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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Hon. John Daniel McMahon

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 184-189 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Portrait of Hon. John Daniel McMahon

Portrait: Hon. John Daniel McMahon

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Hon. John Daniel McMahon died in Rome Hospital, Rome, Oneida county, New York, on Monday, January 1, 1923. He was born in Toronto, Canada, on January 28, 1859, the son of Daniel and Alice (Cavanaugh) McMahon, and when their son was quite young the family moved to the town of Annsville, New York, where the boy spent his early days. He attended school at the little Bowen schoolhouse near Redfield, and it was a pleasure for him in later years when fishing in Salmon river, near by, to be so near the scenes of his early childhood. John Daniel McMahon's father moved to Canada from County Clare, Ireland, about 1843. His mother, Alice Cavanaugh, was a native of Florence, Oneida county, New York, and they resided in Toronto for some time. In 1861 the family moved to Oswego, New York, where the father enlisted in the One Hundred and Fifty-sixth New York Regiment, Field Artillery, in which he made a record as a brave and efficient soldier. The father died when they lived in Annsville, and John Daniel and his mother moved to Rome when he was a boy.

John Daniel McMahon obtained his education in the public schools of the city. While attending the Rome Free Academy he spent evenings and hours out of school learning telegraphy at the Western Union office in Rome. He graduated from the academy with the class of 1879, and after leaving school read law in the office of Johnson & Prescott, then among the leading lawyers of Rome. Mr. McMahon was a close, careful and industrious student, and early acquired the habit of incisive application to any task before him. He never lost a moment in idleness and no task discouraged him. He loved work and constantly improved his mind, and was blessed with a strong constitution, alert and sinewy.

Mr. McMahon was admitted to the bar in October, 1882. Then began as remarkable a political career as ever was known in the state of New York. Mr. McMahon entered the field of politics early, but it was a side issue to his law practice, or perhaps a handmaid, for both were admirable in so many ways. He became a leading lawyer of the state, a most impressive advocate before the bar, brilliant, and absolutely thorough. Yet from the time in November, 1883, when he became city attorney of Rome to the day of his death, a period of forty years, through all the changes, through all the various administrations, when his party was in power and when it was not in power, he held his hand steadily on the democratic party organization of Oneida county, and there was no man in Rome, Utica or elsewhere in the county who, at any time during these years, occupied a more commanding position in party affairs.

Mr. McMahon was city attorney for two years. In 1886 he was elected recorder, or city judge of Rome, by a majority of one thousand, which was phenomenal for those days. He was reelected in 1890, but resigned the office in 1892 to become deputy attorney-general of the state under the late Attorney-General Rosendale. Governor Hill recognized in Mr. McMahon the exceptional qualities which he possessed. No men were closer to Governor Hill than Mr. McMahon and the late James H. Flanagan, a fast friend, who was long state committeeman from Oneida county. Hon. Samuel A. Beardsley, then of Utica and now of New York city, was the democratic leader of Utica and a firm friend of Mr. McMahon, and likewise was greatly respected by all the democratic leaders of that time as well as since, and every democratic state convention found him on its most important committees. During several conventions, year after year, he was chairman of the committee on credentials and listened to the evidence of many contestants. Often did political leaders suggest to him that he remove his residence to New York city, where in the broader fields he might take a deserved place among the successful lawyers of a big city, such as John B. Stanchfield and William F. Sheehan, who were his personal friends. Any of them would have been glad to have him associate himself with them. But he loved Rome and Oneida county, and could not be enticed away.

In 1888 Mr. McMahon was the democratic candidate for congress against James S. Sherman, who afterward became vice president of the United States. The district was overwhelmingly republican, but Mr. McMahon made a remarkable fight against the odds, running twenty-five hundred votes ahead of his ticket. He was a delegate to every democratic state convention after 1888 but two, and a large factor in all these gatherings. It can be said with absolute truth that there was no more tireless nor more effective campaigner. On the stump he had few equals, and in acumen there was no superior. His party's campaign committee drafted him in many a state and national campaign as one of its best campaign orators. He was a delegate to several national conventions, beginning with 1892, where Cleveland was nominated for president. He held important state commissions, among them one under Dix to examine the departments of New York state.

