Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Herbert R. O'Conor
MSA SC 3520-1482
Governor of Maryland 1939-1947 (Democrat)

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), 271-276.

"HERBERT ROMULUS O’CONOR, during his lifetime, was probably the best known Roman Catholic layman in the State. As a public official, he was the only Marylander during the twentieth century to serve as Attorney General, Governor and United States Senator. As a politician and a Baltimore provincial, he successfully developed a reputation for gauging public issues correctly and measuring the public response to them. As Governor, O’Conor had to face almost unprecedented problems resulting from defense and the war.

"The fourth Roman Catholic and the first Catholic of Irish descent to hold the governorship. Herbert R. O’Conor was born in Baltimore in a three-story row house on Homewood Avenue on November 17, 1896, the fourth son of James P. and Mary (Galvin) O’Conor. He received his early education at St. Paul’s Parochial School and at Loyola High School, and from there, he went on to Loyola College where he received the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1917. During his undergraduate days at Loyola, O’Conor distinguished himself as an orator, manager of athletics, and scholar.

"Shortly thereafter, he entered the University of Maryland Law School, from which he received his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1920. During his law school days and for a short time thereafter, O’Conor worked as a reporter for the Evening Sun, covering police headquarters. His editors remembered him as a reliable, energetic and imaginative young man, who closeted himself with his law books whenever his work hit a dull period. But, like almost every other youngster of the Tenth Ward. which in those days was solidly Irish, O’Conor’s goal was a political career, rather than that with a newspaper.

"On November 24, 1920, he married Eugenia Byrnes of Baltimore. They had five children. four Sons Herbert R.. Jr., Eugene F., James P., and Robert and a daughter Mary Patricia O’Conor.  In 1921, he accepted an appointment as Assistant State's Attorney for Baltimore City, which very shortly brought him to the attention of the public.  In 1922, he was a participant in a case which made him nationally [p. 272] famous. Walter Socolow, a nineteen year-old, was wanted in Baltimore for the murder of William B. Norris, a building contractor. Socolow had escaped to New York where he was captured, detained and arrested. O’Conor was sent to bring him back, and as Socolow’s lawyers were seeking a writ of habeas corpus, O’Conor’s Baltimore detectives seized the prisoner and after an exciting chase by New York authorities, returned him to Baltimore for trial. 'The reaction in Baltimore to what Herbert O’Conor had done was almost universally favorable,' commented his biographer Harry Kirwin.1

"From then on, O’Conor’s political rise was phenomenal. On January 1, 1923, Governor Ritchie appointed him People’s Counsel of the Public Service Commission, a position which he held for a year. In the fall of the same year, he ran for State’s Attorney of Baltimore City and was elected by a majority of over 30,000 votes, the youngest man to be elected to that post. His skill and vigor as a prosecutor brought him praise from the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, and the successful prosecution of notorious murder cases helped his growing reputation. In 1926, he was re-elected by a majority of 58,000 votes. In 1930, he swamped his opponent by 100,000 votes, the largest majority ever received by a candidate for public office in Baltimore City up to that time.

"During his ten years as State’s Attorney, O’Conor widened his political horizon by becoming one of his party’s leaders in Maryland. In 1934, as the result, he became the Democratic candidate for Attorney General as 'one of the party’s outstanding vote-getters—and as a compromise candidate, whose nomination would have the effect of retaining harmony within the party and assuring it of victory in the forthcoming elections.'2 Democratic Party dissension and a large protest vote coupled with Governor Ritchie’s increasing unpopularity caused Republican Harry Nice’s election as governor in 1934, but Herbert O’Conor led his own party’s ticket by the wide margin of over 103,000 votes.

"In his four years as Attorney General, O’Conor rendered several noteworthy decisions. One of the more important of these pertained to the constitutionality of the Gross Receipts Tax Law. This case dealt with the right of the State to tax the preferred stock of a national bank standing in the name of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. O’Conor, speaking for the State, contended and his contention was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, that it would yield to Maryland some $27,000 in taxes. The case focused national attention upon a principle which would enable the States to protect their sources of revenue in the face of expanding activities of the Federal government into a field heretofore occupied only by private enterprise. O’Conor argued, and his argument was upheld, that the R.F.C. was not entitled to immunity on the grounds that it was not exercising an essential or usual governmental function and Congressional consent to the tax could be implied from the provisions of the National Bank Act. Congress, however, hurriedly enacted legislation which plugged the loop- [p. 273] hole in the law which had allowed the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Maryland’s claim, but O’Conor’s arguments brought him national attention.

