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.
The first few years of the 1930s were the worst in half a century for Cleveland. Everything that could go wrong did. The depression, which was spreading nationally, hit the community harder than most cities; the zip, the desire to succeed, went out of business. The euphoria of the 1920s turned into sagging spirits as banks closed, thousands lost jobs or had wages cut through no fault of their own. The bottom dropped out, and there seemed to be no bottom to the bottom.
Holding companies, based on promises of riches rather than assets, proved to be worth nothing. Farmers were stuck with land, mortgaged to the hilt, which no one wanted to buy. Blowhards and status-seekers who a few years ago thought of themselves as millionaires, were in the hands of receivers. Indictments for crooked manipulation of banks, mortgage companies, and savings and loan companies were numerous, as prosecutors sought goats to appease thousands of small depositors whose savings were gone or frozen. Banker became a dirty word.
The familiar Cleveland syndrome, political volatility, was present in the nth degree, as the city hall changed hands every two years, and new political mahatmas came in with panaceas that didn’t work any better than their predecessors’ had. The corruption, which had started to ruin police departments during prohibition, got worse; protected gambling joints and bookie shops invited poor people to wager their last few bucks. Threadbare citizens daily trooped into newspaper offices, without a dime to buy a sandwich, looking for handouts. The welfare offices were swamped, and unable to furnish emergency relief.
It is almost impossible for younger people today, who didn’t live through this dismal era, to imagine how rough it was, with 25 percent unemployment, soup kitchens, apple sellers on street corners, blue chip stocks selling under $5 a share, and little sign of eventual improvement. It had to be endured to be believed.
The first to suffer bitter disappointment were the followers of Peter Witt. When the manager plan was voted out in November 1931, and a special election for mayor set for January 1932, it seemed to most political seers that Witt would win it. He had twice won election to council easily. He had led the LaFollette rebels to victory in the city in 1924. He drew big crowds every fall to his town meeting, where he caustically ripped politicians of both parties to shreds. Of his big targets, Hopkins was gone and the Van Sweringens in trouble. He was a rabble-rouser par excellence, but there was nothing phony about him, and the newspapers would not shudder at the possibility of Witt as mayor, as they had at Harry L. Davis.
The political wise guys and the press underestimated the political power of the Catholic church. Witt had not been anti-Catholic, but he made no bones about being an agnostic who never attended any church. One of the three candidates for mayor was a practicing Catholic, high in the Knights of Columbus — Ray Miller, the county prosecutor, who had sent crooked councilmen to jail in 1929, and won reelection in 1930. He was the candidate of Burr Gongwer and the Democratic regulars. Dan Morgan, recently city manager, was running as a Republican.
The guessers almost unanimously figured Witt would run first in this field of three, then easily win the runoff. But on the Sunday before election, priests in every Catholic parish warned against the possibility of an admitted agnostic becoming mayor, and went as far as they dared for Miller without actually saying “Vote for our boy.” It had a devastating effect. Witt’s big following, normally Democratic, dropped away, and he finished a poor third. His voters went to Miller in the runoff, and Miller became mayor in February 1932. It was Witt’s last hurrah.
Witt was always convinced of the rightness of his principles and willing to take the consequences of stirring up the animals. He was unquestionably a leader, a man of integrity, who never forgot his humble beginnings as an uneducated molder, and who devoted his life to causes he was sure would benefit his fellowman. Though he was a ferocious skinner of skunks in public, in private he was a big-hearted sentimentalist, a lovable lamb among his family and close friends.
His father, a German Catholic, emigrated to America in 1849 with many others who disagreed with the status quo there. Peter was tenth of eleven children. He went to school only through the fifth grade, started to work at thirteen and at seventeen became a molder. Naturally he joined a union and the Knights of Labor. As years went on, he experienced unemployment, hunger, insecurity, blacklisting, and the familiar hopelessness of the blue-collar workman of that day.
Witt had a natural gift for public speaking, and made up for his lack of formal education by intensive reading. He was involved in the Populist movement, and then as a Democrat campaigned for William Jennings Bryan. His most intense involvement was with the single-taxers, to whose tenets he had been introduced by Dr. Louis B. Tuckerman of Ashtabula (whose twin, bearded sons, also doctors, in later years became devoted disciples of Witt). The fact that Tom L. Johnson also was a converted single-taxer bound him to Johnson when the two finally met.
Witt had been speaking on street corners and wherever else he could find an audience. He had become noted as a heckler, and he tackled Johnson when Tom L. first ran for mayor in 1901. Johnson invited him to the platform to debate, and before Pete knew it, he had become one of Johnson’s most ardent admirers.
Pete never did anything by halves. In politics and economics, everything was either black or white to him. He was belligerent on the stump — Johnson described him as “an angry, earnest man, with flashing eyes and black locks hanging down one side of his forehead.” He was sarcastic and fluent, and pulled no punches. Small wonder that he became Johnson’s most effective hatchet man. There is not the slightest doubt that Witt fancied himself as the Saint Paul of the post-Johnson era. He felt it his duty to carry on the evangelism of the Johnson tradition and to help spread the golden years, the “city on a hill” that Johnson began. Johnson’s mayoralty was the happiest time of Pete’s life, for the mayor’s odd combination of idealism and practical politics did actually transform the city for a while. Johnson, a millionaire traction magnate and manufacturer who decided belatedly to devote his great talents to government, turned the city upside down from what it had been in the nineties. He established municipal control of the street railway, built a city-owned light plant and sewage disposal plant, created a workhouse farm with accent on parole rather than punishment, established a TB hospital, municipal bathhouses, and dreamed up the Mall plan.
Johnson’s impact on Cleveland is still alive today, though he and his principal disciples are long dead. His spirit of independence, of a government run for the taxpayer rather than campaign contributors, still persists, and is one of the main reasons why Cleveland remains such a maverick community in politics.
