Cincinnati’s Election of 1921 Was Boss Cox’s Last Gasp

The more things change with local politics, the more they stay the same.

As Cincinnatians voted 100 years ago, the hot issues included corruption in city government, the politicization of school boards, and controversial streetcar service. Sound familiar?

The election of 1921 also marked the debut of a future television star. William Lorne “Bill” Nimmo later became one of the most famous radio/television personalities in Cincinnati’s well-populated pantheon, but during the 1921 campaign he was just 4-year-old William L. Nimmo Jr. banging a drum in support of his father, who was running for Municipal Court Clerk on the Independent ticket.

He gained fame as Johnny Carson’s first sidekick, but Bill Nimmo got his showbiz start beating the drum for his dad in the 1921 election.

The Cincinnati Post (1921), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

William Nimmo Sr. went down in defeat along with the entire Independent slate, the entire Democratic slate, and the entire Farmer-Labor slate. The election of 1921 demonstrated the residual influence of the Republican machine built 40 years earlier by George Barnsdale Cox, better known as “Boss” Cox. Although five years in his grave, Cox’s machine hummed merrily along, siphoning up voters like so much featherbedding.

George P. Carrel, Cincinnati City Auditor, residing at 3611 Morris Place in Columbia-Tusculum, was the successful Republican candidate for Mayor that year, personally recruited by Boss Cox’s heir, Rudolph Kelker “Rud” Hynicka. Carrel’s campaign message, as outlined in one of his advertisements, was simple: Toe the party line, or else.

“Teamwork is essential to constructive municipal activities. Party responsibility is a guarantee of departmental co-ordination and co-operation. A Republican council is indispensable to concert of action in carrying to completion Republican policies of progress and prosperity.”

Judge Joseph B. Kelley of the Insolvency Court, residing at the Hotel Alms, Independent candidate, led a revolt from within the GOP. He proclaimed:

“I am a Republican and always have been and because I love the Republican party I am making this fight on the issue of bossism. If I’m elected I shall conduct my office with a view to the general good and not for the purpose of winning votes or prestige for a political boss.”

Charles Herbst, clerk at the Southern Railway Depot, residing at 2200 Vine Street (Flat 3), headed the Farm-Labor ticket. He was all for strong unions and against monopolies:

“If I am elected mayor I will do all in my power to have the burden of taxation taken off the small homeowner and placed where it belongs, especially upon real estate that is held for speculation. The police will never be used for strike-breaking purposes. I promise to take steps toward bringing about municipal ownership of street railways and the gas and electric light utilities to the end that they shall be conducted for the public service and not for private profit.”

Charles Lybrand Bonifield, physician and surgeon with offices at 409 Broadway and residence at 1763 East McMillan, was that year’s Democratic candidate. He aimed all his ammunition at Hynicka and the Cox machine:

“The city is and has been extravagantly managed, and a more economical management would of itself have a tendency to reduce the taxes. The only way to have business in Cincinnati and Hamilton County conducted on a business basis is to dethrone King Rud.”

To reform-minded Cincinnatians, the dominance of the Cox juggernaut was especially galling because Cincinnati’s Republican party was run by a man who didn’t even live in the city. Rud Hynicka got his start as a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer but drifted into politics and rose to become one of Boss Cox’s most trusted lieutenants. He parlayed an interest in the old Vine Street Opera House into a chain of burlesque theaters based out of New York, and he eventually transferred his business headquarters to the Big Apple while maintaining an iron grip on Cincinnati politics.

One tactic in particular lifted the hood of the Hynicka machine to display the gang’s nefarious scheming. A week before the 1921 election, the Republican Party announced a reduction in trolley fares from 8 cents to 7.5 cents and trumpeted the half-cent discount as a mere harbinger of future favors planned by the Republican administration. As opposition candidates were quick to point out, the Republicans finagled this minimal rate decrease by exempting the Traction Company from paying its $350,000 franchise fee—which meant citizens had to make up the difference with additional taxes. Further, the fee exemption didn’t quite cover the revenue lost by the discount, so the Traction Company pulled several streetcars out of service.

While maintaining its grip on City Hall, the Cox/Hynicka political machine lost control of Cincinnati’s school board in 1921, the first indication that citizens were tired of their graft and corruption.

The Cincinnati Post (1921), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

It’s difficult to measure, looking back from a century distant, how effective that ploy was. Certainly more potent was Hynicka’s stranglehold on patronage jobs and political favors. The Republican ward-heelers knew their constituents microscopically and saw to it that unemployed voters got city appointments, that the party faithful were treated favorably in the courts, and that the right sort of businesses got municipal contracts.

Or not. Although Boss Cox and King Rud had sewn up the African American vote for decades, that portion of their base was growing mightily disenchanted with the Republican machine. Baptist ministers met with Hynicka in early November to ask why, after decades of faithful support, no African American had ever been appointed to any significant position at City Hall or the County Courthouse and why the Fire Department remained completely white. Despite receiving lackluster promises, it appears that the Black vote supported the machine that year.

Mayor-Elect Carrel’s victory was bittersweet. While electing almost the entire Hynicka-backed machine slate, voters turned down a tax levy aimed at balancing the city’s graft-bleeding budget.

The one significant sputter in Hynicka’s legacy machine in 1921 came in the school board race, where a Citizen’s ticket of John B. Hollister, John M. Withrow, Emma W. Fillmore, and Samuel Ach trounced the candidates pushed by the Hynicka cabal. While Cincinnati was accustomed to graft and corruption at City Hall, the egregious politicization of the city’s schools finally roused the voters to elect a reform slate. That victory was also bittersweet. Though snatching management of the schools from the greedy machine politicians, voters defeated a much-needed school levy.

The Cincinnati Post, stalwart proponent of reform, sighed editorially [November 10, 1921]:

“We hope that for the next four years policies will be responsive to the questions: Is this right? Is that for the public good? Will the people be benefitted or damaged?”

The next mayoral election, in 1925, swept the Boss Cox cronies out of office and established the Charter Committee as the symbol of a new day in Cincinnati.

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