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  • Writer's pictureTim Burke



Over the course of his life George B. Cox went from street urchin to the most powerful politician to ever walk streets of Cincinnati, personally controlling more than 5,000 patronage jobs by the 1890’s. His rise to power was rooted in the post- Civil War economic and social changes sweeping the nation by the 1870’s. Cincinnati like most large cities was pummeled by crime, disease, growing labor unrest and pollution as the twin forces of urban growth and industrialization washed over it. Lacking the capacity to respond, Cincinnati struggled with a population that grew by 68% from 1870 to 1900 as immigrants and those who abandoned farming flooded the city in search of factory jobs. The city’s reaction was haphazard at best. The problems caused by the rapid transition from a rural- agricultural economy to an urban- industrial economy during the Gilded Age, as this era was known, overwhelmed and paralyzed municipal government. Planning and decision making based on consensus, were almost nonexistent making it virtually impossible to effectively solve new urban problems which simply festered.

“Boss” Cox exploited the political chaos and declining quality of life of this era, relying on a combination of organizational ingenuity and political intuition to build an organization that controlled local government for more than 27 years. In a manner of speaking, he centralized corruption, limiting the self- centered impulses of individual politicians that created chaos and political stagnation with a disciplined party machine that centralized decision making at the top with himself and a small cadre of his lieutenants. Cox ensured things did get done and that decisions were made with new infrastructure and services to address the new realities of urban living. There were however costs – the most important of which was to democracy. Elections were often fixed to deliver the predetermined outcome Cox sought. The same could be said of city council votes and judicial decisions. In each case the primary determining factor in the outcome was the desire of the Cox machine, not the will of the people. Democracy of this era was a sham. There were also financial costs. While things did indeed get done, it often meant the misspending of public dollars. By any standards corruption was rampant and the financial crimes numerous. While Cox was the architect of this political machine and its leader, it included several thousand members committed to its goals. To say the least, George B. Cox’s legacy is complicated.


George Cox was a product of the streets. Born in 1853 to English immigrants, Cox lost his father at the age of eight forcing him to leave school to help support the family. Biographical material on his childhood is thin except for the fact it was an austere early life that became a rags to riches story beginning with a litany of jobs suitable for a child, like boot blacking and hawking newspapers. Cox was never known to be loquacious even in the later stages of life when he was the most powerful political figure in the city, a personality trait that apparently stretched back to his childhood with New York Times describing him as “remarkably closed mouthed” child.[i] As Cox grew older he worked as a delivery boy for a local butcher and in a gambling house owned by his brother-in -law, Tom Mead, in a working class neighborhood in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. While Cincinnati’s population of those years, 160,000 people, is only half what it is today, they were shoe horned into only six square miles ( versus 80 square miles of the present ) between the Ohio River and surrounding hills, making for a population density almost eight times higher than today and streets teeming with people.

By the time Cox was 20, he was working in a gambling parlor and tending bar in a corner of Cincinnati presently occupied by Convention Center. It was a nameless neighborhood extending from the vicinity of Convention Center west of I-75 into present day Queens Gate, a corner of the city completely wiped away by urban renewal efforts of the 1950’s. In the late 19th century his quarter of the city consisted of the large Sixth Street Market along with an abundance of brothels, gambling houses, saloons and tobacco shops. Greed, jealously, hubris and every other human foible was on public display there, 24 hours a day and it was here Cox learned about human nature. In this environment it’s not surprising he grew up with the reputation as a street tough, with Cox himself proclaiming later in life that he was “as fond of a scrap as anyone”.

In 1874, at the tender age of 20, he became part owner of a saloon located at a notorious corner of Longworth and John Street (does not exist today) . It was a nondescript drinking establishment, typical of the 1,303 saloons in Cincinnati in 1874, an amazing number for a city of just 216,00, most of which like the saloon Cox owned, catered to the working class .[ii] Cox by all accounts, a big square shoulder man with an intimidating look, kept the peace inside of this establishment but the outside neighborhood earned a reputation as a dangerous place known as Dead Man’s Corner. Arlene Dingilian author of The Political Education of Saloonkeeper(1966) painted a wonderfully nuanced picture of Cox as an intimidating presence, who cleverly learned to let his size and reputation do the talking as someone potentially dangerous and very, very good at delivering an unspoken threat, a valuable skill as he moved into politics and grew more powerful. Quiet but not shy, his unflappable and self-confident nature later earned him the moniker “the Easy Boss of Cincinnati”.

