All photos of Toledo by Adrian Lime.
Toledo, Ohio, is known as the “Glass City.” At
one time, she was the leading glass manufacturing city in the world and
developed one of the largest railroad centers in the country. Toledo attracted
many people because of her location on the Maumee River and along Lake
Erie. Also, as a port city, Toledo became a crossroads for commerce and
trade between major U.S. cities and Canada. Toledo not only attracted people
and businesses but the corrupt and politically unjust in the nation.
Toledo received her name from Washington Irving,
author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” who served
in the American legation with Spain in 1832. He was living in Toledo, Spain,
at the time (p. 18).* Toledo, Spain, was one of the earliest centers
for Christian culture and originally was the source of the enduring exclamation
“Holy Toledo” (p. 32).
Today the phrase, “Holy Toledo,” is an exclamation
of surprise and can be seen on advertisements portraying Toledo, Ohio,
as a positive and cultural town. However, Toledo has not always been as
it is today: a quiet and conservative town with beautiful metro parks,
a growing University, a small downtown, large shopping malls and suburban
towns, surrounded by country townships. Rather, “Holy Toledo” was used
as a pejorative meaning “unholy Toledo.” Toledo gained a reputation in
the late 1800s to 1930s, as an immoral and corrupt city due to gang violence,
illegal bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, and political corruption.
As with any newly formed city, the political situation
was influenced by lawyers. “Lawyers became the first peddlers of influence
and favor in exchange for fees. …Lawyers went to strongboxes with secret
lists of men they controlled in the legislatures” (p. 21). Between 1868
– 1880 three Presidents were elected from Ohio. Because of Ohio’s political
growth, lawyers and businessmen decided to get in on the action by supporting
those they wanted in office and learning the art of graft. “Graft” is the
general term given to any political activity that involves unjust enrichment
in exchange for privilege or favor. The newspaper coined the phrase, “Ohio
Gang,” to describe the politicians who were gifted in political conspiracy.
An example of the “Ohio Gang” at work is in the
1890s includes William McKinley, governor of Ohio, who had fallen into
debt. A man by the name of Mark Hanna helped him by calling up a group
of wealthy men including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, Charles Taft, and
John Hay to raise a fund of $130,000 to pay off McKinley’s debts. With
his credit restored, McKinley then went on to win the 1896 election for
Presidency. He repaid the Ohio Gang in favors and privileges (p. 23). Toledo
also had its own small gang of political favors and conspiracy. Two people
reveal the dark side of Toledo, Walter F. Brown and Jacob (Firetop) Sulkin.
As politicians and lawyers they believed that to get ahead they should
seek favors from judges, police, mayors, and criminals. They became the
best “fixers” in town. Later, Brown became the postmaster general for President
Hoover and Sulkin, known as Firetop, stayed in Toledo to keep the ball
During the Reform Era, mayors Samuel Milton Jones
and Brand Whitlock, both Independents, tried to dig out the roots of all
evil that infiltrated their city among the rich and powerful. Even though
their reign was short-lived, they helped open the eyes of the public to
the corruption within their city. They stood firm on truth and justice
and the people were supportive of them.
Toledo became known as an infamous town because
of the open door policy toward criminals. Because of the many railroads
and different railroad companies that came into Toledo, many criminals
could easily sneak into the city to hide out. Additionally, one robbery
made national news. On Feb. 21, 1921, the main post office was robbed of
almost one million dollars. Also, 10 years later, during Prohibition times,
Firetop Sulkin had invited Yonnie Licavoli into town. Yonnie Licavoli was
known as one of the toughest mobsters in the country. He was from Detroit
and was known as a Purple Gang member, a notorious gang that was thought
to have been disbanded, only to come back meaner and stronger. Yonnie was
known as one of the few men who told Al Capone to stay out of Detroit.
Once Licavoli and his gang took over much of
Toledo’s bootlegging and gambling businesses with sheer power, threats,
murders and bombings, he became wealthy and untouchable by police. In fact
he promised to protect businesses from outside competition if they paid
him. He was feared by most, except for one man by the name of Jack Kennedy.
Kennedy was young, handsome, and daring. He owned his own clubs and was
well respected by the police and the people of Toledo, especially because
he stood up to Licavoli and his gang.
Kennedy became a hero because of his fighting
spirit against Licavoli. However, more and more his life was in danger
and one of his girlfriends, Louise Bell, was killed as a result. Then on
one fateful night on July 7, 1933, he was shot and killed. His death enraged
the city. The Licavoli gang fled and hid. Later, they were all captured
but let go for lack of evidence and witnesses. Prosecuting Attorney, Frazier
Reams, persevered to find the murderers and stop Licavoli’s reign of terror.
A year later, the gang was indeed broken up, and Licavoli, the murderers,
and other gang members were convicted of different crimes and sentenced
Toledo has had a rough time picking up the pieces
after such bloodshed and moral problems. Modern day violence and criminal
activity is rampant throughout the nation. Toledo has the stigma of “unholy
Toledo” but has come a long way from putting the past behind her and mapping
out the future. The people of Toledo have had a lot of negativity to overcome
to make a new and bright name for her as a true “Holy Toledo.”
For more information on Toledo
All reference numbers refer to Harry R. Illman's
book Unholy Toledo (San Francisco: Polemic Press Publications, 1985).
Michael D. Sallah, "Son Inherits A Legacy Of Violence,"
Toledo Blade 15 February (1998): 1, 11.
Morgan Barclay and Charles N. Glaab, Toledo: Gateway
to the Great Lakes, photographs by Hazen and Sue Keyser (Tulsa, Oklahoma:
Continental Heritage Press, Inc., 1982), 148-152.