Fact Check

Fiorello La Guardia Legend

Did New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia take over a courtroom and charge everyone 50 cents?

Published Nov 24, 2003

Claim:   New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia once took over a courtroom and charged everyone present 50¢ to pay the fine of an old woman accused of shoplifting a loaf of bread.

Status:   Undetermined.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2002]

In the middle of the Great Depression, New York City mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, strived to live with the people. It was not unusual for him to ride with the firefighters, raid with the police, or take field trips with orphans. On a bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her daughter's husband had left, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.

However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor," the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson."

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail." But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant."

The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Origins:   Sometimes tracking down the origins of various anecdotes which come our way is a simple task — a matter of sending an inquiry via e-mail, making a confirmatory phone call, or plucking a book or two from the shelf — and sometimes it's a deceptively difficult one. This entry definitely fits into the latter category.

At first blush the account quoted above would seem like an easy one to verify: it involves a well-known personage (Fiorello La Guardia, who served an unprecedented three terms as mayor of New York from 1934 to 1945), deals with a rather unusual and politically newsworthy event, and relates a story supposedly reported in New York City newspapers (of which there were several at the time). Piece of


Er, not quite. The expected sources we checked — La Guardia biographies and New York City newspapers from January 1935 — contained nothing even vaguely similar to this anecdote. A lack of contemporary or historical documentation is generally a good indicator of the apocryphality of this type of story, but since absence of evidence isn't necessarily evidence of absence, we considered a few other possibilities and continued the pursuit.

Perhaps La Guardia's various biographers didn't come across this story or didn't consider it significant enough to include in their works, and perhaps the date given in the version quoted above (January 1935) was erroneous. So, we tried tracking the story backwards instead; finding a recently published version of the story might provide some clues about where it came from.

A quick web search turned up an identically-worded version of this anecdote in Brennan Manning's book Ragamuffin Gospel (2000), so we headed out to a local bookstore to check it out. Fortunately, that store had the book in stock; we found a copy on the shelf, located the anecdote of interest within it, checked the endnotes for the corresponding chapter, and found that Manning's source was . . . another book. Luck was with us that day, however, for the same store also had a copy of that other book, Say Please, Say Thank You: The Respect We Owe One Another (1999) by Donald W. McCullough. Our luck ran out there, though, as the endnotes indicated McCullough's source for the La Guardia anecdote was an out-of-print book, Best Sermons 1 (1988).

Gratification was merely delayed, not denied, by this stumbling block. Although none of our local libraries possessed a copy, used book resources are plentiful on the web; within a week we had a copy of Best Sermons 1 in our hands, where we found a quite similar version of the La Guardia anecdote within a sermon entitled "The Righteous and the Good" by one James N. McCutcheon. But sermons don't usually include footnotes (and this one was no exception), so we still had nothing to help us determine where the story might have come from originally.

A short biographical sketch accompanying the sermon informed us that James N. McCutcheon was (at the time the book was published) senior minister of Wayzata Community Church in Wayzata, Minnesota, so we tried looking him up via an on-line phone directory and got a hit. Alas, when we called the phone number provided by the directory, we found that it was no longer in service. Undaunted, we called the Wayzata Community Church and learned that Rev. McCutcheon had since retired and moved out of state; after we explained our interest in tracking him down, they cautiously gave us his new address. That address information was enough for us to find a current phone listing for him, and in the interests of urban legendry I gave him a call at home one evening.

Rev. McCutcheon was taken aback at first that someone he'd never heard of was calling him out of the blue to ask about the source of an anecdote he'd used in the middle of a sermon over fifteen years earlier, but once I explained who I was and what I was trying to accomplish, he was quite polite and eager to be helpful. We talked at length, but the gist of the conversation was that he'd read the La Guardia anecdote somewhere and used it in a sermon, but he no longer remembered where he'd read it and had long since discarded or misplaced his notes. (He was adamant that he hadn't made the story up, and I reassured him that that thought had never crossed my mind.)