COX DEVELOPS A NEIGHBORHOOD POWER BASE In 1879 at the age of 26, Cox threw his hat into the ring as a Republican candidate for city council due to what he believed was unwarranted police harassment of his saloon patrons. It appears he believed a seat on city council would remedy the situation. Cincinnati’s political environment was so chaotic, party affiliation often didn’t matter with both major political parties highly factionalized. The best avenue to get action in the new sprawling cities of this era was a personal relationship that brought the right pressure to bear on a problem, or throwing the right amount of money at it. It was not unique to Cincinnati as most of the nation’s large cities struggled with good governance.

Though Cox was both young and politically inexperienced he was surprisingly elected to city council, a tribute to unusually sharp political instincts and popularity with his neighbors. Cincinnati’s saloon culture became the epicenter of local urban politics in the late nineteenth century. Murat Halstead, longtime writer and editor of Cincinnati’s Commercial Gazette recognized the importance of these drinking establishments to grassroots politics, commenting in 1894 that “every saloon is a political clubhouse”. The 19th century saloon was the place men went to socialize, serving as a kind of family room /parlor with the cramped living conditions of the working class caused by a shortage of cheap housing in most cities, especially for immigrants like Cincinnati’s large German community. As a consequence, saloon keepers became familiar with a large swath of a neighborhood’s residents who visited on a daily basis not only to socialize but also to conduct business and cement political alliance with a stein of German lager. This allowed saloon keepers to establish large social networks of a local nature often with a deep and broad understanding of their customers. There could not be any better preparation for establishing a grassroots political organization .

THE WARD SYSTEM Cox’s neighborhood was part of the 18th Ward which became the power base for his rise to political prominence between 1879 and 1885. The ward system was used in Cincinnati for the purpose of representation on city council with one councilman elected to represent each ward in the city.[iii] As a longtime resident and saloon keeper in the 18th Ward, George Cox was known to a wide swath of its residents. In 1881 he moved to solidify his control of the 18th ward and make himself more important in local Republican circles by mounting the equivalent of a coup, winning control over the ward’s 12 Republican delegates to the party’s nominating convention. In the 1880’s approximately 200 delegates from the city’s 25 wards ( the number of wards has changed over time) gathered for Hamilton County’s Republican Convention during each election cycle to select the party candidates for a variety of offices. Primary (party elections )did not become part of the American political system until the early 20th century leaving an important part of today’s election process behind the closed doors of a party’s nominating convention. While the nominating convention allowed much wider participation in selecting a party’s candidates than leaving it to a small caucus of party leaders, it was still somewhat opaque, allowing all kinds of dubious political games to play out behind closed doors.

During this era, party delegates often sold their primary votes to candidates, part of the corrupt transactional nature of machine politics during the Gilded Era. Cox skillfully maneuvered his way into becoming a broker for all 12 of the 18th Ward’s delegates which he packaged as a single block enhancing the value of the votes. By dealing with Cox, a candidate for office was negotiating for 12 delegate votes, making him important to Republican candidates trying to win the party’s nomination for any citywide office. This marked the beginning of his rise to prominence inside of Cincinnati’s Republican circles. His reputation for effectively solving the problems in the 18th Ward and political guile, gave him iron clad control of the ward but it was his reputation for reliability that won over Republican power brokers outside of it, thus expanding his control over party delegates to four additional downtown wards by 1885.

AN IDEA IS BORN It didn’t take long for Cox to realize how financially lucrative politics could be, leading to the sale of his saloon in 1881, however after 1885 Cox never held elected office again. He suffered defeats in consecutive runs for county clerk in 1885 and 1889 but made the realization that real political power was not necessarily in the hands of elected office holders, but behind the scenes in less conspicuous appointed positions-- on boards and commissions where jobs, money and political favors could be more easily doled out to loyal party members .[iv] From these positions a political “boss” was unburdened of the need to win and keep widespread public support, resulting in more political maneuver space with far less public visibility. For this reason, many of the nation’s most powerful machine bosses did not hold elected office. Cox also realized he had a “peculiar fitness” as a power broker with his savvy understanding of human nature and extensive social networks, byproducts of his saloonist experience and growing up on the streets of Cincinnati.