It was in 1891 that a deadlock occurred in the legislature caused by the refusal of the republicans in the senate to enact legislation unless a resolution empowering a committee of that party to investigate the management of the canal and public works of the state should be allowed by the democrats to pass. It was a period of great excitement in Albany and among politicians of both parties throughout the state. The democrats would not yield, and the senate adjourned without the passage of the resolution. To avoid the charge of even seeming to cover irregularity or fraud, the democratic assembly then appointed a committee to investigate the truth of the charges which had been made by republican senators. The democratic managers selected John D. McMahon, the young democratic leader of Rome, as the proper person to conduct the investigation as the counsel of the committee. That delicate and difficult task was assumed by him and four weeks were spent in examining witnesses. It was a critical case, as every step was closely watched and reported and commented upon by the press of the entire state, but through the skillful management of Mr. McMahon the investigation resulted in complete vindication of the democratic administration of canal affairs. The effect of the investigation throughout the state can hardly be overestimated, and it is conceded that it contributed more than any other one cause to the magnificent triumph gained by the democratic party in the state at the November election of that year. The press generally paid high tribute to the ability of Mr. McMahon in the conduct of the investigation, and the New York Herald in particular was profuse in its praise of the manner in which he had conducted the whole matter. His efficient work brought him prominently before the whole state, throughout which his name has since remained familiar. From that time on he had an even more state-wide acquaintance and respect.

But it was not the number of places of public trust which he himself held that distinguished Mr. McMahon's political service. He might have held very many more, but he preferred to see his friends do that. Friends who owe their political success to him, quite as much as to themselves, could be counted by the score. In the political field it was this that occupied his mind during most of the years. He made innumerable trips to New York, Albany, Washington and other places in the interests of his friends or to further some project. He was literally tireless and counted neither time, effort nor cost when pursuing an undertaking. A recent example was during the campaign in the fall of 1923. Mayor Lunn had been booked to speak in Rome and his coming was advertised. Suddenly there came from the speaker's committee announcement that the plans were changed and Lunn was wanted in Brooklyn. Mr. McMahon knew there would be keen disappointment in Rome. Much telegraphing was not availing. He got on a train, went to New York city, enlisted some of his influential friends there, and over the protest of the Brooklyn contingent the plans were changed again and Lunn appeared in Rome as advertised. It was a typical incident. During the fight at Albany over the Rome charter bill in 1921 it was his numerous visits to Albany that paved the way for Governor Smith's veto of that measure. Senator Davenport was strongly urging the passage of the bill, but when Mr. McMahon explained the circumstances the governor took time during the busy days of the closing legislative session thoroughly to study the measure, which then was one of hundreds before him. Yet the important work he did absolutely unostentatiously.

A few years ago at the Carnegie Hall state convention in New York city the entire Oneida county delegation of elected representatives was thrown unceremoniously out of the convention by Tammany Hall, which sought to get absolute control of the party organization throughout the state. The Tammany plan was to have Harry S. Patten elected state committeeman in Oneida county. No effort was spared in Patten's behalf, but when the primary votes were counted Patten had hardly a corporal's guard. Mr. McMahon and Mr. Beardsley directed that fight in Utica, Rome and the towns.

Mr. McMahon never had a contest of that sort, and there were not many who essayed to make such contests against his generalship. He had too many friends who would go through fire to aid him in time of need, friends who were loyal because of their admiration for his qualities and the rare character of his friendship for them. For they would try as hard for him as he would for them. Instances might be multiplied to illustrate the secret of his long and unbroken leadership of his party in the county — a simple secret of unselfish loyalty which knew no faltering.

