Francis J. McGrath versus the Worcester Mafia
By Steven Maher
It was the type of press Worcester Mafia boss Frank Iaconi abhorred.
Iaconi’s picture appeared on page one of the November 5, 1946 Worcester Telegram under a headline, “Three sued for $57,300 as a Result of Horse Bet Losses”. There was also a photograph of Ward 3 councilman Philip F. Sullivan.
Jules Vohlgemuth was a Belgian immigrant who had saved $19,000 from stock market investments and his wages as a diesinker. George Trudell had gotten Vohlgemuth to lend him the money under false pretenses, and then lost it betting on horses in an Iaconi Franklin Street gambling den. Vohlgemuth sued Iaconi, Sullivan, and Irving Zabarsky under a state law that allowed for the recovery of triple damages for gambling losses.
“In those days, Worcester’s government was mired in bickering, inefficiency, political shenanigans, corruption, graft, and all the ailments of a weak, deteriorating system,” retired Worcester Telegram Publisher Robert C. Achorn wrote fifty years later. “In that atmosphere, the mob – the underworld – was able to do business comfortably in Worcester, as it did in Providence, Boston, Springfield and most other big towns. For years, it had clout at City Hall. Illegal gambling parlors, specializing in horse betting, flourished on Green, Franklin and Front Streets and other locations. When there were complaints, the police couldn’t find the joints, even though the customers could. And it was not just betting parlors. To do business in Worcester, bookies, loan sharks, strong-arm enforcers, drug peddlers and on-the-edge operators of every kind needed clearance from the mob. Free-lancing was not encouraged.”
“Critics complained about the unwieldy council and many citizens thought they saw ties between ward politicians and racketeers,” wrote Robert H. Binstock of the Joint Center for Urban Studies of Harvard University and MIT, which conducted an in depth study of Worcester politics in 1960. Local historian and retired Worcester Telegram editorial writer Albert B. Southwick concurred in one of his excellent Sunday Telegram history tomes: “Under the old system, it was widely believed that the police were corrupt, that Shrewsbury Street mobsters had connections at City Hall and that crooked deals were probably behind every major construction contract. The old system, with a Board of Aldermen, a cumbersome council and a weak mayor, was made for logrolling and nepotism.”
Though Vohlgemuth’s suit was later dismissed, its depiction of a city councilor in league with the city’s top mobster highlighted the corrupt nature of Worcester politics. And for two powerful men, it was the final straw.
Harry G. Stoddard and George W. Booth agreed that Worcester needed a new government.
If anyone can claim to be the John D. Rockefeller of Worcester, it’s Harry Galpin Stoddard. A man of humble origins, Stoddard was born September 13, 1873 in Athol, the son of a Baptist minister. His parents moved to Worcester when Stoddard was 11. After taking secretarial courses at Becker Business College, he labored as an office boy at Washburn & Moen Company, a wire manufacturer.
Stoddard was a man of strong organization and verbal skills. After serving as a salesman he became a manager of the works of American Steel & Wire in 1902. For seven years he was president of a New Jersey iron works with thousands of employees. As Stoddard’s obituary noted: “Then only 31, Mr. Stoddard was known as the youngest president of an industrial concern of this size in the nation.” In 1911 Stoddard returned to Worcester to become vice president of Wyman & Gordon, the nation’s premier producer of industrial forgings. Stoddard rose steadily in the ranks and by 1931 was president.
Stoddard diversified into banking and other interests. In 1925 he formed a partnership with journalist George W. Booth to buy the Worcester Telegram. From the start, the two were an odd couple.
“In personality, style and temperament, he [Booth] and Stoddard were much different,” Southwick recounted in a 1984 history of the Worcester Telegram. “Booth was flamboyant, Stoddard was outwardly low-keyed. Booth had been a newspaperman since he was 19, Stoddard had made his fortune in manufacturing and forging. Booth loved a rousing argument, Stoddard kept away from public controversy. Booth, a journalist to the core, liked to see things fully exposed to public view, to let the chips fall where they would. Stoddard had a reluctance to stir up trouble. It is remarkable that these two strong-willed men, so different in temperature and outlook, managed to get along so successfully for so many years.”
