It was like that birther thing with President Barack Obama, except that this scandal had a basis in reality.
Charles Jacob, Jr. was elected Mayor of Cincinnati in 1879. Jacob was a Bavarian immigrant who came to the country penniless, worked hard as a butcher, rose to the status of pork baron, and gained the respect of his fellow citizens through public service and elected office. It was a story of the American Dream personified. Then, a problem emerged. Some of what followed is unique to the election and mayoralty of Jacob, but parts of the story feel familiar.
The election of 1879 was orderly and honest by 19th-century standards. For some voters, national party affiliation was important, but partisanship was more malleable than it is today. Local elections were determined more by local issues. A candidate’s position on Sunday laws and the prosecution of vice, for example, was a critical question for Cincinnati voters.
Although the Citizens Committee for Moral Reform did not represent the perspective of most Cincinnatians, they were nevertheless a potent source of political support. The reformers sent straightforward questionnaires to the candidates asking whether they would pledge to enforce Sunday laws. This would mean closing saloons, theaters and ending almost all forms of secular entertainment on the Christian sabbath. L.A. Harris, the Democratic candidate for mayor, provided a non-response, saying: “When I accepted the nomination I declared that I would not make any promises or pledges...Therefore, I feel that it would be unbecoming on my part...to make any promise or pledge.” Jacob took a different approach. The Republican candidate grabbed moral indignation by the horns and answered unequivocally: “Yes, I am a law-abiding citizen, and if elected will enforce the laws on Sunday and all other days. No decent man can walk on Vine Street on Sunday without blushing.”
Republicans seemed to believe that Jacob could win over the moral crusaders with promises of reform, and still carry German wards based on his ethnicity and his status as a regular in the Vine Street bars. It was a bad calculation. As the election neared, Jacob’s promise to shutter Vine Street saloons and theaters on Sundays threatened his chances for victory. Forced to choose between satisfying either Moral Reformers or German-Americans, Jacob took the creative approach of simultaneously pandering to both. Neither Facebook nor Fox News existed in the 1870s, but there was an equally powerful force available: a language divide. Many Cincinnatians, including registered voters, spoke German. Jacob took advantage of this by writing a letter to the German-language press denying that he had promised Moral Reformers to close saloons on Sundays. In German, Jacob claimed that what he had told the Moral Reform Committee was:
“I am a law-abiding citizen, and desire all laws executed; but I will never assist to prevent law-abiding citizens from enjoying their usual pleasures, either on week-days or Sundays. I am no church visitor and no temperance man, and would not dictate to order-loving citizens to stay away from properly-managed amusements…..”
Snarky opinion in the Cincinnati Enquirer quipped that, “It is unfortunate for Mr. Jacob that there are people in this city who can read both English and German.” In fact, a large percentage of Cincinnatians were bilingual, but the choice to obtain news from single, heavily biased sources of their choosing made voters susceptible to blatant lies and duplicity; and Jacob’s timing was perfect. By contradicting himself in German just days before the election, he minimized the public’s opportunity to scrutinize his hypocrisy.
The ploy worked. Charles Jacob, Jr. was elected Mayor of Cincinnati on April 7, 1879. Then a scandal broke. Democrats alleged that Jacob was not a naturalized citizen. If true, it would be illegal for him to hold the office of mayor.
Naturalization used to be simple. Bigotry and the pseudo-science of eugenics helped birth the modern immigration framework in the 1920s. Before that, America’s borders were open to the world. Anybody who got off a boat or walked across a border was welcome to live and work here; but if you wanted legal citizenship status, which included the right to vote and hold office, immigrants had to follow a process. The route to citizenship was straightforward but inflexible. An aspiring American needed to live in the country for at least five years, be at least 21 years old, and declare allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. If these conditions were met under oath, you became a legal citizen and received naturalization papers to prove it.
Initially, rumor held that Jacob had never applied for citizenship. When confronted, he nervously dismissed this allegation and assured an Enquirer reporter that he did, in fact, possess naturalization papers. When the reporter offered to accompany him to retrieve his documents and nip the controversy in the bud, Jacob soundly refused. This, of course, inspired the reporter to dig deeper. A search of court records showed that Charles Jacob had been naturalized in 1856, but this did not solve the new mayor’s dilemma. Jacob immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 16 in the year 1852. That would mean that he swore a false oath and was granted citizenship at the age of 20, having only been in the country for four years. He jumped the gun, it seemed, out of political zeal. He wanted to vote for John C. Fremont, the first Republican candidate for U.S. President. As a result, he became a citizen under false pretenses, committed voter fraud in 1856 and in every election since, and had served two terms on city council in violation of state law.
Democrats goaded Jacob, saying that if he wanted “to stop all clamor upon this subject,” he “should produce his naturalization papers.” He had won the election but had not yet been sworn into office when the scandal broke. The Enquirer, an unapologetically Democratic-leaning paper, explained that if Jacob was not a citizen, Ohio law required city council to elect a qualified candidate to fill the office in his place.
With his back to the wall, Jacob produced his papers. An early use of “alternative facts” followed. Nineteenth century newspapers rarely made serious claims to objectivity. They commonly had strong party affiliations, and Cincinnati’s press fell in step behind partisan loyalties. The Gazette did not bother to deny the dates or the math, but simply concluded that the “Democrats will hardly attempt, on so absurd a claim, to prevent (Jacob’s) induction into the office of Mayor.” Jacob himself developed autobiographical amnesia. He claimed that prior reporting of his birthday as November 24 came from unknown origin. Personally, he could no longer recall his date of birth, and although he lacked any knowledge, he was nevertheless sure that he was born on some date that made him 21 by the time of his naturalization in October 1856 — although he still lacked any explanation for residing in the country for less than five years at the time.