Witt became city clerk in 1903 and stayed there until 1909, when Johnson was defeated. In 1912, when the Democrats came back under Baker, Witt was appointed traction commissioner, a key job then, for everyone had to use public transportation. The commissioner had the power to order operating improvements. Witt rerouted and extended the lines, developed crosstown lines, added trailers. He even patented a center-exit car, which was widely adopted elsewhere, and on which he collected royalties (but he refused to accept them from Cleveland). He developed a system of skip-stops and Sunday-only stops and always took the side of the riders. After he was defeated for mayor in 1915, he was hired as consultant by Philadelphia, Boston, and Seattle for good-sized fees, and his recommendations were adopted by Detroit and Kansas City.
It was a natural progression for Witt to run for mayor after two terms of Baker. His congenital frankness did him in. He refused to buy political advertising or kowtow to special groups. Just before election he told west- side Germans that he hated all war, hoped the United States would stay out of World War I and it would end in a draw; but if either side had to win, he hoped it would be the Germans. This was disastrous. The Republicans pounced on this and denounced Witt as a pro-German. Even at that, he probably would have won, had he not been trapped by a preferential ballot (which he himself had advocated) on which voters could express second and third choices. Witt led on first choices, thirty-nine thousand to thirty-six thousand, but since he had no clear majority, other choices were added in, and Harry L. Davis finally won, forty-seven thousand to forty-four thousand Witt had said he wanted first choices or none at all. This was a blunder.
He couldn’t resist getting back into politics when the Van Sweringens proposed their Terminal project. In his stiff but losing fight before the ICC, acting as his own lawyer, he appeared with a bulging briefcase that, he confessed in amusement later, was stuffed only with newspapers. (He said he did it because all lawyers carried big briefcases.)
Witt was a tremendous crowd pleaser and like most orators, loved to ham it up. Political meetings are usually stylized, dull, predictable affairs, but Witt turned his into a civic circus. In 1925 he started holding annual town meetings in Public Hall, to which he charged $1 a head admission, to pay for the hall rent, and always packed the house. In 1935, his meeting drew five thousand people. He was always the sole entertainer at these rodeos, and what a job he did: on the bosses, the railroads, the banks, the Van Sweringens, Hopkins, the newspapers. As he warmed up, he would peel off his coat and throw it in a corner. His words were so often the truth that few wanted to miss the show.
Pete seldom talked less than two hours at these skinnings, and each year, as his list of SOBs grew and grew, the speech got longer and longer. He had a few regular targets, at whom he aimed special blasts. One was Myron T. Herrick, a Cleveland blueblood who had been a banker, governor, and ambassador to France. Pete always referred to Herrick as the “international ass.” His fellow councilmen, Herman Finkle, Jimmy McGinty, Bill Potter, Liston Schooley, et al., were familiar targets, and what a kick Pete got out of it when Schooley and Potter were indicted for graft! Naturally, Maschke, Gongwer, Hopkins, and Baker came in for acid comment. Also all prohibitionists and professional drys.
The newspapers, all of them, got it in the neck at Pete’s meetings. Though a lifelong foe of hypocrisy, Pete could not resist the temptation to ham it up at least once in every meeting after making some telling point. Before the applause and laughter had died down, he’d shake his finger in the faces of reporters in the front row, shouting, “Take that back to your editors!” It was annoying and unnecessary, for Pete knew perfectly well that all of them were his friends and admirers and took special pains to quote him accurately.
The presence of a crowd acted as a shot of adrenaline to Pete. He simply could not resist an auditorium full of listeners. He was no delicate ironist; he hit with a meat cleaver. At home, or at his simple cottage on North Bass Island, Pete was as amiable as an old St. Bernard dog. He was completely under the influence of his wife, Sally, a kindly homebody, motherly, sweet and patient, who understood his moods thoroughly. He would do anything for Sally — except stop his town meetings. She didn’t go to them; it was against her nature to get angry. At home, he rarely got into a lather about his pet hates. But if he did, a warning word from Sally, “Now, Dad!” would stop him, and he’d again become the domestic lamb.
Pete’s personal appearance was almost a trademark. He always wore a dark suit, no vest, and a black bow tie. His black hair never really turned gray; only a few strands had turned before he died at seventy-nine. He was tall, thin, and spare. He ate no lunch and very little breakfast, and probably weighed the same at seventy as he had at twenty. Yet he took no special exercise. His recreation was talking. And he was well equipped for that, with a deep, resonant baritone that never seemed to tire.
Pete took his defeat in 1932 philosophically. Things began looking up for him in November when F.D.R. was elected president. The New Deal was right down his alley, and he was delighted when the welfare state became law. From that time on, his only public activity consisted of delivering tributes to Abraham Lincoln each year on Lincoln’s birthday. For a brief period, he was even able to set aside his ancient animosity against the Van Sweringens by becoming a consultant to the Cleveland Railway Company, which the Vans controlled before their final collapse. (He was persuaded to do this by George D. McGwinn, one of the City Club’s “Soviet Table” aficionados, who had become president of the traction company.)
Witt was far ahead of his time when he advocated so many of the welfare-state measures during the LaFollette campaign in 1924; hence it gave him extra pleasure to see them enacted ten years later under Roosevelt.
The late Dr. Carl Wittke, the distinguished historian who wrote an admirable monograph on Witt in October 1949 (published by the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society) called him the “tribune of the people.” I’d go further. Witt had a more profound and dynamic effect on the political life of Cleveland than any man of his generation. He was the Dutch uncle of the most politically volatile, independent big city in the country. He represented the angry taxpayer, the independent voter, the frustrated citizen, the confused little guy who wanted less bunk, more service, and an honest answer from public officials.
Pete was an uncompromising solo operator, and perhaps it was just as well for him that he did not assume the responsibility of being mayor, for at some time he would have had to compromise. He went on, year after year, like a mahatma, almost out of the world at times, as if he saw a light at the end of the tunnel that ordinary men could not see. In biblical days, Pete, with his golden voice, his flair for salty phrases and expressive labels and his single-minded determination, would have been a major prophet. Although he refused to go to church, he was an honest-to-God Christian, who practiced the doctrine of loving his neighbor and forgiving his enemy.
