The Best Barber in America By John E. Vacha

the pdf is here

 Cleveland Public Library (top) George Myers/WRHS (bottom)
The Best Barber in America 
By John E. Vacha 

When Elbert Hubbard called Cleveland’s George Myers the best barber in America, people listened.

Hubbard’s was a name to be reckoned with in the adolescent years of the Twentieth Century. His Roycroft Shops in New York were filling American parlors with the solid oak and copper bric-a-brac of the arts and crafts movement. His periodicals, The Philistine and The Fra, brought him national recognition as the “Sage of East Aurora.” One of his essays alone, “A Message to Garcia,” ran through forty million copies.

You could say he was the Oprah of his day.

Myers himself was certainly aware of the value of a testimonial from Elbert Hubbard. Across the marble wall above the mirrors in his Hollenden Hotel establishment, he had imprinted in dignified Old English letters over Hubbard’s signature, “The Best Barber Shop in America!”

Though he played on a smaller stage, George A. Myers managed to compile a resume as varied and impressive as Hubbard’s. He was recognized as a national leader and innovator in his profession and became one of the most respected members of Cleveland’s black bourgeoisie. As the confidant and trusted lieutenant of Mark A. Hanna, he became a force in Ohio Republican politics. Behind the scenes, he campaigned effectively to maintain the rights and dignity of his race. In later years he maintained a voluminous correspondence with James Ford Rhodes, providing the historian with his inside knowledge of the political maneuvers of the McKinley era.

It wasn’t a bad record for a barber, even for one who had bucked his father’s wishes for a son with a medical degree. George was the son of Isaac Myers, an influential member of Baltimore’s antebellum free Negro community. Like Frederick Douglass, the senior Myers had learned the trade of caulker in the Baltimore shipyards. When white caulkers and carpenters struck against working with blacks, Isaac took a leading role on the formation of a cooperatively owned black shipyard. He became president of the colored caulkers’ union, and that led to the presidency of the colored wing of the National Labor Union.

Born in Baltimore in 1859, George Myers was ten years old when his mother died in the midst of his father’s organizing activities. Isaac took George along on a trip to organize black workers in the South and then sent him to live with a clergyman in Rhode Island. George returned to Baltimore following his father’s remarriage and finished high school there but found himself excluded from the city college because of his race.

That’s when George decided to call a end to his higher education, despite his father’s desire that he enroll in Cornell Medical School. After a brief stab as a painter’s apprentice in Washington, he returned to Baltimore to master the barber’s trade.

Young Myers came to Cleveland in 1879 and found a job in the barber shop of the city’s leading hotel, the Weddell House. He had come to the right place at the right time. Cleveland was in the midst of its post-Civil War growth, and its barbering trade was dominated by African Americans. Myers soon became foreman of the shop, and among the influential patrons he serviced was the rising Republican politico, Mark Hanna.

His upscale clientele served Myers well when a new hotel, the Hollenden, challenged the supremacy of the Weddell House. The Hollenden’s owner was Liberty E. Holden, publisher of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who advanced Myers four-fifths of the capital required to operate the barber shop in his hostelry. The remaining $400 was provided by a select group which included Hanna’s brother Leonard, his brother-in-law Rhodes, ironmaster William Chisholm, and future Cleveland mayor Tom L. Johnson. “Suffice to say that I paid every one of you gentlemen,” Myers later recalled to Rhodes with pardonable pride. Once again, Myers had made a good career move.

Located in the booming downtown area east of Public Square, the Hollenden quickly became the gathering place for the city’s elite as well as its distinguished visitors. One of its premiere attractions undoubtedly was the longest bar in town. Another was its dining room, which was appropriated by the politicians and reputedly became the incubator of the plebian ambrosia christened “Hanna Hash.”

When not eating or drinking, politicians naturally gravitated to the hotel’s barber shop, which, like politics, remained a strictly male domain in the 1880s. Myers served them so well that in time a total of eight U.S. Presidents, from Hayes to Harding, took their turns in his chair, along with such miscellaneous luminaries as Joseph Jefferson, Mark Twain, Lloyd George, and Marshall Ferdinand Foch. As for the regulars, according to the eminent neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing, it became “a mark of distinction to have one’ s insignia on a private shaving mug in George A. Myers’s personal rack.”

In such a milieu, it was almost inevitable that Myers himself would get involved in “the game,” as he called politics. Mark Hanna had hitched his wagon to a rising star in Ohio politics named William McKinley and invited Myers on board for the ride. As a Cuyahoga County delegate to the Ohio State Republican Convention, Myers helped nominate McKinley for governor in 1891. He supported the Ohioan for President as a delegate to the Republican National Convention the following year. McKinley fell short that time, but Myers cast the deciding vote to place a McKinley man on the Republican National Committee, giving the Hanna forces a strategic foothold for the next campaign.

As the crucial campaign of 1896 approached, Hanna decided that Myers was ready for greater responsibilities. A vital part of Hanna’s strategy to secure the nomination for McKinley involved capturing Republican delegations from the Southern states. Since most white Southerners at the time were Democrats, blacks enjoyed by default a disproportionate influence in the Southern Republican organization.

That’s where Myers came in, as the Cleveland barber undertook to organize black delegates for McKinley not only in Ohio but in Louisiana and Mississippi as well. The convention took place in the segregated city of St. Louis, where Hanna further entrusted Myers with the delicate task of overseeing accommodations and providing for the entertainment of the colored delegates.

McKinley, of course, won not only the nomination but went on to take the election. Hanna then had Myers installed as his personal representative on the Republican State Executive Committee, where Myers worked to integrate the Negro voters of Ohio into the Hanna machine. One of Myers’ guiding principles was the discouragement of segregated political rallies in order “to demonstrate that in party union there is strength.”

Myers had developed a deep personal attachment to Hanna, whom he affectionately dubbed “Uncle Mark.” “His word is his bond and he measures white and black men alike, — by results,” wrote Myers of his political patron. “He is loyal to his friends, a natural born fighter and has the courage of his convictions.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Myers was willing to go to extraordinary measures to help secure Hanna’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1897. State legislatures then held the power of appointment to that office, so when Uncle Mark was still a vote short of election, Myers approached William H. Clifford, a black representative from Cuyahoga County, and bluntly paid for his vote in cold, hard cash. “It was politics as played in those days,” Myers later explained to Rhodes. “When I paid Clifford to vote for M.A. I did not think it a dishonest act. I was simply playing the game.”

Though McKinley had offered to reward him for his support with a political appointment, Myers was reluctant to neglect his thriving business for an active role in “the game.” The barber showed no reluctance to cash in his political capital for the benefit of fellow African Americans, however. He arranged the appointment of John P. Green, the originator of Labor Day in Ohio, as chief clerk in the Post Office Stamp Division in Washington. This earned Myers the enmity of Harry C. Smith, publisher of the black weekly Cleveland Gazette, who saw the barber’s influence as a threat to his own leadership among the city’ s Negro voters. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer called it in 1900, “George A. Myers is without doubt the most widely known colored man in Cleveland and probably the leading politician of his race in Ohio.”

Among the other appointments for which Myers smoothed the way were those of Blanche K. Bruce as register of the U.S. Treasury and Charles A. Cottrell of Toledo as collector of internal revenue at Honolulu. Only when he saw his livelihood threatened through political action did Myers act in his own interest. In 1902 he asked Hanna “to do me the favor to use every influence at your command” to defeat a proposed state law which sought to place Ohio’s barbering business under the control of a state board. Myers feared that this licensing board, like the barber’s schools, would come under the domination of labor unions which excluded blacks. Hanna promised to “take it up with my friends at Columbus and see if something cannot be done.”

Evidently something could be done, and the bill was defeated.

After Hanna’s death in 1904, Myers dropped his active involvement in politics. “I served Mr. Hanna because I loved him,” Myers told Rhodes, “and even though I put my head in the door of the Ohio Penitentiary to make him U.S. Senator, I would do the same thing again, could the opportunity present itself.” With both Hanna and McKinley gone, however, Myers wasn’t about to stick his neck out for anyone else. Instead, Myers tended to business with impressive results.

By 1920 he had more than thirty employees in his shop, including seventeen barbers, three women’s hairdressers (barriers were falling by then), six manicurists, and two pedicurists. Myers claimed that his was the first barber shop in Cleveland to provide the services of manicurists.

