William R. Grace in a photograph taken in New York in the early 1880s.
By Geoffrey Cobb
Irish-born William Grace was a millionaire international businessman and philanthropist who became the first Catholic mayor of New York. Grace also holds the distinction of being the first bi-lingual mayor of New York, being equally adept at English and Spanish. An anti-Tammany Hall Democrat and reformer, Grace was a foe of political corruption, whose stubborn independence and dedication to reform has earned him a place in the pantheon of the greatest New York City mayors.
Like many great Irish New Yorkers of his era, Grace was a Famine refugee. Born into a prosperous family in Cork on May 10, 1832, Grace and his family saw the Famine devastate Ireland. Much to his father’s ire, Grace ran away from school at the age of 14 and worked his way to New York on a sailing vessel. In New York, Grace worked as a printer’s devil and a shoemaker’s helper before returning to Ireland in 1848. Two years later, his family tried to escape the devastation of the famine by relocating to Peru, where his father hoped to start a farming community for Irish refugees. The farming venture failed, and Grace’s father returned to Ireland, but William stayed behind, finding a job as a shipping clerk in the firm of Bryce & Co. Mastering Spanish made him indispensable to the firm, and after only two years there he was asked to become a partner. Shrewdly, Grace anchored one of the firm’s supply ships off the coast, thereby permitting cargo fleets to buy their wares supplies without having to land ashore. In 1854, the firm became Bryce, Grace & Co. and within a few years it became a steamship line controlling much of the shipping along the coasts of Peru and Chile. Grace worked in Peru 11 years, and his firm became the first multinational company in Latin America. By age 30, Grace was quite wealthy, but suffering because of the noxious climate, he turned the firm’s management over to his brother and left Peru in 1865.
Grace returned to New York City just in time for the end of the Civil War. He and his wife, the daughter of a New England sea captain, settled in Brooklyn Heights. He kept offices across the river in Manhattan, from which he continued to run his lucrative international business. In 1868, he founded the shipping firm of W.R. Grace & Co. in New York, serving ports on three continents, while dominating a substantial portion of American trade with South America. Grace was the main Peruvian arms supplier during its unsuccessful war with Chile in 1879–83, and after the war he assumed Peru’s staggering war debt. In return, his company received massive concessions from Peru including silver mines, oil and mineral deposits, and guano deposits. Anger at his domination of Peru’s economy earned him the nickname the “Pirate of Peru.” Grace also invested extensively in commodities and real estate in Peru and Chile, while running numerous business interests both in America and internationally. Later on, in 1892, he established the first direct steamship service between New York and Peru.
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In 1879, and again the following year, famine struck the west of Ireland and the specter of starvation loomed. His firm contributed generously to famine relief, donating one-fourth the cargo of provisions sent in the steamship Constellation for the famine stricken and making him wildly popular in the New York Irish community. Disgusted with the corruption of Tammany Hall and looking for a man too wealthy to be tempted by corruption, many New Yorkers clamored for Grace to run for mayor in the 1880 election. Grace was an independent Democrat who had never taken more than a layman’s interest in politics. “Honest John” Kelly, the Tammany boss asked him to run for Mayor and Grace agreed while adding, “But if elected, I’ll be the Mayor, you know,” showing that he would be no tool for Tammany Hall domination.
The greatest hurdle that Grace had to overcome was the widespread bigotry of many New Yorkers who despised both his Irish birth and his fervent Roman Catholicism. Dexter Hawkins wrote the New York Times that if elected, Grace would be little more than “a tool of the Romish Church,” replacing public with parochial schools. One bigoted orator declared, “ If Mr. Grace is a good Roman Catholic, he must, in the conscientious discharge of his duty, if elected Mayor, make this City subordinate to… the Holy Father in Rome.”
Despite the strong anti- Catholicism directed against his campaign, Grace won by a razor-thin margin of only 2,914 votes. He proved to be honest and a reformer, much to the dismay of Kelly and his Tammany cronies. When Kelly tried to influence his appointments, Grace angrily replied: “No one can dictate to me, Mr. Kelly.” He conducted a reform administration attacking police graft, patronage and organized vice. Grace gained Tammany’s ire and lost its backing. After his two-year term, he stepped down. One journalist who initially feared Grace’s election said, “It is no small praise of a public man in this city to say that he has earned the cordial hatred of Tammany Hall.”
Missing his honest administration, reform-minded citizens asked him to run again in 1884, which he did, winning by a large margin. His re-election was hailed as a “triumph for the voices of good government.” During his second term Grace also helped the city obtain two of its most famous landmarks, The Statue of Liberty and Grant’s tomb. An attempt to induce him to run for a third term, but Grace was tired of politics. During his days as Mayor, Grace showed his fervent Catholic faith by attending daily Mass at the neighboring Church of St. Agnes before beginning each workday.
He retired from politics, but not philanthropy. In 1897, after learning of the poverty of his workers during a strike, he set up the Grace Institute to help immigrant women, dedicating it to the memory of his parents. The Grace institute provided free tuition to women in dressmaking, stenography, typewriting, book-keeping, and home economics. He died on March 21, 1904 at his 31 East 79th St. residence. The funeral Mass took place at the Church of St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street and he was buried in Brooklyn’s Holy Cross cemetery. His great legacy is his institute which lives on, dedicating itself to empowering low-income women in the New York area to achieve employment and economic self-sufficiency by providing job-skills training, counseling, placement services and learning opportunities that lead to upwardly mobile employment.