Poo Bah Go Bragh

The career of Knoxville's first Irish Catholic mayor

Knoxville showed up in the book American Catholic as one of the least Catholic towns in America, with less than one percent of the population of the diocese Catholic church members. That's a surprise only to those of us who work downtown and sometimes find ourselves outnumbered by Catholics. At Harold's Deli, when the Catholic table's full, I sit at the counter over my scrambled eggs and pastrami, squint my eyes, and can almost picture a time when Catholics ran this city.

It happened well over a century ago, during the tenure of our first —there have been three, in all—Catholic mayor.

If you eat lunch in the break room at the city's Department of Development, on the east end of the 5th floor of the City County Building, you know what he looked like. Development experts up there dine with his portrait every day. He was a handsome, friendly-looking guy with dark hair, a luxuriant mustache. All the little plaque says is Martin J. Condon 1888-1889.

He's listed in the city's "Mayors of Knoxville" brochure. His birth date, 1857, isn't followed by a death date, but by a question mark.

Knoxville had had a Catholic Church since 1852, when there were only two Catholic churches in the state, and Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine and the British were flowing into town to work for the new railroad. By 1871, the Irish Mutual Benevolent Society had begun holding its popular St. Patrick's Day balls at the Lamar House. (I don't know how long they lasted, but they were late-night affairs; "intermission" was typically at half-past midnight, when the band took a break and "supper" was served.) They usually drew hundreds of Irish revelers, with overflow in Schubert's Saloon across the street.

Most of the Irish settled in and around the northeast quadrant of downtown, the area known to a generation as Irish Town, easy walking distance of the only Catholic Church in East Tennessee. In the 1870s and '80s, City Council sometimes had as many as three Catholic members. But before 1888, no Tennessee city had ever elected a Catholic mayor; the idea was new and controversial even in Boston and New York, which elected their first Catholic mayors in the 1880s.

Martin Condon's parents were John and Bridget Condon, who migrated from County Clare to Tennessee, where John got work as a stonemason for the railroad. After the war, older sons Michael and Stephen formed a wholesale grocery, Condon Brothers on Gay Street. Young Martin worked for them as a clerk. They were a politically active family; in the early 1880s, both the older brothers, Michael and Stephen, were elected city aldermen.

First known here as the pitcher on the baseball team, Martin showed some independence from his Republican older brother, Michael, by calling himself a Democrat. By the time he was 27, the papers were calling him an "Irish-American statesman," a member of several boards, including the City Charter Committee, the School Board; he also served as a "colonel" on Gov. Bob Taylor's staff.

He married Margaret McMillan, daughter of an old Knoxville family, who converted to Catholicism. They'd eventually have at least three kids, two boys and a girl. They settled on East Fourth, on the more affluent side of old Irish Town.

In a closed-door meeting just after Christmas, 1887, Martin Condon—barely 30 years old—was picked to be the Democratic candidate for Mayor of Knoxville.

It was a surprising choice, less than a month before the election, but a popular one. Some had expected Republican Wyman Clark to be a shoo-in. The Republican Journal confidently predicted that even Knoxville's three Irish wards favored Clark.

From his headquarters in a Gay Street hotel, Condon worked long hours mending fences and making new alliances with the black community, which until then had preferred to vote for the party of Lincoln.

As election day neared, the Republicans realized there was something of a Condon juggernaut afoot. Their rhetoric got desperate. They cited rumors that Condon had voted for Republican Leonidas Houk for Congress. That Condon was in the pocket of the liquor industry. That three years earlier, on the charter commission, he had voted to allow convict labor in Knoxville. They accused Democratic bosses of bribing black men to vote Democratic, at three silver dollars a vote.

The Journal also questioned whether a member of the school board who also worked for the governor should also be mayor. "Does he intend to make himself the Pooh Bah of Knoxville democracy?"

They didn't accuse him of being Catholic. Anti-Catholic prejudice ran deep across the country, and in 1888 few cities nationwide had elected Catholics to major office for fear they'd answer first to the Pope. But I couldn't find any evidence that anyone on either side much cared that Condon would be the first Catholic mayor in Tennessee history.

The men of Knoxville elected Condon by a landslide, 2,229 to 1,304. He won a majority in every ward, especially those Irish ones.

That weekend, Knoxville's Democrats shouted, shot off firecrackers and skyrockets, drank, and danced. The Journal's cynical headline was, "What King Dollar Can Do When He Tries...We have met the enemy, and we are his'n."

Condon swept into office with a reformist agenda, first cleaning up the messy account books. He rewarded the loyalty of black leaders by appointing a black minister, Job Lawrence, to fill a vacancy on the school board, but the rest of the board shunned him, meeting secretly, until a politically motivated ruling disqualified him from the job.

Knoxville was booming during his tenure. Condon's administration oversaw the construction of some of the city's first sewers. Some stories hold that Condon himself was Catholic on the job as well as at home; that he packed city government with Catholic friends and, when one married a Protestant, fired him.

He served for two full years. (That second date on his portrait plaque should be 1890; Condon was still mayor early that year.)

Martin Condon vanishes from city directories after 1890. He and his friend and sometime baseball teammate, William Hunt, bought the Garret Company, a chewing tobacco business in Philadelphia. Within five years, Condon and Hunt parlayed it into the biggest chewing-tobacco company in America, controlling 97 percent of the market. They dominated the market until their Memphis-based American Snuff Co. was broken up by Teddy Roosevelt's trustbusting.

Condon lived for a time in New York, pursuing interests in a Fifth Avenue jewelry store; in Nashville, where around 1900 he helped establish a Paulist Chapel, served by a school run by Dominican nuns; and in Memphis, the headquarters of his snuff company, where he and his wife settled.

He returned to Knoxville frequently, where his mother and brothers stayed. He often spent his summers at Tate Springs, the swanky resort in Grainger County.

I was lucky to make contact with some archivists like Bob DeWine, one of the historians of Knoxville's Catholic Church. But when I set out to find out about a guy who was mayor in 1888 and had a question mark for a death date, I didn't expect I'd get to talk to someone who knew Condon; much less that that acquaintance was also an old friend of mine.

"I knew him well," says retired merchant Martin Hunt, who got his name from his grandfather's close friend and partner. "He was one of the finest men I've known," Hunt says. "He dressed beautifully. He was a brilliant man, way ahead of his time."

Hunt says when the Knoxville-based grocery chain the White Store nearly went out of business early in the Depression, Condon bailed them out. On moral grounds, the White Store had never carried tobacco before, but decided to make an exception for Condon's brand of snuff.

The last time Hunt saw Martin Condon, he says, was about 70 years ago, at Tate Springs. He remembers the day vividly. It had been raining, and the men were sitting in rocking chairs on the porch, talking, wearing their fine clothes, as usual. Suddenly a muddy, shaggy dog jumped up on the porch. Most of the men stood up and backed away.

"Mr. Condon said, 'Come here, pooch,' and scratched him behind the ears," Hunt recalls. "Of course, it made everybody else feel just like shit."

Martin Condon was still alive when his wife died in 1933, but I haven't found any local source that claims to know when Martin Condon himself died, assuming he did. I decided to leave that question mark in the Mayors of Knoxville brochure alone. It does get your attention.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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