While he quickly won over the people of the 18th ward, it took time and the right circumstances for the power brokers across the city and beyond, to develop confidence in his effectiveness and most importantly in his reliability. In time it became clear, once his services were bought, he delivered, winning over Republican delegates from neighboring wards. Once he controlled a block of delegates from five wards, he was a major player in local Republican circles with the power to determine who the party ran in city and county elections. Within just a few years of starting his political career he had succeeded in being appointed to important positions like the Board of Equalization which appraised property values for tax purposes. The Board of Equalization was a good place to win friends and reward loyal allies with low property appraisals, potentially saving friends or associates hundreds of dollars in taxes each year. Cox demonstrably understood early on, that the right bribe, the right favor or the right threat did wonders.

THE COURT HOUSE RIOT OF 1886 In these early years Cox also benefitted from growing frustration with living conditions in the city. Throughout the late 19th century the wealthy and comfortable began abandoning the downtown basin where conditions deteriorated as it became more crowded and industrialized. In 1884 frustration exploded into the Court House Riot, the most violent chapter in Cincinnati’s history, resulting in 56 deaths, more than 300 injuries and millions of dollars in property damage. Ironically it was caused by unhappiness with the violence on Cincinnati’s streets and the inability of the legal system to address it. Crowds were enraged by what was perceived as a lenient sentence handed down to William Berner, who was convicted of manslaughter and given a 20-year sentence. Many believed he was guilty of coldblooded murder and deserved the death penalty. For years prior to the Berner case, Cincinnatians were vocal about their unhappiness with the lawlessness of the city’s streets and corruption in local courts. The Berner sentence was the last straw for them, setting off three days of rioting. The aftermath was devastating for Democrats who were accused of handling the affair badly. The decision to call out the militia by Democratic mayor Thomas Stephens was viewed by German language newspapers as enflaming the crisis, causing many of the deaths. The election of 1885 then, marked the end of Stephens and the Democratic Party’s control of local government with the election Amor Smith, a Republican, though a rival of Cox, as mayor. Cox was still relatively new in the political game and still wasn’t seen as part of the establishment by most Cincinnatians.


The rising influence of Cox inside Cincinnati’s Republican Party however, was noticed and appreciated by Dr. Thomas Graydon, a Cincinnatian and member of the Ohio General Assembly. Graydon was a political ally of Joseph B. Foraker, the Republican governor of Ohio who had failed to win Hamilton County twice in previous races for the governorship . Graydon believed Cox was the man most capable of safely

delivering Hamilton County to Foraker and other Republican candidates in the future. The result, was an alliance between Cox and Foraker engineered by Graydon that became a catalyst for building the political machine that took control of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for decades to come. Graydon and Foraker engineered legislation creating the Board of Public Affairs, a new state board given the authority to control between 1,200 and 2,000 patronage jobs associated with the city of Cincinnati. These jobs became important currency in the game of politics played in Cincinnati with the new governor having the authority to appoint the Board members .[v] Thomas Graydon was immediately appointed to the Board of Public Affairs, who then appointed men Cox identified as dependable Republicans from across Cincinnati’s 25 wards to government positions in return for loyalty to Cox and the party. With these jobs came a range of expectations from supporting Cox favored candidates for elected office, to awarding public contracts to Cox business patrons or even ensuring favorable outcomes on legal issues involving Cox allies. Now armed with the necessary political capital in the form of hundreds of patronage jobs, Cox could begin consolidating his control over the Republican Party in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

COX AND THE CINCINNATI GAS COMPANY Cox patrons came to include not only powerful politicians like Joseph Foraker but wealthy business types like Andrew Hickenlooper, the president of the Cincinnati Gas Company who turned to Cox for support on legislation that benefitted his business interests. By the early 1900’s corporations like the Cincinnati Gas Company made a great deal of money for Cox. When Hickenlooper found himself in competition for the lucrative contract to power Cincinnati’s system of electric street lights, with the Edison Company (a patron of Foraker) whose contract with the city was about to run out, Cox engineered a behind the scenes a deal between the two. The agreement had Hickenlooper’s Cincinnati Gas buying out Edison. Armed with the foreknowledge of the deal, Cox “loaded up on Edison” stock and was rumored to have made no “less than a half million dollars on the deal.”[vi] Politics truly was a path to great wealth for the “Old Boy”, as Cox came to be known.