In fact, Myers was on the cutting edge (we wanted to avoid the cliche, but couldn’t resist the pun ) of numerous innovations in the trade. He was one of the first barbers to adopt porcelain fixtures and install individual marble wash basins at each chair. He also pioneered in the use of sterilizers and humidors.

The Koken Barbers’ Supply Company of St. Louis incorporated Myers’ suggestions in the development of the modern barber chair and solicited pictures of Myers and his shop for its house newsletter.

From the standpoint of his busy patrons, perhaps the most appreciated innovation of Myers was the telephone service he provided at each chair. “While having his hair cut a patron may talk to his home or transact business,” marvelled a contemporary trade journal.

“A desk phone is plugged in like a stand lamp and removed when not in use.”

One practice that earned Myers some sharp barbs from Harry Smith was the latter’s allegation that blacks were refused service in the Hollenden barber shop. On the basis of contemporary custom, it was probably true. Another black editor writing on discrimination in Cleveland at the turn of the century described how blacks were told by white barbers to “Go to one of your own people,” only to be told by some of their own, “Now men, we would like to work on you but you know we can’t do it. It would kill our business.” In Myers’ exclusive shop, blacks likely were welcome only behind the barber chairs. To Myers, it probably was simply a case of how that game happened to be played. When Booker T. Washington was organizing the National Negro Business League in 1900, he urged Myers to appear on the program at Boston.

“It is very important that the business of barbering be represented, and there is no one in the country who can do it as well as yourself,” wrote Washington. “We cannot afford to not have you present.”

Nevertheless, Myers demurred. Identifying oneself as “a colored business man,” he once wrote, was tantamount to “an admission of inferiority.” A dozen years later, Washington recommended Myers to head a Republican drive to organize the Negro vote in the presidential election.

Though flattered, Myers turned this offer down too, on account of the press of business. His application to his profession rewarded him well enough.

Myers revealed to Rhodes that he had paid an income tax of $1,617 in 1920, on gross receipts of $67,325. That put him in the upper brackets of Cleveland’s black middle class, where he assumed a position of social as well as business leadership.

Out of a city of close to 400,000 at the turn of the century, Cleveland’s African Americans formed a rudimentary minority of around ten thousand. Though not yet completely ghettoized, they tended to form their own churches, social organizations, and neighborhoods. Myers belonged to the city’s oldest black congregation, St. John’s A.M.E., and was a founding member of the segregated Cuyahoga Lodge of Elks. As a member of the Euchre Club, he belonged to the lighter-skinned social elite of the black community. With other black barbers and service workers, he also formed a Caterers’ Club that became famed for the prestige of its annual banquets.

Yet Myers wasn’t entirely circumscribed by the color line. He was a member of the civic-minded City Club and the Early Settlers Association. According to Cleveland safety director Edwin D. Barry, Myers “had more white friends than any colored man in Cleveland.”

The very proper Victorian parlor of the Myers home on Giddings Avenue was once pictured in the Sunday magazine of the Plain Dealer. Following a divorce from his first wife Sarah, Myers had wed Maude Stewart in 1896. A son from the first marriage and a daughter from the second both became teachers in Cleveland’s public schools.

Despite his father’s activities as a labor organizer, George Myers had become as conservative as any Republican businessman. His own shop was a nonunion one, though his employees seemed content with the arrangement. He was genuinely upset over a May Day riot in the streets of Cleveland, consoling himself with the reflection that “Negroes are neither Socialist, Anarchist nor Bolshevist.”

Although keeping a well-stocked wine cellar for himself, Myers was in favor of Prohibition.

“I favored prohibition for the other fellow — some of my employees–and this is the secret of the Prohibition victory,” he admitted frankly to Rhodes.

In personal appearance, Myers was always a good advertisement for his tonsorial skills. Trim throughout his life, he displayed a low, full hairline in youth, to which a well-shaped mustache added dignity. A fall down the elevator shaft in a customer’s home once broke his leg and foot, giving him a limp for years and enabling him to forecast the weather afterwards.

Following World War I, Myers purchased a new home in the predominantly Jewish Glenville neighborhood, appropriating the entire third floor for his sanctum sanctorium. Half of it became a billiard room, the other half his library. There he was said to have assembled one of the country’s most comprehensive collections of books by and about African Americans.

It was books that formed the common bond between Myers and James Ford Rhodes. After Rhodes retired from business to write history, Myers would walk over to his Euclid Avenue mansion to give Rhodes his daily shave and trim. On the way, he would often pick up a bundle of books for Rhodes from the library of the Case School of Applied Sciences, then still located downtown. “Me and my partner Jim are writing a history,” he once explained to a curious friend.

“Jim is doing the light work and I am doing the heavy.”

In time Rhodes moved to Massachusetts, where he continued issuing his magisterial “History of the United States From the Compromise of 1850.” As he approached the McKinley volume, Rhodes discovered that Myers might again be of help to him–this time with some of the light work. The historian was primarily interested in the barber’s knowledge of the inside workings of the Hanna McKinley political machine. When the volume was completed, he acknowledged his indebtedness in print “to George A. Myers of Cleveland for useful suggestions.”

Myers and Rhodes covered a wide range of topics in their letters, however, from old Cleveland acquaintances to World War I. When Herbert Croly published his reverential biography of Mark Hanna, Myers complained to Rhodes that he scarcely recognized the subject. “We knew Mr. Hanna to be a rough brusque character with an indomitable will of his own that respected the rights of no one who stood in the way of his successful accomplishment of the object he had set out to accomplish,” he wrote.

World War I proved to be a watershed in the racial thinking of George Myers. After fighting for freedom on the Western Front, Myers predicted to Rhodes that “the Negro will not submit to the atrocities and indignities of the past and present in silence.” Yet Myers was worried about another phenomenon of the war, the Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities. Cleveland’s small, comfortable black minority had suddenly tripled in size, he informed Rhodes. “Many of the Negroes are of the lowest and most shiftless class,” he wrote.

“Where Cleveland was once free from race prejudice, it is now anything but that….”

Prior to the war, Myers had tended to subordinate group solidarity in favor of individual enterprise. He was slow to join the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. Although he supported Booker T. Washington’s efforts at vocational uplift at Tuskegee and was acknowledged by his secretary as “Mr. Washington’s most intimate, personal friend living in Cleveland,” Myers was consistently critical of any support by Washington of separate but equal welfare agencies. He regretted Washington’s endorsement of “in reality a Jim Crow” Y.M.C.A. branch in Cleveland and similarly objected to the formation of the Phillis Wheatley Home for single African American girls.

“Segregation here of any kind to me is a step backward and will ultimately be a blow to our Mixed Public Schools,” wrote Myers to Washington.

Myers preferred to fight racism by private initiative behind the scenes, as when he wrote the editor of the Plain Dealer to protest the paper’s use of the terms “darkies” and “negress.” The practice was halted, though Myers had to repeat his admonition after the war to the paper’s next editor. With less success, Myers also conducted a letter campaign against the screening in Ohio of the Klan-glorifying movie, “The Birth of a Nation.”

But the tensions raised by the Great Migration ultimately caused Myers to adopt a more contentious approach. The clincher probably occurred in 1923, when the Hollenden management informed Myers that his black employees would be replaced with whites effective with his retirement. European immigrants had been challenging the black supremacy in the barbering business since 1908, when James Benson had lost his lease in The Arcade.

In order to save his staff’s jobs, Myers postponed his retirement despite a heart condition brought out by an attack of influenza. A stronger tone entered into his exchanges with the white establishment.

When racial outbreaks loomed over the use of a swimming pool in Woodland Hills Park by Negroes, Myers prevailed on the safety department to station two black policemen there.

He was outspoken in his responses to a 1926 Cleveland Chamber of Commerce survey on immigration and emigration. He placed the blame for the squalid housing conditions in Cleveland’s “black belt” squarely on the Cleveland real estate interests for refusing to rent or sell desirable habitation to colored. Myers also scored the business community in general for its failure to provide economic opportunities for the Negro youth coming out of the schools. “There is not a bank in Cleveland that employs any of our group as a clerk, teller or bookkeeper,” he wrote, “scarcely an office that use any as clerks or stenographers and no stores, though our business runs up in the millions; that employ any as sales-women, salesmen or clerks.”

