retired again after serving two years as Mayor, and again found political retirement irksome, so last Spring found him again seeking office.

Even the oldest of old-timers cannot recall the days when Jim Reilly was not a political power.  When the village was young, it was at Reilly's blacksmith shop, located on the easterly side of Fifth avenue, just north of Fourth street, that politics of the village centered.  Even now, on Election Day, Reilly holds political court at about the same spot, taking his stand just adjacent to the First District polling place.  Other communities may have had their cracker barrels in general stores, but in North Pelham it was from Jim Reilly's forge that the sparks of political ambitions flew.

Reilly was chief of the fire department, too, and as smithy he could be relied upon to get the best out of the old horse-drawn Knott [sic] steamer of the fire department.  'Jim Reilly's Boiler' she was, and before the days of motor pumpers there was none better than he at getting up steam.  It wasn't so long ago that Jim showed the youngsters in the fire department a thing or two about pumping water, and in a test of the old steamer it proved to be almost as efficient as the new apparatus.  The old steamer was retired ten years ago, sold to a motion picture company, but like its old boss it's probably had a couple of 'comebacks' since then.

In 1913, Reilly was appointed a deputy sheriff and assigned to duty as attendant in the Supreme Court.  Daily attendance in court gained for him an extensive legal knowledge which he frequently put into evidence while transacting official business for the village.  Parliamentary proceedings were conducted in proper form when Jim was presiding at village board sessions and woe be it to those who trod on the executive toes of the Mayor.

As head of the village government he was ex-officio chief of police, and never let it be said that Jim Reilly didn't do every bit of his duty.  there have been occasions when the police department was undermanned and Jim Reilly buckled on a belt and took up a nightstick and patrolled an open beat.  He was charged with the responsibility for protecting the village and he took it literally.

His blacksmith shop is gone, but Jim still has his center of activity.  It's removed a few blocks down Fifth avenue to the corner of Sixth street, where the 'Grand Jury' bench is located.  It's on this site that Jim holds his court among old cronies, and comparative youngsters, too, who have recognized him as a political power.

But now Jim is going to retire.  Well, perhaps he won't be a regular attendant at White Plains court sessions.  Perhaps there's going to be a new deputy sheriff appointed, and maybe the appointment will come from Pelham, but it's a safe bet that the next village campaign will find 'Honest Jim' right in the middle of things.  Why not?  He'll have more time to devote to it.  Wait for something startling to come from the 'Grand Jury bench.'  Jim'll be there regularly on fair days after Jan. 1st.  No, we don't think he'll retire."

Source:  Will Jim Reilly Retire?  Only As Deputy Sheriff -- Village Blacksmith Deserted Forge to Enter Politics; Has Served as Deputy Sheriff for 24 Years, The Pelham Sun, Dec. 6, 1935, Vol. 26, No. 35, Second Section, p. 1, cols. 3-5. 

Honest Jim Reilly at the Age of 72 in 1935.
Source:  Will Jim Reilly Retire?  Only As Deputy Sheriff --Village Blacksmith Deserted Forge to Enter Politics;
Has Served as Deputy Sheriff for 24 Years
The Pelham Sun, Dec. 6, 1935, Vol. 26, No. 35,
Second Section, p. 1, cols. 3-5.  NOTE:  Click Image To Enlarge.

"'Honest Jim' Reilly Dead; Pelham Political Leader
Village Head 12 Times, Veteran Is Heart Attack Victim

(Special To The Daily Argus)

NORTH PELHAM, Dec. 23. -- 'Honest Jim' Reilly has retired for the last time. 

The man who was Village head 12 times and Deputy Sheriff for 25 years died of a heart attack last night at his home, 11 Chestnut Avenue.  He was seventy-two.

Thirty of those seventy-two years Mr. Reilly, who once was a blacksmith, devoted to politics.  A Republican, he broke away from his party three times to run on an Independent ticket.  He was twice successful.

In the last Town campaign, he supported an Independent Party which backed the Democratic candidates. 

Left Ireland at 16

Mr. Reilly came to America from Ireland when he was sixteen.  He lived for a short time in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he practiced the blacksmithing trade he had learned when he got to the 'new' country.

He came to Pelham in 1893, and 12 years later staged a whirlwind campaign for Village President, on an Independent ticket.  A picturesque figure, he played a prominent role in politics from then on.

Elected again when the Republicans and Democrats put up one slate, Mr. Reilly ran two more years on a victorious Pelham ticket.

Then he retired from Village politics for in 1908, while still Village President, he was appointed inspector of the Bronx Valley Sewer Commission.  In 1911 he became Deputy Sheriff, in which capacity he served the County for 24 years, until State laws compelled him to retire again.  In 1920 he 'retired' from his blacksmith shop.

'If automobiles hadn't become so fashionable,' he said last year, 'I'd be shoein' horses yet.'

Defeated in 1931

Despite his constant avowal that he was 'retiring', Mr. Reilly ran for Mayor in 1931 and lost by 27 votes.  Last March he decided to fight Mayor Dominic Amato in the Republican primaries, but finally withdrew on the advice of his physician. 

In the last town campaign in November, he formed an independent party and backed the Democratic ticket. 

While he was in office, 'Jim's' board meetings usually necessitated the presence of a police officer, whom he would call unhesitatingly at the first sign of mutiny.

Out of office, he held 'court' on 'Reilly's Bench' at Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue.

Lauded in White Plains

Gordon Miller, Village Counsel of North Pelham, paid tribute to Mr. Reilly in Supreme Court at White Plains today, stating that he was held in great esteem by members of the bar living in the Pelhams. 

The remarks will be written into the court record and copies sent to the family.

Supreme Court Justice Raymond E. Aldrich, presiding, said that although he had not known Mr. Reilly as long as some, he also thought highly of him. 

Surviving are four sons, Philip and Robert of Mount Vernon, John of White Plains and William of Pelham; a daughter, Mrs. Kenneth Stanley of Pelham, and 10 grandchildren. 

A solemn high requiem Mass will be offered by the Rev. Father Arthur Campbell in St. Catherine's Church, North Pelham, at 10 A.M. Monday.  Interment will be in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery."

Source:  "Honest Jim" Reilly Dead; Pelham Political Leader Village Head 12 Times, Veteran Is Heart Attack Victim, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Dec. 23, 1937, p. 1, cols. 2-3.

Honest Jim Reilly in an Undated Photograph Published
with an Obituary in 1937.  Source:  "Honest Jim" Reilly Dead;
Heart Attack Victim, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY],
Dec. 23, 1937, p. 1, cols. 2-3.  NOTE:  Click Image To Enlarge.

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At 2:10 PM, Blogger Sue said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Sue said...

Honest Jim Reilly is my great-grandfather. It is so interesting to see his full story here! If anyone knows more about his and his wife's history in Ireland, I would love to know! My cousin found evidence they were from Crossakiel, County Meath, but I am looking for records and trying to go further back in our family tree. Thanks! And thank you for posting his story.

At 11:49 PM, Blogger Sue said...

Sorry, I tried to comment before and failed. James Reilly is my great grandfather and I love reading stories about him (even the less than flattering ones!). I cannot find any records of his burial place. Is he buried in Pelham? I am also looking for more information on his parents, his time in the midwest, his entry into the US, and the same for his wife. Thank you! You can email me at reilly at utexas dot edu.


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