I, Fred Kohler: 40 Years of Cleveland Politics by Nathaniel Howard, Cleveland Plain Dealer Series 1934

Multiple part series that ran in Plain Dealer February 2 through March 14, 1934

Each part is a pdf file, approximately 8mg in size (so be patient)

i-kohler-1-5 (part 1)

i-kohler-6-10 (part 2)

i-kohler-11-15 (part 3)

i-kohler-16-20 (part 4)

i-kohler-21-25 (part 5)

i-kohler-26-30 (part 6)

i-kohler-31-35 (part 7)

i-kohler-36-40 (part 8)

i-kohler-41-43 (part 9)

Fred Kohler aggregation

1 Fred Kohler by Philip W. Porter
2 I, Fred Kohler…by George E. Condon
3 Fred Kohler, controversial Cleveland mayor: Life Stories Revisited
4 Colorful Kohler Checkered Past Doesn’t Stop Oddball From Getting Elected
5 A Golden Rule Chief of Police by Frederik C. Howe
6 Fred Kohler Speech on “A Golden Rule” to International Association of Chiefs of Police in Detroit MI 6/3/1908
7 I, Fred Kohler: 40 Years of Cleveland Politics by Nathaniel Howard, Cleveland Plain Dealer Series 1934
8 Fred Kohler Speech 1913
9 Fred Kohler from Wikipedia
10 Fred Kohler and his “Golden Rule” Policy

Fred Kohler by Philip W. Porter


from Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw

by Philip W. Porter
retired executive editor of the Plain Dealer

courtesy of Cleveland State University, Special Collections

But there was still to be a mayor in 1923-24, and the mayor was Fred Kohler. Nothing like his mayoralty had been seen before, or since.

Kohler was one of the most colorful men ever to hold high office here. He began as a beat policeman and rose swiftly to chief under Mayor Tom Johnson. Blond, handsome, tall, he was physically attractive to women, and his affair with one of them, who happened to be married to someone else, stymied his career; he was fired as chief. He brazened it out, and every day afterward for months showed up in the Hollenden Hotel lobby to visit with friends. Men stuck by him, as well as women, and it was obvious that he would return to the public eye at some more favorable time. This he did, in 1918, when he ran for county commissioner without Republican party backing and defeated a Democratic incumbent. Then, as a minority member of a board of three, he continuously landed on page one by heckling the majority.

He ran for mayor in 1921 without making a speech, simply by punching doorbells, asking for support. Meanwhile, Mayor FitzGerald’s campaign was a disaster. Republican Boss Maschke had to support him, though he feared the worst, for Fitz would often end an evening of speech-making practically in the bag. A private poll showed that Kohler would beat FitzGerald, and the shrewd Maschke bet a bundle on Kohler and cleaned up handsomely.

Kohler had the perfect formula for getting favorable attention from the newspapers. He ignored editorials and did exactly as he pleased. He seldom answered reporters’ questions, and was often absent from city hall, but he knew his image as the rugged independent and the “cop-who-had-been-unfairly-dealt-with” was intact. He exuded an air of mystery, which increased his news value. He had an uncanny sense of good timing, and he knew the voters wanted a change, so he gave it to them, spectacularly. At once, he fired 850 of the political loafers and announced the city was going to live within its income, after two years of $1,000,000 deficits. He appointed a law director, Paul Lamb, and a finance director, Gerhard A. Gesell, who were respected by the newspapers.

Then he ordered every fireplug in the city painted orange, had park benches painted orange and black, and repainted all city property that needed touching up (except the city hall itself) in the same garish colors, orange and black, which were visible night and day. Kohler said he wanted everyone to know which buildings belonged to the taxpayers.

That wasn’t all. Kohler erected gaudy signboards (also in orange and black) proclaiming that he was keeping the city within its income, and others reading, “I Alone Am Your Mayor.”

He was mayor, all right, from the first day, when he road a horse at the head of a police parade down Euclid Avenue — something he had promised to do some day, after he had been fired. The man he appointed as police chief, inspector Jacob Graul, was an ascetic who neither smoked, drank nor swore, and could have been mistaken for a Sunday School superintendent. Graul stayed on after Kohler left office; his reputation for uprightness was incomparable.

Kohler made good his promise to live within the city’s income, by a simple method. He refused to spend any money having streets paved or park repair done, leaving all this the incoming administration. He claimed a surplus $1,000,000 existed when his term expired and the city manager plan came in.

Kohler did not remain in private life long. Next year, was elected sheriff and soon got rich legally, at public expense, by spending less than half what the law allowed him daily to feed prisoners. A great uproar in the newspapers caused the common pleas judges to devise a menu that would require him to spend all the forty-five cents a day he was allowed. In 1926, he was defeated by a Democrat, Ed Hanratty, now that his public image had been altered to that of a profiteer. He dropped out of public life, traveled extensively, and died in 1934. Then $250,000 in cash was found in his safety deposit box.