To Judge George S. Adams, Myers observed that “while I do not condone crime, (all criminals look alike to me), the negro, morally and otherwise, is what the white man has made him, through the denial of justice, imposition and an equal chance.” While the Negro community of Cleveland was working to assimilate the newly arrived immigrants from the South, he told Congressman Chester C. Bolton, “We who formerly lived here before the influx cannot carry the burden alone, nor should we. The industrial interest of the north forced this problem upon us….”

In the late 1920s Myers joined his old rival, Harry Smith of the Gazette, in a public campaign against the establishment of a Negro hospital in Cleveland. In a letter to the Plain Dealer he refuted, on the basis of his own personal experience, charges that blacks were turned away from or refused private rooms at City Hospital. Cleveland was on its way to becoming “one of the greatest medical centers of the world,” Myers asserted, and his people wanted to enjoy, “in common with all others, the benefit of the greatest medical skill and attention that the world has ever known.”

It wasn’t only equal care that Myers was concerned with, but equal opportunity for African Americans in the medical profession. He and Smith also fought for several years to gain admission of colored interns and nurses at City Hospital. City Manager William Hopkins might accuse Myers of having “gone over to Harry Smith bag and baggage,” but City Council finally rewarded their efforts with passage of a resolution granting the desired hospital privileges.

The following morning, January 17, 1930, as his daughter Dorothy drove Myers to his streetcar stop, he told her he was feeling better than he had in a long time. That was good, for at breakfast he had told the family that he faced the most difficult task of his life that day. Unable to continue working any longer, the seventy- year-old barber had finally sold out to the Hollenden. Now he had to inform his employees that they were effectively out of jobs.

He worked all morning, telling the staff just before noon that there would be an important meeting upon his return from lunch. Myers then walked a couple of blocks to the New York Central office in the Union Trust Building to purchase a ticket for a rest cure in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Reaching for his change, he suddenly reeled, grabbed at the counter, and crumpled to the floor.

Even before they could carry him to the building’s dispensary, Myers was dead of heart failure. Once before, after risking his career and reputation to make Mark Hanna a Senator, George A. Myers had withdrawn from “the game” of politics. Now, faced with what would undoubtedly have been the most painful confrontation of his career, he was released by death.

Eulogies poured in from both sides of the color line.

“His death removes a potent factor that those of the race in Cleveland can ill afford to lose at this time,” wrote his old adversary and recent ally, Harry Smith.

City Manager Hopkins estimated his correspondence with eminent men as “good enough and unusual enough to justify its preservation.” That also turned out to be the judgment of history.

Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969 (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1972).

John A. Garraty (ed.), The Barber and the Historian: The Correspondence of George A. Myers and James Ford Rhodes, 1910-1923 (Columbus: The Ohio Historical Society, 1956).

Felix James, “The Civic and Political Activities of George A. Myers, “The Journal of Negro History”, Vol. LVIII, No. 2 (April, 1973), pp. 166-178.

Kenneth L. Kuzmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).

The George A. Myers Papers (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society Archives)

This article first ran in Timeline Magazine, Jan/Feb 2000.

“Hard Copy in Cleveland” An Overview of Cleveland Journalism Since 1818 by John Vacha

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An Overview of Cleveland Journalism Since 1818 
By John Vacha

From a historian’s point of view, Cleveland’s first twenty-two years may be regarded as the Dark Ages. What dispelled much of the gloom was the appearance in 1818 of the city’s first newspaper, the Cleaveland Gazette & Commercial Register. The coming of newspapers would raise the curtain on such vital concerns as civic progress, economic growth, and political sentiment, as well as such often overlooked but revelatory matters as arrivals and departures, fashions, amusements, and the prices of eggs and bacon.

Even the spelling of the city’s name was finalized on the front page of a newspaper, though not according to popular legend. A folk version has it that the first “a” in Cleaveland was originally dropped by the Cleveland Herald in the 1830s in order to squeeze a new, slightly wider type font into its nameplate. (A computer could easily solve that problem nowadays, right?) Actually, the Cleveland Advertiser had beat the Herald to it in its very first issue of January 6, 1831, explaining that it simply considered the silent “a” to be superfluous.

New newspapers were cropping up on the banks of the Cuyahoga like dandelions in those days. Six appeared in 1841 alone, including the singularly-named but short-lived Eagle-Eyed News-Catcher. All it took was a flat-bed printing press, a few cases of type, an editor’s desk–and, hopefully, the support of a political party. Whereas newspapers in later days would support political parties, back then parties supported newspapers. The Herald was Whig in political orientation as was Cleveland, which made it the city’s dominant newspaper. It demonstrated its superiority in 1835 by becoming the city’s first newspaper to appear on a daily basis, after which Cleveland has never been without a daily newspaper–at least until the present day. The Herald also was printing on a steam-powered press by 1845 and obtaining news by telegraph two years later.

It was as a weekly that the Cleveland Plain Dealer first appeared on January 7, 1842, using the plant of the recently defunct Advertiser. As a Democratic paper, it lagged behind the morning Herald, becoming an evening daily only in 1845. Despite the fact that its politics relegated it to secondary status, the Plain Dealer nevertheless managed to produce Cleveland’s first “star” reporter. He took the unprepossessing form of Charles Farrar Browne, a gangling, solemn-faced but lucid-eyed youth who came to the Plain Dealer via Tiffin and Toledo in 1858. Put in charge of the “City Facts and Fancies” column, he was frequently at a loss for newsworthy copy. “We thought we had seen dull times in the items line, but we just begin to discover that we hadn’t,” lamented Browne in mock desperation:

Won’t somebody “pizen” somebody? Won’t somebody get mad and shoot a pistol at somebody?… Won’t some man run off with another man’s wife, previously…damaging the constitution of the husband? Won’t some “cultivated young man of prepossessing appearance” go and lose all his money at poker and then drown himself? Won’t nobody do nothing?

Browne finally decided to do something himself to fill the holes in his news columns. He invented an itinerant showman named Artemus Ward, who was wont on slow news days to send Browne letters describing, in fractured spelling and syntax, his misadventures on tour in the Midwest. “If you put this letter in the papers,” wrote “Ward” one day,

i wish you wood be more particlar abowt the spellin and punctooation. i dont ploom myself on my learnin, but i want you to distinkly understan that Artemus Ward has got sumthing in his hed besides lise. i shall be in Cleveland befour long and my hanbills shall certinly be struck off down to your offis.

But Ward never arrived in Cleveland, and Browne after three years departed for New York. His first book, which included many of his former Plain Dealer pieces, became a favorite with Abraham Lincoln, who read selections to his Cabinet.

Even as Browne exercised his fancy on the local scene, issues and events on the national level were stirring politics as well as journalism. Both the Democrats and especially the Whigs were torn by the slavery issue. Antislavery Whigs began supporting their own papers in competition with the more conservative Herald. One was the misleadingly named Daily True Democrat, which began in North Olmsted in 1846 but moved to Cleveland the following year. In 1852 Canadian-born Joseph Medill came from Cochocton to publish his Daily Forest City in Cleveland. The two antislavery Whig papers merged the following year as the Daily Forest City Democrat, with Medill joined as publisher by a printer from the True Democrat, Edwin Cowles. Early in 1855 the two publishers called a meeting of antislavery Whigs and Democrats in their newspaper office, which led to the formation of the Republican party. Cowles changed the paper’s unwieldy name to the Cleveland Leader and moved from the printing room to the editor’s desk after buying out Medill, who took his profits to Chicago and invested them in the Tribune.

Edwin W. Cowles, wrote one historian in 1910, “was the Horace Greeley of the west, the greatest editor Cleveland has ever produced.” Raised in Ashtabula County, the most radical antislavery corner of Ohio, he came to Cleveland at 14 to learn the printer’s trade. As editor of the Leader he bent his antislavery principles only once, advising the return of an escaped slave during the secession crisis in order to show the South that the Fugutive Slave Act, however hateful, could be enforced in the North. The South seceded anyway, and Cowles wasn’t going to be gulled again. Within a week of the Union defeat at First Bull Run, he was advocating immediate emancipation by the Lincoln administration and pursued that policy throughout the Civil War. As editor of the city’s major Republican newspaper, he was rewarded with the position of Postmaster of Cleveland. Regarding it as more than merely a political plum, he used it to inaugurate the nation’s first home mail delivery system.

