Budapest was born from the unification of the cities Pest, Buda and Óbuda effective from 1 January 1873. The first local elections were held on 25–26 September, and the first general assembly of the capital was convened in the Pest Vigadó on 25 October. This was when Károly Ráth was elected Lord Mayor. But what led to this vote after which the Lord Mayor served in the same role for 24 years?

Károly Ráth was born to a wealthy family in Buda on 20 February 1821. He studied law at the University of Pest and soon became one of the city's popular lawyers. During the Revolution and the War of Independence in 1848–49, he was a representative in the Council of Pest, then became one of the Pest National Guard's overseers and served as chairman of the recruitment committee. After the War of Independence failed, he retired from public life – like many others – and continued his legal practice.

He returned to public life in the 1860s. In 1860 he was invited to a meeting of Chief Justices as a specialist and worked on reforming the judiciary to a national base. In 1867, when Mór Szentkirályi was elected mayor, Ráth inherited his position in the local council. But he was soon appointed a crown prosecutor and then Judge of the Curia. He continued to rise through the ranks and was named a Vice-President of the Royal Supreme Court.

Photo of Károly Ráth in the 1933 Budapest Yearbook

He held this post until 1873, when the government nominated him as mayor of a united Budapest, in agreement with the King. After the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda, the everyday administration of the city was headed by the mayor supported by the deputy mayor and the councillors that led various departments. Beyond this, the Capital City Act, which outlined the unification of the three cities, established the position of Lord Mayor, modelled on the Főispán (lord lieutenant of a county) position. The General Assembly elected the Lord Mayor from the three candidates put forward by the government and the ruling monarch and served a term of six years. In essence, the Lord Mayor represented the government in the capital's administration.

The coat of arms of Budapest was created in 1873 by merging Pest, Buda and Óbuda

The first meeting of the new city's General Assembly held in the Pest Vigadó on 25 October 1873 elected Károly Ráth Lord Mayor. Károly Kammermayer was elected mayor, and Károly Gerlóczy was chosen to be deputy mayor.

In his inaugural speech after taking the oath of office on 30 October 1873, Károly Ráth spoke about the task ahead: "...if the united capital expects work, strength and self-sacrifice from me, I will not disappoint. Since the first minute of running, I have known that this is not a position for a simple dignitary, not a comfortable sinecure, but a job that requires strength and serious work, work aimed at the common well-being of the nation and the capital. ”

A good relationship between the government and the capital, in which the Lord Mayor played a decisive role, was significant, as the government provided the financial background for all significant investments. Due to his wise, diplomatic, friendly composition, Ráth was exactly the mediating presence that could connect the government and Budapest in the spirit of “the common well-being of the nation and the capital.” 

"He also represented the capital with proverbial finesse, tact and good manners on the common occasions when he had to receive the king or members of the royal family, foreign dignitaries, and lead delegations of greeting or condolence to the crown or government," wrote Vasárnapi Újság after his death.

Detail of The Allegory of Franz Joseph by Georg Conräder. Jenő Zichy and Károly Ráth can be seen behind Prince Primate Kolos Vaszary, in thr group on the right. Behind them stands the writer Mór Jókai.

Károly Ráth was elected again and again over the following decades. A consensus formed around him, adding emphasis to the decision made in 1873. His kind and well-meaning character was vital in his ceremonial roles and mediating between the city and the government.

The 31 July 1897 issue of the Pesti Napló noted his charm: “According to law, the government nominated him alongside two other distinguished members of our public life for the post of Lord Mayor at the end of each six-year term. The result was always that a huge majority re-elected Károly Ráth. He was the most popular figure in the capital. He devoted his whole life to the capital. He was a magnificent representative. If the capital was receiving guests or burying a great figure him; if he sat at a feast or in mourning, he always appeared and spoke on behalf of the capital.”

Only terminal illness could remove him from office. He played a significant role in organising the National Millennium Celebrations of 1896, but his illness took over the following year, and he died on 30 July 1897, at the age of 76.

Photograph of the Lord Mayor's funeral procession in the 8 August 1897 issue of the Vasárnapi Újság

His farewell was worthy of his 24 years in office. The 8 August 1897 issue of the Vasárnapi Újság reads: “The honourable gentleman was buried at the expense of the capital with great splendour on the morning of 2 August. The catafalque, erected in his house on Zöldfa Street, was covered with a mass of wreaths. On the evening before 2 August, the coffin was moved to the Inner City Parish Church and placed on a different catafalque. Leading representatives of official and public life appeared in the black-laden Church."

After the church funeral, the coffin was placed on an ornate hearse, which first stopped in front of the Old City Hall near the Inner City Parish Church. Here, Mayor József Márkus gave a speech on behalf of the city administration. (Márkus soon became the deceased's successor as Lord Mayor.) The funeral procession continued to the Kerepes Road Cemetery, accompanied by a huge crowd, where the first Lord Mayor of Budapest was laid to rest in his family tomb.

Cover photo: Portrait of Károly Ráth in 1873