PATRONAGE The heartbeat of the machine however, remained patronage jobs. It was estimated that George Cox controlled as many as 5,000 city, county and even federal jobs by 1900 : street cleaners, police officers, teachers, janitors, bailiffs, clerks, engineers and the list goes on, all owing their positions to Cox and his associates. Each job appointment was ultimately approved by the “ Old Boy”, though in later years he somewhat reluctantly turned over this task to his top lieutenants , Rudolph Hynicka and Garry Herrmann. Each job holder was expected to not only faithfully carry out machine business but also to make generous donations drawn from their salary to Cox and company. Each was also was expected to know and influence the votes of family and neighbors, understanding their jobs depended on it.

The Cox machine was a highly organized system, with each of the two-dozen ward “captains” expected to know how many votes he could bring to the table in each ward through discussions with their assistants and precinct executives, who personally kept tabs on each job holder as well as their friends and family. On election day polling stations were closely monitored by the ward captains and precinct executives, considered the most reliable machine men, to ensure votes were cast correctly. Before 1891 this was an easy task as political parties were responsible for printing their own ballots, making it simple to track how someone voted. After statewide reform efforts resulted in the secret ballot, verifying how someone voted was a bit more difficult. It required observing how much time was spent in the voting booth, understanding that the expected straight party vote took little time. If the machine faithful did not constitute enough votes to carry the day, more drastic measures were used.

Voting fraud generally took two basic forms – vote buying and sending gangs of voters to the polls to repeatedly vote. Vote buying was a direct quid pro quo – money in exchange for a vote or in some cases even drinks, provided by a loyal saloon owner. As voter registration laws were put into place these kinds of activities became risky, and would only be used when the outcome of an election might be in question. It was more common practice in wards of the downtown basin where the working class and poor resided and votes were cheap.


As the machine won control of key elected offices and patronage jobs were filled by Cox loyalists, it left the door open to schemes of all manners to fill the coffers of the machine. Jacob Baschang for instances, who ran the seventh ward for Cox, was accused of taking bribes from saloon owners to keep them off the liquor tax lists. In another instance it was discovered that one of Cox’s top lieutenants Rud Hynicka, as the treasurer for Hamilton County was not depositing interest payments on county funds amounting to almost $100,00 a year, into the county treasurer’s accounts. But public works contracts were the most lucrative source of profit for the machine. One of the best documented schemes involved awarding a contract that used substandard and cheaper concrete for repairing city streets and building new viaducts in return for a kickback to the city director of public services Harry Sundmaker and his chief engineer George Shipley. Ultimately both were prosecuted and convicted by a young crusading county prosecutor named Henry Hunt. Some of the most lucrative schemes however, involved city council awarding contracts with extraordinary terms to businesses like the Cincinnati Traction Company, Bell Telephone and the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company. There is little doubt in each case the machine benefitted handsomely in the form of bribes and kickbacks though nothing was ever proven.

The influence of the Cox machine also extended to the county court house, where favorable decisions were expected by its allies and patrons as in a case involving the Lane & Brody Company. The City of Cincinnati had won a judgement of $ 238,712 in 1903 against Lane & Brody for failure to deliver equipment for the city’s new waterworks, a major infrastructure project championed by Cox. While the new waterworks was sorely needed by the people of Cincinnati, it also became a profitable venture for the machine, involving bids on dozens of contracts. With top lieutenants of the machine occupying strategic positions on the waterworks board, costs of the project had spiraled out of control. Originally expected to cost $6.5 million, by 1903 cost estimates had risen to more than $11 million. In the Lane & Brody case a group of angry citizens had forced the court action against the company, but before an appeal could be heard, the case was mysteriously settled for $65,000. Later in Senate corruption hearings, it was discovered Cox had personally visited three Circuit Court of Appeals judges on the Lane & Brody matter. One would surmise these visits set the stage for the settlement. The machine was clearly protecting its “friends” who profited handsomely from city tax dollars spent on the waterworks as did the machine whose take was purportedly ran into the millions.