The Cincinnati Commercial, a Republican-leaning paper, initially tried to dismiss the controversy. Then, with inauguration just days away, they published a long, slippery slope harangue intended to rally the roughly one-third of the Cincinnati population that was foreign born, lots of whom typically voted Democratic. They warned that the inquiry into Jacob would set precedent for disenfranchising all "foreign-born people, who suppose themselves in good faith to be citizens.” Henceforth, honest Germans and Irish could be turned away from the polls or denied the right to hold office because of the slightest accidental error in paperwork. Moreover, it was not simply a local matter. Inquiry into the legitimacy of Jacob’s citizenship was, according to the Commercial, part of a broader, nationwide Democratic “anti-foreign spirit” constituting “a warfare in which naturalization papers, however legal in form, will be held an insufficient defense to claim of citizenship.” If you believed the Commercial, the question of whether or not Jacob would be allowed to take the oath of office would determine whether immigrants would be systematically disenfranchised on a national scale. It was a hysterical but well-pleaded argument, albeit a hypocritical one for a newspaper that had tacitly endorsed suppression of immigrant votes in past elections.
Although the Enquirer had a clear agenda, they also had persuasive evidence. Reporters located the man who had accompanied Jacob to America, along with several of the mayor-elect’s childhood friends from Bavaria. All confirmed, with certainty, that Jacob had been in the U.S. less than five years at the time of his naturalization ceremony; and several recalled that his birthday was celebrated in the fall as a child. Proving that the Commercial had no monopoly on histrionics, the Enquirer warned that if the matter was not resolved, every official act of the Mayor would be subject to legal challenge. Citizens would refuse to pay taxes. No official decree requiring the mayor’s signature would be valid. Municipal anarchy would ensue.
Then, the whole scandal just went away. Charles Jacob, Jr. took the oath of office and became Mayor of the City of Cincinnati on April 17. Was he a legal U.S. citizen? All of the evidence suggests that he was not. He was close to reaching the age of 21 and close to having been in the country for five years when he was naturalized, but as bouncers tell college students every night of the week, almost 21 is just 20. However, in the case of Mayor Jacob, enough people either chose their facts or chose not to care that his citizenship status became irrelevant.
Jacob presided over an intriguing mayoralty. At his inauguration, he promised to cut taxes and “to suppress all immoral conduct in our city, be this on the Sabbath or any other day.” He also promised to clean up a dysfunctional and corrupt police department. To aid this last objective, Republicans in the statehouse passed legislation that abolished Cincinnati’s Board of Police Commissioners and replaced it with a single chief of police who served at the pleasure and direction of the mayor. This is vaguely like the system that is currently in place, except without any forms of check and balance. Being a police officer was a purely political job in the 1870s. There was no training. Qualifications were minimal, and even those were routinely ignored. The requirement, for example, that officers speak English was overlooked and some officers in Over-the-Rhine spoke only German. Correct political affiliation was the true, primary qualification, but Jacob was empowered to take the tradition of doling out police jobs to a new level.
The mayor drew the ire of his own chief of police by routinely ignoring his decisions and hiring and firing the department’s officers without even consulting the titular head of the force. Under the guise of cleaning up the department, Jacob instituted a mass purge. In a single day, he fired 20% of the force, and in more restrained moments he fired a half-dozen or more cops a day. In fairness, many of the officers that Jacob fired were guilty of being drunk, derelict or abusive on duty, but the wrongdoers also had a curious pattern of voting Democratic.
When the legislation was passed giving Mayor Jacob unfettered control over the police force, a Republican member of the Ohio House of Representatives who championed the move declared that giving Jacob these broad powers would mean the end of “rascals who shield themselves under the official uniforms.” Unfortunately for the City of Cincinnati, that is not what happened. Whether Jacob’s vows to clean up the police force were a cynical ploy from the beginning is unknowable, but he did no such thing. Despite mass firings, Cincinnati Police continued to display egregious conduct. Many, including the city’s top detectives, maintained open relationships with gambling houses, brothels and criminal gangs. The only reform that Jacob seems to have accomplished was streamlining the bribery process. Under his administration, one man was responsible for collecting protection money from all illegal casinos, which was then funneled through the Republican Party apparatus.
Voter fraud was real and rampant in the 1800s, and it had nothing to do with the post office. Both parties engaged in organized corruption and they used the same, crude techniques; but the party that was best able to exert physical power over the polls always had an advantage. This made political control of the police force important in either ensuring a fair election or, more commonly, stealing one. Party bosses flipped elections by using “repeaters,” men that they shipped in from other towns and states who made their way around the city voting five or six times in multiple precincts. Poll judges were expected to verify voter credentials, but the process was informal. In a city like Cincinnati, where the population was dense, growing, and often transient, the system was flawed, particularly when crooked poll judges falsely verified that “repeaters” were local residents. Police officers played a role by tamping down legitimate objections to illegitimate voters and, at times, used threat of force to disenfranchise people based on ethnicity, race or precinct.
Jacob did not use Cincinnati Police in a violent capacity, but he did use his power over the force egregiously. The maximum number of officers in the city was limited to 300 by statute. Shortly before his re-election bid in 1881, Jacob swelled the ranks to 339, using the additional men in uniform as an extension of his campaign. Nevertheless, Jacob lost. He came into office promising to clean up the city, and two years later it was more corrupt and vice-riddled than when he took the oath of office. The validity of his citizenship did not re-emerge. He lost on merit, and so ended the term of the only mayor of the City of Cincinnati to not be a valid U.S. citizen.
Michael D. Morgan is the president of Queen City History and Education; a curator of the Cincinnati Brewing Heritage Trail; author of Cincinnati Beer and Over-the-Rhine: When Beer Was King; attorney; and adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati.