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To Joseph Barker's supporters in Pittsburgh's 1850 mayoral election, their candidate was a shining example of a straight-talking man who had been punished for exercising his First Amendment rights. To his foes, Barker was little more than a foul-mouthed hooligan who gave free reign to bigots.
Little is known about Barker's early life. He was born around 1806 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. According to the Lawrenceville Historical Society, there are indications that Barker held some minor elected positions in the 1840s. However, he was best known as a corner preacher, dressed in black with a cape and stovepipe hat, giving sermons twice a week on what he saw as the ills of society.
Barker typically took a nativist route, shouting denunciations of Catholics, Freemasons, and any Protestants who were opposed to his ideals. The harangues also criticized slavery and intemperance, and occasionally veered toward local politics when he lambasted politicians and the state of the Pittsburgh police. Barker had his supporters, including one particularly vehement follower named Hugh Kirkland who sometimes assisted him in his spectacles, but he frequently irritated those trying to keep the peace. On one occasion, he was ordered to serve 30 days in the workhouse for an anti-Catholic speech.
In November of 1849, a riot broke out after one of Barker's particularly pugnacious speeches against the Catholic clergy. He was quickly charged with blocking the streets and using "indecent, lewd, and immoral language calculated to deprave the morals of the community." A jury found him guilty, and Barker didn't help his case by threatening and swearing at the jury and judge, Benjamin Patton, at his sentencing. He was sentenced to one year in prison and a $250 fine.
Barker's supporters upheld him as a symbol of free speech and took an unusual strategy in trying to win his freedom. A mayoral election was scheduled for January of 1850, and they began a write-in campaign to name Barker to the office. Pittsburgh had about 36,000 people at the time, and sources differ about whether the turnout was high for a municipal election or low because people generally ignored these elections due to rampant corruption. When the results were tallied, Barker had eked out a win over two other candidates, earning 1,787 votes to the 1,584 for Democratic candidate John B. Guthrie and 1,034 for Whig candidate Robert McCutcheon.
With the mayor-elect still behind bars, Barker's swearing in became a farcical episode. Governor William F. Johnston agreed to pardon him so he could serve his term in office, but the document did not arrive in time for the scheduled day. When a mob threatened to break Barker out of jail, the sheriff relented and released him temporarily. Patton was chosen to give the oath of office to the man whom he had jailed just months before, but the judge took the occasion well. "Permit me, sir, to say that I hope you will more then realize the expectations of your friends," he said. With the pardon still nowhere to be found, Barker was returned to the jail to spend his first day in office behind bars before his freedom was finally approved.
To the surprise of his critics, Barker cooled his fiery demeanor and set about pursuing a number of reforms in the city. He introduced a program to test scales of merchants to ensure they weren't cheating customers, a move that reportedly enraged one vendor so much that she threw a slab of butter in the mayor's face. Barker also ordered crackdowns on vice dens, gambling, and drunkenness; sought enforcement of the 10-hour workday; and instituted a ban on prize fights.
Despite the tangible reforms, Barker's nativist streak was clearly visible in other decisions. On one occasion, a German steamboat band sought to bar the use of the calliope by a band on a nearby vessel since the instrument was drowning out their own music. Barker refused, commenting, "The calliope is an American institution, and the brass band is a damned imported Dutch institution. I am for America all the time." He also had the Catholic bishop and Mother Superior of Mercy Hospital arrested and fined $20 because the hospital's sewer line was allegedly creating a nuisance; he refused an appeal since a judge wasn't readily available. There were some indications that Barker's administration was encouraging more incidents of harassment against Catholics and vandalism of their institutions. Parishioners took shifts to guard churches and Mercy Hospital amid rumors that they would be set ablaze.
Barker's term was also distinguished by bitter feuding with the police department. He fired several night officers for alleged misconduct and replaced them with his own friends. When the police commissioners reinstated the night officers, Barker had them arrested. In a dispute over a prisoner, he also ordered the arrest of a jailer and the sheriff. The actions created two separate police forces, of the regular officers and Barker's appointees, and they sometimes came to blows. A tentative peace was struck when the police resumed the major duties of keeping the peace while Barker's men were relegated to minor duties such as lighting streetlamps. A court finally forced Barker to disband his own force.
Barker was arrested on several occasions during his tenure. There are conflicting reports about how many times he was taken into custody, including one where the police arrested him during the staffing squabble, but several accounts mention a string of arrests in October of 1850. He was twice charged with assault and battery, and in one of these incidents he was accused of trying to kill a man named John Barton. Barker was also charged with the abduction for interfering in a child custody matter. He was acquitted of all of these charges, though he was convicted of the more nebulous charge of "misdemeanor in office."
Running for re-election in January of 1851, Barker was only able to garner a quarter of the vote; Guthrie returned as a candidate and was successful. Barker returned to street preaching and was soon convicted of sparking another riot. He made two more unsuccessful bids for mayor, in 1852 and 1854. He remained a colorful personality, getting thrown out of the state senate chamber for going on a rant there, picking up more charges of obscenity and drunkenness, and earning several sentences sending him to a work farm. As the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania put it, he "rapidly sank into obscurity, a victim of intensified drink, fanaticism, and epilepsy."
Barker's demise was characteristically dramatic. He was walking along the railroad tracks in Manchester, returning from an August 1862 rally supporting the Northern cause in the Civil War, when an oncoming train struck and beheaded him.
Sources: The Political Graveyard, the Lawrenceville Historical Society, "Today in History" in the Pittsburgh Press on Jan. 7 1943, "Like Fiery Mayor-Father, Barker Dies in Obscurity" in the Pittsburgh Press on Mar. 13 1948, "Joseph Barker Had Knack for Getting Into Trouble" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jan. 11 1950, "Political Opportunist Was Colorful Character in Pittsburgh History" in the Tribune-Review on Jan. 27 2002, "Jailed Street Preacher Elected Mayor" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Apr. 2 2002, "Winner of the First Joe Barker Memorial Award is..." in the Pittsburgh Catholic on Nov. 12 2007, "Let's Learn About: Mayor Joseph Barker" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Oct. 29 2009, "Mayoral Madness" in the Pittsburgh Magazine in May 2013, History of Pittsburgh and Environs, Volume II, Pittsburgh: The Story of a City, 1750-1865 by Leland DeWitt Baldwin and Ward Hunter