Pete and Sally had three daughters, who carried on their father’s liberal traditions and independence. The oldest, Hazel, who never married, was a social worker for years, then became the first head of the Policewomen’s Bureau, where she was known for her spunk and independence. The second daughter, Norma, married Herbert C. Jackson, who became a tax expert for Pickands-Mather, the ancient iron ore and shipping firm, and rose steadily to become senior partner. He and Norma established a scholarship in honor of Witt at Western Reserve University. The third daughter, Helen, married Stuart Cummins, who was born on North Bass Island.
Pete and Sally celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1942. When he died in 1948, he insisted on no formal funeral service, and the only words spoken were a eulogy by his old friend and lawyer, Edgar S. Byers.
Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw
by Philip W. Porter
retired executive editor of the Plain Dealer
courtesy of CSU Special Collections
Mr. Peter Witt Chicago City Club 1907
“My talk is of the administration of Mayor Johnson in Cleveland. That he was born in Kentucky amid luxurious surroundings, that before childhood’s happy days were over he had felt the pangs and privations of poverty, and that before he had reached his majority he had amassed a princely fortune, I hope is something you are not much concerned about. It is not what a man has done, nor what he intends to do, but rather what he is doing, that most counts — especially when his doing deals with a city finding itself.
For the great problems now occupying the people of this country must be solved in the places that we call cities. It is in them that we find the greatest luxury and the bitterest poverty. In them the problems must be solved. It was ‘the United States of America’ ; it is now ‘the United Cities of the World.’ One city above all in the United States is finding itself, and that city I am proud to say is my home.
“Men have long spoken about cities as a stench in the nostrils of decent people on account of the mismanagement of their political affairs.
“I am here merely to give you a recital of the facts that have been worked out and the experiences gone through in Cleveland during the past twelve or fifteen years. When I say I am proud of my city, I am not proud of the few sky-scrapers we have ; I am not proud of the clean streets, of the magnificent sewers, of the beautiful parks.
But I am proud of the men and the women living there., who have made my city a light that the other cities are now looking at, the men and women who are prompted by high ideals and moral impulses, and are carrying their religion into politics. That is all that our politics is, it is religion. I want to say that nowhere in the United States can you find a people living in a community who are as far economically advanced as the people in Cleveland.
We discussed politically twenty-five years ago the questions that now are merely being discussed academically in most communities. We have reared a citizenship that looks upon the city as a different thing from that which most people take their city to be. Our city to us is a large house, and we, the administrators, are merely the municipal housekeepers.
“During the last seven years Cleveland has attracted more attention than usual, but the only difference between now and formerly is that we now have with us a leader who has crystalized the hopes and the sentiments of a struggling people.
“Many years ago the thing that startled the people in Cleveland, as a similar situation has startled people elsewhere, was the influence of the special privilege crowd in corrupting our government. That moved the people to protest emphatically. And while the agitators were sneered at who stood upon soap-boxes and protested, and while we were unable to prevent the corruption of the public officials from the mayor and the judges down to the councilmen, we always were strong enough to prevent the consummation of the desires of the crowd guilty of the corruption.
In some communities the measures we used would, of course, be abhorred, but the thing that kept our city clean, the thing that kept us in possession of our own streets after the privileged crowd had corrupted our government from mayor and judges to councilmen, was the people who would rather string corrupt councilmen to the lamp-post than see the Republican institutions of the city overturned by the mad seekers after privilege and pelf.
I know that is radical, but can you conceive of a crime greater than the crime of corrupting a public official? The inducement to corrupt public officials of course is always here so long as there are gold mines in the streets to be worked by corporations. So long as that condition exists you must expect bad municipal government unless the people themselves are up and doing, and we always were up and doing. While, as I say, we were unable to prevent the corruption of the public ofificials, we were able to prevent the consummation of their schemes.
“About seven years ago, at a Jackson Day banquet in Cleveland, Tom Johnson, then forty-six years of age, said that he was through making dollars, that he had all the money he could use, and, strange to say for a millionaire, more than he wanted. He said that henceforth, instead of working to make dollars, he was going to try to make conditions that would help toward the making of men and the making of women.
Within three months, by the very peculiar operation of political machines and factions, he became Democratic candidate for mayor. He was supported by over six thousand Republicans who believed in him as a man capable of running the administrative affairs of a large city, and was elected. At that time we had in Cleveland what is known as the Federal plan of city government, under which power and responsibility were concentrated in the hands of the Mayor.
He had the appointing of his cabinet, after the analogy of the scheme at Washington, and it was in making his first appointments that Tom Johnson showed to the United States that he stood without an equal in the disposition and ability to secure able helpers. If you met him here a year ago of course you can readily appreciate my saying that he is possessed of a winning personality.
No man can come in contact with Tom Johnson for any length of time and not love the man. You soon become convinced that the man is absolutely honest; that he is an idealist, his head in the clouds and yet his feet standing upon good old, solid earth, and that he possesses great executive ability.
Not only has he the faculty of selecting the right men for the right places, but he can take men who are as wide apart as the poles, men who despise one another, and he can hitch them up in the municipal wagon so that they will draw without looking at one another and will pull hard, while he directs. That is the thing that characterized his first appointments.
“The first principle upon which he was elected as mayor was, that there should be no extension of street-car franchises and no rate of fare higher than three cents. That was the slogan of his contest. The second was that there should be an equalization of taxes.
“We in Ohio, I presume, have the worst tax laws of any state in the Union. Our tax laws were made at a time so remote that the children of the men who enacted them have been dead so long that their tombstones have fallen over and ivy merely marks the places where they are buried. Yet those laws govern the living.
We appraise our property once in ten years. This law was wise for the time when it was made, but it is an economic crime now. When Ohio was a howling wilderness, property, after appraisement, would go up or down as a whole. Today the erection of a building, the closing of an alley, the putting down of a rail, the stringing of an electric wire, and a hundred and one things that we do each and every day in municipal life, will change the value of lands over night and also affect the value of the improvements.
But when our figures for property in Ohio are once made up they must remain for ten years. The appraisal of property had been made in 1900 ; it is a state function, delegated to the counties. The city has nothing to do with it.
Johnson said he would use all the power and prestige he had to bring about an equalization, and that year he opened up what has since become known as the Johnson School of Taxation.