Colorful Kohler Checkered Past Doesn’t Stop Oddball From Getting Elected

Sunday July 5, 1998 Plain Dealer article about Fred Kohler


Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, July 5, 1998
Author: Fred McGunagle
Good or bad, right or wrong, I alone have been your mayor. 


Fred Kohler was Cleveland’s most colorful mayor – and the colors were orange and black. They showed up on park benches, waste baskets, city buildings, hydrants and especially signs like the one above. 

But even without paint, nobody was as colorful as Kohler. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt called him “the best police chief in the United States.” He was fired in disgrace for “gross immorality” in 1913, and defeated by voters in 1913, 1914, 1915 and 1916. 

Then, in 1921, he was elected mayor in what The Plain Dealer called “the most bizarre and dramatic mayoralty fight Cleveland has ever witnessed” – one in which he was opposed by Democrats, Republicans, newspapers, ministers and civic organizations. And one in which he had no organization, no campaign funds and made no speeches and no promises. 

Fred Kohler dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work in his father’s business. In 1889, at the age of 25, he achieved his boyhood dream of becoming a police officer. He rose quickly through the ranks and in 1903 was named chief by Democratic Mayor Tom L. Johnson, even though Kohler himself was a Republican. 

He built a national reputation as a spit-and-polish chief who wielded an ax on vice raids while adopting a “golden rule” policy in which first-time minor offenders were released with a warning. He put houses of prostitution out of business by stationing an officer at the door to take the names and addresses of their customers. 

In 1910, Mayor Herman Baehr tried to fire Kohler on 25 charges of drunkenness, immorality and conduct unbecoming a police officer, but the Civil Service Commission exonerated him. He was not as fortunate in 1913, after a citizen returned home to find the police chief in bed with his wife. There was a messy divorce and ministers demanded Kohler’s dismissal. 

This time, the Civil Service Commission fired him. “All right, boys,” Kohler told reporters. “I’ll be leading the Police Department down Euclid Ave. again someday.” 

He promptly ran for councilman in his home ward. To everyone’s surprise, he finished first in first-place votes but lost when second- and third-place votes were counted. 

Undaunted, he ran for sheriff the next year and lost. Then he ran for clerk of Municipal Court and lost. Then he ran for county commissioner and won the Republican nomination but lost the general election. In 1918, however, he was elected county commissioner – the only Republican to win that year – and in 1920, led all vote-getters in winning a second term. 

That made Kohler a contender for mayor. Still, nobody gave him a chance in the seven-candidate field, especially since he shunned all public appearances. Instead, he trod the streets for months, ringing doorbells and telling citizens, “Hello, I’m Kohler. I’m running for mayor. If you vote for me, I’ll appreciate it. If you don’t, I’ll never know and we can still be good friends just the same.” 

Kohler amazed the experts by finishing first, 2,500 votes ahead of Mayor William Fitzgerald. He amazed them again by naming a highly qualified Cabinet without even asking his appointees whether they had voted for him. His first order to them: Prepare a list of unnecessary city workers. 

Before the month was out, he had fired 400 employees, cut the pay of the rest by 10 percent, forced them to punch time clocks and notified city unions that existing labor agreements would not be renewed. When the unions threatened a general strike, Kohler said the city would close down if it had to. Critics tried to recall him, but failed to collect the 15,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. 

Anticipating Dennis Kucinich by 65 years, he called a council investigation “a bunch of pinheads seeking cheap publicity.” At the dedication of Public Hall, he denounced “uplifters” (the do-gooders of that era) who got in the way of “practical roughnecks” like himself. Three of his directors resigned after run-ins. 

He rejected plans to buy new guns for police, telling them instead to keep the old ones clean. He put signs in city elevators: “Please keep your hats on so that you may have better service.” 

But he also stepped up paving, cut streetcar fares, put up street signs, made police shine their shoes, bought an elephant for the zoo, ordered cleanups of city property and told employees they would not be forced to contribute to the Community Fund. And he kept citizens informed of his accomplishments with orange-and-black signs such as, “Tax and Rent Payers have received a dollar’s worth of value for every dollar spent – FRED KOHLER , MAYOR.” 

At the end of his term, Kohler declared he had saved taxpayers $1.8 million. Nobody knows whether he would have been re-elected – the city manager plan took effect at the beginning of 1924 – but he won two terms as county sheriff after leaving City Hall. The second ended in turmoil when he was reprimanded for skimping on prisoners’ food and using the money thus saved for other purposes instead of returning it to the county. 

Years later, he reflected on his career: “Yes, sir, I wouldn’t mind going all over it again, because I know I was right. And if I did, I’d tell all the old crowd to go to hell – newspapers, council, uplifters, tipoff guys, political hangers-on, bookbugs, ingrates – the whole crowd. I’d paint everything orange again. 

“I know I’ve been accused of being high-handed, but I was elected mayor, not anybody else. It was my picnic or my funeral.”

Teaching Cleveland Digital