J. Henry Stump: Reading’s Most Memorable Mayor
By EDWIN B. YELCH
J. Henry Stump, first of a family of six children, was born on June 4, 1880, to John F. and Tillie (Wurst) Stump in their humble home on Moss Street. He died in his home, 820 Douglass Street, on May 15, 1949, after an illness of six months. He was survived by his widow (Laura Widmyer Stump) whom he married on November 29, 1911; a sister, Eva (Palm); and two brothers, Charles and Robert. He was a member of St. Paul’s Evangelical Congregational Church, the Cigarmakers Union, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Fraternal Order of Orioles, the Junior Fire Company and its Relief Association, the Patriotic Order Sons of America, the Travelers Protective Association, Teutonia Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. He was laid to rest in Charles Evans Cemetery, his pastor, Rev. Foster R. Cardwell, conducting the services.
These bare vital statistics are but of passing interest, except to immediate relatives and friends. But the man behind these facts will live long in the annals of local history. Primarily, in his early years at least, “Hen” Stump was a laborer, a worker with his hands.
We are told that at the age of nine he became a news-boy, distributing the local publications from door to door, a job which he held for seven years, even after he was engaged in other work. At thirteen, when his father was no longer able to carry on a full-time occupation because of ill health, the boy stopped school (he had just been promoted to high school) and entered the employ of the Becker Shop, at Eighth and Oley Streets, as an apprentice cigar maker. After three months with no salary (after three years of service, an apprentice became a journeyman, and was paid,) he felt. that he was as capable as a journeyman and demanded a journeyman’s pay. When this was refused, he left to take another job with pay at the cigar factory of Glasser and Frame, at Tenth and Spruce Streets. In 1896 the elder Stump moved the family to Philadelphia, where he went into the wholesale milk business; Henry, now sixteen, helped in the business. After two years, the father died, leaving to his widow and children the task of earning a living, with the brunt of the problem resting on the shoulders of the eldest son, who continued operating the milk business.
This arrangement lasted less than a year, when the widowed mother, deciding that the future of the family was more promising in Reading, sold the business and came home. The breadwinner was still the eldest son, and he found work at the P. & R. Freight Station at Eighth and Elm, Streets. He did heavy work: lifting and carrying freight, and pushing heavy dolly-trucks. After a short while, when the company physician gave Henry, the physical examination required for entrance into the Relief Association, to which all employees had to belong, and reported that he had a heart condition, he was dismissed. (He lived fifty years after that examination!) After this setback, Henry returned to cigar making, first with Yocum Brothers, at Seventh and Walnut Streets, where he remained for twelve years, then with the Commonwealth Cooperative Association, in the Labor Lyceum Building. He remained with the latter company until January 1, 1918, when he became the business manager (and janitor, as he often said) of the Labor Advocate, a weekly newspaper published by the Socialist Party of Berks County. Two years later he helped organize, and became the president of, the Peoples Printing Company.
The early years of J. Henry Stump’s experience as a wage earner coincided with that period in our national history marked by the rise of the trade unions, whose purposes were the betterment of the condition of the working man through the regulation of wages, hours, and health and safety measures. When it became apparent that some remedial measures required governmental legislation, a new political party was born, the Socialist Party. Its creed was simple: “A basic change in the national economy is the only remedy for the social evils of poverty, insecurity, war, and class exploitation”. Although this party had existed throughout the country before, on the local level, not until 1904 was it strong enough to enter the field of national politics by presenting a full slate of candidates in the presidential election.
When the exploitation of the wage earner was the issue, J. Henry Stump was on familiar ground. He was a laboring man. He had, although briefly, handled freight fourteen hours a day at fourteen cents an hour. He had spent a great part of his life as a cigar maker, producing about twelve hundred a day, for which he was paid, on the average, six cents a hundred. And so Stump became interested in the labor movement at an early age; he was a union member before he was twenty-one. And he was an active member, so active that he soon was being sent as a delegate to the Federated Trades Council, which body he served as president from 1914 to 1928. In fact, he became so important statewide that he soon was called upon to referee labor-management disputes, and it is recorded that he gained and maintained the respect of both sides for his fairness. Then too, three governors of Pennsylvania saw fit to appoint him chairman of the Old Age Pension Commission, to administer the law for which he had labored so diligently.
