For most of the nineteenth century, political power was a greased pig in Cincinnati, Ohio, chased by a multitude of neighborhood gangs, and seldom held long by anyone. But by the 1890s, though still wild, it was tightly sacked by “Boss” George B. Cox. In an age when every city in America was governed by some form of political machine, in Cincinnati Boss Cox had constructed a machine that was all but frictionless.[more]
Unlike New York’s Tammany Hall, which provided cover for graft at every level of city government, in the Cox machine all graft rose directly to the top, where it was distributed to those below according to a predetermined schedule. Everyone who did business in Cincinnati - from constructing streetcar lines to sweeping the horse dung off the track - did so at the whim of George B. Cox. If you ran a bawdy house, or owned a saloon and wanted to sell drinks on Sunday or run games of chance upstairs, payment to the Cox machine was merely the cost of doing business.
The story of George Cox is a Horatio Alger tale gone awry. The orphaned son of English immigrants, Cox worked as a bootblack and a delivery boy. He also ran the keno game in his uncle’s saloon. While still in his twenties, he bought a saloon of his own at the corner of John and Hollingsworth streets, known as “dead man’s corner” for the number of murders that occurred there.
When Cox tried to run a faro game in his saloon, he was repeatedly shaken down by the police. Blaming the Democrats, who were then in power, Cox became a Republican, ran for city council and won. It would be his first and only elected office. What he learned in city council was that every deal that mattered was sealed outside the halls of government, and that no one’s word could be trusted. As Cincinnati struggled to emerge from a period of political chaos, George Cox rose to prominence by forging deals backed by his growing reputation as a man who never made a promise he did not keep. Boss Cox ruled Cincinnati from the outside by guaranteeing the election of candidates who would tend the machine without question.
By 1896, when the machine was fully polished, Boss Cox kept a sparse office above the Mecca Café, where he gave audiences to job seekers and dealmakers. His work did not end when the sun went down. He went next to Weilert’s Beer Garden, where he and his lieutenants sat at a round table, drinking beer from monogrammed mugs and discussing the state of affairs in the Queen City. This group, informally known as “the gang” or "the sports" includeed of August “Garry” Hermann and Rudolph “Rud” Hynicka. They would later be joined by Mike Mullen, a Democratic ward healer who had been instrumental in electing Cox’s protégé, John Caldwell, mayor in 1894.
Hermann, who gained the nickname Garry by his unfortunate resemblance to the Italian leader, Garibaldi, was the ultimate glad hander. After a meeting at Weilert’s, which could easily go past midnight, he was likely to have an appointment to entertain another favor seeker somewhere else around town. No matter what was done, no matter how much beer was drunk, no matter what time they all broke for home, Hermann would be back in his office by nine the following morning, ready to start all over again. An avid baseball fan, Garry Hermann was the de facto commissioner of baseball, before the job officially existed, and he is considered the father of the World Series.
Rud Hynicka’s interests were somewhat less wholesome. He ran a burlesque theater and was expanding his holdings to create an intercity circuit for the sexual entertainment of the day. Hynicka was also the Boss’s political man on the ground. He kept a file on voting habits that included a card for every eligible voter in Cincinnati. Hynicka also organized the bummers and floaters, the citizens-for-a-day, fresh off the river, who voted in proxy for those otherwise disenfranchised Cincinnatians who had died since the last election.
The newspapers hounded Cox and his machine, and average citizens were not pleased with the way the machine worked, but Cox held on to power despite numerous challenges from reform campaigns in both parties. Reform candidates faced trouble in Cincinnati because there were no active reform movements that did not also advocate tight regulation, if not outright prohibition, of alcohol. With a growing population of immigrants from hard-drinking cultures and an influx of American blue-collar workers, restriction of alcohol was not a winning platform. Under Boss Cox, even Sunday-closing laws, already on the books, were ignored.
Boss Cox suffered a stroke in February 1916 and died three months later. The machine struggled on for another decade before breaking down, unable to run smoothly without its engineer.
In spite of a driving rainstorm, Cox's funeral drew an enormous crowd--one of the largest in Cincinnati's history. The massive turnout at his funeral appeared to confirm Boss Cox’s often stated self-assessment, "A boss is not necessarily an enemy."