Taggart, Thomas (1856–1929), politician, was born 17 November 1856 in Emyvale, Co. Monaghan, sixth child and younger son among two sons and five daughters of Thomas Taggart, of Emyvale, and Martha Taggart (née Kingsbury), native of Scotland. The family emigrated to the United States in 1861, settling in Xenia, Ohio, where his father worked as railway station baggage master. Educated in local public schools to age 15, he worked from age 12 in the railway depot restaurant-hotel, moving from part-time cleaner to full-time lunch counter attendant, impressing his employers with his cleanliness, efficiency, and cordiality. After managing the company's depot restaurant in Garrett, Indiana (1875–7), he was transferred to the staff of Union Depot dining hall, Indianapolis (promoted in 1882 to resident manager) – a popular gathering point for local and visiting Democratic party officials and workers, thereby initiating his interest in politics. After service as precinct committeeman and ward leader, he was elected Marion county auditor (1887–95), a highly lucrative office that allowed his purchase of the Depot Hotel and facilitated his rapid advancement in politics, business, and society. Subsequently he owned and managed two other Indianapolis hotels, the Grand and the Denison. Exhibiting dexterity in political organising, as Democratic county chairman (1888–90), he carried Marion county, traditionally a Republican party stronghold, for the 1888 Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland against Indianapolis native Benjamin Harrison. As state committee chairman (1892–5), he drew national attention by carrying Indiana for Cleveland over Harrison in 1892. Chairman of the 7th congressional district central committee – his power base over many years (1890–1912) – he consolidated control over the local and state Democratic organisation, aligning nationally with the party's moderate, gold-standard wing. As mayor of Indianapolis (1895–1901), he relaxed draconian enforcement of liquor laws and, while stressing fiscal economy, initiated public works and stimulated development of the municipal park system. After 1900 he managed a newly acquired property in southern Indiana, developing the French Lick Springs Hotel into an elegant, world-famous resort and health spa, frequented by society figures and Democratic politicians. From a mineral spring on the property he bottled and marketed Pluto Water, renowned for its red-devil trademark and putative laxative qualities. Shrewd in business, he invested widely in property and mines, and was chairman of Fletcher–American National Bank, Indianapolis.
Although never again elected to public office, Taggart was among America's foremost political bosses, fully in command of the Democratic machine in a critical swing state in national elections. Representing Indiana on the party's national committee (1900–16), he was an influential, king-making figure at the quadrennial conventions. His support of the successful candidacy of New York judge Alton B. Parker for the 1904 presidential nomination engendered the lasting enmity of the leading rival, publisher and congressman William Randolph Hearst. As national committee chairman (1904–8), he managed Parker's unsuccessful general election campaign against the incumbent president, Theodore Roosevelt. Hearst retaliated with newspaper charges of illegal gambling associated with the French Lick resort; vilification by anti-gambling and pro-temperance elements would dog the remainder of Taggart's career. After facing down an insurrection by Hearst-influenced, silver-standard Democrats at the 1908 state convention, he presided, as outgoing chairman, over the national convention, securing the vice-presidential nomination under William Jennings Bryan for an Indiana associate, John Worth Kern. His masterful tactics at the 1912 convention determined the shape of the entire ticket. Committing the Indiana delegation to the state's governor, Thomas Marshall, in the early ballots, at a critical juncture he broke the convention deadlock by swinging the delegation to the eventual nominee, Woodrow Wilson; his reward was the vice-presidential nomination for Marshall.
With Wilson in the White House and Kern as senate majority leader, the mid 1910s marked the pinnacle of Taggart's power. Democrats controlled all major Indiana offices, where he exercised decisive influence upon policies and patronage. While broadly supporting the social legislation of the progressive movement, he strenuously opposed efforts to curb machine politics, such as checks on the spoils system through civil service reform. Appointed to the US senate to fill a vacancy, he served six months (March–November 1916) before suffering narrow defeat in the general election. Running again for the senate in 1920, he supported self-determination for Ireland and addressed Irish-American disquiet over the Versailles treaty by arguing that the USA could best assist Ireland's interests through membership of the League of Nations. Defeated amid a Republican landslide in Indiana and the nation, he rebounded in 1922 when, against the odds, he secured the election of his long-time associate Samuel Ralston to a senate seat. With the Democrats deeply divided between urban ethnics and rural southerners, and in the absence of a front-runner for the 1924 presidential nomination, Taggart pursued conciliation and party unity. He broke with other northern bosses by urging compromise with the resurgent Ku Klux Klan and refusing to endorse repeal of prohibition. Amid the drama of the marathon three-week convention, he engineered a late swing toward Ralston as a ‘dark horse’ moderate, acceptable to all factions. After the ninety-third ballot, seemingly poised for a decisive breakthrough, Taggart suffered a crushing disappointment when Ralston telegrammed to withdraw his candidacy.
Distinguished and handsome in appearance, Taggart cultivated his image as ‘the gentleman from Indiana’. Motivated primarily by a passion for politics as a game, he secured political and business success by combining a winning personality and easy familiarity with all classes of people with single-minded capacity for organisation and minute attention to detail. Born into a presbyterian household, in his adult life he was a practising episcopalian. An avid outdoorsman, especially devoted to fowl-shooting and horseback riding, he owned racehorses at his French Lick stables. From c.1907 he summered in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, developing a family compound adjacent to property subsequently occupied by the Kennedy family. He died in Indianapolis on 6 March 1929.
Taggart married (1878) Eva Bryant (d. 1937) of Garrett, Indiana; they had five daughters and one son. Their eldest daughter died tragically in a yachting disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (1899).