Stump’s interest in unionism led him to Socialism. In 1902 he joined the party’s local organization which at that time boasted a membership of twenty. Here again he soon became prominent as a leader, serving in every elective office within the organization except that of Recording Secretary (“They trusted me with the money, but not the minutes”, he was wont to say). By 1911 he had risen to a position of such importance in the party that he was selected as a candidate for City Council in the election of that year. Although he lost, the strength he displayed at the polls definitely tagged him as the standard bearer of the party, a position he held until his death, except for one brief period.
This short period was in 1926, when the national organization of the Socialist Party planned an alliance with the Communist Party, whereupon he withdrew from it, as did many of his followers, because, as he publicly stated, “The Party is advocating a doctrine which is noxious to us, in the belief that Socialists and Communists could join in common endeavor”. In fact, not only did he leave, but he is credited with launching the movement which took Pennsylvania out of the ranks of Socialism. Some time later the two wings met in pitched battle, the radicals were eliminated, and he again accepted the cause of Socialism, although by then the death knell of the party was already being sounded.
J. Henry Stump’s political career, for which he is best known and best remembered, was, to say the least, a peculiar one. Running as a candidate for City Council in 1911, he was defeated. For the next sixteen years he was nominated for some public office at each election, including, in 1919 and again in 1923, the Mayoralty, and he was defeated each time. However, at each election the party seemed to become just a little stronger, suggesting, that the people were getting tired of the old brand of politics and were beginning to feel the need for something new. This need finally demanded satisfaction, and in the election of 1927 the citizens of Reading turned to the Socialist Party to provide the change of diet, and J. Henry Stump became the Mayor of Reading. He was the first and only Socialist to hold that office, and one of the very, few Socialists to hold important public office throughout the nation.
When he took office he brought with him two other Socialists as members of City Council, and, two years later, another two were elected, giving Reading an all Socialist government. By 1931, however, the old line parties had adopted desperation measures by presenting a coalition ticket, and he and his first two companions were defeated. Four years later (1935) he ran against the coalition candidate who had defeated him before, and this time he was successful, becoming Mayor of Reading for the second time. The Socialist candidates for Council, however, were defeated. By 1939 the coalition had dissolved, but the defection of the national party had given a bad name to Socialism, and the candidate of another party was able to eke out a victory. In 1943, however, he was again persuaded to run, and this time he defeated his opponent of four years before and became Reading’s Mayor for a third time. In 1947, he ran again, but was defeated by less than two hundred votes. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened in 1951, had not death intervened! As it was, J. Henry Stump enjoyed the distinction of being the Mayor of Reading three times, something which no one else has been able to do, before or since. And he enjoyed this distinction despite being the representative of a minority party.
What sort of a mayor was he, that he should have enjoyed such success at the polls? A few accomplishments during his tenures in office suggest the answer.
The city as a whole profited from a new city hall to replace the old, ramshackle one at Fifth and Franklin Streets; new fire houses for the Junior and the Friendship companies; the band shell and the outdoor auditorium in City Park; the new branch library at Schuylkill Avenue and Windsor streets; and the tower on Mt. Penn. The individual taxpayer benefited from the municipal collection of garbage; improvements in the sewage and water systems; modernizations of the fire and police alarm systems, including two-way radios for the Police patrol cars; the Glenside housing development; and improvements to the airport.
The children of Reading enjoyed new recreational opportunities through the improvement of the playground on Lance Place (this was a private citizen project for him and Mrs. Stump for years), the installation of field houses on several other playgrounds; and the purchase and equipping of the Eleventh and Pike playground.
This story of J. Henry Stump, though not precisely Lincolnesque, certainly follows the pattern of Horatio Alger. It is, without a doubt, a truly American story, that of an obscure thirteen-year-old boy leaving school to begin unknowingly a career which made him, finally, a three time Mayor of a city, known and beloved by thousands. When he died 3,000 people, from all walks of life and of all creeds and nationalities, stood before his bier with respect and honor; 115 floral tributes covered his grave; and hundreds of cards, letters, and resolutions shared the grief of his widow. Completely apt were the words his pastor used as a text: “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1958 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.