“We made an investigation, the most thorough investigation ever made of the appraisal of property in the United States. We found in our search one hundred and one thousand sub-divisions of land varying in size from a small building lot to one thousand acre tracts. This property was appraised all the way from 2 per cent of its cash value to more than 68 per cent above its market price. The entire property was worth in the neighborhood of six hundred millions, and was assessed for one hundred and forty-three millions, so you can readily appreciate the need of equalization.
We found that the railroads, the common carriers of Ohio, were worth seven hundred millions, and that they were on the tax books for one hundred and thirty-two millions — less than 17 per cent of their actual worth. We found the public service corporations stocked and bonded at thirty-two millions, paying taxes on one million, and of course we did not go very far into the personal property tax. As you know, Tom Johnson is a single taxer, and he is convinced, as all people must be convinced, that you cannot raise taxes levied against personal property. Instead of raising revenues you raise liars. (Applause.)
At the present moment we have on the tax books one watch for every fifty-five people — so you can imagine how far you would have to go in Ohio before you could get the time. We have one piano for thirty-eight people, so we have more pianos than watches. While we are not long on time, we are strong on music, and we are so strong on music that we play on common instruments. If you go down where the miners live, who used to play on the old-style accordions, their instruments are on the tax books at $75. If you come to my city and go up Euclid avenue, where there are brown-stone fronts with millionaires living inside, you cannot find a mahogany box at all ; you cannot find a piano worth over thirty-nine dollars.
In the personal property returns you can find the man that hauls ashes with a fifteen-dollar horse, charged with that horse on the tax books, but you can not find the trotters. I presume they are so fast that the assessors can not catch them.
“But the first and greatest principle of Johnson’s platform of course was the one concerning franchises. The old street car companies had been rapping at the door of the council chamber for years and years. They had to get an extension of franchises since the expiration of their grants meant the loss of their taxing power, which was capitalized at twenty-two million three hundred and forty thousand dollars.
When Tom Johnson proposed that we should have a reduction of fares, of course it signified much to them. They were capitalized at one hundred and fifty thousand dollars per mile, one hundred thousand water and fifty thousand property. When they had to earn dividends on one hundred thousand dollars water,of course they could not carry people for three cents. Six months after his election he saw that the only way to get a reduction of fare was to go through the old wasteful scheme of competition.
So, on the 6th day of December, 1901, there was introduced into the city council an ordinance establishing a new line, upon which the rate of fare should not be over three cents. I cannot take the time to go through all of the manipulations of the Ohio law dealing with the location of new street car lines. The legislature, being the property of the privileged crowd in Ohio, has so framed the laws within the last thirty years that it was an easy thing to grant an old company an extension or renewal of its rights, but an extremely hard thing to establish a new company in competition.
Aside from the three-cent lines in Cleveland there has not been granted in the entire State of Ohio, with two exceptions, any line except to the old companies within the past twenty-eight years.
“Within two days after we commenced looking for competition there was begun in the Supreme Court of Ohio, from the Attorney General’s office, a suit challenging the right of Tom Johnson to hold office. For fifty-one years the Supreme Court of Ohio had held that charters based upon the classification of our cities were legal and constitutional and seventy-five different men who constituted the court during all those years reaffirmed that decision so often that the law books were filled with their opinions.
Yet the men who owned the street cars of Cleveland owned the Supreme Court and after fifty-one years of affirmation and re-affirmation that court overruled itself and said that the Cleveland charter was unconstitutional. Then they said, ‘We will prevent you from making, under an unconstitutional charter, any grants to three-cent companies.’
“The next thing in order was, since the Supreme Court had torn down all the municipal government in Ohio, to convene the legislature for an extra session and give us a code under which the cities could operate legally. The federal plan of city government, to which I have referred, was the one that the people in Ohio favored, and the legislature was importuned by the people from all over the state, with the exception of one city, to embody that plan in the new law. But the same power that owned the street car system in Cleveland, and owned the Supreme Court of the state, of course owned the legislature.
After two months of agitation and after hearing reports of committees and petitions from citizens from all the Ohio cities, they gave us the form of government of boss-ridden Cincinnati. That scheme of government is clever, especially where you have a great influx of foreigners.
In Cleveland forty per cent of our voters are foreigners and seventy-five per cent are foreigners or descendants of foreigners. They look upon the mayor as the burgomaster. In European countries the mayor or burgomaster is the man of power ; he is the director. The new scheme was to have the mayor or burgomaster still, but to strip him of power, and to have the heads of departments elected by the voters — that is, by the party machine.
“But Tom Johnson and the people of Cleveland were greater than the machinations of the Ohio legislature. In the spring of 1903 Tom Johnson placed upon the ticket all the men that he had previously appointed to office and included every Republican who had been killed by his party for standing for decency. Their platform was that, if elected, they would proceed in the spirit of the old law, Tom Johnson being still the responsible head of the house, and the voters gave them six thousand majority.
We then proceeded to put into execution the plan for the three-cent line. In November there were two miles of track down in one street in the southwest part of the city. Then the old company hired lawyers to hire tax payers, who brought suits and commenced getting injunctions. But now I am going to leave the street car proposition for a little, while I tell you of some other things that Tom Johnson, backed by the citizenship we have there, has brought about during the past seven years. Then I will return to the street car question.
“When he came into office of course he recognized the social evil in Cleveland. To our disgrace, we, like other cities, used previously, about twice a year, to raid these houses, bring the fallen women in, and in the guise of regulation, collect revenue. The salaries of the judge and the prosecutor and the cost of the machinery of the police court were taken out of the earnings of women living lives of shame.
Mr. Johnson’s decree was that no longer should the City of Cleveland receive tainted money of that description. He called before him the police chief and said : ‘This won’t do. We know that the evil is here, and we are not going to be blind and say it is not here. We are going to handle it as it has been handled in no community in this country and see what the results will be. Every woman must know that so long as she conducts herself with all the decency that the business permits she is not to be tampered with by the city.’
You know, gentlemen, that all the blackmail of the fallen women in every large city- has its foundation in the power of the police department to arrest them — a power which enabled one police captain in New York to accumulate half a million dollars on a salary of four thousand a year. Mayor Johnson put a stop to this. He also said : ‘There shall be no woman on the streets of Cleveland soliciting, and you can walk the streets of our city for miles and miles and never be accosted. Nor have we dragged those women to the courts and taken from them one dollar.
