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William Gaston (Massachusetts)

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William Gaston
WilliamGaston Massachusetts.png
Engraved portrait, published 1895
29th Governor of Massachusetts
In office
January 7, 1875 – January 6, 1876
Lieutenant Horatio G. Knight
Preceded by Thomas Talbot (acting)
Succeeded by Alexander H. Rice
21st Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
In office
Preceded by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff
Succeeded by Henry L. Pierce
8th Mayor of Roxbury, Massachusetts
In office
Preceded by Theodore Otis
Succeeded by George Lewis
Member of the Massachusetts State Senate[1]
In office
Member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives[1]
In office
In office
Personal details
Born (1820-10-03)October 3, 1820
Killingly, Connecticut
Died January 19, 1894(1894-01-19) (aged 73)
Boston, Massachusetts
Political party Whig
Alma mater Brown University
Profession Lawyer

William Gaston (October 3, 1820 – January 19, 1894) was a lawyer and politician from Massachusetts. A Democrat, he was the first member of that party to serve as Governor of Massachusetts (1875–1876) after the American Civil War. He was a successful trial lawyer and politically conservative Democrat, who won election as governor after his opponent, Thomas Talbot, vetoed legislation to relax alcohol controls.

Born in Connecticut, and educated at Brown University, Gaston established a successful law practice in Roxbury before becoming involved in local politics. In the 1860s, he served as mayor of Roxbury, and afterward promoted its annexation to Boston (completed in 1868). He then later served as Boston mayor, during a period which included the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

Early years[edit]

William Gaston was born on October 3, 1820 in Killingly, Connecticut.[2] His father, Alexander Gaston, was a merchant of French Huguenot descent, and his mother, Kezia Arnold Gaston, was from an old Rhode Island family. He received his primary education at Brooklyn, Connecticut, and was prepared for college in the academy at Plainfield. He entered Brown University at the age of fifteen, and graduated in 1840 with high honors.[3]

Gaston then moved to Roxbury, Massachusetts (then independent of neighboring Boston), where his parents had taken up residence, to pursue the study of law.[2] He first studied with Francis Hillard, and then with Benjamin Curtis, later a justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1844, and opened his own practice in Roxbury in 1846. The practice flourished, and he soon became a leading trial lawyer in Norfolk and Suffolk Counties.[4]

In 1852, Gaston married Louisa Augusta Beecher. They were the parents of three children,[2] including William Alexander Gaston, who joined his law firm,[5] and also became a leader in the Democratic party, losing at runs for the governorship in 1902 and 1903.[1]

Roxbury and Boston politics[edit]

Gaston became involved in Roxbury city politics not long after settling there. He was elected to its common council from 1849 to 1853, serving as council president the last two years. He represented the city in the state legislature (1853–54) as a Whig, and was swept out of office in the 1854 Know Nothing landslide that destroyed the Whig Party. His opposition to the Know Nothing cause gained him support in the city's Irish American community, and he was once again elected to the legislature as a Democrat in 1856. He was also appointed Roxbury's solicitor in 1856, a post he held until 1860.[2]

In 1860, Gaston ran successfully for mayor of Roxbury, and won election again the following year. His moderate and fiscal conservative policies were popular, drawing Republican voters to his camp. He supported the Union cause during the American Civil War, raising troops at home and visiting them in the field. He resumed the private practice of law after his second term.[6]

During the 1860s the annexation of Roxbury to Boston was discussed, and Gaston, who supported the idea, was appointed to the Roxbury commission that evaluated the idea in 1867. He ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the United States Congress in 1870. The next year he was elected Mayor of Boston, serving two one-year terms. The most notable event of his tenure as mayor, the Great Boston Fire of 1872, occurred late in the second term. The fire destroyed a large swath of the commercial district of the city, and Gaston was criticized for failing to show decisive leadership during attempts to bring the fire under control. This weak showing, combined with a poor response to a smallpox epidemic in the city, contributed to his loss in a bid for a third term.[2]