And this generosity marked Mr. McMahon's law practice. He always gave his clients truly sound advice. He avoided litigation when possible. He entered deeply into sympathy with the matter in hand. He delved far into the law and the facts, and had the keen vision to see through both. And then, when it was all over, he was generous and moderate in the credit he took for himself, rarely accepting a reasonable due. Though he was an unusually able advocate before a jury, he preferred a law practice of a different nature, and some of the largest interests in the vicinity were directed legally by his advice. In 1884 Mr. McMahon formed a copartnership in the practice of law with Timothy Curtin, Jr., under the firm name of McMahon & Martin. Later the firm became McMahon & Mason, the late John E. Mason being the junior partner. Mr. M. J. Larkin, who studied law in the office, afterward became a member of the firm, as McMahon, Mason & Larkin. Later Mr. Mason retired and practiced law independently, and the firm became McMahon & Larkin. Still later Johnson D. McMahon took Mr. Larkin's place in the firm, and at the time of his death the firm name was McMahon & McMahon.

When the state democratic convention met at Saratoga on September 16, 1891, Mr. McMahon was a delegate from Oneida county, and when the name of Roswell P. Flower was presented to the convention as a candidate for the nomination of governor he seconded the nomination in a brilliant speech, an extemporaneous effort which was a marvel of skill. He did not know until just before he made the speech that he was to do it.

It was while he was deputy attorney general at Albany that Mr. McMahon conceived the idea of establishing a state institution at Rome, the first one of its kind. He originated the sale to the state of one-half the county home property of the county of Oneida south of the city, which had previously been used for the care of the insane, and drew and had passed an act of the legislature establishing the Rome State Custodial Asylum. In the following year he took proceedings to condemn the balance of the county property and fix its value, and obtained an appropriation from the succeeding legislature for the purpose of purchasing it. From this beginning has resulted the present Rome State School, one of the largest of the state institutions.

He was good to the poor. There will be many a moist eye in humble homes today and in many days that are to come as it is recalled how he smoothed troubled pathways and did it for the pleasure that a kind heart gains from seeing others happy. No widow or unfortunate came to him without receiving succor, and the price was not a consideration.

Mr. McMahon was fond of dumb animals. When the dogs were taken to the pound to be killed he would pay the fee for a dog tax to give a homeless dog a lease of life. No animal could suffer in his presence. Only a short time before his death he cared for a family of cats as tenderly as a human being could. He was fond, during his latter years, of outdoor life, particularly trout fishing, which he pursued as assiduously as he pursued other things. However, he had few diversions of that nature, but he would wade a stream all day or travel miles on foot into the heart of the Adirondacks to some camp in the deep wilderness. And he was the best of companions, always doing more than his share, and loving the comradeship of those who always enjoyed such things.

Mr. McMahon was a loyal citizen of Rome and was deeply interested in everything that meant the prosperity of the city. His earnest assistance and wise counsel could always be depended upon in enlisting aid for new enterprises and supporting those already established. He was one of the most popular citizens of Rome, and his death cast a great gloom over the city. For a few years Mr. McMahon was one of the board of managers of the state insane asylum at Utica, having been appointed by Governor Hill to succeed the Hon. Daniel Magone of Ogdensburg.

Mr. McMahon was a member of the Rome Club, the Teugega Country Club, the Transportation Club, New York city; the Fort Schuyler Club, Utica; the Little Falls Country Club; the Adirondack League Club; the Triton Club of Canada; the Fish Creek Club; and the Manhattan Club of New York; the Oneida County Bar Association and the American and New York State Bar Associations. He was vice president of the Rome Trust Company, trustee of the Rome Savings Bank, vice president of the Rome Gas, Electric Light & Power Company, director of the National Gas, Electric Light & Power Company, Detroit, Michigan; vice president of the Central New York Abstract & Title Company, and a director in the Spargo Wire Company, Incorporated, the Rome Hollow Wire & Tube Company and the Williams Brothers Manufacturing Company.

On April 26, 1886, Mr. McMahon was united in marriage to Miss Julia F. Johnson of Rome, who, with a son, Johnson D. McMahon, survives him. Mr. McMahon was a member of St. Peter's Roman Catholic church of Rome.

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