“In addition to that, we have abolished the bawdy house with the saloon front, where the innocent and unwary may go in and not know where they are going. When we find a place of that kind we do not go through the intricacies of the law, have the people arrested and tried, and have a lawyer interpose as many objections and technicalities as he can. We station a policeman at the door with a book in his hand, and if any one goes in we inquire of him what he wants, and his name and business. If there is anything that hurts a business of that kind it is publicity.
We apply the same method to gambling. We have no gambling in Cleveland, except, of course, stock gambling. We haven’t got to the point where we recognize that or interfere with it. What I mean is poker, roulette, faro, and the various devices that people have for extracting coin from the suckers that infest the cities. We do not just take our gamblers to the court and have them continue their business while their case is pending. When a man opens up a gambling joint in Cleveland the patrol wagon backs up to it and the policeman breaks in the door with an ax and takes the goods and destroys them. They station a man at the door and stop everybody from coming in. You could walk until there would be blisters on your feet and not be able to get into a gambling game unless you had four or five friends and could rent a room at a hotel in which to start a game.
“With our saloon question it is the same. Of course, the people have nothing at all to say as to whether we shall have saloons. The great State of Ohio has made the saloon-keepers the head tax gatherers. They gather two million dollars a year for us. The state will give to any man, no matter how bad he may be, the right to run a saloon in the City of Cleveland, and we have nothing at all to say, but we handle them. We say to every saloon-keeper, ‘We are not going to screw down the lid, but we do not want our front doors open on Sunday ; while the law says you must be closed, we recognize its limitations, but if you do not run your place with a semblance of respectability we will put you out of business.’
“All the slot machines were destroyed within thirty days after Johnson became mayor. His action received the hearty approbation of thousands. But it is the big man, as a general thing, that Tom Johnson is after, not the petty thief. He could not see a difference between the slot machine and the race track, so he stopped pool selling at the race track. Then there was a mighty protest that he was ruining the town ; that it meant the loss of thousands and thousands of dollars to the merchants of the city, since a man winning might buy a thousand-dollar dress for his wife. But the mayor persisted, and we have demonstrated in Cleveland that you can have horse racing without betting. We have a fine track and have the circuit races there, but there is no betting, no pool selling.
“The thing that has made Tom Johnson’s administration a success has been that we are doing for ourselves those things that most communities hire done. We believe absolutely in public ownership of public property. The municipal ownership idea is pursued with us and I am going to give you a few facts as to how it succeeds.
We have our water-works department plant, worth eleven millions. It had for years been the spoils dumping ground of both political politics. Tom Johnson, strange as it may seem to you, hired a pedagogue to run the water-works department and said to him : ‘I want you to run this department as if it was your property or my property, on business principles. Professor Bemis put the water-works department on a merit basis. We were pumping one hundred sixty-eight million gallons per day for four hundred thousand people and supplying them through fifty-seven thousand taps.
We metered the city, so that every consumer should pay for the water he was getting, no more and no less. That is the only just way of selling water. The result of merit and meters in the department for seven years is that while we today have sixty-five thousand taps, an increase of eight thousand, and have added one hundred and twenty-five thousand to the population, we are pumping seven million gallons less every day than formerly ; we are selling the people seventy gallons for half a cent, and we have one hundred thousand dollars a year as a surplus. Of course, we are going to cut that down, because we believe the water should be supplied at cost.
“Now, about garbage. At one time we contracted for the care of our garbage, and it cost us sixty-nine thousand dollars a year, with a maximum handled of twenty thousand tons. When that contract was terminated we paid the contractor eighty-seven thousand dollars for his reduction plant and his horses and wagons, and we commenced operating. The first year we collected thirty-four thousand tons, an increase of 66 per cent, and the service cost the people of Cleveland less money than it had under the contract system, although we had reduced the hours of labor and had raised the wages from $1.25 to $2 a day in the collection branch and from $2.50 to $4 in the reduction branch.
Last year we collected still more, at a greater decrease in the cost to the municipality, and when this year closes we are going to send out the message to the people of the United States that Cleveland has been able to collect and reduce the waste from five hundred thousand people without the cost of a dollar to the tax payers. We have closed a contract for the sale of three million pounds of grease at four cents a pound to the Ivory Soap Company at Ivorydale, and when you wash your face next year you can say, I am doing it with Cleveland grease.’ (Laughter.)
“I might show you how we are building a large intercepting sewer. We are a little in advance of you here. Of course, you are getting pure water yourselves, but you are polluting the water supply of your neighbors. We are building a sewer to take every bit of sewage in the City of Cleveland to one place, and there we are going to make fertilizer out of it and send the clear water into Lake Erie. We are going to make several thousand dollars a year out of the sewage of the City of Cleveland.
“I might talk about our clean streets that are flushed. We don’t use the dry process. We flush all our streets fresh and clean and nice.
But we are most concerned with men and with women. When Tom Johnson became mayor he appointed a preacher as director of Charities and Corrections. Of course people smiled and said Tom Johnson was a fool to appoint a preacher for a business position, but he said, I don’t want a man that can make dollars and cents. I want a man that can make men and women.’
We have long ago come to the conclusion that the people who go to the workhouse are the poor and unfortunate, rather than the vicious and criminal. When Tom Johnson and Dr. Cooley came to the workhouse they found five hundred men and women, who had been there not only once, but two, three, ten, or twenty times, and one man was serving his ninety-fourth term. Think of the stupidity of sending” a man back to the workhouse the ninety-fourth time when ninety-three times did not cure. Of all the figures that I can think of, there are no figures equal to our statistics on crime.
“Every time we spend a dollar to educate a child, for the church to make a man moral, or for charity to take care of the unfortunate, we in this country are spending $2.00 to run down the supposed criminal. They also found men in the workhouse who had already served their time, but could not come out because they could not pay their fine, so that they were really imprisoned for debt.
