return to Home page 1899 - Jewish leaders fight for political reform  
 

At a public meeting on March 27, 1899 leading Jewish citizens try to weaken "Czar" Bernstein's grip on 16th ward voters.
Rabbi Moses Gries appeals for purity in politics.

On Monday March 27, 1899, shortly before Cleveland's hotly contested mayoral election, a reform-minded group held a public meeting in Germania Hall on Erie Street and Bolivar Avenue, one street north of present day Progressive Field.

The aim of this meeting was to appeal to the voters in the Lower Woodland area - largely immigrant Eastern European Jews - the poor and working class voters in "Czar" Harry Bernstein's 16th ward.

Bernstein would direct them to vote a straight Republican ballot. But the "good government" candidate was a Democrat. So leading Jewish citizens would appeal to the audience to act as free Americans and not be subjects of any "czar."

The next day's Plain Dealer described the meeting in great detail. It also reported how Bernstein offered a free Yiddish play at the same time to reduce attendance at the meeting.

 

Germania Hall, built in 1888 and demolished in the 1950s. In this 1940's photo it was occupied
by Goodwill Industries.
Source: Cleveland Public Library collection

The five leading characters in this drama were:

Robert McKisson: age 36, born in Ohio, Republican and a lawyer, had been mayor since 1895 and was running for re-election. His administration was a great builder of bridges and advanced other public projects, but a citizens group had uncovered its corruption.

John Harrington Farley, age 53, was born in Cleveland. A Democrat and known as "Honest John Farley", he had been mayor from 1883-85. He had lost in his run for mayor in 1897 and was running for mayor again. Farley was seen as the "good government" candidate.

Harry Bernstein: Republican ward leader, age 43, born in Russia-Poland. He would boast that he could deliver the vote in his ward - and he did. So much so that he was known as "Czar" Bernstein because of the influence he had over his constituents. He would meet immigrants from Russia soon after they arrived, befriend them, help them get out of trouble and make sure they became citizens. Then he would tell them who to vote for. His ward was located in the area where the main Post Office on Orange Avenue stands today.

Martin Marks: age 46, born in Wisconsin, In 1886 he married a daughter of Kaufman Hays, Cleveland's most wealthy Jew, and soon moved to Cleveland. An insurance executive, in 1890 he became president of the Reform congregation Tifereth Israel, the city's largest and second-oldest congregation. It was then on Willson Avenue (now East 55th Street), far east of Bernstein's Lower Woodland ward.

Rabbi Moses Gries: age 31, born in New Jersey and, since 1892 the first American-born and American-educated rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel. Eloquent and confident, he soon became the leading voice of the Jewish community. Gries, too, had married a daughter of Kaufman Hays. He can say "I have worked with your children" because his Sunday School welcomed children of non-members. His comment about a fire engine running through crooked refers to a street with a bend in it to avoid moving Bernstein's saloon. (see Bernstein's Elbow). Three years before he had helped found  the Municipal Association, which would later become The Citizens League.


We display the story of March 28, 1899 below. Not clear and not mentioned in the story is how well the largely Yiddish-speaking voters of Bernstein's ward would have understood the speeches in English.

The Jewish newspaper of the time, the Jewish Review and Observer, made no mention of the meeting for the two weeks before and after it was held.

Photo sources:
McKisson and  Farley (Wikipedia), Bernstein, Marks, Gries (Merging Traditions)

Arnie Berger  December 24, 2010

 

The full story as it appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer of March 28, 1899.

Epilog

John Harrington Farley - the "good government" candidate -won the election of 1899 and would serve one term as mayor, 1899 - 1901. [more on ECH]  The Plain Dealer saw it as a great victory. but the vote was close: Farley (D) 33.198 to McKisson (R) 30,343. All other positions, including the school board, were won by Republicans.

Robert McKisson was defeated in the election of 1899 and returned to the practice of law.  [more on ECH]

"Czar" Harry Bernstein delivered again, at least in the City Council elections, where the Republican candidate received 75 percent of the votes cast in the 16th ward. (We have not found ward-by-ward tallies for the mayoral vote.) But he would soon lose power and income as Jewish immigrants left his ward and moved east to better housing in newer neighborhoods. In 1907 the Plain Dealer would write "The Rise and Fall of Czar Bernstein."

The non-partisan Municipal Association, which had uncovered Mayor McKisson's corruption and may have sponsored the meeting, would 20 years later become the Citizens League. [more on ECH] The Citizens League closed its doors in 2004.

For perhaps the first time Rabbi Moses Gries and other Jewish leaders had spoken out for civic reform. They had joined in a city-wide effort to improve government.

They helped turn the tide, for in the next election (1901) Tom L Johnson would be elected mayor and would serve until 1909. Many regard the years Tom Johnson led the city as the most progressive years in its history.

Tom Johnson died in 1911. In 1915 a statue in his memory was dedicated on Public Square. To this day, he is the only mayor Cleveland has honored this way.

 
 

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