An intimate friend and confidante of Matt Quay, Simon and J. Donald Cameron, Senator Smith was born in Philadelphia on July 21, 1832, the son of police officer and “well known local politician” Levin Handy Smith and the former Margaret Phillips. The senator’s ancestors arrived in America in 1632, originally settling on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at Snow Hill. The family founded Worcester County, Maryland, established the first Presbyterian Church in the colonies, and lent legislators and one governor to Maryland’s political heritage. Smith clerked as a Philadelphia jeweler at Gould & Company, attending primary school at Locust Street Elementary. Leaning toward a career relevant to his early training, George eventually learned the “arts and mysteries of jeweler and silversmith.” He pursued the business at Wriggins and Warden, Bennet & Caldwell, and prominent silversmiths Bailey and Kitchen. Apparently disappointing his father for not aspiring to the practice of law, Smith left for New York to explore the world. After a brief excursion, he had neither found work as a jeweler, nor as a law assistant. To make ends meet, he sought employment at Philadelphia’s Central Police Station as a night clerk. Smith became an expert at operating the department’s new technology – the police and fire alarm telegraph – but declined an offer to serve as assistant fire marshal. The senator entered the War Between the States in 1862 as a member of the Ninth Pennsylvania Regiment, “serving with distinction” and mustering out as a corporal. George returned to the police department, ascending to a detective’s grade and achieving local fame in 1868 through his role in cracking the Mary Mohrman child kidnapping and murder case. Senator Smith entered the local political arena as a Republican Fremont supporter during the 1856 election. By 1870, with a favorable profile in the community, the city machine promoted his election to the state House of Representatives. He returned in 1872 and 1873, gaining further notoriety for unselfishly stepping aside as an 1874 First District congressional candidate, throwing his influence behind Chapman Freeman. The selfless act impressed the party and public so, his next position appeared in the Senate of Pennsylvania. Smith served for years as chair of the joint Republican caucus and became the driving force behind the election of U.S. Senators Matt Quay (1893) and J. Donald Cameron (1879 and 1891). In the former case, Smith presented Quay’s nomination during one of the Senate’s hard-fought battles. Over the course of his long career, George chaired the inaugural committees of Governors Hartranft, Hoyt, and Hastings, and served as a member of Democrat Pattison’s. The oldest member of the Philadelphia Senate delegation at the time of his election as pro tem, by 1885 the first district’s George Handy Smith ranked second in seniority to Thomas V. Cooper. Noted for his straight-lace demeanor, Smith volunteered that he “(never touched) anything but Apollinaris water and lemon juice.” He further asserted “I never could afford to play cards because I never had an ambition to live in the poorhouse." Senator Smith appeared, nonetheless, “jovial, genial, and in a modest way, somewhat aspiring.”
Despite his engaging personality, Smith was a deadly serious legislator, and with Tom Cooper and John Grady, the three senators represented the heart and soul of Quay’s rule in the General Assembly for three decades. To list the legislative accomplishments of each would be tantamount to recording every major bill presented in the Senate over a 30-year period. No legislation passed without Cooper, Smith, or Grady’s good graces. From the days of the Quay and J.D. Cameron U.S. Senate elections, Smith served as Matt’s dependable caucus leader, alternating duties with Cooper and Grady through the mid 1890s. He additionally chaired the Congressional Apportionment, Public Buildings, Insurance, and Corporations committees. Senator Smith belonged to the Hector Tyndale Post Grand Army of the Republic, 9th Regiment Pennsylvania Guard and served as a member of the First Regiment, National Guard of Pennsylvania. Thrown from a carriage at his Gwynadd country home in mid-1896, the senator suffered “paralysis.” During an attempt at recovery, George contracted pneumonia and eventually passed away, April 14, 1898, succeeding his wife of 43 years, the former Sophia McGowan of Philadelphia.