Governor of Massachusetts[edit]

In 1873, Gaston ran for Governor of Massachusetts. The dominant Republican Party had been split in 1872 by the formation of the Liberal Republicans, and the state's Democrats sensed an opportunity. Gaston ran on a platform calling for a liberalization of the state's harsh alcohol prohibition laws, which his opponent, incumbent Republican William B. Washburn, had supported.[7] Gaston narrowly lost the election.[2][8] Washburn resigned in 1874 after winning election to the United States Senate, and Gaston ran in 1874 against Acting Governor Thomas Talbot. Talbot also supported the continuance of statewide prohibition, vetoing popular legislation for loosening restrictions on alcohol. Gaston was also helped by discontent with the corruption endemic in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant and the disunity among the Republicans, from whom Benjamin Butler siphoned votes with a third-party run. Gaston ended up winning a comfortable victory.[9] He became the first Democrat to win the governorship since before the Civil War, ending a string of consecutive Republican victories.[10] His victory was also an early indicator of the growing power of Irish Americans in the state, who made up an important base of his support.[11]

During his term as governor, Gaston was widely viewed as moderate, "more patriot than partisan", as one Boston newspaper put it.[5] Gaston promoted the repeal of the state's prohibition law, replacing it with restrictions and licensing of alcohol sales determined by the cities and towns.[2] He also reduced the size of the state constabulary, which had enforced the old prohibition law. He came under criticism within his own party, however, for his failure to turn partisan Republican appointees out of their offices and replace them with Democratic stalwarts.[12]

Portrait of Gaston by Frederick Porter Vinton, 1895

Gaston's quest for a second term was ended by public outrage over his failure to sign the death warrant of convicted juvenile murderer Jesse Pomeroy. Pomeroy, then fourteen years old, had been convicted in December 1874 of first degree murder for killing a girl earlier that year, and been sentenced to death. There was public clamor favoring his execution, especially after he attempted to escape from prison. Gaston, despite two rulings by the Governor's Council that clemency be denied, refused to sign the execution order. It was an unpopular move that probably contributed to his loss in the 1875 election. Republican Alexander H. Rice, who defeated Gaston in an otherwise lackluster campaign, also refused to sign the execution order, but his Council eventually recommended commutation of Pomeroy's sentence to life in solitary confinement.[13][14]

Later years[edit]

After his term as governor ended, Gaston returned to his law practice.[15] His practice, established in 1865 with Harvey Jewell and Walbridge A. Field, was highly successful. Gaston was known to not particularly like criminal law, but he was acknowledged as one of the period's leading trial lawyers.[5] He served as President of the Boston Bar Association from 1880 to 1881.[16] He died in 1894, and is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Eliot (no page numbers)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g McFarland, p. 782
  3. ^ City of Boston, pp. 40-43
  4. ^ City of Boston, pp. 43-46
  5. ^ a b c Fuess, p. 182
  6. ^ City of Boston, pp. 49-52
  7. ^ Baum, p. 176
  8. ^ Baum, p. 187
  9. ^ Baum, pp. 192-194
  10. ^ Davis, p. 385
  11. ^ Kennedy, pp. 52-53
  12. ^ Baum, p. 202
  13. ^ Schechter, p. 257
  14. ^ Baum, pp. 201-203
  15. ^ McFarland, p. 783
  16. ^ Bar Association of the City of Boston, p. 50
  17. ^ Sammarco, pp. 40-50


Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas Talbot
as Acting Governor
Governor of Massachusetts
January 7, 1875 – January 6, 1876
Succeeded by
Alexander H. Rice
Preceded by
Nathaniel B. Shurtleff
Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
Succeeded by
Henry L. Pierce
Preceded by
Theodore Otis
Mayor of Roxbury, Massachusetts
Succeeded by
George Lewis