Peter Witt- Tribune of the People by Carl Wittke

From the Ohio Historical Society Journal

The link is here



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

working masses.5

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

against it.18

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

specific misdeeds.25

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.


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