From the Ohio Historical Society Journal
PETER WITT, TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE 1
by CARL WITTKE
Professor of History and Dean of the Graduate School,
Western Reserve University
Peter Witt’s exciting and colorful career, which closed October
20, 1948, covered a span of nearly eighty years. He was born
when the country was in the turmoil of reconstruction after the
Civil War; he died amidst the perplexing problems precipitated
by two world wars which rocked the very foundations of civili-
zation. His career was in many ways unique; in other respects it
paralleled those of Clarence Darrow, Eugene V. Debs, John P.
Altgeld, “Golden Rule” Jones, and many others who were the
products of a time when honest and generous souls embarked on a
new quest for social justice.
These decades were marked by corrupt alliances between politi-
cal bosses and the corporate interests, the mounting struggle between
the “haves” and the “have nots,” and the attempt to restore a proper
balance between political and economic forces for the benefit of
the people as a whole. Monopoly power was growing; controls in
the public interest seemed ineffective; the same forces were breeding
millionaires and tramps; the Gospel of Wealth was more powerful
than the Social Gospel, and great and swollen fortunes were accu-
mulated and administered with striking disregard for the social
conscience. The income tax was considered socialistic and com-
munistic; the farmers who joined the Populist party to “raise less
corn and more hell,” were regarded as anarchists; and Bryan was
looked upon in 1896 by conservatives as a positive menace to the
Republic of the Fathers. John Hay called him “a blatant ass of
the prairies,” and a leading New York paper likened him to
“Altgeld, the anarchist,” “Debs the revolutionist,” and “other des-
peradoes of that stripe.”
Laissez faire had been twisted into a philosophy to foster not
competition but monopoly power to control both production and
prices. Many rich men had not yet learned their social respon-
sibility as “trustees for the poor,” who made money “according to
the laws of business and spent it according to the laws of God.”
William Dean Howells remarked that “the dollar [was] the measure
of every value, and the stamp of every success,” and William
Howard Taft in 1915 warned of the dangers of a growing plutoc-
racy. In this Gilded Age of “conspicuous consumption” by the
specially privileged, labor struggled desperately for recognition
and for a larger share in the wealth it helped to create. Govern-
ment attempted to control business in the public interest, and the
voters had to decide to what extent “free enterprise” must yield to
a “welfare state.” The Progressive movement, which originated at
the turn of the century, cut across party lines, but it was smothered
in World War I and its aftermath and had to be revived in the
early 1930’s. Radical reformers like Henry George, Edward
Bellamy, and Henry Demarest Lloyd offered specific panaceas, but
their audiences remained relatively small. On the national scene,
Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Robert M. LaFollette
carried the banners of the reform movement, and many cities and
states had notable reform mayors and governors.
The main factors in the making of a man are the genes which
he inherits from his ancestors and the forces of environment that
shape his earlier years. Witt’s father was born in Germany in
1822. Apprenticed to a blacksmith, he became a skilled old world
craftsman. Born a Catholic, he broke with all organized religion
and proclaimed himself not only a freethinker but an atheist.
Whether he actually participated in the German Revolution of
1848 has not been established, but certainly he was of the spirit of
that notable group of German “Forty-eighters” and radicals who
came to the United States after the failure of liberalism in their
Christopher Witt arrived in America in 1849 and found em-
ployment in the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. In
1853 he married Anna Probeck, a German girl who had come to
the United States three years earlier. She bore him many children,
of whom six died in infancy. Like many other German immigrants
of the period, Christopher Witt became an antislavery Republican,
and when Lincoln called for volunteers in 1861, he enlisted for
ninety days and took part in the inglorious Battle of Bull Run.
In 1865 he moved his family to Cleveland. He found employment
in a foundry and bought a house, with a substantial mortgage
which in spite of thrift and hard work remained unpaid at the
time of his death.
The son Peter, born July 24, 1869, was the tenth of eleven
children. He was not raised in the lap of luxury and he attended
school only through the fifth grade. The amazing amount of infor-
mation which he acquired in his later years came from his passion
for reading, but in it there were large gaps, and he probably would
have been the first to admit that he was not a “cultured man” in
the accepted definition of the term. At thirteen Witt went to work
in a basket factory. Then he became a printer’s devil, and in 1886,
a molder and foundryman. He became a member of the molder’s
union and the Knights of Labor. He hated an industrial system
and a “ruling class” which forced him to suffer the results of long
periods of unemployment. He took part in several strikes and
promptly got his name on the employers’ black lists.3 When he
married early in the 1890’s, he was in debt. Significantly, he spent
his last dollars for tickets for himself and his young wife to hear
a lecture by Robert G. Ingersoll.