We were back to square one. Combing through La Guardia biographies again, we did find that New York mayors were empowered to act as magistrates in those days, a right La Guardia exercised on more than one occasion. La Guardia's most recent biographer, Alyn Brodsky, noted:

On occasion, La Guardia would don judicial robes and take to the bench in Magistrate's Court, a prerogative to which his office as the city's chief magistrate entitled him. A bus driver went through a red light when La Guardia happened to be on the scene. He noted the license number, had the offender hauled before him, and imposed — and collected on the spot — a two-dollar fine.

And Lawrence Elliott, author of Little Flower: The Life and Times of Fiorello La Guardia, wrote:

An obscure statute empowered New York's mayors to sit as judges; none of them had ever paid the slightest attention to it. But at 8:30 one morning, La Guardia walked into the West 100th Street Police Station, told the dumbstruck magistrate to go find a seat in the courtroom, and himself sat down to preside at the bar of justice. It was a hard day for pimps and gamblers.

One defendant, charged with operating a string of slot machines, stepped up confident of receiving the usual admonition or, at worst, a fine. La Guardia sent him to jail. Later, to underscore the point, he posed for press photographers wearing a menacing scowl and holding a sledgehammer poised over a heap of slot machines about to be dumped into the East River.

We seemed to be on the right track, but we were still missing any accounts matching the specifics of our story. We turned to the newspapers again, this time searching the New York Times historical database for any articles mentioning 'La Guardia' (or 'LaGuardia') and 'magistrate.' The first hit, from February 1934, sounded like a match for the occasion described by Elliott above:

Mayor LaGuardia dashed up the steps of the West 100th Street police station late yesterday afternoon, threw open the door and strode angrily inside.

"As you were!" he snapped to the policemen who jumped to attention. He threw aside his black felt hat and black overcoat with determined gestures. His unruly black hair tumbling down over his forehead and his black eyes flashing fire, he crossed the room quickly and seated himself behind the big oaken desk where the lieutenant usually presides. Police Commissioner O'Ryan, who had been waiting, sat alongside. The police on duty stood about the walls, looking solemn and unhappy.

However, the article described La Guardia's hearing only a single case — that of a woman arrested in her husband's store and charged with having a slot machine in her possession — and implied that the mayor had deliberately chosen in advance to act as magistrate in that one specific case (because he was engaged in a battle with racketeers to wipe out the proliferation of illegal slot machines in New York). The article made no mention of a "tattered old woman" accused of stealing a loaf of bread, nor even the "pimps and gamblers" of Elliott's version. (The sole defendant was let go in her husband's custody on her promise to pay $5 bail, "the lowest that could be fixed under the law"; she was not "sent to jail," as Elliott wrote.)

The only other article would could find describing La Guardia's acting as a magistrate came a few months later, in July 1934, when the Mayor sat "on the Jefferson Market Court bench from 9:55 A.M. to 2:30 P.M., with no time out for lunch." However, the only cases specifically mentioned were those of a bartender who served a plainclothes policeman two drinks after the legal closing hour, eight bootblacks who had been "plying their trade in a restricted area," some "pretzel peddlers" who received a day in jail for unspecified reasons, five women who had been engaged in a "clothes-line fight" (whom La Guardia sent home because the weather was "too hot to fight"), and a man held for violating the Sullivan Law (i.e., carrying pistols without a permit). La Guardia was quoted afterwards as saying that he planned to spend a day in magistrate's court in each of the city's five boroughs within the next few weeks, but we couldn't find any news reports indicating that he ever did so.

That left us with a choice between the possibility that the anecdote was apocryphal and the possibility that it was true but the New York Times didn't report it. To ensure we hadn't missed anything (perhaps the story was somehow reported without use of the word 'magistrate'), we searched every New York Times article published between January and March of 1935 that included La Guardia's name in the text. (We used that wide range of dates because even though the version of the anecdote quoted at the head of this page makes reference to January 1935, the sermon we tracked it back to says only that the incident in question took place "one bitter cold winter's night in 1935.") None of the articles related anything other than standard governmental business, save for one that noted the Mayor spent a quiet New Year's Eve at home after attending a performance of "La Boheme," and another that reported he took in a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 19.