In 1979 Worcester Magazine reported, “The Telegram and Gazette crisis, it is explained, is grounded in what is perceived to be a widespread feeling that the papers are stuffy, fat with age and in a word, dull.” This would not have been said of the Worcester Telegram published by Stoddard and Booth. A reader who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s would be astounded to read a Worcester Telegram that was so bold in its approach to news.
No where was this more evident than its reporting on organized crime. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Stoddard and Booth were quite the gangbusters. The Worcester Telegram gave heavy publicity to the activities of local Mafia boss Frank Iaconi and Providence mob leader Raymond L.S. Patriarca. The newspaper fearlessly printed exposes about the Mafia, replete with photographs of the mobsters’ homes, and charts showing how Iaconi’s illicit income was funneled through legitimate enterprises.
Stoddard and Booth exposed themselves to great danger in doing this. Stripped of its romantic Hollywood aura, the Mafia is an armed force of organized criminals whose entrée into membership is participation in a murder. The Worcester police department was so corrupted in the 1940s that the Mafia, as Achorn points out, was able to operate openly. Stoddard could not necessarily rely on law enforcement to protect him from the mob.
Nor were Stoddard and Booth under business pressure from competitors to report on the mob. In 1938 they bought out the assets of their only competitor, the Worcester Evening Post. The two men could have easily limited themselves to lives of luxurious indulgence. They showed a great deal of civic concern and no small amount of courage in taking on the mob, characteristics not usually associated with men of their class.
What motivated them was the revolutionary Republicanism that was forged in the bloody furnace of the American Civil War. Just as some American liberals today look at Franklin D. Roosevelt as their ideological forebear, Republicans like Stoddard and Booth looked to Abraham Lincoln. In applying this analogy, we should bear in mind that the 1920s were the same distance from the American Civil War that we are today from World War II. Abraham Lincoln was still a living memory to large numbers of older Americans.
“This country, with its inhabitants, belongs to the people who inhabit it,” Lincoln had said. “Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional rights of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.” With this imperative from Lincoln ringing in their ears, Stoddard and Booth set out to radically restructure Worcester’s government.
What they needed was a grass roots citizens’ federation that would be perceived as independent of the Worcester Telegram. Fortunately for Stoddard, such a group already existed.
“Talk about changing the city charter had begun in the 1930s and a Good Government Association had been set up,” explains Southwick. “But it suspended operations in 1940 as the international skies darkened. An official ‘statement’ said that it was ‘not an opportune time for heated political activity, but a time for patriotic action.’”
The post war activity grew out of a West Side group called the Greenbriar Lane Improvement Society, which later became the famed Citizens Plan E Committee (CEA). A 1983 study by Clark University graduate student David Eisenthal describes the geographic area from which the group sprang: “The Greenbriar neighborhood was, and is, an upper-middle class area located between Salisbury and Pleasant Streets, and just to the west of Flagg Street.”
“The nucleus of what was to become the CEA, the Greenbriar Lane Improvement Society, began as a neighborhood discussion forum, [and] gradually became an arena for the members to air their dissatisfaction with the Worcester government,” wrote Holy Cross student C. Edward Williams, who worked with the Plan E Association in 1972 to write a history of the group. “At the heart of their discussion was the inefficiency of the city administration.”
The charter change proposed by the Greenbriar group was extreme. “Before 1947, Worcester had a weak mayor bicameral council government. Ten alderman and 30 members of the Common Council were elected by wards, and one alderman was elected at large,” exposits Binstock. “The Worcester reformers chose Plan E – [the] city manager and nine man council elected at large by proportional representation.”
“The first step in bringing Plan E to Worcester was to obtain a petition with the necessary 9000 signatures,” continues Williams. “To this end the support of Harry Stoddard of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette was sought and obtained.” Southwick describes how the support manifested itself: “When the Plan E reform movement got under way in 1947, Booth threw the support of the newspapers behind it.”