Tom Johnson and Dr. Cooley said, ‘that is not the way to reform men,’ and they pardoned and paroled 1,409 of the inmates. For many of them it was the first time that somebody had stretched out the right hand of fellowship and told them that somebody had an interest in them. Of the 1.409 so given their liberty, less than 8 per cent found their way back into the Cleveland workhouse. (Applause.)
Another thing, we don’t lock our prisoners up at seven o’clock and let them while away their time in pretended reading until nine, when they go to bed. We bring them out and put them in school rooms. The crook or the nifty fingered one that goes through your pockets we make a school teacher, under the direction of one that we employ. We set the prisoners studying, and many men and many women who had reached the age of three score and ten unable to read and write have come out of the Cleveland workhouse after six months, with a new world opened up to them, and able to sit down and enjoy the companionship of a book. When you make men acquainted with the literature of the world, you make good citizens, who won’t find their way to the workhouse. (Applause.)
“But it was quite impossible to accomplish satisfactory results with these men where they were — engaged in the manufacture of brushes. This preacher had a dream, and the people of Cleveland brought about its realization in the purchase of 1,900 acres of farm land nine miles from the city, where we are to group many institutions, and our workhouse is the first to go out there. The present workhouse will become a storage house for the water department. Last year, at this ‘Cooley farm’, nine miles from Cleveland, we had 300 workhouse prisoners, sixty at a time. As one man’s time expired another came, so that during the five months there were always sixty men.
There was not a guard over them. In the morning the men were called at the tap of the bell to go a mile or a mile and a half from the administration building to work in the quarry and bring forth the stone to make the foundations for the new building of various kinds that we are going to erect there. Of the 300 men there, under sentences of thirty, sixty, ninety days or six months, without a guard over them, responding to the tap of the bell, only four ran away. These men, who were looked upon as criminal and vicious, still had within them the honor of a man, and they stayed to work out their time. It all demonstrates that the entire scheme of punishment and imprisonment as practiced has been absolutely wrong.
“We have our old poorhouse, a large building like other poorhouses. with four or five hundred men and women. They started life strong, hale and hearty, with strong hearts and hands. When they had proceeded along life’s stony pathway for thirty or forty years conditions overcame them, and they wended their way to the poorhouse. We are not going to have a poorhouse of that old type on this large farm that I have told you of. We are still going to buy more and more land. Dr. Cooley says he will not be satisfied until he has all the land there and every piece adjacent to it. (Laughter.)
Instead of a large building we are going to have cottages, with gardens where the residents can plant and raise things and we will call them the residents of the farm colony. They will no longer spend their idle time in a large building where they commiserate one another, idle in body and mind and disgusted with all their surroundings. (Applause.)
“For years consumption was thought to be hereditary, but we now think tuberculoses a social disease, and every man in Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Chicago who has tuberculosis — the white plague — ought to indict the community for the disease he has got. Tuberculosis comes from bad sanitation and ventilation, and these go with the slums. I thank God you cannot confine the tuberculosis germ to the place where you breed it. It will go up on Prairie avenue and rap at the door with the same ease that it presents itself on Halsted street, and that fact is going to save the American people from the plague. of this horrible disease. At home we have started a municipal sanitarium for those afflicted with tuberculosis. We recognize that there is but one cure for tuberculosis, that is. normal conditions. Give the patient God’s air and sunshine, and you will cure him. We do that ; we get them weighing 110 to 120 pounds and send them away weighing 170 and 180, cured. Every community has got to come to that, even though it may be expensive.
“We have our Boys’ Home, twenty-three miles from Cleveland — 285 acres of land, and 180 boys, some of them little fellows six or seven years old. Many have had bad parents or no parents and were allowed to grow up like weeds in a vacant lot. “We have, not one large building, but cottages, and in every cottage there is a man and a woman, the master and matron, whom the boys call ‘Pa’ and ‘Ma.” If you go there at night, between seven and half past nine, you will see the boys getting that which they needed most but got least, the beneficent influence of home life. They are sitting in the large living room, where the Master and Matron are telling them the many stories that you heard in childhood days. It costs us money, but we are making citizens, and even if you apply the low, mean test of commercialism, we will still give you figures on the right side of the ledger, because we are saving both the direct and -indirect cost of criminal life.
“We have a new way of dealing with the people who commit misdemeanors in our city. Last year we arrested 32,000, of whom 27.000 were arrested because they had violated city ordinances. They got drunk, or expectorated on the sidewalk, or fell into neighborhood quarrels, or did something of that kind. Only 5,000 were really guilty of offenses against the state.
We have a fine police force, free of partisan politics. The Mayor appointed a Republican chief, and gave him the responsibility absolutely without interference. He runs his department, and go where you will in Cleveland, you will find able-bodied, fine-looking men in policemen’s uniform, their clothes blue, their linen white, and their shoes black. You will find them doing their duty always. These men have been given these directions : ‘Do not arrest people unless it is really necessary. If you find a drunken man it is far better that he spend the night with his wife and children at home than in the city’s bastile, with the people at home harassed over his absence. If there is a neighborhood row go in and talk to them ; tell them where they are wrong, and be a peacemaker.’
The result is we are going to reduce our arrests by nearly half. In January, instead of arresting 3,200 as we did in January, 1907, we arrested something like 1,700. The chief says to his men: ‘I do not want you to use your time running down the people who are merely violating city ordinances, but I want you to put in your time going after the people that are burglars and holdup men,’ and we think we are going to have good results from this.
“To go back to the traction problem, which now is attracting so much attention because we are at the beginning of the end of the settlement, we are going to settle it not only for the people of Cleveland, but for every city in the United States. I left you with two miles of railway buried in the streets of Cleveland, and with many injunctions on top preventing the completion of the property. During the entire year of 1904 nothing could be done, neither could there be anything done in 1905, because, as the court would decide one injunction — the Supreme Court of the United States — there would still be a dozen others unsettled. So the injunctions restrained the company and the city from completing the work.
In 1905 Tom Johnson came before the people a third time as a candidate for Mayor. He ran on the Democratic ticket, but we do not recognize party politics. We are merely using the Democratic party as a vehicle. Of all the things that Tom Johnson should be praised for, the greatest is the fact that he had the audacity to clean out every sneak thief within his own organization. He has simply gone after every man of the Democratic party that is bad. He has time and again gone out in the wards and restored republicans to office on the Democratic ticket. There was a republican in the Twenty-third Ward who was turned down by his party for his good record. Tom Johnson asked this Republican to stand as the Democratic candidate for the council from that ward.