Witt experienced the pangs of hunger and the insecurity and
hopelessness of the shop-worker. It made him angry and bitter
and sour, and he frequently expressed his feelings in such uncon-
trolled language and in such unreasonable assaults on “special
privilege” that his enemies called him “foul-mouthed Pete.” All
his life he was a sarcastic speaker, and sometimes uncouth. He
hated hypocrisy. He would have no traffic with churches or
preachers. He contended that “the workingmen have not left the
church, but rather the church has left them.”4 His special friends
were the sinners, the downtrodden, and the “have nots,” and he
never forgot them in his later, more prosperous years. His heart
was big and he was full of sentimentality. He was generous with
his time and money and gave gladly to the burns and dead-beats
who accosted him in the streets, but not a dime to the Community
Throughout his life Witt remained loyal to the cause of organ-
ized labor. He knew some of its faults, but he was eager to recount
its many achievements. In addition to obvious economic gains, he
credited the unions with helping to destroy racial and religious
prejudice and with teaching men in rags “to learn how to suffer
defeat” without turning to violence. He maintained that the labor
movement built character among the workers, directed their de-
mands and activities into orderly channels, reduced the number and
the severity of strikes, and produced untold social benefits for the
For a man of such a temperament and background, the road
into the Populist party was easy. Witt went as a delegate to the
state Populist convention in Springfield, Ohio, and in 1894 he
fought with the Populists against the Democrats, even though this
meant opposing Tom L. Johnson, his hero of later years, who at
the time was running for congress on the Democratic ticket.
Through the influence of Dr. Louis B. Tuckerman of Ashtabula, a
kindly, socially-minded physician, Witt was introduced to the
single-tax philosophy of Henry George. As late as 1944, Witt still
was denouncing the “infamy” of the state of Ohio in raising money
from horse-racing, gambling, a sales tax, and the whiskey business,
and advocating the single tax instead.6 Since 1886, Witt worked
for the initiative and referendum.7
In 1896, Witt, a single-taxer and “street corner agitator,” took
to the road to campaign for Bryan and free silver. This was his
first real journey outside Ohio. When he met Bryan on the stump
in the Northwest, he was impressed because the Peerless Leader
seemed to be dressed worse than he was. Like Debs, Witt believed
that more was at stake than free silver at a ratio of 16 to 1. Free
men, not free silver, was the real issue. By 1908, however, when
Bryan ran a third time for president, his erstwhile admirer de-
scribed him as but another “trimmer whose hunger for the great
office exposed his real character.”8
Witt was often labeled a socialist. That he had great sym-
pathy for the movement and deep love for some of its leaders
cannot be questioned. He helped conduct memorial services for
Max Hayes in Cleveland and he had an affection for Debs which
deepened with the years. The correspondence between these
champions of the “have nots” dates at least as far back as 1895
when Debs led the American Railway Union in the famous Pullman
Strike. Witt occasionally criticised his friend for the violence of
his attack on the capitalist system, but their friendship was welded
into an unbreakable bond when Debs went to prison during World
War I because he could not support the war and he would not
betray his socialist and humanitarian principles. Witt wrote to
Debs while he was in the federal prison in Atlanta; he sent him
flowers for the holidays when he had returned to his home in Terre
Haute; and he worked hard to get him to accept an invitation to
address the Cleveland City Club in 1923.9 Nevertheless, Witt in-
sisted that he was not a socialist. In 1905 he wrote to a friend, “I
am farther away from that theory than ever before because I am
convinced that the dream of Socialism can be realized with less,
instead of more, government.” There is no evidence that he changed
his mind in later years.10
In men like Peter Witt strong hatreds and sentimental hero
worship are frequently combined. Witt hated many of the success-
ful, old line leaders, including Theodore Roosevelt. He had nothing
but contempt for Joseph B. Foraker and James R. Garfield, whom
he regarded as the representatives of special privilege, and he did
not hesitate to tell them so.11 When Myron T. Herrick was gover-
nor, he wrote him that “the meanest thing that can be said of the
late Senator Hanna is that after he secured your nomination and
election, he went away and died.”12 In 1921, when Herrick was
American ambassador in Paris, Witt referred to him as “the inter-
national ass . . . whose batting average is 1000, in that he has
never said a sensible thing or done a decent thing.”l3
Quite impartial in his condemnation of Ohio governors, Witt
also refused to support Judson Harmon whom he branded as a
pioneer of “government by injunction,” the candidate of “boodle
