The first lord mayor of Budapest died 125 years ago

Hungarian version of the article: Budapest első főpolgármestere 125 éve hunyt el

Written by: Csaba Domonkos

July 30, 2022 at 11:00 AM

Károly Ráth was the lord mayor of Budapest from the time of the unification of the city, in 1873, and he was re-elected a total of four times. He held this post in the quarter century when the Hungarian capital developed into a metropolis. He witnessed the construction of Andrássy Avenue and Outer Ring Road, and saw how Budapest's famous buildings, public institutions, schools, and hospitals were constructed. He even took part in the millennium celebrations and died as mayor 125 years ago, on 30 July 1897.

Budapest became a unified city after 1873, the leadership of which differed from that of other domestic cities, as the city was headed by the elected mayor and the lord mayor nominated by the government. The daily affairs were handled by the mayor, but the role of the lord mayor was not secondary either. The general assembly also chose the candidate for the latter position, but only from among the three persons nominated by the government, as the Act XXXV of 1872 said:

§ 68. The head of the capital is the lord mayor, who is elected for 6 years by the public assembly from among three individuals appointed by the king with the countersignature of the minister of the interior.
§ 69. The lord mayor is a representative of the executive power; as such, it controls the capital city government and guards the interests of the state administration mediated by the legislative authority."

Of course, the lord mayor also had other rights. This post of lord mayor was held by one person, Károly Ráth, from 1873 until his death 125 years ago.

Károly Ráth in 1873 (Source: Vasárnapi Ujság, 2 November 1873) 

Károly Ráth became mayor at the age of 52, until then he had a successful career as a lawyer, attorney and judge. Ferenc Deák asked him to take the position of lord mayor, and he was competing for the post with the then mayor of Buda, Ferenc Házmán. As the reason of Ferenc Házmán's nomination the contemporary press reported that they wanted to win over the citizens of Buda who were dissatisfied with the city unification. Házmán was a supporter of city unification, he advocated it as early as 1848, and he was popular in Buda. It is therefore no coincidence that the first lord mayor was elected in a close contest, with 209 votes for Ráth and 169 for Házmán. The third candidate, Sándor Havas, received barely five votes. 

As lord mayor, Károly Ráth was at the head of the city when it was experiencing the greatest development in its history, since in 1873 Budapest was a connected unit of three small towns connected by the single Chain Bridge, and only a few of the characteristic Budapest buildings known today were standing. The Outer Ring Road and Andrássy Avenue only existed on the drawing board, and at the time of his death, Budapest could boast of world-class buildings, traffic ran on three road and two railway bridges, trams on the roads carried passengers on the elegant avenue and boulevard, as well as on many other streets.

The capital's skyline in 1895. In a quarter of a century, the three small towns became a single big city (Photo: FSZEK Budapest Collection) 

In addition to the position of lord mayor, he had many social obligations, he was the president of clubs, circles, and associations, and due to his position, he was also a member of the upper house of the Parliament, the House of Magnates.

The post of lord mayor was for 6 years, but Károly Ráth was re-elected each time in the following years, who was eulogized on his death in 1897 in the 8 August issue of the Vasárnapi Ujság:

" Károly Ráth was a respected man who, especially in the last 24 years of his life, dedicated all his talent, preparation and labour to the capital and was everywhere where the interests of the capital city had to be promoted or protected. Although he was at the head of Budapest's administration as the government's confidant, he was nevertheless able to carry out his role in such a way that neither his duties towards the government nor the capital came into irreconcilable conflict with each other.
In his office, in which he was confirmed by public trust four times since 1873, he was accuracy incarnate. There has very rarely been a big reason that could have kept him from occupying the chair of the general assembly. In the thousand-branch administration of the capital, he thoroughly knew all the big and small things. Nothing escaped his all-encompassing attention.”

Károly Ráth in 1897 (Source: Vasárnapi Ujság, 8 August 1897) 

Károly Ráth eventually held office for 24 years, until his death on 30 July 1897, which was caused by kidney disease and peritonitis that had plagued him for a long time. The funeral of the 76-year-old politician took place on 2 August, and it was grandiose, the already quoted issue of Vasárnapi Ujság wrote about it:

"Leading representatives of official and public life appeared in the black-laden Church. Among the legal authorities are, of course, the all the officers of the capital, the commanders of the Budapest regiments from the military. The funeral service in the church began at 10 a.m., which was conducted by priest Károly Kimer. Then, between the lines of the firemen and the police, the coffin was placed on the ornate hearse, which soon stopped in front of the old town hall. Mayor József Márkus gave a farewell speech on behalf of the city authority from the pulpit, and then the procession continued through the streets filled with large crowds. The lamps were everywhere covered by a veil, and gas flames were lit. The funeral procession was opened by a platoon of mounted police in uniform. They were followed by the foot police section for about ten paces. The city henchmen followed next in their picturesque costumes. Then the bodies and associations came under their flags, one after the other, followed by richly loaded wreath wagons. Then the capital's three hussars brought the flag of the capital, after which the henchmen advanced."

Although the council wanted to take care of Károly Ráth's memory, today no public space in Budapest bears his name.

Cover photo: Károly Ráth's funeral procession (Source: Vasárnapi Ujság, 8 August 1897)


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