The machine was built around a cadre of ward captains who much like Cox were smart, charismatic figures with extensive social networks extending throughout the neighborhoods in which they resided. They lived with and knew the people in their wards. Many were saloon keepers or “saloonist” like Lewis Kraft who ran the 18th ward, Cox’s old stomping grounds or Frederick Sperber.


Born in 1858 Sperber’s life paralleled that of George Cox in many ways. Like Cox, his parents George and Margaretta Sperber, were working class immigrants though Sperber was raised in the relatively semi-rural confines of the Lick Run Valley (Think of Queen City Avenue). Initially employed in a factory producing bristle brush combs, Sperber became a barkeep and opened a saloon on Queen City Avenue in 1884. Like Cox, the large thick necked Sperber could look intimidating, a big advantage for any saloon keeper. Cox conducted the business of politics in drinking establishments even though he sold his Dead Man’s Corner saloon, maintaining an office above the Mecca Saloon and using Wielert’s Café on Vine Street ford daily meetings of the machine’s brain trust. At Wielert’s, often described as the finest beer garden in Cincinnati, where one was as likely to hear German as English. Sperber like Cox easily maneuvered in two worlds, that of a native-born American citizen and of German Cincinnati. Many of the Cox machine lieutenants were “saloonists” or German, which in Sperber’s case was both. This was no small advantage with more 50, 000 German immigrants living in the city many still heavily concentrated in places like the Over –the-Rhine and the much smaller 24th Ward where Lick Run was located.

Starting in 1886 Fred Sperber rose through the ranks of the new Cox machine holding a variety of municipal and county jobs, all the while remaining the proprietor of his saloon on Queen City Avenue. In 1886 he was sworn in by the Hamilton County Board of Elections as a registrar for the 24 th ward that was comprised of North Fairmount, Lick Run ( South Fairmount), Brighton, and Camp Washington. [vii] He was appointed as an assistant in the County Treasurer’s office in 1892 at a rate of$17. 50 week and by 1900 was the Superintendent of Street Repairs giving him influence over contracts and jobs. An appointment like the Superintendent of Street Repairs was a reward for

faithful service to the Cox machine. Men like Sperber balanced the needs of their businesses like his saloon with the needs of his 24th ward patrons providing jobs or other political favors.

By 1903 Sperber was established enough to be elected to city council representing the 24th ward. During his term of office which ran through 1905 he introduced bills resulting in significant infrastructure improvements to the ward including the building of sewer lines and the paving of major streets including portions of Harrison and Queen City Avenues. He also was a major proponent of the Harrison Viaduct ( later replaced by the Western Hills Viaduct).The Enquirer noted that “ Mr. Sperber has been pushing this gigantic project and it his desire to get it under way before he retires from Council.”[viii] The viaduct was to span more than 1000 feet in length, 27 feet above several railroads and the Mill Creek at an estimated cost of $500,000. It became a vital link not only between the Lick Run Valley and downtown Cincinnati but also to Green Township, Delhi Township, Cheviot and Westwood making travel across the Mill Creek Valley with its railroad lines and the constantly flooding Mill Creek easier and less dangerous. The reward – prestige, power, income from city jobs as well as city and county jobs for his sons and the likelihood of other financial rewards that could never be documented, in the form of graft or even real estate deals.