Following the Civil War, Cowles justified his paper’s name as the pacesetter of Cleveland journalism. Its circulation of 13,000 in 1875 was double that of the Herald and several times that of the Plain Dealer, which had ceased publication for several weeks at the end of the war due to its Copperhead policies. In 1877 the Leader installed a perfecting press and printed its first Sunday edition. Cowles followed the Republican line on Reconstruction but balked at a third term for President Ulysses Grant.

Clean-shaven with a full mane of white hair, Cowles looked more like a village doctor than militant editor, but he carried a pistol on Cleveland’s streets and practiced his marksmanship on a target hanging in his office, where he beat off an assailant on at least one occasion. “In newspaper fighting he considered the sladge hammer a more effective weapon than the rapier,” eulogized the Plain Dealer, “and he went at a policy, or a rival paper with smashing blows instead of with keen thrusts.” Once the rebellion had been put down, he directed the brunt of his blows at any efforts by Catholics to divert public funds to the support of parochial schools. On the positive side, he campaigned successfully for the construction of the Superior Viaduct.

While the Leader was at the peak of its hegemony, a scrawny upstart, its opposite in nearly every respect, hit the streets. The Leader was a full-sized sheet of seven columns in width; the newcomer only five columns wide, fifteen inches in length. The Leader carried twenty long columns of ads, the newcomer but five columns in all. It took three cents to buy a copy of the Leader, while the newcomer went for a single copper penny; its name, in fact, was the Penny Press. Its founder, E.W. Scripps, would spend less than three years in the city, but his upstart newspaper would dominate Cleveland journalism for nearly a century.

Edward Willis Scripps came to Cleveland from Detroit, where he had helped his older brother James establish the Detroit News. Only 24 years of age, he was a red-whiskered six-footer with a hereditary cast in his right eye, who claimed to consume four quarts of whiskey and forty Havana cigars a day. The Penny Press, his first independent venture in journalism, would be the first link in what would become one of the nation’s most powerful newspaper chains: Scripps-Howard. From the beginning it professed to be independent politically, neither Republican nor Democrat (nor Prohibition, it might go without saying).

With its condensed format and affordable price, the Penny Press also set out to be a voice for the common workingman. “The Press was distinguished from its contemporaries in those days,” recalled Scripps, “in that it suppressed nothing and published nothing to gain the favor and approval of those people in the community who flattered themselves that they were the better classes.” When Leonard Case died unexpectedly, other papers said from heart disease, while the Press called it suicide. Against the request of its largest advertiser, the Press published news of his divorce suit. It even published the name of a young businessman cited by the ASPCA for driving a carriage with an improperly shod horse. The culprit’s name was E.W. Scripps.

But the best example of Scripps’ anti-establishmentarianism could be seen in his defiance of Henry Chisholm, head of Cleveland’s largest steel company. It began as a case of mistaken identity, when a Penny Press reporter misidentified Chisholm’s son as a man arrested for disorderly conduct. Chisholm lured the reporter to his office, where his workers covered him head to waist with black paint, and sued Scripps for criminal libel. Scripps retaliated by printing a full account of the affair headed “The Shame of Chisholm” and followed up by daily running a condensed version at the head of the Press editorial column. When Chisholm’s doctors informed Scripps that the attacks were endangering their patient’s health, the publisher refused to relent until Chisholm not only dropped his suit against the Press but paid $5,000 in damages to his reporter. Chisholm gave in but died nevertheless within a few weeks. “I believe that had I known that I was killing him at the time, I would have pursued the same course,” Scripps wrote later. “Had I taken a pistol and shot him to death, I would have felt no more and no less responsibility for that death than I have ever since felt.” Like Edwin Cowles, Scripps went about armed with a pistol; while Cowles practiced marksmanship in his office, Scripps practiced drawing quickly and shooting from the hip.

Not long after the Chisholm affair, Scripps left Cleveland for further journalistic ventures in St. Louis, Louisville, and other centers. He left the Penny Press in capable hands he had trained personally. By 1890 it had expanded in size and was known as the Cleveland Press, though its price held at one cent. Its circulation, growing apace with the population of an industrializing city, then stood at 43,510, several thousand more than the second-place Leader.

A major shake-up took place on Cleveland’s newspaper row along Frankfort Avenue as the nineteenth century drew to a close. It was instigated by Liberty E. Holden, who had accumulated a fortune from real estate and western mining investments. As a Democrat and advocate for the western silver interests, Holden purchased the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1885 to promote his political agenda. He then joined with the Cleveland Leader in buying the once dominant Herald. The Leader maintained the afternoon edition of the Herald as its own evening edition; the Plain Dealer buried the main morning edition of the Herald in order to facilitate its own reinvention as a morning daily. The final edition of the Herald contained its own obituary, which might also serve to mourn the passing of many other newspapers in future years:

In closing the record of the HERALD we can justly claim it to have been a clean and honorable, as well as useful, record. It has devoted itself to building up the interests of the City, the State and the Nation. It has sought to deal justly with all men, poor and rich, friends and opponents alike. It has championed no cause that it did not believe just. It has endeavored to treat every person and every subject with courtesy and fairness. We know that in passing out of sight it will leave behind it a good name and thousands who will mourn its departure as that of an old, a trusted and a valued friend. That knowledge is a consolation, even in the bitterness of parting.

Even minus the Herald, Cleveland could greet the twentieth century as its golden age of journalism, with half a dozen daily newspapers. Leading the afternoon field was the Press with a circulation of 86,158, followed by the Recorder (30,000) and the World (24,843). In the morning the Leader claimed circulation of 63,228 (including its afternoon News and Herald edition), with the Plain Dealer trailing at 30,000. There was also a daily German-language newspaper, the Waechter und Anzeiger, with 24,320 readers.

Journalism had become a big business, requiring major outlays of capital, extensive printing plants, and sizable editorial and business staffs. As such, newspapers were becoming too large for the old style of personal journalism. Liberty Holden for several years tried running the Plain Dealer himself, installing the new linotype typesetting machines despite a printers’ strike and boycott. By 1898, however, Holden turner over operation of the paper to two professional newspapermen, Elbert Baker and Charles Kennedy.

While personal journalism was becoming pass, political partisanship remained a visible fixture of journalism practice. Both the Press and the Plain Dealer were supporters of Cleveland’s progressive mayor, Tom L. Johnson. As once observed by newspaper critic A.J. Liebling, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” The Leader was owned by industrialist Charles A. Otis and Mark Hanna’s son-in-law Myron McCormick, both bitterly opposed to Johnson. During the election of 1907 they brought in noted New York cartoonist Homer Davenport to lampoon Johnson in a series of front-page Leader cartoons, and James Donahey of the Plain Dealer responded in kind. Davenport may well have won the cartoon war, but Johnson won the election.

At the same time newspapers were beginning to subordinate political partisanship in favor of popular, nonpartisan civic crusades. When fireworks in a Cleveland five-and-dime store ignited a fire that claimed seven lives, the Plain Dealer began a “Sane Fourth” (of July) campaign which eventually led to state regulation of the fireworks trade. Another crusade by the morning daily helped to bring about a city manager form of government for Cleveland.

Carrying on in the tradition of E.W. Scripps, the afternoon Press continued to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It followed up a tip in 1904 about the suspicious financial transactions of one Cassie Chadwick, a resident of Euclid Avenue’s “Millionaires’ Row.” Its investigations uncovered evidence that the audacious lady had obtained large sums of money on the most dubious of collateral, including questionable securities and the groundless implication that she was Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter. The exposures led to the suicide of one banker and the embarrassment of several others.

Meanwhile, the economic realities of modern journalism worked to narrow the playing field. The Recorder morphed into the Daily Legal News, a court reporter read mainly by lawyers. The World, Cleveland’s nearest approach to “yellow” journalism (sample head: “Killed Her Stepdaughter, And Then Cracked Her Husband’s Skull With an Ax”), was purchased by Charles Otis along with the News and Herald and consolidated into the Cleveland News. Otis then sold both the News and the Leader to Daniel R. Hanna, son of Mark Hanna. The Leader had fallen far behind the Plain Dealer in circulation, however, and in 1917 Hanna sold it to his morning rival, keeping the afternoon News and continuing the Sunday Leader as the Sunday News-Leader. Burying the six-day Leader, the Plain Dealer then had the morning field to itself.

