Joseph Barker (mayor)

Joseph "Joe" Barker (ca. 1806– August 2, 1862) [1] was an American public and political figure of the 1800s remembered to this day for his rash, uncompromising temper, and violent tirades against corruption, often drawing large crowds, landing him in prison, and paving way for his term in office as the 17th mayor of Pittsburgh.

Joe Barker
Mayor Joseph Barker
c. 1850
17th Mayor of Pittsburgh
In office
January 8, 1850  January, 1851
Preceded byJohn Herron
Succeeded byJohn B. Guthrie
Personal details
Bornca. 1806
DiedAugust 2, 1862 (age 55/56)
Manchester, Pennsylvania
Cause of deathDecapitation
Resting placeAllegheny Cemetery
Political partyWrite-In
Spouse(s)Jane Holmes

Early years

The origins of Joe Barker are shrouded in mystery: nothing is known of his early years, background, or even his date of birth, as evident by its absence on his epitaph.[1]


Barker's appearance, in contrast to what was common of the era, was described as always cleanly shaven and well-dressed in nearly all black attire. It was said he was never to be seen without a neckcloth, black stovepipe hat, and long black cape.

1850 Census

Important, although sparse, details are provided in the information collected by the Census of 1850. Barker is listed therein as 44 years old and living in Pittsburgh's Fifth Ward with his Irish-born wife Jane Holmes and three children, Charles Augustus, Eliza, and David. His birthplace is described as being in "Pennsylvania", and his occupation is given as "Mayor". Contrary to propaganda spread by his enemies, and even incorrectly referenced in articles to this day, Barker was far from illiterate, as clearly indicated on the 1850 census; he was instead described as having a silver tongue.[2] As a perhaps sardonic nod to his opposition, Barker chose to leave the "sane" category on the census unchecked.[3]

Arrest, Imprisonment, and Election

Joe Barker gained vast public attention and notoriety as a street preacher of the violent class, vehemently attacking political corruption. In November 1849, a riot broke out following one of Barker's more extreme tirades in Market Square, Mayor John Herron had him arrested on three counts:

  • Inciting a riot
  • Obstructing traffic
  • Using lewd and indecent language in the delivery of incendiary threats[4]

On November 19 the charges resulted in a fine and 12-month jail sentence, but Barker did not exactly display remorse, stating, "Judge Patton made a threat two weeks ago of what he would do if I was thrown into his power. Now let him touch me if he dares. I'll hang him to a lamppost if he lays a finger on me."[4] The next mayoral election was fast approaching, and Barker's nativist supporters circulated a write-in petition during his imprisonment which resulted in his election as mayor to succeed Herron. Accounts of Barker's one-year 185051 term describe it as a period of religious and nativist strife.


Barker lived for eleven years after leaving the mayoralty and despite a number of additional attempts, never again held public office. He was in his mid-fifties at the time of his decapitation in a train accident in the neighboring town of Manchester (a part of Pittsburgh since 1908). Interment was in Allegheny Cemetery.


  1. "Epitaph". August 2, 1862. Retrieved January 10, 2016.
  2. "Historic Pittsburgh - Census 1850". Retrieved 2016-04-05.
  3. "Historic Pittsburgh - Census 1850". Retrieved 2016-04-05.
  4. ""The Commonwealth v Barker et al."". Pittsburgh Daily Post. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 20 November 1849. p. 1.
Preceded by
John Herron
Mayor of Pittsburgh
Succeeded by
John B. Guthrie
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