MIKE MULLEN One of the best known of Cox’s lieutenants was the legendary Michael Mullen. Possibly the most colorful political figure in Cincinnati’s history, Mullen was as much loved by his constituents of the 5th ward, as reviled by the city’s political reformers. The son of Irish immigrants, he lived most of his life in the riverfront district known as the “Bottoms”, a rough neighborhood of warehouses, wholesalers, and tenements. Born in 1857, his parents moved from Virginia to Cincinnati where he was given a Catholic school education including attending St. Xavier College. One of his trademarks was his lifelong devotion to the Catholic Church endearing him to many in Cincinnati’s Catholic community. He held a variety of jobs before settling into politics as his selected vocation, introducing him to wide range of people. He began his political life as a Democrat as most Irish Catholics in the late 19th century, becoming a police officer in the early 1880’s under Democratic mayor Thomas Stephens. However, wholesale changes in the police department accompanied the shift in political power to Cox’s Republicans, forced his resignation in 1886. For the next several years he was a saloon keeper before starting a detective agency and throwing his hat into the political ring running for city council in 1887. From this point forward until his death in 1921 he was a fixture on city council.

In the mid 1890’s Mullen abandoned the Democratic Party and joined Cox, becoming key cog in shepherding Cox supported legislation through council. Many key members of the machine were formerly Democrats who realized they had no future in politics as members of the opposition because Cox had built such a dominant organization, speaking to Cox’s political acumen and how little ideology mattered in the late 19th century. According to one prominent reformer of this era, Cox systematically sought out the strongest Democratic workers and gave them city jobs. There truly was little difference between the two major parties, not just locally, but also across the nation. Other members of the machine on council, looked to the charismatic Mullen to set the direction on issues before the law-making body, ensuring a disciplined and united front aligned with Cox’s plans.

Mullen was well liked by his constituents, largely a mix of poor and working-class Irish immigrants and African- Americans. He understood their needs and catered to them accordingly. While all politicians generally act out of self- interest, Mullen was also seen as a more sympathetic figure whose motivations were not solely transactional. Ultimately, successful ward captains were seen as sympathetic figures by their constituents who also were their neighbors, but in Mullen’s case he was worshipped. He became famous for having a massive picnic held each year at Coney Island, the local amusement park, giving away thousands of free to tickets to the event with numbers reaching as high as 25,000. He also gave away free soup and bread to the needy of his ward and free coal in the depths of winter. Mullen was also known to help with funeral expenses and to provide small loans when there was a need. All of this was in addition to the typical machine activity of providing jobs with the city and county government to his most loyal followers. It was said Mullen regularly would order drinks “for the house” at his favorite haunt, pay the tab and leave before it was announced to the patrons. His acts of kindness and appreciation were innumerable stretching from building a playground for the children of the ward ( Lytle Park ) to buying shoes for those down on their luck. There is no disputing he was a key member of the Cox machine, and doubtlessly shared in its bounty and benefitted from its protection, yet when he died in 1921 at the age of 63 the city went into mourning, particularly his old 5th ward leaving historian Louis Tucker to write a piece titled Mike Mullen, Sinner or Saint. Examples of his involvement in vote buying and judicial interference were well documented by enemies of the Cox machine, pointing to one of the paradoxes of old style urban political machines- corrupt politicians whose behavior was anti-democratic yet aided the down trodden.

GARRY HERRRMANN While ward captains were the backbone of the machine responsible for all the heavy lifting, Garry Herrmann and Rudolph Hynicka kept everyone on the same page, bringing order to the organization. Cox depended on them heavily. Herrmann, a Cincinnati native, was an informal chief of staff though he formally wore many other hats making him a powerful figure; President of the Water Works Board, a member of Cincinnati’s Board of Public Works, executive deputy in the sheriff’s department not to mention President of the Cincinnati Reds. In these positions he indirectly controlled several thousand jobs and impacted budgets that stretched into the millions of dollars. Cox ultimately made the decisions but the decisions were influenced by the reports and information brought to him by Herrmann. Hermann took care of the details. He also presided over the Red’s from 1902 until 1927 playing a role in helping to establish the World Series.


Rud Hynicka was the numbers man. Originally a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, a job that gave him insight into how the city worked, he became the Clerk of The Police Court where he came to the attention of the machine by turning the court into a profitable venture. His primary responsibility was keeping track of the machines finances though he also was responsible for taking care of the courthouse for Cox. It was said Hynicka had an index card on every man in the city of Cincinnati along with useful political information which he constantly updated, no small feat in the pre-digital age. Most importantly he kept track of thousands of patronage jobs at the local, state and federal level and the expected annual “contributions” from these, 2.5% of their annual salary with an additional 10% during the first year of employment with department heads expected to make much larger contributions.


