From the Ohio Historical Journal
George Cox was born in 1853 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was an English immigrant, struggling to support his family. When Cox was only eight years old, his father died, forcing Cox to leave school to help support his family. He worked numerous different jobs, including newsboy, bootblack, steamboat cabin boy, grocery deliveryman, butcher boy and bartender, all before Cox turned eighteen years of age.
By the early 1870s, Cox had saved enough money to purchase a bar in Cincinnati. It was located in a notorious part of the city, famous for its unsolved murders, called “Dead Man’s Corner.” Cox also became involved in politics during this time period, drumming up illegal voters for candidates that he favored. He also won election to the Cincinnati City Council in 1879. Cox’s reason for seeking office was because of the numerous raids Cincinnati police officers made against his bar. At this time, the Democratic Party controlled the Cincinnati city government. Cox ran as a Republican. He held office for two terms. Interestingly, upon assuming office, the police raids against Cox’s bar immediately stopped.
Cox emerged as the most powerful member of the Republican Party in Cincinnati by the mid 1880s. He chaired the Hamilton County Republican Committee. While Cox never held political office after his second term as city councilman, he virtually ran the Cincinnati city government by becoming a city boss. Like other city bosses, Cox used gifts and money to build support for himself among the working class in Cincinnati. During elections, Cox would then have his followers vote for the candidate that he supported. As Cox once stated: “The people do the voting. I simply see that the right candidates are selected.” By the late 1800s, if a person sought a political office in Cincinnati, he had to receive Cox’s endorsement to win the office. Cox also required the people that he placed in office to appoint loyal Cox followers to other government positions. These positions included police officers, firefighters, street cleaners, secretarial positions, and numerous other occupations.
By 1905, Cox had managed to provide nearly every Republican ward chairman a city office. To build support among the Democratic Party, Cox also appointed members of this party to forty percent of the city offices. To show their appreciation to Cox, these appointees had to turn over 2.5 percent of their salary to the Hamilton County Republican Committee. Cox then used this money to buy votes during elections. In particularly close elections, Cox paid residents of nearby states to come to Cincinnati to vote illegally. He also had no problem with some voters casting more than one ballot under assumed names — as long as the person voted for Cox’s candidate.
City bosses established virtual dictatorships over their cities, using illegal means to do so. Cox was no different. City bosses, however, did make some improvements in city life during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. As industrialization occurred and thousands of Americans moved to cities seeking employment, city governments had tremendous difficulty providing the necessary services to the city’s residents. City bosses commonly filled that void by having streets cleaned, by enforcing laws (at least the ones they chose to enforce), and by providing other services. While Cox allowed gambling and prostitution to occur to award his loyal supporters, he also greatly reduced the availability of these items by only allowing a small number of his followers to engage in these activities.
By 1905, Cox’s dominance of Cincinnati government began to fall apart. Over the next several years, Cox encouraged his supporters in the city government to annex surrounding communities. Many of the people in these neighborhoods were middle-class residents. They opposed Cox’s political corruption. Many of these people were supporters of the Progressive Movement and sought to return Americans to traditional and more moral values. With this influx of new voters — voters that Cox could not control — the city boss failed to have his candidate elected mayor of Cincinnati in 1911. City bosses maintained their power by guaranteeing that they could fulfill their promises to candidates. Cox failed to do this in 1911, and his supporters quickly deserted him. Cox immediately retired from politics, although some of his underlings continued to try to control the city unsuccessfully over the next decade.
Cox suffered a stroke in 1916, and he died that same year on May 20.