All photos of Toledo by Adrian Lime.
Lauri Copeland  

Holy Toledo  

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 rolling.     

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 to jail.    
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.”    


  • All reference numbers refer to Harry R. Illman's book Unholy Toledo (San Francisco: Polemic Press Publications, 1985). 
For more information on Toledo   
  • 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.
All Rights Reserved. 1998 T-Hall Productions
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