After we exhausted this avenue of approach, a reader pointed us to a source we had on hand but hadn't thought to check, one of publisher Bennett Cerf's many collections of humorous anecdotes. It didn't provide any more detail to help verify the story, but it did demonstrate that the story was around while Mayor La Guardia was still in office:

Mayor LaGuardia, the present incumbent, rates a whole book for himself, but as long as he's mayor of the town we all work in, I'd better be careful. Besides, he officiated at my marriage, and I owe him a debt of gratitude. He whipped through the ceremony in three seconds flat, mumbled, "Don't blame me for anything that happens," and was off — probably to attend a fire. Here's one nice story about him. He presides occasionally at Police Court. One bitter cold day they brought a trembling old man before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. "I've got to punish you, declared LaGuardia. "The law makes no exception. I can do nothing but sentence you to a fine of ten dollars."

But the Little Flower was reaching into his pocket as he added, "Well, here's the ten dollars to pay your fine. And now I remit the fine." He tossed a ten-dollar bill into his famous sombrero. "Furthermore," he declared, "I'm going to fine everybody in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a man has to steal bread in order to eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to this defendant!" The hat was passed and an incredulous old man, with a light of heaven in his eyes, left the courtroom with a stake of forty-seven dollars and fifty cents.

We're still lacking any convincing proof that this might be anything other than a charming yet fictitious anecdote, but we're not quite ready to throw in the towel and declare it false yet.

In 2012, we received the following odd variation of the La Guardia legend:

An Indonesian judge by the name of Marzuki was sitting in judgment of an old lady who pleaded guilty of stealing some tapioca from a plantation. In her defense, she admitted to the judge that she was indeed guilty of the crime because she was poor and her son was sick while her grandchild was hungry.

The plantation manager insisted that she be punished as a deterrent to others. The judge going through the documents then looked up and said to the old lady, "I'm sorry but I cannot make any exception to the law and you must be punished." The old lady was fined Rp. 1 million (USD 100) and if she could not pay the fine then she will be jailed for 2 and a half years as demanded by the law.

She wept as she could not pay the fine. The judge then took off his hat and put in Rp. 1 million into the hat and said "In the name of justice, I fine all who are in the court Rp. 50 thousand (USD 5.50) as dwellers of this city for letting a child to starve until her grandmother has to steal to feed her grandchild. The registrar will now collect the fines from all present." The court managed to collect Rp 3.5 million (USD 200) whereby once the fine was paid off, the rest was given to the old lady - including the fine collected from the plantation manager.

Last updated:   31 October 2012

  Sources Sources:

    Brodsky, Alan.   The Great Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of the City of New York.

    New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003.   ISBN 0-312-28737-2   (p. 329).

    Cerf, Bennett.   Try and Stop Me.

    New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945   (pp. 268-269).

    Elliott, Lawrence.  Little Flower: The Life and Times of Fiorello La Guardia.

    New York: William Morrow, 1983.   ISBN 0-688-02057-7   (pp. 211-212).

    McCutcheon, James N.   "The Righteous and the Good."

        in Cox, James W.   Best Sermons 1.

    New York: Harper & Row, 1988.   ISBN 0-06-061611-3   (pp. 238-239).

    Tan, Paul Lee.   Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations.

    Rockville, Maryland: Assurance Publishers, 1979.   ISBN 0-88469-100-4   (pp. 422-423).

    American Folklore and Legend.

    Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Assoc. Inc., 1978.   ISBN 0-89577-045-8   (p. 387).

    The New York Times.   "LaGuardia Sits as a Magistrate to Reopen War on Slot Machines."

    17 February 1934   (p. 1).

    The New York Times.   "LaGuardia Tests Magistrate's Job."

    14 July 1934   (p. 15).

    The New York Times.   "Quiet Evening for Mayor."

    1 January 1935   (p. 2).

    The New York Times.   "Mayor Attends Concert."

    20 January 1935   (p. N7).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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