While it is very natural to focus on corruption when examining the Cox machine, it’s easy to miss the new and improving municipal services that developed during this era, the most consequential and expensive of which was the Cincinnati Water Work. With the city’s explosive growth during the late 19th century clean drinking water became more important than ever as typhoid epidemics continued to plague the city claiming hundreds of lives on a regular basis. A massive infrastructure project, it sprawled across the city, taking years to complete, none the less it was critical to Cincinnati’s development.


Growth and a massive uptick in crime in the 1880’s also led to the expansion and evolution of the police department to help address the ballooning problems of the era. It grew from 330 officers in in 1875 to 531 by the end of the 1890’s. Again, the city’s growth created a variety of problems municipal government struggled to address, some of which became the prevue of the Cincinnati Police Department. Before the century was over it had a sanitary squad and was charged doing health inspections which included enforcing quarantine orders during epidemics. Equipped with police wagons it also provided ambulance services and was pressed into service during the periodic flooding the hit the city to perform rescues. The police department’s presence on the streets also led it to being tasked with addressing homelessness and at times providing shelter for them as well as being the vehicle for proving the licenses mandated by city council. By the end of the century the Cincinnati Police Department was seen as the major reason for the steady drop in crime from its peak in the mid

CINCINNATI PUBLIC SCHOOS On the education front, Cox supported Cincinnati School Superintendent Frank Dyer. Dyer pushed for changes in curriculum and organization seen as fundamental to preparing students for the challenges of the new urban industrial economy and society. Though Cox was not personally responsible for any of these improvements, the machine he built and led did provide solutions to social problems plaguing Cincinnati as it grew and industrialized during the Gilded Age. Cox was the architect, chief strategist and ultimate decision maker for the machine, using Wielert’s Gardens on Vine Street for daily meetings of the machine’s brain trust . At Wielert’s, often described as the finest beer garden in Cincinnati, Cox met with Hynicka, Herrmann and a succession of ward captains to make decisions on the day to day affairs of the organization and to map strategy for the future.

PRIVATE BUSINESS INTERESTS In the early 1900’s the “Old Boy”, gradually turned over more of the day to day affairs of the machine to Hynicka and Hermann as he devoted more time to his personal business affairs, primarily as the President of the Cincinnati Trust Company. In 1895 he commissioned renowned Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford to build a grand home in Clifton. The massive home known Parkview Manor speaks to the wealth Cox had amassed over the previous decade as the political boss of Cincinnati, creating business opportunities of a more legitimate type in the ensuing years. In addition to being a bank president, Cox had a controlling share of the World Film Corporation and significant holdings in a number of theaters including the Albee and Shubert both well known institutions in Cincinnati. None of these private ventures would have been possible without the initial capital generated by his political activities and the influence it bought him. By the turn of the century Cox was a very wealthy man who politically controlled both the city and county governments.


Almost from the beginning of the machine’s existence, one reform effort or another was trying to destroy Cox. Some were organized as new third parties like the Union Labor Party in 1887, while others were from the reform wings of the two the major parties like the Independent Democratic Coalition in 1894. None had much success – until the second decade of the new century.

By the beginning of the 20th century Americans were tiring of machines as politics as usual. Across the nation the mix of machine politics, big city bosses and powerful business interests were increasingly seen as a threat to American democracy giving rise to the Progressive Movement. A reform effort lasting almost two decades and spanning across party lines, it aimed to make government more responsive to the desires of the nation’s citizenry. Its impact was felt not only at the federal level but also at the state and local level as progressive reformers pushed legislation to eliminate corruption and make the American political system more democratic. The reform effort in Ohio brought a host of changes including amendments to the state constitution that added the initiative and referendum allowing the public to legislate through the ballot and to reject laws already passed by the legislature. Both efforts had the effect of placing more power directly in the hands of the voter at the expense of power held by elected officials, many controlled by political machines. Even more significant changes were made with amendments to the US Constitution in the form of the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Amendments. Now US Senators would be directly elected by the public instead of leaving the selection to other politicians in the form of state legislatures, a further blow to machine power and a massive extension of the franchise by giving women the right to vote.