On April 28, 1947 the Worcester Telegram carried a front-page story that the Plan E petition drive would get under way in a few days. The story identified the person responsible for collecting signatures in each ward. Readers interested in signing the petition, or joining the movement, would know whom to contact. This was followed up the next day by a story about how well Cambridge was doing financially under Plan E. In three months12,464 signatures were collected.
Studies of Plan E agree that the group benefited from Stoddard’s financial support. “Records of contributions for the 1947 elections could not be located,” says Eisenthal. “A number of top businessmen, including Milton Higgens of Norton [Company], Harry Stoddard, and George Jeppson of Norton, made substantial contributions to the Citizens Plan E Association in 1949.”
“One link between the newspapers and the Plan E Group is the financial support that Stoddard provides for the Citizens Plan E Association,” says Binstock. “He is a heavy contributor to the CEA and the moving force of many of its fund raising activities. This attachment between the CEA and the press is also reflected in the intensive editorial support given the CEA.”
“Support that was probably critical to the success of the Plan E campaign came from the one newspaper in Worcester, the Telegram and Gazette,” comments Eisenthal, who examined the T&G between the July 1947 petition filing and the November 1947 referendum. Eisenthal concluded that the Telegram “gave what could be described as biased support” to the proposed charter, including banner headlines of endorsements, favorable stories, and an editorial endorsement one day before the election.
On Election Day November 1947 there was a 72.5% turnout. The vote was 40,483 to 21,649 in favor of Plan E. It was almost one year to the day since Vohlgemuth’s lawsuit against Iaconi had become public.
In 1949 188 candidates competed to fill the first Plan E City Council and School Committee. But then the plan almost backfired in the worst possible way: by reducing the number of city councilors, Plan E might have made Mafia control of City Hall easier.
Four out of nine
One of the new city councilors was 28-year-old Thomas C. Sweeney. A few days after the election, Sweeney was invited to an office by a prominent Worcester attorney for a private chat. The conversation that followed was reported in a memoir by Robert Achorn published by the Worcester Telegram on June 27, 1999.
The shocked Sweeney listened as the lawyer announced he was representing the local Mafia boss. This would have been Iaconi. “We’ve got four votes in the new council,” the lawyer said. “We want you to be our fifth vote, so we’ll be in control. We don’t want you to make a lot of noise in public but we want to keep on doing business without trouble. You can do what you want to on most stuff, but we need your support when critical votes come up.” Astounded, Sweeny declined the offer and walked in a daze to the Eden Restaurant.
The Eden, then located on Franklin Street, was the traditional hangout for Worcester Telegram personnel. There Sweeny found Achorn, the reporter responsible for politics and local government, and recounted his conversation with the attorney. Achorn pumped Sweeney for more details, the name of the lawyer, who on the council might be compromised. Sweeney refused to identify the lawyer or speculate on the four councilors involved, but said he wanted to be sure what he could do. “Sweeney reasoned if he went to the district attorney’s office, the accused lawyer would simply deny the whole thing and there would be no way to prove otherwise,” recalled Achorn.
It was an explosive story. Achorn went on at length to describe why the Telegram waited fifty years to report it.
“I told him [Sweeney] the Telegram would dig into it,” Achorn continued. “Back at the newsroom, editors were interested but wouldn’t print anything without a second source and some names. We examined the known connections of every member of the new council, and worked on the lawyer aspect. Reporters who had covered mob figures poked into that end of it. We talked to a few trusted police officials. They thought it sounded likely, but they had no hard evidence and, at that stage, not even gossip that they were willing to pass along.
“Eventually, everyone connected to the council except Sweeney flatly denied knowing anything about any approach from any agent for the mob. Most were seemingly outraged at being asked. They resented being questioned.
“In the end we couldn’t break the story,” concluded Achorn. “The old newspaper technique of quoting someone as denying they had been approached wouldn’t stand up without hard evidence. Sweeney, the political newcomer, finally decided it would be worse than useless for him to be dragged into the center of it alone. He would be everybody’s target.”
Tense waiting game
So the Telegram watched tensely from across the street as the City Council began implementing Plan E, to see if Worcester would have an honest city manager, or whether Frank Iaconi would manage the city.
