Justice William J. Gaynor was born in Whitestown, Oneida County, NY in 1851 to a farming family. He attended the Whitestown Seminary and Assumption Academy, then the Christian Brothers College in St. Louis with the goal of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He then changed course, teaching public school in Boston before returning to New York, where he wrote for a newspaper and studied law. Gaynor was admitted to the bar in 1875, and immediately began working to reform the town of Flatbush. He moved to Brooklyn in 1885 to continue his political reform efforts there.
In 1893, Gaynor declined a nomination for mayor of New York City, instead winning election as a Justice of the Supreme Court. He was designated to the Appellate Division, Second Department in 1905 and reelected to the Supreme Court in 1907. In 1908, Justice Gaynor wrote an opinion stating that a gambling law did not apply to wagers between friends, writing that the law was not meant to “[thrust] its nose into the personal conduct of men and women to that extent” (New York Times, Aug 7, 1908). The following year, he decided an injunction allowing the operation of amusement rides on Sundays at Rockaway Beach; in his decision, he criticized police for threatening to shut the rides down, writing: “Ours is a Government of laws, not of men, and no official may proceed except in the way and within limits prescribed by law for his direction and government” (New York Times, Jun 29, 1909).
In 1909 he resigned from the bench in order to finally accept a nomination for mayor. He won, and served as mayor until his death. Throughout his career as an attorney, judge and mayor, Gaynor earned a reputation as a harsh-tempered, yet honest, tireless and incorruptible public figure.
Gaynor was married twice and with his second wife had seven children. An assassination attempt in 1910 by an ex-employee of the city left a bullet lodged in his throat, and he died three years later on September 10, 1913 on a steamship off the coast of Ireland.
“Gaynor a Puzzle to Friend and Foe.” New York Times (1857-1922): 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Sep 12 1913. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.
“Gaynor Once More Attacks the Police.” New York Times (1857-1922): 4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Jun 29 1909. Web. 22 Dec. 2011 .
“Justice William J. Gaynor, Whom Politicians Turn to in Trouble.” New York Times (1857- 1922): SM2. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Sep 24 1905. Web. 22 Dec. 2011 .
“Mayor Gaynor Dies in Deck Chair on Liner; Stricken while Alone; Kline Sworn in as Citys Head.” New York Times (1857-1922): 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Sep 12 1913. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.
“Ordinary Bets Legal, Says Justice Gaynor.” New York Times (1857-1922): 12. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Aug 07 1908. Web. 22 Dec. 2011.
“William Jay Gaynor.” NYC 100 — NYC Mayors – The First 100 Years. New York City 100 Committee. Web. 23 Dec. 2011. http://www.nyc.gov/html/nyc100/html/classroom/hist_info/mayors.html#gaynor.