PITTSBURGH, Pa. — One of the most outrageous characters in Pittsburgh politics was elected to the Mayor’s office on Jan. 8, 1850, while he sat in the county jail. Joseph Barker had been found guilty of “obstructing the streets, indecent language and inciting to riot” after his anti-Catholic preaching was declared a public nuisance.
Little is known of Barker’s early life, but he rose to prominence in the city shortly after the Great Fire of 1845 destroyed much of the downtown area. His clean-shaven appearance was an anomaly at a time when beards were common, and his penchant for wearing a black cape and stovepipe hat made him even more of a spectacle.
As the city recovered, Barker became known as one of “the foremost of a strange cult of street preachers,” according to a newspaper account of that time. Famous for his fiery anti-Catholic and nativist rhetoric, the unordained and allegedly illiterate preacher launched tirades on downtown street corners, attracted a following and rose to some infamy.
When making points against his foes, Barker would often call for backup from an associate named Hugh Kirkland. Kirkland would shuffle through a bunch of papers he carried for that purpose, pick one out of the bundle at random and announce he had the proof.
Barker was arrested numerous times over the course of at least a year until finally in Nov. 1849, he went to trial following a particularly venomous rant in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland that prompted Pittsburgh Mayor John Herron to have him arrested.
The charges were primarily directed at the disruption, both physical and oral, of the commercial activities in and around Market Square. His verbal assaults on the Roman Catholic religion and its members included graphic depictions that were described as “the most horribly obscene language that was perhaps ever uttered by a public speaker before a public assemblage in any part of the civilized world. Language so indecent, and so copious, that it would have been impossible for the Attorney General to set it out in the bill of indictment, and, for the character of the present generation, it is well that the records of the Court have not been employed to hand down the stain to posterity.”
After being found guilty, Barker told the jury to “go to hell” and threatened the judge with hanging. In turn, Judge Benjamin Potham (who is also referred to as Patton in some historical accounts) sentenced Barker to a year in the County Jail and a $250 fine.
To the conspiratorial suggestion that Barker was being persecuted and convicted simply for denouncing the Roman Catholic Church, the court replied: “We should regard it as a calamitous day in the history of our country when you, or any citizen, lay or clerical, should be held to answer as a criminal, for having exercised the right of free and fair discussion on the creed and government of that church, or any other church. If that were the charge preferred against you, we should be amongst the foremost, both in individual and in our official capacity, to denounce and rebuke the prosecution.”
Barker’s followers rallied and turned out in sufficient numbers during the mayoral election to thrust Barker into office as a write-in candidate while he was incarcerated. He won the election with nearly 1,800 votes, and a winning margin of over 200 votes. Most of the votes came from Whig Party voters, whose desertion left the Whig candidate blindsided on Election Day.
After his victory, Barker was immediately pardoned by Gov. William F. Johnston, but the document did not arrive in time for Barker to be released on the scheduled date of the swearing-in ceremony.
A mob formed, threatening to break Barker out of jail, until the sheriff relented and released him. They demanded that Judge Potham be the one to administer the oath of office to Barker, which he did on Jan. 11, as his last official act. Immediately after, Judge Potham resigned and moved to Ohio, unwilling to further contend with Barker’s “habitual outrage upon public decency.”
With the governor’s pardon still missing in the mail, Barker was returned to the County Jail to start his term as mayor behind bars.
During his brief occupation of the office, Mayor Joseph Barker battled with City Council over the police. The dispute escalated to the point that both council and the Mayor Barker appointed dueling police forces. The jurisdictional arguments resulted in the two separate forces spending most of their time arresting each other. Eventually, Barker’s police officers were relegated to lighting streetlamps before being forced by a court order to disband.
Barker was also arrested at least twice for assault and battery during his term. On one of those occasions he was accused of trying to kill a man, and on another he was charged with abduction for interfering in a child custody dispute.
As expected from his past speeches, harassment of Catholics and their institutions increased under Barker. Parishioners were so alarmed that they took shifts to guard churches and Mercy Hospital. The Mother Superior of Mercy Hospital and the bishop were also arrested and fined at one point for a “nuisance” in the hospital’s sewer line.
Despite these episodes, Barker did attempt to implement needed reforms. He ordered crackdowns on gambling, drunkenness and prize fighting, and enforced a 10-hour workday. Barker also introduced a program that ensured merchants were not cheating customers with rigged scales, which resulted in one vendor throwing a slab of butter in his face.
Barker also found time to declare war on the brass band. When a German steamboat captain complained about loud calliope music coming from a neighboring vessel, Barker refused to implement a ban, saying, “The calliope is an American institution, and the brass band is a damned imported Dutch institution. I am for America all the time.”
For the next 11 years, Barker repeatedly sought reelection but never won public office again, though he did succeed in getting convicted again for inciting yet another riot shortly after resuming his street preaching.
He eventually fell into more charges of obscenity and drunkenness, despite his earlier campaigns for temperance and sobriety, leading to several sentences that put him on a work farm.
Barker’s bizarre story came to an equally bizarre end when, while walking to Pittsburgh along the Fort Wayne Railroad tracks near Manchester on Aug. 2, 1862, Barker was struck by two approaching trains at the same time and was decapitated.
He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery.
Cox Media Group