Peter Witt by Philip W. Porter

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


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