The first order of business was to choose the Mayor. It was regarded as a good sign that a reformer, Andrew B. Holmstrom, was picked by the council. But under Plan E, the Mayor is a ceremonial leader. The real power would be with the City Manager.
“One of the many names mentioned early on was of an individual who supposedly done business with mob figures,” says Achorn. “The political gossip was that the mob would like to see him in the manager’s office. But his candidacy went nowhere. Perhaps another good sign.”
The council deadlocked over the new city manager. The Plan E supporters wanted to import an experienced city manager with no Worcester connections. Local interests wanted a local candidate. It’s an old Worcester argument. On two subsequent occasions – Jeff Mulford in the 1980s and Michael O’Brien in 2004 – the City Council was to appoint local candidates from within the city administration who had no city manager experience.
In 1949 the council compromised and picked Everett F. Merrill, “..a popular local businessman. He had a genial personality, had many friends all over Worcester and committed himself to clean, businesslike government but would not guaranty to stay on the job very long.”
Merrill in 1950 issued a general order to clean up illegal gambling. Nothing happened. Under pressure from the Telegram, taxpayer groups and honest politicians like Sweeney, Merrill “loudly and publicly ordered the police to crack down. They did. The horse parlors were shut. That part of the illegal operations was torpedoed, or at least further driven underground.”
“Merrill was a broad-brush type, not one to fret over City Hall trivia,” says Achorn. “He hired Francis J. McGrath as his assistant and detail man. Fifteen months later, McGrath took over and served 35 years as city manager. To the end, he was privately proud of his endless efforts to keep the city government out of the clutches of the mob.”
Achorn’s 1999 memoir is an extraordinary historical document. The picture of McGrath as a bulwark against the Mafia goes a long way towards explaining an enduring mystery of Worcester politics: why the Worcester Telegram gave such strong support to both McGrath and Plan E. Stoddard’s support of Plan E was so vehement that in 1959 the Citizens for Plan E Association (CEA) President “told a National Municipal League Conference at Springfield, Mass. That the on-sided support of the Telegram and Gazette had helped crystallize opposition to CEA. This statement of course disturbed Stoddard.”
But McGrath’s vision pleased Stoddard: a streamlined city government that invested heavily in infrastructure. During McGrath’s 33 years in office Worcester built 42 new schools, including an entire secondary school system. McGrath was able to do this because of Stoddard’s strong editorial backing. As Binstock noted: “[W]hen the city manager [McGrath] commits himself to a project, the press is usually behind him solidly.”
McGrath understood the newspaper’s power. “It would be tough if they did hammer me,” he admitted.
McGrath treated the Telegram as another political constituency, perhaps his most valuable one. Like an old-fashioned Irish ward boss visiting a neighborhood saloon, McGrath would saunter across the street from City Hall to the Worcester Telegram editorial offices, where he would regale the staff with jokes both raunchy and ethnic.
If Stoddard got a City Manager uninfluenced by the Mafia and dedicated to improving Worcester’s infrastructure, the Irish politicians got from McGrath city jobs for their relatives and campaign workers. As the McGrath era progressed, two power elites evolved in Worcester. One consisted of White Anglo Saxon Protestants who controlled the newspapers, most banks, and industries. The second were Irish Catholic politicians, who controlled city government and the city’s labor movement. But if McGrath is remembered today, it is primarily for the longevity of his 33-year reign.
The sequel of the Plan E story is the tale of two family dynasties.
Stoddard turned control of both the Worcester Telegram and Wyman-Gordon over to his son Robert. As a businessman Robert Stoddard was a capable successor. But in December 1958 Robert Stoddard committed a severe error in judgment that was to permanently scar the Stoddard name.
Harry Stoddard had helped found, fund, and organize the Plan E Association to fight an “enemy within” – organized crime. Robert Stoddard planned to do the old man one better. He would found, fund, and organize the John Birch Society to fight a bigger “enemy within” – Communism.
Within a short time the John Birch Society was seen as an extremist group. This involvement transformed Robert Stoddard from a community benefactor into a dark, sinister figure, lurking in the twilight of a neofascist netherworld. It impacted public perception of the Worcester Telegram. When Abbie Hoffman died in 1989, Amy Zuckerman wrote a moving Worcester Magazine commentary about how Worcester’s repressive atmosphere, with its “John Birchers at the local newspaper”, spawned Hoffman.