A Democrat, against whom there was nothing, appeared as his opponent. Tom Johnson went before the Democrats of that ward and said: ‘Here is a Republican who has been two years in the city council, and his record is that of an honorable man. We are fighting for men and measures, not for party, and I ask every man that votes the democratic ticket to come forward to the democratic caucus and vote for the republican as the Democratic nominee. The Democrat went down to defeat four to one. (Applause.)
The result of his work has been the absolute annihilation and ruination of partisanship in our city. The Democrats in Cleveland can not muster 6,000 who would vote the ticket straight, and the republicans could not muster 20.000. So, out of the 100,000 voters of the city, thousands belong to themselves instead of to their political party. (Applause.) As I said, he was in 1905 a candidate for the third time. The traction problem was tied up. The rails were buried in the streets, the injunctions were on top of them. But the people believed that he was fighting their fight on the traction problem, and above all he had given them such a practical demonstration in administration as no community in the United States had ever had, and they re-elected him by 12,000 majority.
“I will now jump to July, 1906. The Supreme Court had adjudicated the last lawsuit brought against the construction of the new line and they were ready to build. But the old street car company in 1906 found Tom Johnson and the people of Cleveland different from what they found them in 1901. The people had grown under the leadership of Tom Johnson. He said ‘This fight, of course, is greater than a mere scramble between two companies, even though one company would be willing to make a reduction of 40 per cent in fares.’ Every one knew that the city lacked the legal power to build and operate a street car line.
Tom Johnson therefore applied an old corporation principle to a municipal function. The three-cent fare, or Forest City Railway Company, is merely a constructing company. Its franchise authorizes the city to buy the property, when the legislature delegates the power to do so, by paying the par value of the stock, plus 10 per cent. Tom Johnson organized a second company, which he called the Municipal Traction Company, composed of five men, acting as Trustees for the people. These men so fixed up affairs that, in case one died, their estates would have no claim. They are simply acting for the benefit of the people, in the absence of a law authorizing the city to operate directly. The Forest City Company leases its property to the Municipal Traction Company, the latter agreeing to pay the stockholders of the former 6 per cent on their investment. Those stockholders can never get more than 6 per cent income on their stock, nor more than $110 a share.
“That being the condition of affairs in July, 1906, Tom Johnson called upon the people to subscribe for stock. The people of Cleveland came forward with their thousands, and with their two hundred and three hundred dollars. They financed that property to the tune of $20,000, with the exception of a quarter of a million put in by a citizen of Illinois to help along the matter. On the first day of November this line went into operation. It operated from the southwest portion of the city to a mile and a quarter from the heart of the city. The terminal area in the heart of the city was what is called free territory.
When the companies were granted their franchises it was provided that any competitor desiring to use the center of the city for terminal facilities should have every right to use their rails and consume their power, paying, of course, a rental for both. We expected that our line would cut their rails and so go through to the heart of the town. But we were then met by the contention that the Forest City Railway Company, whose property was being operated by the Municipal Traction Company, had no
They alleged that Tom Johnson had a financial interest in the ordinance of that company when he signed it and that it was therefore void. We then learned for the first time that Tom Johnson had interested himself financially in the matter, and this was the nature of his interest: He had guaranteed to pay for the rails and the cars if the company did not. . He had also undertaken in behalf of the people of Cleveland who bought the stock that if in two years it didn’t pay he would take the stock off their hands and pay them 6 per cent on it for the interim. He stood to lose $400,000, but not to make one penny.
“The case went to court on a demurrer, the mayor admitting these guarantees. Then that great advertiser of the fraudulent news which you and I must read, the Associated Press, heralded over the country that Tom Johnson was a fake, and that this man, instead of working for the people’s interest, was using the power of his office to secure for himself the franchise of the Forest City Railway Company. Then the judge, a man placed on the bench by the power of the lawyers employed by the Cleveland Electric Railway Company, rendered an opinion against Tom Johnson. They then put the case through the courts, and for the eleven months before it could be heard on its merits the wires every two or three weeks tingled with the news that Tom Johnson had a financial interest. But when it finally came on its merits before a judge whose skirts were clean Tom Johnson was not only held to be blameless, but was praised by the court for risking $400,000 to carry out to actual success the issue upon which the people had given him their votes. (Applause.)
“In January, 1907, three months after we commenced operating the lines, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the franchises for two streets upon which the old company had rails had expired two years previously. The council in the meantime had granted to the new company the right to operate upon these streets. Before you can operate a street railroad in Cleveland, however, you must get the consent of abutting property owners. The old company thereupon said to the new company: ‘If you will let us alone on these two streets and not carry out your work there we will let you run over our tracks there. Accordingly, at the request of the old company, the court found it possible to place that injunction on the shelf for a period, and the new company’s cars commenced operating over the old company’s property. The old company furthermore professed itself ready at last to settle under a plan whereby a holding company should take charge of its property, and an investigation was commenced to ascertain the value of the property.
On the first day of April, 1907, the companies were before the council urging settlement on the holding company scheme. On the second day of April, however, Mayor Dunne went down in defeat in Chicago, and on the fifth day of April the old company said: We will have no more to do with you ; your holding company plan don’t amount to anything, and we won’t stand for it.’ Of course, what they really said was that the people of Chicago had gone back on a principle that they had laid down two years before.
“Let me digress to say that the people of Cleveland were different from the people in Chicago regarding this question of policy. I believe the majority of the people in Chicago did not go over to municipal ownership when they elected Mayor Dunne. I think their action was instead a display of revulsion against the horrible coups you were riding in. But the thing that moved the people in Cleveland, and had moved them on for years, was the fact that they were standing for a moral principle, for a question of right against wrong, not merely for a question of better cars, and that is what made the difference between the people of Chicago and the people of Cleveland. (Applause.)