Following World War I, Cleveland’s newspapers settled into a stasis that would endure for nearly half a century. By and large, they were a conservative lot; brash, jazzy tabloids were springing up elsewhere, but none would try the Cleveland market. Publisher William Randolph Hearst likewise never had a Cleveland outlet. One final attempt to start a new local morning daily was made in the 1920s, but despite financial backing from the Van Sweringens, the Cleveland Times lasted only five years. Only in the ethnic press was there appreciable growth during the period, as Czech, Hungarian, Slovenian, and Polish dailies joined the German Waechter und Anzeiger. By 1938 Cleveland could count fifty foreign- language papers including ten dailies; twenty years later assimilation and immigration quotas had reduced their number to eighteen, including only four dailies.

With its morning monopoly and conservative makeup, the Plain Dealer was the “gray lady” of the mainstream press. It maintained its own bureau in Washington, D.C., which helped make it Cleveland’s “newspaper of record.” In 1932 it reorganized itself into the Forest City Publishing Company to facilitate its purchase of the Cleveland News. It maintained the News as an independent afternoon daily, probably for its nuisance value against the Press, but killed the News-Leader, its only rival in the Sunday field. Unhappy with the increased government activity of the New Deal, the Plain Dealer in 1940 endorsed the first Republican Presidential candidate in its century-long history, Wendell Willkie.

Competition between the News and the Press livened things up in the afternoon field. Two former Chicagoans brought a “Front Page” flair to the Cleveland News. As circulation manager, Arthur McBride wasn’t afraid to employ strong-arm tactics against the competition, which may have prepared him psychologically for his later formation of the Cleveland Browns. City editor A.E.M. Bergener in 1927–a year before a similar trick was depicted fictitiously on Broadway in The Front Page–actually located a fugitive embezzler but didn’t turn him over to the law until he had milked him for several News “exclusives.” The News was prized for its sports coverage, its early racing editions being especially popular on Short Vincent Street.

While the Press maintained a wide circulation advantage over the News, it experienced a major change of direction. In 1924 it endorsed neither the Republican nor Democratic candidate for President but the third-party Progressive Robert M. La Follette. But founder E.W. Scripps died the following year, and the Scripps-Howard chain fell under the direction of the much more conservative Roy Howard. Scripps-Howard papers were still allowed a degree of autonomy in local affairs, however, and in 1928 the Press got a young editor determined to make the most of that independence.

Prematurely bald and only a few inches above five feet in height, Louis B. Seltzer was raised in Cleveland’s Archwood-Denison neighborhood. He dropped out of school in seventh grade to go to work, beginning as an office boy for the Leader before moving over to the Press. Just 31 when he assumed the editorship, “Louie” earned the affection of his staff as both instigator and butt of schoolboy office pranks. He never forgot–nor let others forget– his self-made beginnings. “My heart has always gone out to the children of the rich,” he once wrote. “I feel for them.”

Seltzer believed that newspapers had lost touch with their readers, and he set out to restore a personal relationship with the common people. “I went out into the neighborhoods, the stores, the saloons, the schools, the shops and offices of the town,” he recalled. “The basic thing I discovered was that wanted a paper to be close to them, to be friendly–a paper that they could call on in emergencies and that would fight for them when they had trouble.” To the top of the Press front page he raised the slogan, “The Newspaper That Serves Its Readers.” He hired a Romanian immigrant, Theodore Andrica, and assigned him to Cleveland’s nationalities beat. Andrica began making annual visits to Central and Eastern Europe, bearing messages from Clevelanders to relatives in the old country. During World War II the Press would fulfill its service objective by keeping a photo and data file on area servicemen, printing photos of their wives and infants and a weekly local news digest to be sent to them, and raising funds after the war for a War Memorial Fountain as testimonial to their sacrifices.

With its Associated Press franchise and special war correspondents, the Plain Dealer kept Clevelanders abreast of the World War II battlefronts. Roelif Loveland described D-Day from a bomber piloted by a Clevelander over the Allied beachhead. Gordon Cobbledick, a sports writer back home, reminded Americans that there was still a war going on in the Pacific despite celebrations over Germany’s surrender:

It was V-E Day at home, but on Okinawa men shivered in foxholes half filled with water and waited for the command to move forward across the little green valley that was raked from both ends by machine-gun fire….

It was V-E Day everywhere, but on Okinawa the forests of white crosses grew and boys who had hardly begun to live died miserably in the red clay of this hostile land.

Both accounts were later included in the collection, A Treasury of Great Reporting.

Reporters and columnists had begun to shed their anonymity between the two world wars. Jack Raper skewered politicians in the Press, often simply by quoting them verbatim–alongside a standard icon he employed of a rampant bull, which came in several sizes to suit the outrageousness of the quote. W. Ward Marsh turned verbal thumbs up or down on movies for the Plain Dealer. Eleanor Clarage reported society doings for the Plain Dealer, Winsor French for the Press. Ed Bang and Ed McAuley headed the superb sports staff of the News. In 1953 Plain Dealer cartoonist Ed Kuekes brought Cleveland its first (and for half a century its only) Pulitzer Prize for an editorial cartoon depicting an American soldier old enough to die for his country in Korea but not yet old enough to vote.

In 1933 reporters from the Press and the News had demonstrated their growing power by organizing the country’s first chapter of the Newspaper Guild, a labor union for editorial and business employees.

Louis Seltzer and the Cleveland Press emerged from World War II at the height of their dominance. Seltzer was called arguably “the best and most effective newspaper editor in America” by historian Bruce Catton, himself a former Plain Dealer reporter. To others he was simply “Mr. Cleveland.” He and his paper were regarded a “kingmakers” in local politics, having successfully promoted the careers of Ohio Governor Frank Lausche and Cleveland Mayor Anthony Celebreeze. After the Press moved into a new building on Lakeside Avenue in 1959 there were tongue-in-cheek rumors of a secret tunnel under East 9th Street, through which mayors might pass from City Hall to get their marching orders from the Press editor.

Such power could come with a price. When the Press endorsed an extension of Clifton Boulevard through Seltzer’s own Clifton Park neighborhood, the editor was denounced by some of his neighbors as a traitor even though the new road would abut his own backyard. His most controversial stand came in the Sheppard murder case of 1954, in which he unleashed the power of the Press against a Bay Village doctor suspected of killing his wife. When the wheels of justice-seemed to be turning a bit too leisurely, Seltzer himself wrote a series of signed front-page editorials under such inflammatory heads as “Somebody Is Getting Away With Murder,” “Why Don’t the Police Quiz No. 1 Suspect?”, and “Quit Stalling and Bring Him In!” Sheppard was tried and convicted but later released on the basis of prejudicial publicity, then retried and acquitted.

In the meantime, however, Seltzer’s Press had been named by Time magazine as one of the ten best newspapers in America, putting it in a class with such peers as the Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. When an indigent woman died alone in the city, said Time, she left a note addressed to the Press. “The only thing I own is my dog,” read the note. “Please take it to the Press. I know the home they find will be a good one.”

In its heady days of postwar supremacy, the most serious threat to the Press was neither the News nor Plain Dealer but the arrival of television. Scripps-Howard brought Cleveland its first television station in 1947. This was WEWS, which was soon followed by WNBK (now WKYC) and WXEL (now WJW). The latter in 1951 hired a Western Reserve University speech professor, Warren Guthrie, to deliver the news as the “Sohio Reporter.” Working before the coming of teleprompters, Guthrie recited his fifteen-minute telecast from memory with the aid of only a few brief notes. He lasted for twelve years before being replaced by an anchor team.

