Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Workday Wednesday - Patrick Purcell, A Very Well Connected Night Watchman

My wife's 2nd Great Grandfather, Patrick Purcell, lived in Utica, NY.  He was born in Ireland and arrived in Utica as a young man around 1850.  He was the first of the Purcell family to come to the US.

He lived to be 63.

His last job before he died was as night watchman at the US Post Office in Utica.  Patrick was a Democrat and lost his job as the night watchman after Benjamin Harrison (Republican) became President.  President Harrison took office in March 1899, but Patrick didn't lose his job until December 1899.

The following article appeared in The Utica Sunday Tribune, December 8, 1899.

Changes in the Government Office
Patrick Purcell the veteran night watch man of the Government Building, has been relieved from his duties.  His place has been filled by the appointment of Daniel Brietenatein, one of the janitors of the building.  No complaint was found against Mr. Purcell in regard to his work.  For everyone connected with the Government Building knew that the white haired night guardian was most conscientious in the performance of his duties.  Being on duty for several years, his face had become familiar to many who frequent the postoffice at night.  But "Pat" was a democrat, and somehow or other, ---well, it isn't necessary to say any more on that point, suffice it to state that he has received official notification of his removal.  From another source it was learned the removal was based on the fact that the Government is trying to reduce expenses and the change was therefore made.  Mr. Breitenatein went on duty last night.  It is rumored that in a few days another removal and appointment will be made in the custodian's department.

I was fascinated that the firing of a night watchman was newsworthy.  Of course, it wasn't, but what become clear was that Patrick Purcell was a very well connected night watchman.   He had been active in local politics for years.  He served as delegate to annual Democratic Conventions representing the Eighth Ward of Utica.  I don't know if he was a Ward Boss, but must have had a significant position within the local Democratic Party and had some influence.  So as he grew older, there was no retirement, but he was able to secure a job as a night watchman in a federal building.  This would have been a fairly easy job and great for an older person.

I bet he contacted the newspaper and had a sympathetic ear from people that had known him for years, hence the newspaper article as a sort of slight protest to his being removed.

Patrick must have known how politics worked, probably better than most.  In the 1800's politics were run by the "spoils system" which meant that the winning party essentially controlled all the government jobs.  When a new party took over all the government employees were removed to make way for new employees who were connected to the winning party.  When the new party won, long lines of supporters would show up at government offices looking for jobs.  

In fact, President Garfield was assassinated in 1881 by Charles Guiteau who had been one of his active supporters and a man who believed his contributions to Garfield's election made him owed an ambassadorship.  He was turned down many times for the position and became disgruntled and shot the President.  It was after President Garfield's assassination that the spoils system started to break down and was finally eliminated for all but very senior government positions.

Here is a snippet of an article which shows Patrick Purcell as a critical vote in eliminating a $10,000 clause from a local budget.  He must have been a a significant player in local Utica politics.

So, Patrick wouldn't have been surprised, when his job was offered to a Republican.

Next Post, "Uncovering Patrick Purcell's Irish Origins".


  1. Fascinating, it is refreshing to think about how much separation there was between someone's job and someone's influence in his community.