"9:30 Am, Mayor Reaches City Hall And Opens His Mail," Ca 1910,
Mayor Martin Behrman opens his mail, ca 1910, Photo by J H Coquille, Courtesy New Orleans Public Library

New Orleans entered the 20th century on a wave of modernism that began in the 1890s and continued by Mayor Martin Behrman, the longest serving mayor in the city’s history. Seen here sitting at his desk in City Hall (then Gallier Hall) is a photograph of Behrman taken by New Orleans “Times-Democrat” photographer John Hypolite Coquille for his one-day series “A Typical Day in the Life of Mayor Behrman.”

The New York-born Behrman grew up an only child in the French Quarter, working and playing in the French Market where his widowed mother worked in a dry goods stall. 

Rising in New Orleans politics in later life, Behrman served as mayor from 1904 to 1920 and from 1925 until his death in 1926. As mayor, he reined over the city’s politically powerful Regular Democratic Organization, known as the Old Regulars or Ring. 

Though initiated by previous mayors, Behrman’s administration made numerous municipal improvements, including parks, fire stations, schools, the Public Belt Railroad to serve the port, a water purification plant, an extensive drainage canal system to open new land for an expanding city, and, despite his own protests, the closing of the city’s tenderloin district, Storyville, during WWI. Also during his administration the city weathered its last yellow fever epidemic in 1905 and the great influenza pandemic in 1918.

Despite those improvements, rising industrialization in other American cities, a national network of railroads and other economic forces caused New Orleans to slip from the 9th largest city in the nation in 1870 to 12th in 1900, and 17th by 1920. 

Throughout Berhman’s career, “silk stocking” good government groups usually lead by the “Times-Democrat” and its successor the “Times-Picayune” constantly blamed him and the Ring for the city’s vice and other problems. Opponents accused him of living in a mansion, when he actually resided in a modest cottage in Algiers. As the head of a political machine based on ward politics and patronage, Behrman was a critic of civil service. He once wrote, “You do not appoint men (to jobs) . . . because you can get control of their votes but because they are already with you.” He also noted that once the “reformers” defeated him in 1920, they didn’t implement civil service for city workers either.

At the time of his death, the same newspaper that had criticized Behrman throughout the years, now hailed him as “a kindly citizen, a forceful leader and a municipal servant who made the most of his opportunities for service to the city he loved.”