“So negotiations were off. And without delaying on the next three or four months of war, I come to the election last fall. The old companies realized that Tom Johnson could not be defeated on the pretense that he had not given the people of Cleveland a good administration, but they hoped that they had a proposition which would appeal to the cupidity of the people to such an extent that it would be endorsed at the polls as against Tom Johnson’s proposition. His proposition was that all franchises granted in future to the old company should provide for leasing the property to the Municipal Traction Company. The Cleveland Electric Railroad Company, on the other hand, proposed a twenty year extension of franchises at seven tickets for a quarter and a five-cent cash fare. The backers of that company then looked around for a candidate, and as the mayor had defeated all candidates brought up before, they decided on Mr. Burton.
Then Mr. Burton brought forward a letter from President Roosevelt, and you people heard more about that, about the interference of the President in municipal affairs, than we did. I say to you frankly the Democrats of Cleveland never mentioned the letter twenty-four hours after it was read by the balance of the country. Of course, President Roosevelt was interfering in municipal politics. Of course he might have been a little extreme in the letter, but it was not a great endorsement for Mr. Burton.
“There was a man in the President’s cabinet, however, who placed the stamp of approval upon the candidacy of Honorable Theodore Burton, and that was James Garfield. He was a member of the State Senate of Ohio at the time Joseph Foraker was whipping through the legislature the most damnable piece of legislation that ever disgraced the statute books of the state. Our law on street car matters is that a council cannot grant a street car franchise for a longer period than twenty-five years. But in 1896, when Joseph Foraker had been elevated to the high position of a United States Senator, he used the power of his place and all the dirty lucre that the corporation furnished, in the effort to whip through the Ohio legislature a bill permitting cities to give fifty-year grants instead of twenty-five, and prices for votes were quoted on the board the same as you did in Springfield when the Allen bill was passed.
In every city the people were up protesting. The protests from the good people living in the cities of Ohio reverberated all over the state from the lake to the river and from Pennsylvania to Indiana. Of course those things cannot stand the searchlight, and we were commencing to gain, when Joseph Foraker put forward this young man, who had the record of a father ahead of him, and James Garfield, the son of his father, not only voted for this most corrupt act ever passed in the Ohio legislature, but stood upon the floor and advocated its passage, and it did pass. Well, when he placed the stamp of approval upon Theodore Burton, you can imagine how the people took to that approval.
“Then Mr. Burton for seven years had not been in Cleveland. He knew less about the street car proposition than the humblest voter. He commenced saying things, and when he said things people laughed. I have not the shadow of a doubt as to the honesty and integrity of Mr. Burton, but the desire for political power got the best of his judgment, and the people considered him as representing the political aims of the traction crowd. We spent less than $10,000 in the contest, for two tents that we moved around in which we held the gospel meetings. And if you could witness a political contest in my city you would agree with me that our fight is not politics, but religion, the religion of great moral reforms.
We went before the people and said : ‘Here is the old company offering seven tickets for a quarter and five-cent cash fares. The company had actually introduced seven tickets for a quarter in order to tickle the voter. We said: ‘We want three-cent fares and the leasing of this property, the nearest thing we can get to municipal ownership.’ I want to say that every man, especially every man working for wages, who saw he could save four cents each day and have immediate settlement, but who was willing to pay for his family perhaps twenty cents more every day for the indefinite proposition of Tom Johnson, so that the mayor might not be defeated in the fight he was making, that man, morally speaking, was a patriot. (Applause.)
From all over this country, while the contest was on, came letters of anxious inquiry. ‘What is going to happen? Chicago, that great city, went down in defeat. Are you in Cleveland, whither the sons and daughters of liberty all over these United States are looking are you, too, in this decisive battle, going down?’ But we knew that on one side was the crowd playing for special privileges in our streets and trying to appeal to the cupidity of the voter, while on the other side was the patriotic citizen. We knew that the citizenship of Cleveland would stand true to Tom Johnson once more, and they did so by a majority of 9,300 strong.
“Three days after the election the old companies came in capitulating. They said : ‘We now appreciate the fact that in the absence of a law permitting public ownership the people of Cleveland want the holding company proposition, which will reserve to themselves all further rights.’ Accordingly we are going on in Cleveland toward such a settlement of the traction problem as has never been had before. When I left they had estimated the value of the physical property, and this week they are figuring on the value of the unexpired franchises. Of course, we shall be buying back our own property, but our forefathers gave it to the companies and they are entitled to it. We are going to give them every dollar, and on top of that Tom Johnson proposes to give them something for good will. They will lease their property to the Municipal Traction Company, and it will be operated for a three-cent fare. It will be operated for the people instead of for private profit.
“They say the three-cent fare will not pay. I say it will. We have three lines, but the two three-cent lines we had first are producing $1,000 a day, of which $600 a day will pay the entire cost of operation, including interest on the cost. Of course, at the present time we are using up the profits for paying lawyers. We had to spend $55,000 for legal expenses. But when the litigation is over and things get to moving along nicely, then this $400 a day surplus will be used to purchase Forest City Railway Company stock. At the end of ten or twelve years, if we still continue the three-cent fare, the Municipal Traction Company will have retired all its stock, and when the legislature gives Cleveland the right to own and operate directly, these five trustees of the holding company will make over the property to us without the issuance of a dollar’s worth- of bonds or the payment of one penny for the stock. The property will be ours.
“Let me say this closing word: In the Cleveland Electric Company there are good citizens, just as there are stockholders in the Chicago railroad companies that are good, but their interests as the owners of a privileged corporation interfere with the exercise of their good citizenship. We have many people at home who would not think of bribing the council or tampering with the mayor, but in their corporate capacity they do tamper with the legislature and interfere with the mayor. Once their financial interest is removed they will be able to give to the people the benefit of their talents in making Cleveland the banner city to live in. And that is the aim of Tom Johnson’s fight. If you should ask him today why he quit the pursuit of wealth, he would tell you: ‘Because I am engaged in something far better and greater than accumulation of dollars. I would make conditions favorable to the making of men and women, and I would have their children say to my children after I am gone that their father was a strong worker after municipal righteousness and a free city.” (Applause.)
Death Knell for Progressive Leadership in Cleveland: Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915 Arthur E. DeMatteo