The Preposterously Pompous Political Parades Of Cincinnati’s Passionately Partisan Past

Election season is in full swing, but nothing we see today is quite like the fierce, Odyssean, and sometimes vicious political parades of Cincinnati’s past.
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It must have been something to see: Vine Street, from Fourth Street all the way north to McMicken, filled from curb to curb with a flowing and writhing river of flaming torches bright enough to illuminate the clouds, carried by men proclaiming undying fealty to some candidate or another. Such were Cincinnati’s political parades.

Brandishing kerosene torches, wearing white top hats, known as “plug hats” at that time, party stalwarts march through Cincinnati.

From Cincinnati Enquirer 15 March 1901 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Every couple of years and especially during presidential campaigns, Cincinnati’s political parties rallied the troops, ward by ward, precinct by precinct, to demonstrate the power of their collective voice. Obviously, the opposition could not let such sacrilegious hokum go unchallenged and, according to Frank Grayson, an old-time newspaper man, dissent grew vicious at times:

“There used to be a persevering little cuss living on Abigail street, who was a Democrat of the most virulent stripe. He also had a throwing wing as good as Honus Wagner’s ever was. He would hide himself in the mouth of a dark alley. At his feet were a pile of cobble stones. His specialty was the picking off of grand marshals. When the grand factotum would pass the mouth of the alley a cobble stone would come hurtling from it. It would land with the customary dull thud. The grand marshal would flop from his horse and lose all interest in the subsequent proceedings. The crop of grand marshals having been exhausted the little runt started to gather a mess of assistant marshals and the casualty list was voluminous. Finally, four husky Republicans hid in the alley, and they simply shredded the rascal. He still lives. His left leg is stiff.”

Assaults from alley-shrouded assassins were just one of the dangers marchers faced. Terror, according to Grayson, rained from above and torch-bearing party functionaries quickly learned the safest part of the route:

“During those exciting, sizzling, sanguineous presidential campaigns of the long ago a taxpayer who wished to show his neighbors what his politics was, usually made his will out before-hand, and then, torch in hand, he stepped out into the night across the threshold of his home, his lips moving in a silent prayer for protection during the remainder of a tempestuous night. If one lived in a Democratic stronghold or in a Republican one, as the case might have been, he had to take to the middle of the street in order to reach the rendezvous of his fellow patriots. Otherwise wash wringers, bedsteads, flower pots pushed out of windows would descend upon his devoted bean and send him kicking to a little white cot in the hospital.”

The police girded for heavy duty whenever political season blew in, and announced by advertisement in the Enquirer [2 September 1880] that they meant business:

“On application, a sufficient police force will be detailed from Police Head-quarters, Ninth street, to accompany every general political parade or procession, and a number of police will also be detailed in citizen’s dress to mingle with the crowds on the sidewalks, for the purpose of detecting and arresting persons who may engage in the cowardly practice of throwing stones at the procession.”

Since political parties maintained bail funds for springing their incarcerated minions from durance vile, police took the extra precaution of charging stone-throwers with suspicion, making them ineligible for bail until the morning. In addition to rock-lobbers, the cops targeted anyone asking questions during political meetings without permission, “hurrahing” for opposition candidates and other efforts to disrupt the peace.

A highlight of classic political parades were transparencies—torch-illuminated cubes usually painted with slogans insulting to the opposition party—surrounded by a sea of kerosene or pitch torches.

From Cincinnati Times-Star 27 October 1928 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

A common attraction at Cincinnati’s political parades were “transparencies,” large paintings on glass or gauzy fabric, mounted in frames and assembled into cubes, illuminated by an internal torch. Although it would appear that such fragile and flammable provocations made outstanding targets, Grayson claims the best transparencies sarcastically skewered the opposition:

“The transparencies which were carried at intervals throughout the parades were about the last word in insults for those who gloomily gazed upon the passing marchers.”

Parade routes were Odyssean in duration. A typical Republican march, for example originated at party headquarters at Seventh and Freeman in the West End, proceeded east on Seventh to Central, south on Central to Fourth, veering northward on Vine all the way up to McMicken and following McMicken to Central, south on Central to Dayton Street, west on Dayton to Freeman and south to Seventh. That’s close to five miles of tramping, shouting and dodging, all the while drenched in flaming pitch or kerosene. According to Grayson:

“Each ward had its marching club. Some of them were equipped with flambeaux, which, when blown into, would spurt a jet of flame two feet into the air. Others carried pitch fagots and the sap from these would run down and cover their hands, searing and frying as it went, but what cared the gallant bearer? The members of some clubs would have immense shields on their chests conveying words of biting sarcasm for the edification of the common enemy.”

Interestingly, the colors associated with the major parties were the reverse of today’s code:

“Remember the jaunty little caps and capes that the marchers wore? They were made of oil cloth. The caps were patterned on the lines of those worn by the Union army during the Civil War. The capes and caps affected by the Republicans were blue and those of the Democrats were red. Fully caparisoned, an ordinary citizen became a thing apart, serene in the majesty of his conviction that his party was destined to stand between his sweet and lovely land and the hellions of rapacity—which was just another name for the opposing party.”

And don’t look for elephants or donkeys. Thomas Nast’s cartoons popularizing today’s political symbols had yet to catch on. Republicans rallied around the eagle and the Democrats hoisted the rooster.

Cincinnati’s parades attracted some big names in their prime. William McKinley led a parade during his 1896 campaign. William Jennings Bryan’s parade counted 80,000 marchers.  Theodore Roosevelt was escorted up Vine Street as were United States Senator John Sherman and his successor Mark Hanna. The last Presidential candidate to make the torchlit journey was Warren G. Harding.

Harding, it will be remembered, was the first United States president to ride to and from his 1921 inauguration by automobile and it was the automobile that killed the political parade. Before 1920, the streets belonged to the people. Spontaneous parades, torchlit and otherwise, were common. After 1920, the streets were surrendered to the internal combustion engine, piloted by drivers who had no patience for partisan parades of any stripe interrupting their commute.

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