CINCINNATI & THE PROGRESSIVES In Cincinnati the Progressive Movement was the beginning of the end of Cox. While reform legislation was the tool for change, Cox unwittingly contributed to his own demise by supporting a new wave of annexations starting in 1895 bringing thousands of middle class and upper class voters within Cincinnati’s boundaries. This urban middle class spurred on by muckraking journalists who zealously identified the economic and political ills plaguing the country became the backbone of the Progressive Movement not just in Cincinnati but across the nation. The work of muckrakers a new class of reform minded journalists not above using sensationalism resonated with middle class voters who had the time and money to purchase and read their books and investigative articles which regularly appeared in new monthly magazines. Starting in the mid 1890’s among other places Avondale, Clifton, Kennedy Heights, Riverside, and Westwood were all added to the city, expanding it to 70 square miles from 25.45 miles in 1890. In 1893 Cox had succeeded in convincing the state legislature to pass a new that provided for annexation when approved by a combined vote of the annexed and annexing cities making it difficult to fend off Cincinnati’s growth efforts. The annexations were viewed as necessary by Cox for fiscal reasons to address the flight of middle class and wealthy residents out of Cincinnati to the suburbs. Though each addition to the city added to the tax rolls, it also cumulatively added hundreds of better educated and potential discontented voters with the time and money to work for causes. They read the work of Lincoln Steffens whose Shame of the Cities, a series of articles in McClure’s Magazine published in 1904, detailing the workings of political machines across the country including that of the Cox machine. Locally Henry C. Wright a graduate of Harvard’s School of Divinity penned Bossism in Cincinnati in 1905. As the president of the Union Bethel, a settlement house that served the needs of poor immigrants in Cincinnati’s downtown basin, he sought to stir the city’s citizenry to action. In 1905 the Cox organization showed signs of faltering with a Democrat elected mayor though the machine was far from broken.

THE END One group of young reformers “The Committee of Nine” helped launch the political career of Henry Thomas Hunt “The Boy Mayor” who played a central role in the destruction of the Cox Machine. Hunt, a young University of Cincinnati educated attorney, and The Committee of Nine were dedicated to the proposition of ending corruption in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Running as a Democrat his rise to power began with his election to the Ohio General Assembly in 1905 followed by his election to the office of county prosecutor in 1908. As the county prosecutor he successfully fought to closing gambling houses and eliminate slot machines throughout Hamilton County. In the mayoral election of 1911 Hunt, age 33, bested the Cox backed Republican candidate. It was severe blow to Cox demonstrating he could no longer deliver votes to his followers, prompting Cox to announce he was retiring from politics. It was however, a series of indictments that seemed to weigh mostly heavily on Cox though neither prosecution resulted in a conviction. The first indictment was a 1911 perjury charge related to allegations of improperly depositing county funds into bank private accounts, the second a 1913 indictment on charges of mishandling funds in his bank. Though not destroyed, the machine was severely weakened. In 1915 Cox announced he was leaving politics but within a year he was left paralyzed by an apparent stroke from which he never fully recovered. On May 20,1916 he died at age 63 from pneumonia. For 27 years he dominated the political scene in Cincinnati and Hamilton County however the Republican machine he established remained in power under the leadership of Hynicka until it was ended by the Charterite Movement, a reform effort started in 1923.

[i] New York Times, May 21, 1916, page 8.

[ii] Clark, Roger W., Cincinnati, Crusaders For Temperance: 1874 , Cincinnati Historical Bulletin, Winter 1974, p.189.

[iii]The number of wards periodically changed as the city steadily grew through the late 19th and early 20th

century leading to shifts and changes in the ward boundaries.

[iv] Dingilian, Arlene, The Political Education of a Saloon Keeper, Cincinnati Historical Bulletin, October 1966, p.313.

[v] Wright, Henry C., Bossism In Cincinnati , 1905, p.31.

[vi] Wright,Henry C., Bossism In Cincinnati, 1905, p.56

[vii] Cincinnati Enquirer, April 4, 1907.

[viii] Cincinnati Enquirer, December 10, 1905.

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