Much longer-lived was the television career of Dorothy Fuldheim, who joined WEWS when she was 54, two months before the station signed on. She brought considerable experience as a lecturer, having acquired her material through interviews with such newsmakers as Adolf Hitler (“he didn’t know I was Jewish”). At WEWS she became the first woman in the nation to have her own news show, a program of interviews and analysis. Barely five feet tall, she was nevertheless known as “Big Red” both for her flaming hairdo and take-noprisoners style. In 1970 she threw hippie Jerry Rubin off her show in mid- program for his offensive manners but several weeks later cried on-air while defending the students after the Kent State shootings. She received mostly hostile feedback for that but also discovered a basket of flowers at her doorstep with a note from some students reading “We wept with you last night.”* The only thing that could knock Big Red off the air was a stroke at the age of 91.

* Television, unfortunately, can leave a spotty paper (or even tape) trail. Transcripts of Fuldheim’s commentaries were sometimes reproduced for viewers who requested them, but evidently a complete file was never assembled. WEWS eventually sent what they had to Kent State University, but ironically, it didn’t seem to include the Kent State shooting script.

Television deprived newspapers of their news monopoly, especially those published in the afternoon. Whereas workingmen formerly would come home and pick up their evening paper after supper, now families would turn on the evening news after or even during supper. Afternoon papers began disappearing in city after city. In Cleveland the News was never able to achieve even half the circulation of the Press, and the Plain Dealer finally sold it to its afternoon rival in 1960. For a year or two the surviving evening daily was published as the Cleveland Press and News, but the name “News” got smaller and smaller and finally vanished altogether. The Plain Dealer used the occasion to move from its building at Superior and East 6th (present site of the Cleveland Public Library’s Stokes wing) down the street to the former News plant at 18th and Superior.

Under a young new publisher, the Plain Dealer began to cast off its stodgy gray image. Thomas Vail took over the reins of his great grandfather Liberty Holden’s paper and set out to brighten up its makeup and lighten up its reporting and editorials. In 1964 the Plain Dealer endorsed its first Democrat for President in twenty-four years, Lyndon Johnson. Later its full-page endorsement would help Carl Stokes become the first African American mayor of a major American city.

Newsweek magazine in 1965 praised the paper’s “tigerish” attitude. With a circulation within 5,000 copies of its rival, the Plain Dealer was poised to challenge the Press on its own terms. When the Holden heirs decided to sell the paper to the Newhouse chain in 1967, it brought a record price of $54.2 million and had little effect on the paper’s editorial policy. During the Vietnam War the Plain Dealer was the first newspaper in the country to publish pictures of American atrocities at My Lai.

Though elimination of the News had given the Press a spike in circulation, in the long run it couldn’t compensate for the indigenous problems of an evening newspaper. Cleveland’s third and longest newspaper strike in 1962 shut both of its papers down for 129 days, but the Press emerged with a circulation loss nearly three times that of the Plain Dealer. By 1970, not long after the retirement of Louis Seltzer, the Press trailed its morning adversary by nearly 25,000 copies. It may have been a writers’ paper, as exemplified by columnists Don Robertson and Dick Feagler, but it was becoming less and less of a readers’ paper. (“Newspapermen’s newspapers,” as an editor of the defunct New York Herald Tribune once observed, “always seem to fold.”)

Even as the Press observed its one hundredth birthday with a special Centennial Edition in 1978, there were signs that Scripps-Howard intended to sell it or fold it. Two years later, after negotiating concessions from its unions, Cleveland businessman Joseph E. Cole purchased the Press in a last-ditch effort to save it. His rescue measures included the introduction of a Sunday edition followed by that of a morning edition. Neither availed, and the Press printed its final edition on June 17, 1982. For the first time since the early days of the Cleveland Herald, Cleveland was a one-newspaper town. The fact that it had plenty of company in such places as Denver, Columbus, and Atlanta, did little to ease the withdrawal pains of newspaper addicts.

Some of the news void in print was filled by the appearance of alternative newspapers. Designed to provide readers with news and opinions not generally covered by mainstream media, they were usually of tabloid or smaller size and appeared weekly or less frequently. One of the earliest and most outspoken was Point of View, a bi-weekly newsletter published on a shoestring by Roldo Bartimole, a former Plain Dealer reporter. It was largely a one-man operation that gloried in the Socratic role of “a gadfly on the body politic.” Objects of his exposure ranged from City Hall to Bartimole’s former employer, the Plain Dealer. While its subscribers never numbered more than a few hundred, they included a heavy proportion of the area’s opinion and decision makers.

Somewhat more traditional in appearance and approach was the Cleveland Edition, a free weekly tabloid founded by former teacher Bill Gunlocke in the wake of the demise of the Press. Its staff included Bartimole, former Press writer Doug Clarke, and humorist Eric Broder. Like Point of View, its editorial policy tended to be anti- establishmentarian. Its exclusive reliance on advertising revenue proved to be its downfall, and the Edition ceased publication in 1992. Another alternative weekly, the Free Times, took over where the Edition left off but after a few years met the same fate. It merged into the Scene, originally an entertainment weekly that survives as Cleveland’s principal alternative newspaper.

City Magazines also helped to fill the information void left by the disappearance of afternoon dailies. Cleveland’s principal representative was the eponymous Cleveland Magazine, launched in 1972 by publishers Oliver Emerson and Lute Harmon. “The whole idea was to do stories nobody else was doing,” said Michael Roberts, the editor for 17 years. A notable example was a 10,000-word article on the mayoral administration of Dennis Kucinich by Frank Kuznik in 1978. By the turn of the millennium, however, serious journalism tended to become secondary to such “lifestyle” features as “Best Suburbs,” “Best Schools,” and “Best Restaurants.”

As Cleveland’s sole surviving daily, the Plain Dealer prospered in the 1990s. It replaced hot type with computer-set printing and increased its editorial staff from 270 to 400. In 1994 it opened a new $200 million production and distribution center in suburban Brook Park, where four huge Goss presses could each turn out 75,000 copies an hour featuring full- color reproductions. Editorial and business staffs remained at a remodeled Superior Avenue building, from where pages were fiber-optically transmitted to the Brook Park plant.

Editorially, the Plain Dealer compiled a rather mixed record of victory and defeat. Its music critic carried on such a relentlessly adverse campaign against a new Cleveland Orchestra conductor that he was finally removed from the beat. In a one-newspaper town the power of the press needed to be used but not abused. While the Plain Dealer may have been somewhat tardy in addressing corruption in Cuyahoga County government, its subsequent focus on the issue helped bring about not only retribution but reform. And finally, the paper’s long drought ended when columnist Connie Schultz won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2005, the paper’s first Pulitzer in half a century. Even this had a downside, however, as Schultz afterwards turned in her resignation in order to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest due to her marriage to U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

With the turn of the millenium in 2000, the Plain Dealer discovered that technology could be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it enabled the paper to print electronically in color, but on the other it empowered a young generation to bypass hard copy altogether and obtain their information electronically. The internet posed a more critical threat to newspapers than television ever did. Along with other newspapers across the country the Plain Dealer began losing readers, which, exacerbated by the collapse of the economy in 2008, resulted in a loss of advertising.

Advertising generally has been an even more vital part of newspaper revenue than subscriptions, which is why editors have often been more fearful of offending advertisers than readers. Circulation figures traditionally have been important to newspapers chiefly as a means of setting advertising rates: the more readers, the higher the ad rates. E.W. Scripps had dreamed of putting out a newspaper free of advertising, reasoning that

If the public would insist on paying the publishers of the daily. . .journals the full cost of producing the same, plus a profit, so that a would-be honest publisher would not be compelled to depend for his existence upon the good will and patronage of the advertiser, there would be a chance at least of our having a less dishonest press.

Scripps actually tried such an adless newspaper in Chicago, but World War I helped put an end to the experiment. In the century or so since Scripps, newspapers have still failed to find a substitute for advertising.

Most dailies, including the Plain Dealer, have made efforts to capture internet readers by offering digital samplings of their print editions, but they’ve yet to attract enough advertisers to pay the costs. They are also trying to figure out how to persuade digital readers to pay for their electronic product, when nearly everything else on the Internet is available at no extra cost. Some newspapers began erecting “firewalls” after their first few stories, beyond which readers would have to subscribe for more. The Plain Dealer set up a website,, containing stories from its own paper and other sources, but offered it free of charge.