"In 1938, O’Conor was the choice of William Curran, Baltimore’s political leader, and Howard Bruce, the National Committeeman for the gubernatorial nomination in spite of the fact that the issue of his religion might be raised against him especially so soon after the Smith-Hoover campaign of 1928. In the primary, O’Conor was challenged by Howard W. Jackson, the three-term Mayor of Baltimore, William S. Gordy, of the Eastern Shore and the Comptroller of the Treasury, and Lansdale G. Sasscer, the Prince George’s County political leader and President of the Senate. A memorable primary followed. A week of counting and recounting was necessary in order to determine O’Conor’s victory. In the general election which followed, the party was able to avoid a bitter factional dispute, with the result that O’Conor easily defeated the Republican incumbent, Harry W. Nice who waged an inept campaign.

"On January 11, 1939, when Herbert O’Conor took the oath of office as Maryland’s fifty-first Governor, he found the State’s finances in a chaotic state. 'Bonds totalling $11,000,000 had been issued to cover current operating expenses. Funds dedicated by law to the improvement of our State Highway system, to the extent of more than $15,000,000, had been diverted to the General Treasury. Financial requirements, to the total of approximately $5,000,000 per year, for relief of our citizens who, because of unemployment or other reasons, were being taken care of by temporary, nuisance taxes,' he told the Legislature.3

"His administration’s biggest problem, consequently, was that of dealing with State financial problems to balance the budget. At the end of his first term in 1943 he had cut that debt to $13,000,000 and had a treasury surplus of $8,000,000. With World War II preventing the construction of new roads and new facilities, he was able to cut taxes and still have a surplus, but this created intense problems after the end of that conflict.

"Very shortly after he took office, O’Conor was forced to deal with the problems of defense and war. In August 1940, he established the Maryland Council of Defense, which like its predecessor agency in World War I, was created to deal with the problems of industrial resources and production, transportation, manpower production, and in short, all aspects of promoting the fullest use of the industrial and human resources of the State. In 1943, O’Conor supplemented the Council by the organization of the Maryland State Guard to protect vital installations and strategic areas throughout the State. All of these meant the reduction in non-essential services for the best utilization of the State’s manpower.

"During his term, O’Conor introduced several new innovations. Probably one of the more important of these was the Sherbow Plan, so called after Joseph Sherbow who headed the Maryland Commission on the Distribution of Tax Revenues. This commission made recommendations [p. 274] to provide for the redistribution and the allocation of some of the State’s revenues among the subdivisions to eliminate certain inequalities, a plan which would, when adopted remain in effect for several years. The Commission also recommended annual instead of biennial sessions of the Legislature, annual budgets, a uniform system of accounting for all counties and towns in the State, and further aid to education by increasing teachers’ salaries and aiding school building construction. O’Conor felt 'the work of this Commission constitutes an outstanding achievement.'4

"He advocated, and the Legislature approved, the creation of the Legislative Council, an in-between sessions group of legislators who studied legislative needs, gathered information, conducted investigations and submitted proposed legislation to the next session of the General Assembly. Finally, he overhauled the county magistrate court system to promote better efficiency in the judiciary of the State.

"In spite of the O’Conor administration’s preoccupation with war and defense needs, the State found the time and the money to construct new bridges over the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers. Because of the changes resulting from the widespread use of the automobile and the truck, Maryland in the late 1930’s suffered because of the lack of bridge facilities. This, to Maryland residents, was of prime importance because twenty percent of the State’s area is in water and, in proportion, it has relatively more water area than most States. Coupled with this is its small land area, and at the time, its limited financial resources, a small amount of federal aid, the bay and the uncommonly large number of rivers. The Susquehanna River Bridge opened in 1937 and the Potomac River Bridge in 1940. To supplement these bridge facilities, the State purchased the Claiborne-Annapolis Ferry, started by Governor Emerson Harrington in 1917, and placed it under the control of the State Roads Commission. This ferry was to remain in operation until the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952.

"During his term as Governor, O’Conor was active in the field of interstate cooperation. In 1940, for example, he was made a member of the Executive Committee of the Governors’ Conference. In the following year, he was named chairman of the Committee on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, and late in the same year. he was designated as chairman of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. In 1942, he was elected Chairman of the Governor’s Conference, the first Maryland Governor to be so honored. In November 1943, he was elected President of the Council of State Governments and ex officio, the National Chairman of the Interstate Committee on Post-War Reconstruction and Development.

"Breaking a precedent of over thirty-five years standing, the Governors’ Conference meeting in Columbus, Ohio in 1 943, retained Governor O’Conor as a member of the Executive Committee. The Conference also adopted a resolution expressing appreciation of his patriotic and faithful service, “which has been of such benefit to the Governors of all the States and [p. 275] to the Nation during one of the most important years in the history of the Governor's Conference."5

"In 1942, O’Conor was a candidate for re-election, though several Democratic political leaders opposed him because of some of his policies. He defeated his Republican opponent, Theodore R. McKeldin by only 17.000 votes, while at the same time the Democratic candidates for Comptroller and Attorney General won by over 30,000 votes. 'The conclusion is inescapable, however, that a good many people who would ordinarily have voted for Herbert O’Conor simply did not care to see him re-elected and that the war had nothing to do with it,' noted Harry Kirwin.6 O’Conor took office for the second time on January 13, 1943.

"With the end of World War II in mind, O’Conor in 1944 created the Commission on Post War Reconstruction and Development, which recommended a vast program of public works to take up the slack of employment when war industries began to taper off. It also provided for a huge program of construction, not only of highways but also of new public buildings and hospitals which helped Maryland to adjust to the prosperity and economic and population growth which began after the end of the war.

"In 1945, O’Conor established the Medical Care program, an ambitious scheme which was designed to take care of the people who could not afford medical care. The program attracted nation-wide notice . . . 'Maryland was the first State in the Union to develop such a program for persons unable to pay for such services.'7 Each county determined the scope of its own aid which included home and office care, surgery, obstetrical services, consultations, dental care, and the like. The result was one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted during his term of office.

"After two terms as Governor, O’Conor in 1946 decided to run for the United States Senate, a seat on which he had had his eye for many years. He challenged the two-term incumbent, George L. Radcliffe, in the primary and won handily. In the general election which followed, however, he barely managed to defeat D. John Markey, his Republican opponent in a close and contested election which O’Conor won by about 1,600 votes out of the nearly 460,000 cast.

"On January 3,1947, O’Conor resigned as Governor in order to take his seat in the United States Senate. 'The term of the Senator begins on January 3, and I therefore, am relinquishing the Governorship in order that I might qualify for the office to which I have been elected,' he notified the Legislature.8 As Governor, commented his biographer, Harry Kirwin, 'he kept faith with those who elected him, served honestly and capably during eight . . . years, . . . all without mortgaging the future to satisfy the needs of the present.'9

[p. 276] "As Senator, O’Conor identified himself with action against alleged subversives including those accused of communistic tendencies in the secretariat of the United Nations. When Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee gave up the chairmanship of the Senate Crime Investigation Committee, O’Conor succeeded him. He sent investigators to Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey and Maryland to develop evidence later presented at committee hearings. One of the results of the hearing into crime conditions in Maryland was the dismissal of a lieutenant who had headed the Baltimore Police Department Vice Squad.

"Devoted to the interests of Baltimore, as well as those of Maryland, he fought hard to improve the port facilities and to strengthen the merchant marine. He was a foe of the St. Lawrence Seaway project, and of the development of a second airport in Virginia to serve Washington, D. C. Neither of these projects was approved until after he had left office.

"O’Conor served only one term in the Senate. Possibly because of his philosophical opposition to President Harry Truman on national security, economy in government, and growing opposition from Maryland party leaders, he decided not to be a candidate again in 1952. After he retired from the Senate in 1953, he actively practiced law and kept up his personal campaign against communism. In 1955, for instance, he was chosen by the American Bar Association to go to Tallahassee, Florida, to represent the Association’s stand against lawyers who resorted to the Fifth Amendment in inquiries about their alleged communistic affiliations. He also served as a labor consultant to the City of Baltimore and was the general counsel to the American Merchant Marine institute, a post which kept him in Washington most of the time.

