B'hoys Will Be B'hoys: The Roots of Muldoonery


St. Patrick's Day is upon us. The Maryland General Assembly is in session, and this is an election year. The "b'hoys" and "muldoons" are hard at work politickin'. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.

Well, almost.

It seems that the words "b'hoys" and "muldoons" are in danger of extinction. And if these terms are allowed to fade away, it would be a dark day indeed, one befitting an Irish wake.

The two terms -- whose roots extend to the glory years of Irish-American machine politics -- are so perfect in their description of political types that there are no adequate replacements.

Over the years, however, the definitions have become obscure to the point that editors here no longer want them on their pages, the once-powerful political machines have just about been dismantled, and the Irish hold on them has been diffused and become multicultural.

The names, faces and some of the practices have changed. But there are still b'hoys (gender-neutral to include the g'hirls, too) and muldoons, now of every stripe. And they still run this state.

So, with such a harmonic convergence of events as is offered this month, it seems an apt time to try to save these two words that are etched in Maryland's rich political lexicon.

To understand them fully, however, a little historical perspective is needed.

The Irish invented and fine-tuned the great urban Democratic machines -- a benevolent system of bosses and bosslets, ward leaders and precinct captains, that controlled cities, or portions of them.

It was a system, with its own pecking order, that counted on the "b'hoys," the boss' trustiest followers, to deploy the "muldoons," the foot soldiers, who worked the polls, their pockets stuffed with walk-around money, corralling the masses, handing out ballots and voting, sometimes early and often.

Oddly enough, while the Irish-led machines were growing in other urban centers during the last half of the 1800s, Baltimore was controlled by a transplanted Eastern Shoreman of French descent, I. Freeman Rasin, who ran the city for Maryland's capo di tutti capi, U.S. Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman of Howard County.

After the collapse of the Gorman-Rasin machine, though, the city boss' derby fell to a succession of Irish leaders, including John J. "Sonny" Mahon, John S. "Frank" Kelly (aka "The Kelly") and William Curran (once "Barefoot Billy" and later "Uncle Willie"), whose legacy was a system of district bosses who politically empowered the Italians, Poles and Bohemians, the Jews and eventually the blacks.

Politics in this city's Irish households over the years has been as important a staple as potatoes, particularly in East Baltimore's 10th Ward (now an urban renewal area known as Johnston Square), the one-time seat of the city's Gaelic political power.

There, on the corner of Biddle and Valley Streets, sat the Hendricks Club, a Democratic clubhouse known as the "Tammany Hall of the 10th Ward" that dated to 1888. It was that club that spawned the favorite son of Baltimore's Irish community, the late Herbert R. O'Conor, a former Maryland governor, U.S. senator, and boss, of sorts, in his own right.

One octogenarian long gone from 10th Ward recalled those days quite clearly.

"Remember the barber shop on Greenmount Avenue?" he asked. "Everybody voted out of the barbershop. I remember one election they voted the barber 35 times, and he'd been dead 10 years."

It makes perfect sense to Alan I. Lupo, an ex-Evening Sun reporter, now a Boston Globe columnist, who said, "As they say in Boston and Chicago and Cook County and elsewhere, 'Death should never stand in the way of anyone's ability to exercise one's franchise.' "

No wonder the 10th Ward's ballots were many times the last to be counted, and often put the "proper" candidate over the top.

The earlier part of this century was the heyday of clubhouse politics, full of b'hoys and muldoons, both of which are key to understanding the food chain of the all-but-dead political machines.

But to think the b'hoys and muldoons have gone the way of the machines would be a mistake: Both are still pertinent, particularly in the hegemonic legislative arena, where the b'hoys of "leadership" still call the tune, and the muldoons march in lock-step, voting accordingly.

The legislature's good government gadfly, state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Democrat from Bolton Hill, knows a b'hoy and a muldoon when he sees one, and over the years has not been shy about singling them out.

He defines the terms thus:

"I've always assumed a muldoon was a political workhorse, someone who works in the vineyard, someone who follows the boss' orders without question, not an original thinker, someone who follows what a political boss says . . . but someone who's getting a piece of the action.

"A b'hoy is a level above a muldoon," Mr. Lapides continued, "but part of the in-crowd."

But definitions are the easy part. Proving they exist as words is another story.

Of the two terms, "b'hoys" is the easier to trace.

The Sunpapers' own H. L. Mencken mentioned it in his treatise on the mother tongue, "The American Language." In his initial volume, he wrote that "bhoy . . . entered our political slang in the middle [1840s]" as a derivative of Irish -- that is, Gaelic -- pronunciation.

In the first supplement to the book, he revised that to say, "In the days of heavy Irish immigration, the ward heelers of the Eastern cities were often called b'hoys."

The still-incomplete "Dictionary of American Regional English," being developed by Harvard University Press, states that "b'hoy" comes from the Irish pronunciation of "boy" and means "a rowdy young man."

The second definition, however, is "a political henchman," and The Sun of Baltimore is credited for the two supporting references.

The first citation noted is a 1938 political cartoon by Richard Q. "Moco" Yardley in which a sign reading "City Hall B'hoys" figures prominently.

