The absurdly pompous political parades of Cincinnati’s passionately partisan past

IThere had to be something to see: Vine Street, from Fourth Street north to McMicken, filled sidewalk to side with a flowing river and twisted with flaming torches bright enough to light up the clouds, worn by men proclaiming undying loyalty to some candidate or another. Such were the political parades of Cincinnati.

Brandishing kerosene torches, wearing white top hats, known as “catch hats” at the time, party stalwarts parade through Cincinnati.

From the Cincinnati Enquirer March 15, 1901 Image from microfilm by Greg Hand

Every two years and especially during presidential campaigns, Cincinnati’s political parties have rallied together, neighborhood by neighborhood, neighborhood by neighborhood, to demonstrate the power of their collective voice. Obviously, the opposition could not pass up such sacrilegious hokum and, according to Frank Grayson, a former journalist, dissent sometimes became vicious:

“Before, there was a persevering little moron living in Abigail Street, who was a most outspoken Democrat. He also had a throwing wing as good as that of Honor Wagner. He would hide in the mouth of a dark alley. At his feet was a pile of cobblestones. His specialty was the kidnapping of grand marshals. When the great factotum crossed the mouth of the alley, a paving stone would emerge. It would land with the usual thud. The grand marshal would fall off his horse and lose all interest in the rest of the debates. With the crop of grand marshals depleted, the little runt began to gather a mess of assistant marshals, and the list of casualties was large. Finally, four burly Republicans hid in the alley, and they simply shredded the rogue. He still lives. His left leg is stiff.

Onslaughts from assassins lurking in the alleys was just one of the dangers the walkers faced. Terror, according to Grayson, rained down from above, and torch-bearing party officials soon learned the safest part of the route:

“During those thrilling, sizzling, bloody presidential campaigns of long ago, a taxpayer who wanted to show his neighbors what his policy was, usually wrote his will in advance, and then, torch in hand, walked out through the night through the threshold of his home, his lips moving in silent prayer for protection through the rest of a tumultuous night.Whether one lived in a Democrat stronghold or a Republican stronghold, as the case may be, you had to get down in the middle of the street to get to the rendezvous of your compatriots, otherwise clothes wringers, beds, flowerpots pushed through the windows would fall on your devoted bean and send him kicking in a little white bed in the hospital.

The police were busy at work each time the political season blew and announced with an announcement in the Applicant [2 September 1880] that they were serious:

“When requested, a sufficient force of police will be detached from Police Headquarters, Ninth Street, to accompany each parade or general political procession, and a number of policemen will also be detached in citizens’ dress to mingle with the crowd on the sidewalks, with the aim of detecting and arresting those who might engage in the cowardly practice of throwing stones at the procession.

Since political parties have maintained bail funds to bail out their incarcerated henchmen from the harsh life, police have taken the extra precaution of charging the rock-throwers with suspicion, rendering them ineligible for bail until further notice. ‘in the morning. In addition to stone throwers, cops targeted anyone asking questions at political meetings without permission, “hurrahing” for opposition candidates and other efforts to disrupt the peace.

A highlight of classic political parades were the transparencies – torch-lit cubes usually painted with slogans insulting the opposition party – surrounded by a sea of ​​kerosene or pitch torches.

From Cincinnati Times-Star October 27, 1928 Image from microfilm by Greg Hand

A common attraction at Cincinnati political parades were “transparencies,” large paintings on glass or vaporous fabric, mounted in frames and assembled into cubes, lit by an internal torch. While it would seem that such flimsy and flammable provocations made exceptional targets, Grayson says the best transparencies sarcastically skewered the opposition:

“The transparencies that were worn at intervals throughout the parades were pretty much the last word of insults for those who looked grimly at passing marchers.”

The parade routes were Odyssian in length. A typical Republican march, for example, originated at party headquarters at Seventh and Freeman in the West End, ran east on Seventh to Central, south on Central to Fourth, veering north on Vine to McMicken and following McMicken to Central, south on Central to Dayton Street, west on Dayton to Freeman and south to Seventh. That’s nearly five miles of stomping, screaming, and dodging, all while drenched in flaming pitch or kerosene. According to Grayson:

“Each neighborhood had its walking club. Some of them were equipped with torches which, when blown, threw a jet of flames two feet into the air. Others carried bundles of pitch and the sap from these flowed and covered their hands, burning and simmering as they went, but what did the valiant carrier matter? Members of some clubs are said to have huge shields on their chests conveying words of biting sarcasm for the edification of the common enemy.

Interestingly, the colors associated with the main parties were the reverse of today’s code:

“Remember those flippant little beanies and capes that walkers wore? They were made of oilcloth. The caps were modeled after those worn by the Union Army during the Civil War. Capes and caps touched by Republicans were blue and those by Democrats were red. Entirely caparisoned, an ordinary citizen became a thing apart, serene in the majesty of his conviction that his party was destined to stand between his sweet and beautiful land and the hells of rapacity – which was just another name for the opposing party.

And don’t look for elephants or donkeys. Thomas Nast’s cartoons popularizing today’s political symbols had yet to catch on. Republicans rallied around the eagle and Democrats hoisted the rooster.

The Cincinnati parades attracted big names in their heyday. William McKinley led a parade during his 1896 campaign. William Jennings Bryan’s parade had 80,000 marchers. Theodore Roosevelt was escorted to Vine Street, as were US Senator John Sherman and his successor Mark Hanna. The last presidential candidate to make the torchlight journey was Warren G. Harding.

Harding, it will be remembered, was the first president of the United States to travel to his inauguration in 1921 by automobile, and it was the automobile that killed the political parade. Before 1920, the streets belonged to the people. Spontaneous, torchlit and other parades were common. After 1920, the streets were given over to the internal combustion engine, driven by drivers who had no patience for partisan parades of all stripes interrupting their journey.

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