The Ghost of Morristown: Inside the Dougherty-Cavanaugh Feud

Dougherty

MORRISTOWN – Jimmy Cavanaugh used to be great friends with Tim Dougherty, dating back to before Dougherty became mayor of this historic town.

But now the very same Cavanaugh has filed suit alleging that Dougherty personally threatened him and that the mayor and others are trying to “lay siege” and destroy the bar and restaurant Cavanaugh owns just off the famous Green.

The mayor through his lawyer says the suit is nonsense and strongly denies some of the more salacious accusations it raises.

Political relationships change all the time. And while this is a falling out over politics, it also is a rift in what had been a friendship.

“Why bite the hand of someone who has been in business (in Morristown) for 39 years?” Cavanaugh said of the mayor when we met the other day for coffee.

This goes back a ways, so let’s start 39 years ago. Cavanaugh, a onetime Democratic freeholder in Essex County, owned a bar at that time on South Street that over the years had a variety of names –
Society Hill, Argyle’s, Phoebe’s and Jimmy’s Haunt. For an earlier generation of Morristown revelers, this place – no matter what it was called – was the hottest spot in town.

Then, there was the ghost.

Or maybe a few of them.

The facts are that in 1833, a man by the name of Antoine le Blanc murdered the farm family living on the site. le Blanc was ultimately hanged on the Green reportedly before 10,000 people. But that
apparently was not the end of things.

Through the years, various reports suggested that the spirits of one of those murdered – a servant name Phoebe – and perhaps others lingered in the building amid the silverware, bottles of wine and
imbibers.

This gave Cavanaugh’s place interesting cache, but being a seasoned political fellow he probably didn’t really need any help in forming relationships with Dougherty, who was a councilman before he became
mayor, and the previous mayor, Donald Cresitello Sources say that Cavanaugh was privy to a confidential 2005 deal in which Cresitello would run for mayor, serve only one term, and have
Dougherty replace him. That’s not how things evolved. Despite the purported deal, Cresitello ran again in 2009, only to be beaten rather easily by Dougherty in the Democratic primary.  Dougherty became mayor in 2010, which is when our story begins to move to the present.

By this time, Morristown was changing. More residential development brought more people and larger bars and restaurants to the center of town. Jimmy’s Haunt about a mile down South Street from the Green was too far removed from the action. It closed around that time and is now a bank. (It’s unknown if Phoebe the ghost is still around).

Back in 2010 was also when  Cavanaugh opened the Iron Bar in a building just off the Green once occupied by F.W. Woolworth. This was – and is – a prime location. His lawsuit says Dougherty, who was just beginning his first term as mayor, wanted to invest in the bar. When Cavanaugh said he didn’t think that would be wise, the suit alleges that the mayor suggested putting his investment in the name of his
son. No, Cavanaugh said, that would be even worse.

This is a pretty heavy accusation. The idea of a newly-elected mayor having interest in a bar is a broad avenue to all sorts of trouble.

And Dougherty denies it. Here is verbatim what his lawyer, Richard D. Trenk, said about the claim.

“The mayor has NEVER sought to be an investor in Iron Bar or any other liquor establishment anywhere in the state of New Jersey or elsewhere.”

The other allegations in the suit are tame by comparison.

Cavanaugh says the town ordered the Iron Bar and Revolution, a companion restaurant with a German beer garden theme that opened later, to stop serving booze at 11 p.m. during the week and 11:30 on
weekends. Normal closing time for bars in Morristown is 2 a.m. This is in litigation, but the Cavanaugh side has won the early rounds.

And then there’s closing the road. The suit alleges that on weekend nights, the block of South Street where Cavanaugh’s establishments are located is shut to traffic at closing time. Cavanaugh says this makes it harder for patrons to summon Uber and other ride-sharing outfits to get home safely. Clearly, easy customer access to Uber is of great significance to any bar owner these days.

To Cavanaugh, all this stems from personal animus. His suit, which also names Councilman Stefan Armington and the town itself, as defendants speaks of “cruel and malicious attacks.”

In one fascinating part of the suit, Cavanaugh tells of a chance meeting with Dougherty on the street. The suit says Dougherty told Cavanaugh that he was “f…..”  with the wrong person.

Besides the specific response to the charge the mayor wanted to invest in the Iron Bar, Trenk, the lawyer, offered this overall response.

“The allegations in the complaint filed against the Town of Morristown, Mayor Timothy Dougherty and Council Member Stefan Armington are wholly without merit.” He said the plaintiffs through
his firm “intend to vigorously oppose all  relief sought.”

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