Likewise, the Worcester’s Telegram’s editorial page moved further to the right as the newspaper’s readership shifted to the left. In 1973 the Holy Cross Quarterly remarked quite accurately that the Telegram’s “editorial policies and news management would warm the heart of Barry Goldwater. They are a minority writing for another minority that the majority ignores.”
Paradoxically, Worcester suffered a great loss when Robert Stoddard died in 1984. Stoddard’s heirs sold the Worcester Telegram to the San Francisco Chronicle. The Worcester Telegram downsized and moved its printing operations to Millbury. Wyman-Gordon shut down most of its Worcester manufacturing facilities. Robert Stoddard had been adamant about keeping the newspaper in local hands. If he had been born twenty years later and had lived to see the new millennium, the Worcester Telegram and Wyman-Gordon would likely have a stronger presence in Worcester, providing jobs with a living wage for Worcester’s working class. Future historians may someday date Worcester’s decline as a serious manufacturing center as beginning with Robert Stoddard’s death.
Frank Iaconi was the patriarch of a dynasty that was to be pre-eminent in the Worcester Mafia for the next half century, surviving the Stoddard lineage at the Worcester Telegram.
In 1966, ten years after Frank Iaconi died, the Justice Department issued a report on the Patriarca crime family that listed another Iaconi, spelled phonetically as “Iacone”, among five capo regimes. A capo regime is a captain, the third highest rank in the Mafia, immediately below the second in command underboss. In a city the size of Worcester, there is usually only one capo regime, who commands the local soldiers. The same Justice Department report described the Worcester Mafia as a cadre of seven made members with numerous wannabe associates.
In 1988 the Boston Globe and Providence Journal both reported on a law enforcement conference where an Iaconi was identified as a Patriarca family capo regime. The Globe identified “..Iaconi as the capo regime who ran Worcester for the Patriarca family.” In 1998 the Worcester Telegram reported testimony by Jerry Matricia about a 1994 mob feud that spilled over into the city. One participant “was closely allied with..Iaconi, of Worcester, whom Matricia knew to be a made member of the mafia.”
The high regard in which long time mob boss and Worcester native Raymond Patriarca Senior held the name Iaconi was dramatically illustrated by a November 1963 episode involving underboss Gennaro J. Angiulo.
Patriarca in 1963 was at the height of his power. Angiulo was Patriarca’s greatest business asset, pouring tens of millions of dollars from Boston’s gambling rackets into Patriarca’s treasury. Yet Patriarca was willing to sacrifice this cash cow on the altar of Mafia honor.
The FBI had pierced the protective cordon around Patriarca’s Providence headquarters and planted a bug in his office. Information from the bug and an informant later appeared in a government report on the Whitey Bulger FBI scandal. One section of the report detailed a meeting between Patriarca and an Iaconi – not the Iaconi identified in the 1966 Justice Department report or 1988 press reports as a capo regime – that sounds so old world, reeking of respect and honor, that it reads like a Hollywood screen play.
This Iaconi had partnered with Angiulo in a legitimate joint proprietorship. Angiulo showed up at the place one night with a retinue of followers and began berating Iaconi, four times calling him an extremely foul name. This Iaconi, who himself is now deceased, took the dispute to Patriarca.
As Patriarca sat down with Iaconi, he might have felt nostalgic. Patriarca may have thought of the great old days during prohibition, when he and Frank Iaconi had run booze between Providence and Worcester, when Patriarca, barely out of his teens, had apprenticed in the Worcester Mafia under Frank Iaconi’s tutelage.
Patriarca wondered something. Why, given the grievous insult of the foul name Angiulo had called him, hadn’t Iaconi just killed Angiulo? Iaconi said that it would have been disrespectful to Patriarca, to kill the family underboss without the Don’s – Patriarca’s – approval.
At that, Patriarca gave Iaconi an order. If Angiulo called Iaconi that foul name ever again, Iaconi was to kill Angiulo right then and there and he, Patriarca, would raise no questions.