A complicated legacy
From New York City’s Jimmy Walker to Chicago’s Richard J. Daley, many cities have had interesting Irish American mayors. Hot Springs had its own combination of the colorful Walker and the powerful Daley — Irish American Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin.
The city attorney for 13 years and then mayor from 1927-47, McLaughlin left a complicated legacy.
McLaughlin’s father, John Henry McLaughlin, was born in Offaly County, Ireland, in 1842. In 1850, his family escaped the Irish potato famine by immigrating to America, settling in first in Maryland and later in Memphis. In 1873, John Henry married a 19-year-old Irish immigrant, Bridget Russell. In 1878, John Henry and Bridget moved to Hot Springs, where they owned a grocery and hardware store on Malvern Avenue. They eventually owned the block on Malvern Avenue between Church and Creek streets, the McLaughlin Building at Central and Prospect, and other properties. They had eight children, including Leo, who was born in 1888.
Around 1900, they built a large two-story house at the southwest corner of Malvern and Grand avenues. After John Henry’s death in 1912, most of the McLaughlin children (including Leo) lived as adults in the family home with the formidable Bridget (who did not want them to marry). One resident remembered, “His Irish mother was straight from the old sod. He idolized his mother and half of what he did was predicated on advice from his mother.”
As head of a powerful political machine, Mayor McLaughlin improved flood control downtown, paved streets, improved the fire and street departments, expanded the city’s water supply, helped reopen Oaklawn in 1934, helped bring about construction of the airport, and left office with the city in the black financially. He also left office a millionaire, despite his small salary, and is most remembered for rigging elections and for rewarding supporters with jobs and contracts while freezing out anyone who opposed his machine. The often-feared mayor once said, “My religion is to get even with people that have given me reason to settle something.”
McLaughlin ushered in the heyday of illegal gambling (and corruption). He could deliver up to 80 percent of the Garland County vote in state elections, which, as a reporter said, “ … was one reason the state let Hot Springs do what it wanted, even though what it wanted was illegal.”
He loved to drive his high-stepping horses through the streets, his machine-controlled streets, that gangsters and gamblers walked undisturbed. Sporting his trademark red carnation boutonniere, this impeccably dressed “Jimmy Walker of the Ozarks” worked with the municipal judge, police department, city clerk, and other city officials to control the life of the city. However, after his machine was brought down by young reformers home from World War II, he faced numerous criminal charges. Never convicted, he died powerless and lonely in 1958.
The McLaughlins’ journey from Offaly County led to prosperity and power in their adopted country. And even though Leo’s story has a dark side, it is a testament to the opportunities America offered to its immigrant families.