Yardley, The Sun's long-time cartoonist, skewered local pols as beefy, cigar-chewing characters in derbies, hats that often were emblazoned with a fraction -- such as "One-sixth boss" -- identifying the wearers by the amount of power they were perceived to carry in the city at the time.

The dictionary's second reference is a 1953 news feature by Charles G. Whiteford, The Sun's late chief political reporter, on the confusion among the b'hoys over the early line on the next year's gubernatorial race.

The search for "muldoons" is not as easy, since you will not find the word, in this sense, in any dictionary. It is a word that has been passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth or, more and more rarely, in the newspaper.

These days, political reformers -- the good-government "goo-goos," as the late Boston boss and Mayor James Michael Curley would say -- like to pretend such muldoons and b'hoys are creatures of yesteryear.

And the word is only whispered by reporters who write about politics for this newspaper, for it has been virtually banned here by editors, who also assert that that species of political animal no longer exists.

The attitude is nothing new.

In the early 1970s, Charlie Whiteford, who is credited with keeping both words alive during his watch, complained bitterly to a then-fledgling legislative writer that the editors never let "colorful political terms in the paper any more."

It was true then and still is. Editors pasteurize, homogenize and sanitize copy, scouring it clean of detail and nuance.

And in doing so, they have elevated Maryland's b'hoys and muldoons to "statesman" status -- a frightening prospect.

These editors are the same crusaders who could not find their way to the State House without a compass and map.

Trying to explain the importance of keeping "muldoons" and "b'hoys" alive in the English language is like trying to explain to them how a bill really becomes law.

Just two summers ago, another attempt to keep the terms alive was thwarted when one of these editors refused to allow the word "muldoonery" to appear in an article about the shenanigans during the years of former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

"They're not words," that editor said. "Too inside-baseball; they're not 'accessible' by the general public."

It was more than any self-respecting political observer could stand.

After all, one of Mr. Mandel's own cronies had shouted, "The muldoons are back," on that fateful day in January 1979, when the governor returned to the State House for the last five days of his term, after a federal appeals court overturned bribery and racketeering convictions.

But what the aide meant was that Marvin's muldoons were back -- for the muldoons are never gone. They are as eternal as the Hill of Tara, just smoking fewer cigars and dressing better than before.

The word was clearly in use in the early part of the century and probably known to Mencken, whose good friend and fellow Sun writer and editor, Frank R. Kent, appears to be among the first newspapermen to trot it out in print.

Mr. Kent defined "muldoon" in the Feb. 25, 1923, Sun, in his long-running column, "The Great Game of Politics" as "the political description of a straight organization man who will 'vote right' and 'stay hitched.' "

The definition was part of a multipart series on how a political machine runs -- articles that later that year became a book of the same name as Mr. Kent's column, chock full of insight, much of it nearly as true now as it was then.

But almost as proof of political history's precarious position, The Sun's own library recently discarded that volume and a couple of other Kent books.

Forty years after Mr. Kent's definition, Mr. Whiteford offered readers of The Sun, "A Muldoon's-Eye View" of the then-forthcoming Baltimore mayoral and City Council races. By then, March 2, 1963, "muldoon" had acquired a party affiliation, with Mr. Whiteford defining it as "a down-the-line-for-the-party Democrat for whom politics is the way of life."

Two days later, a "Notes and Comment" item on the editorial page of The Sun explained that the term "muldoon" means "a Democratic party regular who votes the straight party line."

The note went on, almost apologetically: "The word is used in the same sense in New York and perhaps elsewhere, but the only slang dictionary which mentions 'muldoon' describes it as a member of a San Francisco waterfront gang and links it with hooligan, which is not the same thing at all."

That slang dictionary seems to have disappeared. Other recent books on slang have tried to persuade the curious etymologist that a muldoon is a "police officer" and even "hoodlum," which, one notes, is one letter off from being "muldoon" spelled backward.

The last two meanings, however, miss the mark.

Lou Panos, former press secretary to Gov. Harry R. Hughes and longtime political writer, currently for the Patuxent Publishing newspaper chain, knows the terms well.

In fact, while he was press secretary, his boss named a likable East Side delegate who fit the description of muldoon to a cushy state job, saving him a tough re-election bid.

In explaining the governor's appointment, Mr. Panos volunteered a reporter, with well-meaning candor, that the man "is not the muldoon some people make him out to be."

The Sun editorial board howled in opining on the appointment July 2, 1982. In that editorial, the writer defined muldoon as "a particular type of pol, usually an undistinguished follower of a political organization who holds office because of his loyalty and not his intellectual talent."

No matter the definition, however, the litmus test for determining a b'hoy or a muldoon would be the epitaph of George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany bosslet who could easily be labeled as either.

"I seen my opportunities and I took 'em," the state senator told William L. Riordan, a reporter for the old New York Evening Post who collected Plunkitt's observations in a wonderful little book, "Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A series of very plain talks on very practical politics."

And nary a politician or camp follower alive would fail Plunkitt's test.

So, with that in mind, a collection is being taken up to save the b'hoys and muldoons. If you would like to contribute, please send unmarked bills of small denominations in a plain envelope . . .

William Zorzi covers government and politics for The Sun.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad