New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was praised as ‘the greatest mayor in American history’ in the 1930s. What follows is a true story of grace and generosity.
The winter of 1935 was a desperate time for the United States economy. A gloomy atmosphere of austerity clouded the entire city of New York; homeless children wandered the streets, families struggled, and thousands went without food on a daily basis.
On a cold night in mid-January of 1935, a trial was held in New York’s poorest neighborhood. Respected mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sat at the judge’s bench. On the seats below sat a sorrowful looking lady, emaciated, nearly 60 years old, wearing torn clothes and a defeated expression. She was accused of stealing a loaf of bread.
Mayor LaGuardia, acting as judge, addressed the defendant: “You are accused of stealing bread; how do you plead?”
The old woman looked down, stammering: “Judge, I plead guilty. I stole it.”
“Why?” replied LaGuardia, “Why did you steal it? Was it because you were hungry?”
“Judge, I was very hungry indeed. But if it were only me, I wouldn’t have stolen,” the defendant explained. “My son-in-law has left us, my daughter is bedridden. I needed this bread to feed my two starving grandchildren. They were the ones who were really hungry, your Honor.”
Speaking of her grandchildren, the woman burst into tears.
After the old woman finished speaking, the crowd in the courtroom broke into whispers.
The mayor sighed, audibly. He looked around the courtroom at the lawyers and gathered crowds, then turned to the old woman and said: “Defendant, I will have to punish you; the law is always fair and grants no privilege or exception for any individual. You are ordered to pay a fine of $10, or be imprisoned for ten days. Which do you choose?”
With no real choice to be made, the old woman replied: “Judge, I am willing to accept my punishment. If I had had $10, I wouldn’t have stolen the bread. So I volunteer to be detained for ten days. But what about my daughter and her two children? Who will take care of them?”
The mayor bowed his head and smiled. He took ten dollars from his own pocket, put it inside his famous wide-brimmed hat and extended it towards the defendant.
“This is your $10 fine, consider yourself released!” he exclaimed. Turning to the indignant crowd, he continued: “And now, you in the courtroom, you are ordered to pay a 50 cent fine, each! This is a fine for indifference, for forcing a destitute woman to steal bread for starving children. Bailiff, please collect the fine and give the sum total to the defendant.”
Every person present at the court was shocked into silence. One by one, each attendee stood up quietly, took out 50 cents and dropped the coins into the mayor’s hat.
The next day, the New York City newspapers spread the story like wildfire: $47.50 given to a desperate woman who was forced to steal bread to feed her starving grandchildren. An inspiration! Even the owner of the bread bakery himself and the police of New York City were willing to pay a fine of 50 cents each for this heart-wrenching cause.
So concludes this story of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who led New York City through the darkest days of the Great Depression. The beloved man was fondly known to New Yorkers as ‘Little Flower’ because of his modest height of 1.57m, and because the name Fiorello means ‘small flower’ in Italian. To add to his impressive résumé, LaGuardia also used to drive a fire truck, took orphaned children on trips to the ballpark, and when New York City newspapers went on strike it was LaGuardia who volunteered himself onto the radio to read ‘Funny Stories on Sunday’ for children.
The genius Albert Einstein once said: “The world is not destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who look and do nothing.” Perhaps that’s why Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia stood up to ‘punish’ the indifference of the crowd at the trial of the bread thief. Indifference to suffering can inflict wounds that never heal.
Einstein was not the first historical figure to preach collective responsibility. Why did the Buddha always teach compassion? That we must think of others first? Because only compassion and kindness generate warmth and draw people closer together. Money, glory and fame can never make us truly happy; only love can fight for the common good and lead us down a virtuous path in life. We have Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to thank for his unique and shining example.