Around the beginning of 2013, the Plain Dealer appeared to be approaching a crisis that threatened its very existence, at least as readers knew it. Advance Publications, the newspaper branch of the Newhouse organization, had trimmed back its papers in several cities from daily to three-times-a-week publications. The hit list was headed by the venerable New Orleans Times-Picayune, which suggested that the Plain Dealer itself might soon be under the gun. Plain Dealer employees, with backing from the Newspaper Guild and the Communications Workers of America, launched a public campaign to save their daily. Besides a television commercial, their efforts included a Facebook page (fighting fire with fire?) and a petition that collected more than 7,000 signatures.

A reprieve came in April of that year, when editor Debra Adams Simmons announced at a newsroom meeting that the Plain Dealer would remain a seven-day newspaper. It was not a total victory, however, as the paper would cut back on home delivery sometime that summer to four days a week. On the week’s remaining three days, readers might either pick up their “PD” at a newstand or subscribe to a new e-edition–“a digital version of the newspaper itself.” One other cost of survival would be a further reduction of the news staff: already down to little more than 160, another 52 would have to go.

Such is the state of print journalism in Cleveland, nearly two centuries after the first appearance of hard copy. What began with a single voice in the wilderness, followed by dozens of successors of various sizes and quality, has come down again to basically a single lone survivor, the Plain Dealer. True, that survivor retains a far from negligible 300,000 readers, but that is no guarantee of existence in an era of rapidly changing methods of communication.

Are those remaining readers a dying breed, or can print journalism attract new generations to the smell of newsprint? And if newsprint is to be replaced by some form of cybercommunication, will the new system possess the authority of a tightly edited metropolitan newspaper? Will it have sufficient resources to expose future Watergates, Pentagon Papers, or Cuyahoga County corruption?

More importantly, would a digital daily feel a responsibility to fulfill the historical role of American journalism as the “Fourth Branch of Government”? One regional publisher who keenly felt that responsibility was John S. Knight, who parlayed his Akron Beacon Journal into the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. “As responsible purveyors of information and opinion,” wrote Knight,, “our newspapers are committed to the philosophy that journalism is likewise a public trust, an institution which serves, advances, and protects the public welfare.”

In the past, newspapers have formed uniquely personal relationships with their readers, who have taken their passing like the death of a friend or a relative. That has not prevented the death of some great papers, however, whenever their circulation has fallen below a critical mass. When the Chicago Daily News folded some thirty-five years ago, one of its writers wondered even then whether print journalism was an endangered species. “If the public can tolerate a Chicago without a paper like the Daily News–and apparently it can–then clearly our society is not functioning at the high pitch of informed civility that Jefferson envisioned,” wrote David Elliott. “But then Jefferson never imagined Chicago, or television, or mass advertising, or the combustion car and its stepchild of exurban sprawl.”

Or computers and the internet, we might add. It was Jefferson, too, who once said that if he had to make a choice between having “a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” he wouldn’t hesitate to opt for newspapers. If newspapers are a dying breed, we had better come up with their equivalent.

When Cleveland Saw Red by John Vacha


Charles Ruthenberg 1924 (wiki)

 The pdf file is here


By John Vacha

Along with the rest of the country, Clevelanders were shocked on the evening of September 6, 1901, to learn that President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo, New York. What brought the news closer to home than elsewhere, however, was the knowledge soon to follow that the man who had fired the fatal bullet had been a resident of their own city. Leon Czolgosz was the son of Polish immigrants living in Cleveland’s Warsawa district on the southeast side.

A reporter from the Cleveland World tracked down the assassin’s father on Fleet Avenue. He had once run a neighborhood saloon, where a group of anarchists was said to have met in a hall above the barroom. “I think he is insane,” said Paul Czolgosz of his son. “I don’t think he is an anarchist. He is, I believe, a member of the Socialist Labor Party, but of no other organization.”

In fact, the younger Czolgosz had once been rebuffed in his attempt to join a local anarchist society and was a classic example of the loner in the history of American assassinations. Then as now, however, conspiracy-minded Americans were prone to associate foreigners and immigrants indiscriminately with such European political movements as Anarchism, Communism, and Socialism.

Even native-American politicians were not immune from such suspicions. Tom L. Johnson, Cleveland’s great reform mayor, may have been “the best Mayor of the best governed city in the United States” in the eyes of muckraker Lincoln Steffens, but businessman Mark Hanna saw Johnson as a “socialist-anarchist-nihilist.” Most of Johnson’s reforms happened to be as American as apple pie: paving and cleaning the streets, removing “Don’t Walk on the Grass” signs from city parks, building municipal bath houses, and instituting a city purchasing department to eliminate waste and corruption. The closest he carne to socialism was in his campaigns to establish municipal ownership of electric power and street railways. That was enough for conservatives like Hanna, whose antipathy couldn’t have been allayed by the sight of the mayor campaigning in a Winton automobile known as the “Red Devil.”

Tom Johnson was mayor of a city of 381,768 residents in 1900, one third of whom were foreign-born and three quarters of whom were either foreign-born or children of the same. Two thirds of the city’s working class were engaged in construction, manufacturing, and service trades, most of them was skilled or semi-skilled laborers. They lived in working-class neighborhoods dominated by up-and-down double or front-and-back-yard single houses. Many if not most still lacked indoor plumbing–hence the need for public baths. Working conditions were even more primitive than housing conditions, marked by low wages (15 to 25 cents an hour), long hours (10 to 12 per day), child labor, and sweatshop standards. Employers resisted workers’ efforts to organize for better conditions by the use of company spies, strikebreakers, and blacklists against workers involved in unionizing activities.

Two approaches were available for those workers who persisted in attempting to organize: the traditional craft unions of the American Federation of Labor or the class-oriented Socialist Labor Party. Labor unions sought to achieve their goals through collective bargaining with employers or government legislation, while Socialists sought broader reforms through the replacement of capitalism by a workers’ government that would take over and operate the major means of production.

While native-American workers tended to favor trade unions, and immigrants were more comfortable with socialist organizations from their European experience, there was a considerable overlap between the two approaches. Max Hayes, a native-born American printer, for example, was secretary of Cleveland’s Central Labor Union as well as a member of the Socialist Party of America. He co-founded and edited the official organ of the Central Labor Union, the Cleveland Citizen, and ran for Congress and Ohio Secretary of State on the Socialist ticket. He regarded unionism as his primary allegiance, however, and believed that socialists should work for reform through unions and the existing political system.

A major test for Cleveland’s union movement came with the garment workers’ strike of 1911. It started on June 6, when 5,000 Cleveland garment workers walked off the Job, only three months after 135 New York workers had died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Cleveland’s garment industry ranked fourth in the nation, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union viewed it as a potential model for organization. Their demands included a fifty-hour work week with a half holiday on Saturdays and no more than two hours overtime a day, abolition of sweatshop conditions, and a raise in pay.

Garment manufacturers matched their striking employees in a display of solidarity. Refusing to negotiate with union representatives or agree to arbitration, the owners kept their businesses in operation by bringing in strikebreakers and sub-contracting with out-of-town plants. Strikers organized parades to promote their cause, including a march through the downtown business district by two female locals. The manufacturers countered by hiring agents to infiltrate the unions and incite members to violence. Told by one of these that their tactics were “too lady-like,” female strikers responded by assaulting scabs and police with their purses and fists, thereby turning public opinion against the strike. After five months, the strikers returned to work with none of their demands gained.

Such experiences undoubtedly prompted workers, especially those of recent European background, to consider socialistic solutions to the labor question. An estimated four out of five male workers, and two of five female employees, in Cleveland’s garment industry were foreign-born. When Charles Ruthenberg was ready to Join the Socialist Party in 1909, he found only eight English speaking locals in the city, as against eighteen of various nationalities, led by the Germans, Czechs, and Poles.

The son of German immigrants, Ruthenberg had begun his political odyssey as a supporter of Tom L. Johnson. Though still a believer in the free enterprise system, he was against special privilege and in favor of the mayor’s campaign for municipal ownership of the city’s street railways. Ruthenberg was not a laborer or tradesman but a white collar worker. Even before Johnson’s defeat in 1909, however, he was rapidly moving in the direction of socialism. Asked much later for the cause of his conversion, he replied, “Through the Cleveland Public Library.” When Eugene V. Debs, the most prominent socialist in America, spoke at Grays Armory in 1911, brochures listing the library’s holdings on socialism were distributed to those in attendance. Ruthenberg became recording secretary of Cleveland’s Socialist Party and within two years was running for mayor against Newton D. Baker and earning a respectable 8,145 votes.