and booze,” and the enemy of popular referendums. Above all,
he could not forgive him for leading the cheers over Bryan’s defeat
in 1896 at an election night party in the office of Charles P. Taft’s
Times-Star in Cincinnati.14 When Harmon was defeated in the
Democratic convention of 1912 for the nomination for the presi-
dency, Witt suggested that he form a law partnership with Taft
and “employ as a filing clerk our senatorial one-termer, Theodore
Elijah Burton.”15 Witt had written to Brand Whitlock, mayor of
Toledo, on May 7, 1908, to persuade him to run against Harmon
and his Republican rival as an independent. In that letter he wrote,
“With the stamp of Clevelandism on his back, sitting astride a
barrel of whiskey Judson Harmon is the candidate of the system
for Governor of Ohio Yelling like a Comanshe indian [sic] for
‘personal liberty.'” He described him as “an agent of booze, the
product of bosses, the representative of predatory wealth.”16
Among Witt’s heroes were Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln, John
Peter Altgeld, the courageous governor who pardoned the Hay-
market anarchists when he was convinced of a gross miscarriage of
justice, Robert Burns, the foe of hypocrisy and the bard of the
common people, and in later years Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But the man who had the greatest influence on his career in
Cleveland, and for whom he reserved a special place in his
pantheon of heroes, was Tom L. Johnson, the monopolist and man
of fortune who was converted by a book, Henry George’s Progress
and Poverty, to become one of America’s greatest reform mayors.
Witt loved him so deeply that he was ready to break with any of
his old associates, including Newton D. Baker, when he thought
they were no longer true to his ideals.
Johnson met Witt in 1894 when he was conducting a tent meet-
ing campaign for congress and Witt was called up by the crowd to
speak. According to Johnson’s account, this “angry, earnest man,
with flashing eyes and black locks hanging down on one side of
his forehead,” arose to ask the candidate a question, and in a char-
acteristically belligerent manner. Johnson invited the heckler to
the platform. In due time Witt became one of that remarkable
coterie of “Johnson men” who left such an indelible imprint upon
the city of Cleveland. The group included, among others, Morris
Black, E. W. Bemis, Frederic C. Howe, the Rev. Harris R. Cooley,
Thomas B. Sidlo, Dr. Martin Friedrich, Fred Kohler, and Newton
D. Baker, who had come to Cleveland from West Virginia in 1899
and had become city solicitor.l7
After serving several terms in congress Johnson became mayor
of Cleveland in 1901. His desire was to make the world “a happier
place to live in and a better place to die in”–a philosophy with
which Witt wholeheartedly agreed. It may be said that Witt fought
with and for his chief both during Johnson’s lifetime and long
after the latter’s death in 1911. He hoped some day to write a
biography of the fallen leader. In 1934 he broadcast a eulogy of
his former chief from the City Club so full of sentiment that it
brought tears to the eyes of many of his hearers.
One of Johnson’s first activities as mayor of Cleveland was to
open a tax school to expose the unequal distribution of the tax
burden among small taxpayers and certain corporations and men
of large wealth. Witt was put in charge, with Baker as his legal
advisor. Though he accepted the assignment reluctantly, Witt soon
plunged eagerly into his new job and had a field day preparing
large maps of Cleveland properties, which showed the specific tax
assessment against each parcel. Thereupon he sent letters to indi-
vidual citizens to inform them that their taxes were either too high
or too low and urged them to seek adjustments from the county
board of review. Needless to say, the activities of the new tax
school were little short of sensational. It could be demonstrated
easily that over half the personal property in the city escaped tax-
ation and that gross inequalities existed in the tax appraisals and
assessments. After twenty months the school was forced to sus-
pend operations because of the large number of lawsuits filed
From 1903 to 1909 Witt was Cleveland’s city clerk. As such
he took a lively interest in practically every municipal activity. He
was especially eager to bring about better treatment for juvenile
offenders.19 He refused to use the free passes that were given him
and returned a season pass to a United Labor Carnival with the
comment that he was opposed to the “system of deadheading all
public officials to places of amusement.”20 He accompanied Johnson
on his tours as a candidate for reelection and spoke frequently at
his tent meetings. In 1907 Theodore Burton was virtually drafted
by national leaders of the Republican party to oppose Johnson. He
complied reluctantly, for he disliked his party’s affiliations with
the “traction ring.” When he was defeated, Witt wired President
Theodore Roosevelt, “Cleveland as usual went moral again. The
next time you tell Theodore to run tell him which way.”21 Johnson
himself finally went down to defeat in 1909.
Witt was such an enthusiastic Clevelander that he urged the
city to set aside a “Cleveland Day” each year to celebrate its
superiority to all other American cities. He boasted of a city
without graft in which municipal ownership was making steady
progress and where the citizens owned their electric light plant,
garbage plant, and street cleaning services. He took special pride
in the department of charities and correction under “Johnson’s
preacher,” the Rev. Mr. Cooley, who sponsored a better parole
system and a farm colony in place of a poorhouse and a work-
house, so that men might work on the soil, without guards, and
“kind acts [might] take the place of the club at the Work House.”22
He called attention to the city’s tuberculosis hospital, its play-
grounds and parks and kindergarten, its juvenile court and boys’
farm, its free band concerts, the first municipal bath house, the
new library, and the plans for developing a beautiful mall.23
During Johnson’s incumbency Witt seems to have been completely
happy as he “pounded away” on his ideals for a clean and
beautiful city. He corresponded widely with men of similar objec-
tives in other cities, and he judged people by the extent to which
they accepted Johnson’s ideals and principles. The great reform
mayor’s defeat in the election of 1909 brought tender and affection-
ate letters full of praise for his achievements and disappointment
over his defeat from all over the country. Men like Samuel M.
Jones, Brand Whitlock, and Lincoln Steffens joined with men and
women known only to their local friends in deploring Johnson’s
loss to Cleveland.24
The battle between the reform mayor and the traction com-
panies over franchises and a three-cent fare attracted nation-wide
attention. It cannot be retold here, but Witt was in the midst of it.
He fought alongside his chief to prevent renewals of the old
franchises, and in open council meeting, in the presence of the
highest officials of the street railway company, he accused them of
bribing councilmen, corrupting legislatures, seeking favors from
dishonest judges, and maintaining private detectives at the city
hall. And he called each man by name as he accused them of
Witt became one of the country’s experts on traction problems.
He vigorously defended municipal operation and control of pri-
vately owned streets railways,26 and he worked indefatigably to
improve the streetcar service. Newton Baker, elected mayor of
Cleveland in 1912, appointed Witt as traction commissioner at a
salary of $7,500 a year, and the latter filled the post with distinc-
tion for three years. He championed the demands of the car
riders, extended the streetcar lines, rerouted the cars, and improved
schedules. When he ordered “Sunday Stops” at all churches, he
was accused of angling for the church vote. He opened aristocratic
Euclid Avenue to streetcar traffic, planned for the day of motor-
buses, and introduced “Donation Day,” when riders could put con-
tributions into the fare boxes, with the understanding that the
amount in excess of the average daily receipts would be given to
the Associated Charities. He sponsored a car rider’s club, and
prominent citizens were glad to wear its badge–“M. U. F.” (Move
Up Forward.) He introduced safety education for school children,
developed new cross-town lines, and added trailers to the regular
cars. He derived substantial royalties from a center-exit streetcar
which he designed and which was widely adopted, but he refused
all royalties for the use of his invention on the streets of Cleveland.
When Witt introduced what was called his “Rag Time Schedule”
of skip-stops to provide speedier transportation, and put “spotters”
on the cars to stop dishonesty, he encountered strong opposition,
especially from employees who protested that the schedules could
not be maintained. The issue was finally submitted to arbitration.
Witt lost and the union won, but the traction commissioner kept
to his improved schedule and simply put more cars on the lines.
Witt’s policies and procedures were studied by many cities, in-
cluding Detroit and Kansas City. After his term of office expired,
he became a consultant for other cities, like Philadelphia and
Boston. Seattle paid him $7,000 for a report. In 1930, Witt
signed a five-year contract as consultant for Metropolitan Utilities,
Incorporated, a Van Sweringen company which controlled the stock
of the Cleveland Railway. There were some ugly charges that the
tribune of the people had “sold out” to the “interests” whose plans
to build a union depot in the Public Square he had fought before
the interstate commerce commission, but it is a significant tribute
to Witt’s reputation for honesty and public service that his career
could survive even this strange relationship with the men of fren-
zied finance, and that the great majority of his followers and friends
found it possible to reconcile his new duties with his earlier career.