"O’Conor’s later years were marked by ill health. For some time he had suffered from a heart condition and he had been hospitalized briefly. On March 4, 1960, after he suffered a serious heart attack, Herbert O’Conor died in Mercy Hospital in Baltimore at the age of sixty-three years, to close out an outstanding and distinguished career of public service. After a requiem mass at the new Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, he was laid to rest in the New Cathedral Cemetery, mourned as a man who 'knew spectacular success as a prosecutor and politician.'10

Notes on sources

The following information is taken from the Maryland Manual 1945-1946. (Annapolis, MD: Secretary of State, 1945-1946), pp. 260-262.

Herbert R. O’Conor, son of Mrs. Mary Galvin O’Conor and the late James P. A. O’Conor, was born on November 17th, 1896. in Baltimore. He received his early education at St. Paul’s Parochial School and graduated from Loyola College, where he received a degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1917, the degree of Doctor of Laws in 1924. In 1920 he received his Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Maryland.

On November 24, 1920, he married M. Eugenia Byrnes, of Baltimore, and they have five children, Herbert R. O’Conor, Jr., Eugene F., Mary Patricia, James P., and Robert.

Mr. O’Conor became a member of the staff of The Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun, and in 1921 was appointed an       Assistant State’s Attorney. He occupied this position until January 1, 1923, when he was appointed People’s Counsel of the Public Service Commission.

In the fall of 1923 he became the Democratic nominee for State’s Attorney and was elected to this position by a majority of 30,000 votes. He was the youngest State’s Attorney ever to be elected in Baltimore City. In the fall of 1926 he was re-elected by a majority of 58,000 votes and again in 1930 by a majority of 100,000 votes, the largest majority ever received by a candidate for public office in Baltimore City. In November of 1934 Mr. O’Conor was elected Attorney General, also by a record-breaking majority.

While State’s Attorney of Baltimore City, Mr. O’Conor organized the State’s Attorneys’ Association of Maryland, and became its first president. He was also a charter member and officer of the Board of the National Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. He was Chairman of the State Judicial Commission of Maryland and in 1932 was named on the Committee on Criminal Law and Statistics of the American Prison Association.

Mr. O’Conor in 1937 was president of the National Association of Attorneys General. He has taken a leading part throughout the country in the adoption of Interstate Compacts and was designated as the Chairman of the Maryland Commission on that subject. Legislation proposed by the Commission was adopted without change by the General Assembly.

Mr. O’Conor was nominated as the Democratic candidate for Governor and was elected to that office in the general election of November 8th, 1938, by a majority of over 65,000.

In June 1940, governor O’Conor was selected by the Governors of the United States as a member of the Executive Committee of the Governors’ Conference, the Governing Body of the Governors’ Conference, and in June 1941 he was appointed Chairman of the Governors’ Committee on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice of the Conference. In the Spring of 1941, he was designated as Chairman of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, an agency of the States and the District of  Columbia situate in the Potomac River area.

In November 1942 Governor O’Conor was re-elected by the people of Maryland to serve for a second term as Chief Executive.

At the annual meeting of the Governors in Asheville, North Carolina, June, 1942, Governor O’Conor was elected Chairman of the Governors’ Conference, the first Maryland Governor ever so honored. In November, 1943, at the annual meeting of the Council of State Governments in Chicago he was elected President of that body, which includes, besides the Governors’ Conference, various State and interstate Governmental groups.

In May 1943, when, following four regional conferences, the Council of State Governments established the Interstate Committee on Post-War Reconstruction and Development, Governor O’Conor became, ex-officio, its National Chairman.

Breaking a precedent of 35 years’ standing the Governors’ Conference, at its 35th and largest annual meeting, in Columbus, Ohio, June 20-24, 1943, retained Governor O’Conor as a member of the Executive Committee, and unanimously adopted a resolution expressing appreciation of his patriotic and faithful service, which has been of such benefit to the Governors of all the States and to the Nation—during one of the most important years in the history of the Governors’ Conference.”

In July 1945 Governor O’Conor was selected as the Chairman of the Committee of State and Local Relations of the Council of State Governments.

The Governor has received honorary degrees of Doctor of Laws from the University of Maryland, Loyola College of Baltimore, Villanova College of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University of Washington, D. C. and Washington College at Chestertown. He is a member of the American Bar Association, the Maryland State and the Baltimore City Bar Associations; he is also a member of the Elks, Moose, Eagles, Knights of Columbus, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Phi Kappa Sigma, and holds membership in other clubs.

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