It was a time fermenting with change, for socialists as well as progressives in general. Early in 1912, a state constitutional convention proposed no fewer than forty-one amendments to the Ohio constitution, last revamped in 1851. Voters approved thirty-three of them, including the great ballot reforms of initiative and referendum. Equally important for cities such as Cleveland was passage of a “home rule” amendment granting cities greater control over ways of addressing some of the unique problems of urban life. It had been drafted largely by Cleveland’s new mayor, Newton D. Baker, who promptly set about promoting the adoption of a new city charter.

Baker also played a prominent role in the Presidential election of 1912. At the Democratic National Convention he gave an impassioned speech from the floor which led to the overturning of the constitution’s unit rule, thus releasing nineteen of Ohio’s delegates to vote for the eventual nominee, Woodrow Wilson. A split in the Republican party between supporters of President William H. Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt virtually guaranteed Wilson’s election. So great was Baker’s dislike of Roosevelt that he expressed a preference for Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate. In an unscientific exit poll of Cleveland theatergoers taken by the Cleveland Press, Debs actually outpolled Taft, finished third behind Wilson and Roosevelt. Wilson carried Ohio in the general election, but Debs picked up an impressive 89,930 votes in the state, a tenth of his national total of 900,000. Ruthenberg, the Socialist candidate for governor, was close behind with 87,709 votes. The party’s statewide appeal was much wider than its 3,500 dies-paying members, gaining Ohio a national reputation as the “Red State.”

Ethnic groups remained the core of the Socialist Party, especially in multi-cultural Cleveland. Many of their meetings took place in the old Germania Hall, rechristened Acme Hall when the original tenants, the Germania Turnverein, left in 1908 for newer quarters. On the west side, Socialist meetings were often called to order in a hall built by the Hungarian Workingmen’s Singing Club on Lorain Avenue. One Hungarian woman recalled passing the hat there for Socialist contributions following a Ruthenberg speech. Ruthenberg was often the featured English-speaker of the night at these gatherings, appearing at them often several nights a week. He would later observe that the best working-class daily newspapers in America all happened to be printed in foreign languages. One was the Americke Delnicke Listy (American Daily News), located in Cleveland’s Czech neighborhood on the southeast side. During the garment strike it had attempted to discourage strikebreakers by printing their names and addresses.

When war clouds gathered over Europe in 1914, Cleveland’s socialists turned May Day into an antiwar demonstration, marching through Public Square and rallying that evening in Acme Hall. War indeed broke out that August, and 3,000 socialists showed up in the rain for an antiwar protest in Wade Park. Though confined as yet to Europe, the First World War presented serious issues for American socialists, particularly those of foreign extraction. As socialists they were opposed to all wars as manifestations of capitalist rivalries. To the various Slavic and Magyar nationalities within the socialist movement, however, the war offered the promise of liberating their cultural homelands from German, Austrian, or Russian domination.

As events pushed America closer to participation, the war became more than an academic question f or American socialists and workers. Ruthenberg and the socialists campaigned against American entry right up to the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s war message to Congress. They scheduled a stop-the-war meeting f or April 1, 1917, at Grays Armory, only to find the doors locked upon their arrival. Undampened, Ruthenberg led them in the rain to register their protest on Public Square.

For workers of all political persuasions, the war offered the benefit of high employment. Taking advantage of the wartime labor shortage, the garment workers again went on strike in 1918. The manufacturers this time agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration, but only at the urging of Secretary of War Newton Baker, former Mayor of Cleveland, who wanted to insure the supply of military uniforms. The workers not only won a substantial raise but secured union recognition in Cleveland’s men’s clothing industry.

America’s socialists found the government far less tolerant of their political activities. Foreign-born citizens, especially those from enemy countries, saw their loyalties under suspicion. An Americanization Board was established in Cleveland by the Mayor’s Advisory Committee to teach English to foreign-speaking aliens and to encourage them to become naturalized American citizens. Max Hayes and the moderate branch of the Socialist Party in general supported America’s participation in the war.

Charles Ruthenberg had become the recognized leader of the Socialist Party’s left wing. Even after America’s declaration of war against the Central Powers, he and other socialists continued to speak out against the war and the military conscription act. Given the choice between dropping his political activities or losing his position as office manager in one of Cleveland’s leading garment makers, Ruthenberg turned down a $5,000 raise and $10,000 stock offer to work full time for socialism. Alfred Wagenknecht, state secretary of the Socialist Party, was arrested at an antiwar meeting on Public Square, near the statue recently dedicated to Tom L. Johnson and free speech. (Years earlier, when the notorious anarchist Emma Goldman had come to town and dared Johnson to stop her from speaking, the mayor had invited her to have her say on Public Square.)

Ruthenberg and Wagenknecht were soon charged with obstructing the Conscription Act and sentenced to a year in the workhouse in Canton, Ohio. Even under sentence, Ruthenberg was on the ballot for mayor and received 27,000 votes, more than a quarter of the votes cast. Two Socialists were elected to the city council and another to the board of education in that election, though the board member was subsequently prosecuted under the Espionage Act and removed from office.

Eugene Debs came to Canton in 1918 to address the Socialist Party’s state convention. After visiting Ruthenberg in the workhouse, he went to the park across the street to deliver a fiery antiwar speech to a thousand supporters and a couple of note-taking government agents. Two weeks later, Debs was arrested as he arrived in Cleveland to speak at a socialist gathering at the Bohemian Gardens on Clark Avenue. He was tried for violating the Espionage Act in the U.S. District Court in downtown Cleveland and sentenced to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Following Ruthenberg’s example, he ran for President in 1920 and pulled in nearly a million votes from behind bars.

Despite such moral victories, socialism in the United States never recovered from the hysteria of World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1918 in Russia brought hope to socialists everywhere, but fear and alarm to their enemies. Although fighting ended in November, 1918, wartime passions still burned fiercely in America, which had entered the conflict so belatedly. There were race riots in twenty-three American cities in 1919, fueled by the urban incursion of African Americans in search of wartime Jobs.

Cleveland had its own riots that year, but the targets were reds, not blacks. Some 30,000 socialists and their sympathizers gathered as usual on May 1 for the annual May Day observance. From various starting points they marched towards Public Square, where Ruthenberg was to deliver the oration of the day. Tens of thousands more lined the streets to watch, not all of them sympathetic. As the columns, Ruthenberg at the head of one, reached the more crowded downtown streets, onlookers began to attack the marchers, trying to snatch their red flags and break up their ranks. Among the attackers were army veterans, patriotic vigilantes, and, by some accounts, the police themselves. Two people were killed, scores sent to hospitals, and more than a hundred arrested, most of them marchers.

Officially, the May Day Riots were blamed on the socialists, who carried such “provocative” banners as “Workers of the World, Unite!” Even Max Hayes blamed the riots on incendiary statements by Ruthenberg. The city banned the red flag and talked of purchasing six tanks for riot control. Ruthenberg was arrested for “Assault with intent to kill,” a charge which was later dismissed.

Later accounts generally saw the marchers as the victims of mob action, spontaneous or even organized. “I saw a peaceable line of unarmed paraders attacked on an obviously preconcerted signal,” Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Ted Robinson would write years later. “I saw men and women brutally beaten…. I saw the blood flow in sickening streams at the city’s busiest corner; I saw the victims arrested while the attackers went free; and I saw the fining and Jailing of these victims on the following day.”

By the end of that year, Ruthenberg had led the radical wing of socialists into the formation of the Communist Party of the United States. He became the party’s general secretary and spent his remaining years either organizing or fighting and serving prison sentences on such charges as advocating the violent overthrow of the government. At the age of 44, he died of peritonitis following a ruptured appendix in Chicago in 1926. His ashes were taken to Moscow, where he joined John Reed and Bill Haywood as the only Americans interred in the Kremlin.

It was largely the reaction of the Red Scare that prompted the United States to impose immigration quotas following World War I. Such legislation, and the illusory prosperity of the “Roaring Twenties,” checked the appeal of socialism in America. Not even the Great Depression could restore it to the strength it had demonstrated in Cleveland and other urban centers in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

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