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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CRIME - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CRIME. Although crimes were committed in Cleveland almost immediately after the arrival of the first settlers, it is hard to find criminal acts documented in any of the social or intellectual histories of the city or the WESTERN RESERVE. This historical quiet persisted, even though as Cleveland grew and became more complex, crime statistics grew and the social and individual circumstances leading to illegal misbehavior became more involved. With the exception of sensational murder, historians of the Western Reserve have been reluctant to chronicle the area's crime life, even though abundant documentary evidence exists attesting to this particular aspect of the area's history. Cleveland's first instance of crime traditionally occurred when the early settler LORENZO CARTER† punched a fellow frontiersman. Since the town's early regulations were known familiarly as Carter's Law, it should come as no surprise that no punishment is recorded as having been levied against Carter. A desire to cash in on frontier land speculation and to leave the stifling atmosphere of New England towns meant that Cleveland's early inhabitants could be a crude and coarse lot, not always attuned to legal niceties. However, by 1802 the settlers found it necessary to elect JAMES KINGSBURY† as the first justice of the peace for the township of Cleveland. This beginning of a court system received further development in 1810 when Cuyahoga County established a Court of Common Pleas and issued a grand jury indictment against David Miller for keeping a tavern without a license.

Alcohol consumption was linked with sensational crime as early as 1802, when the murder of a Chippewa medicine man by a member of the Seneca tribe was blamed partially on excessive drinking. By 1836 Cleveland's citizens were complaining that too many liquor licenses caused too much drinking, which in turn was responsible for an epidemic of lawlessness. Early on, alcohol's abuse became entwined in the public mind as a reason for crime. Even when not stimulated by drink, the clash of the Indian and white cultures stirred up emotions strong enough to provide early Clevelanders with sensational criminal cases. Cleveland's first public execution in 1812 was a bizarre affair involving an Indian defendant, JOHN O'MIC†, the first person tried for murder and executed in Cuyahoga County. By 1812 crime in the village had grown to the point that a jail became necessary, and the first public courthouse and jail was erected on the northwest corner of PUBLIC SQUARE. Robbers, murderers, thieves, and counterfeiters all shared the county's hospitality in this building, but they were sometimes able to elude the law officers charged with escorting them from one place to another.

The numbers of law officers continued to grow. In 1836 a City Watch of volunteers began policing Cleveland from sundown to sunrise, and an early instance, of detective work occurred in 1851 when a justice of the peace, David L. Wightman, traced footsteps on the embankment where a railroad derailment had taken place and discovered who was responsible for the accident, which killed the engineer. This kind of police efficiency was appreciated by citizens concerned that the city was protected from crime by only a handful of acting constables and watchmen. By 1853 the police court had replaced the mayor sitting as a police judge. The police court was joined by a city police force on 1 May 1866, when Jacob W. Schmitt persuaded the Ohio legislature to pass the Metropolitan Police Act. The new police system consisted of 35 officers and a superintendent. By 1872 the city was divided into 7 police districts as fewer than 60 officers attempted to contain crime in a rapidly growing city. Michael Kick was the first officer killed while on duty, when confronting a gang of burglars in 1875.

The CLEVELAND POLICE DEPARTMENT had to accommodate itself to a changing city in order to fight crime and stay current with social conditions. A bicycle patrol was added in 1903, the wharf detail in 1904, and the motorcycle detail in 1910. The Women's Bureau was organized in 1924 (see WOMEN'S BUREAU OF THE CLEVELAND POLICE DEPT.). The Bureau of Ballistics was founded in 1929; in 1934, more than 500 officers attended the first of a series of 21 continuing-education lectures on the law. The first women detectives appeared in 1965, and the department added a community-relations unit and a sex crime unit in 1967. All east side police patrol cars were integrated in 1968, and the police applicant examination was offered in English and Spanish in 1970.

Part of the police department accommodation to the changes in Cleveland involved its image, late in the 19th century, of a hard-drinking city of working-class citizens. However, this working class, by adding population to the city, also crowded into neighborhoods where poverty, lack of public health, and despair combined to produce those conditions that fostered crime. By 1905 Cleveland police officers were arresting 27,926 persons annually, the culmination of a steady climb from 9,369 arrests in 1882. Drunkenness, PROSTITUTION, and automobile offenses accounted for most of the 1905 arrests. However, there were also 18 people arrested for murder, and 47 bodies were found in the city. In 1911 the Cleveland Baptist Brotherhood identified liquor, lack of adequate policemen, and social vices such as dance halls and moving pictures as the reason for high crime in the city. Eleven years later, the Cleveland Foundation's study of the city's criminal justice system ("Criminal Justice in Cleveland") concluded that the alarming crime rate reflected an unstable population and a breakdown in the administration of criminal law caused by a proliferation of laws not representative of community standards or desires. By 1920 many Clevelanders felt insecure about their, lives and property. A crime involving the chief judge of the municipal court, WILLIAM H. MCGANNON†, brought this feeling to a head, and the city's establishment, particularly the CLEVELAND BAR ASSN. (CBA), decided to utilize the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION for a study of the city's criminal justice system (see CLEVELAND SURVEY OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE). The study's conclusions mapped out an ambitious plan of social engineering in order to begin the containment of crime. Over 20 years later, facets of this plan were still debated. The introduction of PROHIBITION AMENDMENT in 1919 ushered in a Cleveland era of bootlegging and the rackets. Mob violence, gang slayings, hijackings carried out by groups such as the MAYFIELD RD. MOB characterized the city's most prominent criminal activities, and Cleveland became nationally known as the producer of underworld alumni destined to assume important mob positions in other big cities. The advent of the mob also meant the beginning of organized gambling, and on 9 Jan. 1924, local police agencies opened their war on this activity by seizing slot machines. Even when Prohibition ended, the gambling rackets remained, as the city's wealthier citizens frequented city and county casinos, such as the HARVARD CLUB, and the less well-off took advantage of the numbers games, and the slot machines found in neighborhood bars and tobacco stores. These avenues of recreation were controlled by the Mafia, and when the police pressure in Cleveland became too intense, gambling moved into suburban and country areas. Cleveland's gambling clubs (the Pettibone Club, Jungle Inn, Mounds Club, and Colony Club) achieved local and national notoriety until closed down by state and local efforts.

The post-World War II era saw a new emphasis on crime and its relationship with social conditions. Juvenile delinquency and the domestic life that spawned it became a concern to Cleveland's police department. Broken homes and the easy availability of liquor, and later guns, were identified as the chief culprits. This analysis also brought home the importance of realizing that the causes of crime lay in the interconnection of domestic, economic, and social elements. Clevelanders mirrored the citizens of other large urban centers as they wrestled with the racial factors in their crime statistics. The apportioning of blame for black-on-black crime touched off a multiyear debate in the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s about who or what was responsible for an increase in crime. Repeated newspaper and TV reports about suburban workers or visitors in Cleveland who were victimized by robbery, rape, or murder produced a citizenry confused and frightened by what seemed to be constantly mounting criminal and racial tension. This led to a search for both scapegoats and solutions by public officials, police officers, and voters. Increased police foot or, cruiser patrols, better street lighting, and a sophisticated police communications center vied with calls for better educational and employment opportunities and decent housing availability as Clevelanders grappled with the causes of crime. In actuality, these debates, and later ones about stricter law enforcement, gun control, and school security, were only larger and more complicated versions of discourses on crime debated by Clevelanders in the early 19th century as they struggled to make a safe community.

Michael V. Wells

Cleveland State Univ.

Last Modified: 15 Jul 1997 11:41:38 AM

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