In 1915, Witt decided to run for mayor of Cleveland. He had
campaigned for Newton Baker as long as the latter wanted to be
mayor; now it was his turn. His campaign was strenuous and
unique. He delivered “tent talks” all over the city. He refused
to buy political advertising because he had made it a rule never to
advertise in anything,27 and he would not indulge in flattering
appeals for votes to the many nationality groups in Cleveland. He
stood on his record, especially as traction commissioner, and he
made the single tax a feature of his campaign though he knew
perfectly well that the city could do little about the matter.28 He
ran as a Democrat though a large section of organized labor and
of the Democratic organization refused their support. Six candi-
dates were in the field against him. They included Harry L. Davis,
the Republican who turned out to be the winner, and the Socialist,
C. E. Ruthenberg, who advocated municipal ownership of the
street railways. Witt charged him with insincerity, refused to
debate with him, reaffirmed that he was not a socialist, and denied
that municipal ownership was an issue in the campaign.
The campaign was a furious one. Witt accused Davis of in-
triguing with a section of organized labor against him and charged
the opposition with making cheap and unfair appeals to racial and
religious prejudices. Witt fought for an extension to the municipal
light plant through a bond issue, for lower rates, for the consoli-
dation of Cleveland’s two telephone companies, and for a larger
share of the taxes collected by the state. He campaigned as a
“wet” although he voted three times during his lifetime for state
prohibition, not because he wanted to make people “good by law,”
but in order to get the liquor question out of politics. He always
defended the saloon as “the poor man’s club,” but when nation-
wide prohibition finally came, he fought the “noble experiment” as
a piece of hypocritical and unenforceable legislation. He also
dragged the preparedness campaign of President Wilson into the
mayoralty contest of 1915 because he was convinced that it would
not “keep us out of war.” He eulogized Tom Johnson and called
his leading Republican opponent a “boob.”
The opposition reciprocated by calling Witt a demagog, a
scandalmonger, a mud-slinger, and a dangerous anarchist, and by
charging that a real estate company with which he was connected
collected rents from a notorious house of prostitution. In an un-
fortunate address to the Germans of the West Side, Witt reiterated
his hatred of all war and expressed the hope that the United States
might escape involvement and that the war might end in a draw.
In an unguarded moment, and probably moved by sympathy for
his audience, he added that if any side had to win, he hoped it
might be the Germans. The opposition promptly branded Witt as
a pro-German and virtually a traitor to his country. Harry L.
Davis called him a “minion of the Kaiser” and several ministers
attacked him in their pulpits. The Republicans immediately cir-
culated a pamphlet written by a Bohemian challenging Witt’s
patriotism, and Davis exploited his opponent’s alleged pro-German-
ism to draw votes from other nationality groups. Though the inci-
dent undoubtedly lost him votes, Witt continued to draw large
crowds. Congressman Bulkley managed his campaign and Baker
made speeches endorsing his friend as “big enough” to be mayor of
Obviously the race was a contest of Witt against the field. His
supporters included men from all walks of life, businessmen, jour-
nalists, and bankers, including the president of the Cleveland Trust
Company.29 C. W. Burrows promised to vote for Witt although
the latter had once referred to him in public as the “Pink-Whis-
kered bookseller on Euclid Avenue.”30 A. V. Cannon, a prominent
attorney, supported Witt, and Walter L. Flory, of the law firm of
Thompson, Hine, and Flory, wrote in December 1914, “You are
the only man in Cleveland who deserves the place, can get the
place and can fill the place.”31 Letters poured in from single
taxers, social service organizations, and labor leaders from all over
the nation describing Witt as a worthy successor of Johnson and
Baker. An East Cleveland attorney announced that he would give
him his support because he had “never crooked the knee to power
nor … flown a doubtful flag.”32
Such letters must have pleased the candidate, but probably not
as much as those that came from the humbler folk who wrote to
cheer him on and to enclose their modest contribution toward his
campaign expenses. Letters of this kind came from workingmen
everywhere, and some were from men to whom Peter Witt had made
small loans in their time of need.33 “Dear Sir and Fellow Molder,”
wrote one correspondent, “this is from a Molder who is working his
head off in your Behalf.”34 Another supported him because he
was not “with the Kidd Glove and Silk Stocking Crowd,” but a
“Man with Vim and Vigor,” who would “stand By the Working
Class of People give them Work in the Winter and not Lay the
Poor Fellows off.”35 Still another wrote in an untutored scrawl,
“ill com Down & Shak Hands Win or Loos now Petter Pich in
And give them h–l and they will think Better off you i Wish i
Was a good Writer i Could give you Lots off Pointers i Dont even
know you i saw you a Few times talking taxes and that is what
makes me think you are all right.”36 Tom Johnson’s former Negro
butler offered to come from Buffalo, where he was the secretary
of “the finest Club House of color in America,” to help Witt in the
campaign,37 and a streetcar conductor took a poll of his riders
and reported that they “said you was O.K.”38
Several friends from higher social strata wrote “Friend Pete”
to urge him to tone down his violent speeches. “Beget yourself a
calmness,” wrote one, “speak the words trippingly on the tongue,
do not mouth them or saw the air as some actors do,”39 and shortly
after the election, another advised the defeated candidate that
“dignity and refinement are pleasing alike to both the cultured and
uncultured, and will always win favor wherever exercised.” The
writer hoped that in the future, Witt would avoid the “application
of uncomplimentary and undignified names” to those with whom he
engaged in intellectual combat.40
Witt was extremely optimistic and confident of the outcome
of his mayoralty campaign. As a progressive he had favored the
adoption of a new type of ballot which permitted the voter to
register first, second, and third choices. Harry L. Davis did not
hesitate to ask those who could not give him their first choice to
give him their second. Witt on the other hand told the voters he
wanted the support of no one who did not favor him above all
other candidates. When the votes were counted, Witt had received
44,940 votes in all three choices, and Davis 47,471, though Witt led
Davis in first choices 39,869 to 36,841.
The defeated candidate accepted the outcome philosophically,
although he must have been deeply disappointed. Many of his
supporters in all walks of life wrote in to say “you aren’t licked,”
“they done the same thing to Tom L. Johnson.”41 An insurance
agent wrote from Minneapolis, “Cleveland can be depended upon
to make a monkey of itself every so often.”42
Witt was sure he had fought a good fight and advanced the
cause. He believed he was “the victim of a new fangled idea of
voting,” the preferential ballot which he himself had advocated.
“I was beaten by a progressive idea, the preferential ballot law,”
he wrote to H. C. DeRan. “Being of our own creation, I must not
criticise very much.”43 To a single-taxer in Buffalo he confided his
intention to settle down to making a “wad,” and added, “Then will
be the time to dabble in politics, not the office-holding end of it,
but the agitating part of it.” He hoped to live to see the day when
the philosophy of Henry George would be enacted into law.44
The campaign for mayor of Cleveland in 1915 proved to be
Witt’s major political venture. In 1923 he was elected to the city
council, but he resigned in 1927 because it was too full of “yes
men.” In 1928 he offered himself to the Democrats of Ohio as a
candidate for governor but lost the nomination to Martin L. Davey.
In the course of his campaign he supported Al Smith for president
and lauded his courage in denouncing the hypocrisy of prohibition
although he himself believed “this country would be better off
without the use of alcohol . . . and some day it will be.” He dis-
posed of the Republican party as a “high-toned Ku Klux Klan”
and represented his campaign as a new phase of the old struggle
of the weak against the strong, the Jeffersonians against the Ham-
iltonians. He made short shrift in his speeches of the “oratorical
twaddle” and “political bunk” of the opposition. Among his
specific demands were an automobile license tax of one dollar, a
limit on the gasoline tax, and the exemption of private automobiles
from the personal property tax. Though he lost in the state, he
carried Cuyahoga County by an amazing majority. In 1931 he ran
once more for mayor of Cleveland and lost to Ray T. Miller.
Though out of public office Witt continued at the “agitating
part” of politics for which he had special talents. He worked for the
city manager plan and then fought W. R. Hopkins, the first man-
ager, and the majority of the council because he thought they took
the wrong attitude toward the railroads and the proposed terminal
on the Public Square. He advocated equal rights for women45 and
he attacked the Ku Klux Klan and a Bible reading bill introduced
in the Ohio legislature. In 1924 he was chairman of the LaFollette
campaign for Ohio, and the LaFollette-Wheeler ticket carried
In 1925 Witt initiated his famous “town meetings” and charged
admission for the privilege of hearing him “skin the skunks” in
public. Thousands reveled in his bitterly personal attacks on the
Van Sweringens, the New York Central, the Union Trust, political
bosses of both parties like Maurice Maschke and W. B. Gongwer,
and others whom he regarded as malefactors and conspirators
against the welfare of the common people and the city he loved.
He was no respecter of persons. The town meeting which he held
in the Public Auditorium in 1935 attracted an audience of 5,000,
and Witt spoke on John 8:32, “And ye shall know the truth, and
the truth shall make you free”; Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee
when no man pursueth; but the righteous are bold as a lion”; and
Luke 12:2, “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed;
neither hid, that shall not be known.”
Witt’s address on “Abraham Lincoln, the Man of Sorrow,” was
first delivered at the City Club and over station WHK on February
12, 1932. Thereafter it was repeated annually, and in 1938 it was
published as a pamphlet by the Standard Oil Company of Ohio.
In short sentences choked with sentiment, Witt retold the main
facts in Lincoln’s life. It was a piece of hero worship, not critical
scholarship, but its simplicity made it an appealing human docu-
ment. The author sent copies all over the land and received scores
of commendatory letters–from the Roosevelt family, Josephus
Daniels, Sidney Hillman, Wendell Willkie, Norman Thomas, James
M. Cox, Marshall Field, Governor Earl Warren of California, Helen
Gahagan, and many others–and he kept them all in his letter files.
Needless to add, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal also
elicited his wholehearted support. On September 13, 1945, in a
radio speech, Witt reviewed the history of the four major panics
which had occurred during his lifetime. As far as the depression
of 1893 was concerned, he insisted that the “saloon keepers fed more
hungry men than all the other agencies combined,” with free
lunches and five-cent beers. Not until Roosevelt’s time, he believed,
had any national leader really grasped the necessity for guarantee-
ing all men a living annual wage and a steady job. Witt was not
disturbed by the New Deal or legislation for a “welfare state,” and
he made a special plea for white-collar workers, the forgotten men
of the New Deal, and urged them to organize for collective bar-
Witt’s last great battle was his unsuccessful effort to prevent
the Van Sweringens from building their railroad terminal on the
Public Square. Witt clung tenaciously to Johnson’s plan to have a
union depot on the lake front. The controversy is too long and
involved to detail here. Witt fought the issue single-handed before
the interstate commerce commission, appearing with a “fat brief
case” stuffed with old newspapers, because he noticed that all the
lawyers carried them. When he encountered Newton Baker in
Washington as a witness for the Van Sweringens and later as
counsel for the New York Central, he was through with the “colonel”
forever. Witt was convinced that he lost the battle because he was
unfairly deprived of an opportunity to argue the case a second
time before the commission. He remained opposed to the Terminal
project and lived long enough to see the Van Sweringen empire,
built largely with other people’s money, crash in ruins. He also
opposed building the lake front stadium and was sure it would turn
out to be a white elephant and a burden on the taxpayer.
These are some of the highlights in the career of a tempestuous
Clevelander whose reputation as a crusader spread far beyond the
borders of his native city, and whose activities are part of the great
reform era of recent times.
According to his own testimony, he attributed much of what-
ever success he had to the influence of his parents; to Dr. Tucker-
man, the Ashtabula physician who became “his preceptor in poli-
tics” when Witt was but eighteen years old; to Debs, “the man who
refused to go crazy when the nation went mad”; to Tom L. Johnson;
and to his wife, Sarah James, whom he married in 1892 and to
whom he was deeply devoted.
Witt’s most severe critics recognized that under his sour and
irascible exterior and his biting invective there were qualities of
honesty, fidelity, and generosity that made him the loyal, senti-
mental friend of many people. He had genuine oratorical gifts,
though he sometimes attacked unreasonably and without full in-
formation about the facts, and he had a tongue that he always found
it hard to curb. He never attacked with a rapier. A meat cleaver
was his favorite tool, as he himself readily admitted to his friends.
But he never lacked courage, and he regarded himself as the keeper
of Cleveland’s conscience. As he grew older he earned enough
money to live comfortably and to provide for his children the ed-
ucational opportunities he had been forced to forego. But he never
lost the common touch. His ferocity in battle grew less with ad-
vancing age, but he always loved a brisk encounter and got consid-
erable joy and satisfaction from his crusading activities.46
Debs described his friend as “clean, brave and wholesome.”47
A friend in Bermuda wrote, “Tom [Johnson] gave Cleveland char-
acter and warmth, and in addition to those qualities, you have
given it color.”48 “Peter Witt can only be bought through love and
justice,” was the final judgment of Tom L. Johnson.49 Whatever
the ultimate appraisal of his biographer may be, Peter Witt lived
his own life in his own way wholly unmindful of what others might
think or say, and like Debs he believed that he who loves the com-
mon man must rise with the ranks, not from the ranks.
1 This account is based primarily on two boxes of letters and notes of interviews
with Witt by Louis Post made available to me by the Witt family. Mr. Post at one
time contemplated writing a biography of Peter Witt.
2 See Carl Wittke, “The German Forty-Eighters in America: A Centennial Ap-
praisal,” American Historical Review, LIII (July 1949), 711-725.
3 W. B. Colver to Witt, December 8, 1914. “I remember when you were a
blacklisted union molder.”
4 Witt to Ignatius F. Horstmann, bishop of Cleveland, May 10, 1907. This
letter was written to commend the bishop for an address favorable to labor.
5 Witt to Harry N. Rickey, editor of the Cleveland Press, April 16, 1904.
6 Leaflet by Peter Witt, Think It Over, Cleveland, October 5, 1934, reprinted
with additions, December 21, 1944.
7 Witt to Cleveland Leader, October 4, 1906.
8 Witt to Louis F. Post, July 10, 1908.
9 See Debs to Witt, November 4, 1895, February 1, 1922, January 13, 1923.
10 Witt to “G. H. G.,” December 21, 1905.
11 Witt to Foraker, December 31, 1906.
12 Witt to Herrick, April 27, 1904.
13 Speech at Church Forum, 1921, on “The Union Depot on the Public Square
and Other Grafts.”
14 Witt to Harmon, June 8, 1908, January 11, 1913.
15 Witt to Harmon, January 11, 1913.
16 See also Witt to Simon Hickler, editor of the Cleveland Wachter und Anzeiger,
May 12, 14, 1908.
17 See My Story: By Tom L. Johnson, edited by Elizabeth J. Hauser (New York,
1911) 84; and Carl Lorenz, Tom L. Johnson, Mayor of Cleveland (New York, 1911).
18 My Story: Johnson, 125-126.
19 Witt to William A. Greenlund, chief probation officer of the Cleveland Juve-
nile Court, September 1, 1903.
20 Witt to S. S. Stillwell, June 23, 1903.
21 My Story: Johnson, 267, 275.
22 Witt to William Allen White, August 24, 1908.
23 Witt to G. H. G., December 21, 1905.
24 See also earlier tributes to Johnson in Whitlock to Johnson, October 25, 1908;
Steffens to Johnson, October 23, 1908.
25 My Story: Johnson, 258-259.
26 Witt to Judson Grenell, December 24, 1908, May 6, 1909.
27 Witt to Charles Burger, January 21, 1915.
28 Witt to William A. Spill, May 12, 1915.
29 See F. H. Goff to Witt, November 2, 3, 1915.
30 Burrows to Witt, October 30, 1915.
31 Flory to Witt, December 7, 1914.
32 Sylvester V. McMahon to Witt, October 26, 1915.
33 See, e.g., Denny O’Neill to Witt, Quebec, September 30, 1915.
34 John W. Smith to Witt, October 26, 1915.
35 Julius Bergholz to Witt, December 10, 1914.
36 F. B. Beemer to Witt, February 4, 1915.
37 Daniel Young to Witt, October 24, 1915.
38 H. C. Miller to Witt, October 18, 1915.
39 Z. J. Foyer to Witt, October 12, 1915.
40 Lucien Seymour to Witt, November 3, 1915.
41 Denny O’Neill to Witt, November 6, 1915.
42 S. A. Stockwell to Witt, November 12, 1915.
43 Witt to DeRan, November 9, 1915.
44 Witt to John McF. Howie, November 9, 1915; also Patrick C. Lavey to Witt,
November 5, 1915.
45 See Baker to Witt, January 30, 1917.
46 See Clarence Darrow to Witt, July 17, 1928.
47 Debs to Witt, February 15, 1910.
48 Letter of February 12, 1938.
49 Elizabeth Johnson Mariat to Witt, no date, 1934.