Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Charles E. Bowles: another mayoral Klandidate


Hampered in large part by the sensational murder trial of David Curtis Stephenson and the widespread exposure of corruption in the Indiana government that followed, the Ku Klux Klan had lost much of its influence by 1929. Charles E. Bowles, a former Klan candidate for mayor of Detroit, won the office that year without any tangible support from the organization. Within seven months of beginning his term, however, Bowles had been kicked out of city hall.

Detroit was proving to be a popular destination for eastern and southern European immigrants during the 1920s. By 1930, 25 percent of the city's population, or about 400,000 people, was foreign-born. Bowles, who had been born in Yale, Michigan in March of 1884, was a Republican and practicing lawyer. When the incumbent mayor, John C. Lodge, announced he was too ill to complete the rest of his term, the Klan tapped Bowles for their candidate.

Bowles' opponent was a natural Klan enemy. John William Smith was a working class Catholic opposed to Prohibition; his promises included extending more rights to black citizens and putting more black police officers on the city's police force. While Smith campaigned for black and immigrant support, the Klan had failed to get Bowles on the ballot and began pushing for write-in votes. Their tactics included disturbing Smith rallies by showing up and screaming Bowles' name and burning a cross on the lawn of Smith's home. When the approximately 325,000 votes were tallied, Bowles was found to have won by 7,000 votes. However, a technicality kept him out of office. Smith challenged the result, and upon review the election commission determined that any write-in vote for Bowles that was misspelled could not count. Almost 17,000 were invalidated, and Smith settled in for a one-year term.

In 1925, Bowles again ran for mayor with Klan support. Smith again defeated him, this time by 29,787 votes out of about 250,000. The Klan had managed to put four of their five candidates on the city council, but Bowles put aside his attempts at the mayor's office and became a recorder's court judge from 1926 until 1929. In that year, he again challenged Smith, though with Klan support severely diminished or nonexistent. By a margin of 8,595 votes, Bowles was elected mayor. Smith once again demanded a recount, but this time Bowle's victory was upheld.

It wasn't exactly a good time to be coming into office. Not long before the election, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression was beginning to take hold. With welfare expenditures on the rise, Bowles asked the Detroit Bureau of Government Research to survey the problem to keep costs under control. However, differences between Bowles and the city council inhibited attempts to reduce unemployment through public works projects.

Other decisions soon made Bowles an unpopular man. In March of 1930, he announced his intention to raise the streetcar fare from six cents to eight cents despite the mounting economic problems. The suggestion was criticized so much that Bowles backed off it before it went into effect. Frank Couzens, son of Senator and former mayor James Couzens, was the sole opponent of the fare hike on the Detroit Street Railway Commission. Couzens also opposed a decision to change the railway's insurance from multiple insurance carriers to a single one, saying the commission was favoring one carrier when another had offered a lower price. Bowles responded by asking him to resign.

Though he'd come into office promising reform, Bowles' ideas of doing so were not well-received. That same month that Couzens was removed, he announced the retirement of seven veteran police officers and the formation of a citywide vice squad. Under the new framework, the unit would have jurisdiction over all vice cases in the city, where formerly they had been handled by precinct commanders. Rather than reducing vice in the city, however, the city saw an increase in gambling and other such crimes. The squad also enforced some cases more strictly than others, a practice that led to rumors that it was associated with the underworld and going easy on mobsters.

Most controversial were Bowles appointments to different political offices. His choice for employment manager of the Detroit Street Railway declared that he would give fellow members of the Odd Fellows lodge preference for hiring, and the appointment had to be rescinded after he'd held it only two days. John Gillespie, a Republican politician, was named commissioner of the Department of Public Works and was soon accused of using his position to benefit personal business projects, favor certain contractors, and begin building a political machine to work on behalf of Bowles. When the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News became increasingly critical of the administration, Bowles responded by refusing to speak to reporters, an action that only earned him more contempt.

It seemed like the only way to realize the promised reform was to act on the vice problems while the mayor's back was turned. In May of 1930, Bowles and Gillespie left the city to watch the Kentucky Derby. While they were gone, Frank Couzens turned down a chance to return to the Detroit Street Railway Commission, saying he didn't intend to serve "any mayor who would not give me a hand to perform my official duties according to my best judgment in public interest." Couzens himself later became mayor of the city from 1933 to 1938. More importantly, police commissioner Harold H. Emmons was persuaded by citizens and the press to start raiding saloons and underworld dens. While Bowles and Gillespie took in the horse race, 276 people were arrested in Detroit, many of them swiftly convicted and sentenced.

When Emmons said he intended to continue his crackdown on the vice problems, Bowles dismissed him and replaced him with Thomas C. Wilcox. Echoing Couzens' complaints that Bowles was too restrictive, Emmons said the mayor "insisted on assuming the entire responsibility" for taking care of vice problems; he said that while such a system led to "an increase in efficiency in handling of major crimes, that is, those of violence" it also caused "diminished efficiency in the handling of gambling and other vice."

Bowles denied any interference in police work, but angered citizens thought he had removed Emmons for a job well-done. The action further fueled rumor that Bowles was favoring gangsters, though Emmons said that was not the case. However, he did say that Bowles had reinstated several gambling dens while Emmons was away on a business trip. An editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said that the failure of the government to address the vice issue was hypocrisy at best and collusion at worst. One day after Emmons was removed, a citizens' committee began gathering signatures for a recall election.

While Emmons' dismissal was the main bone of contention, the recall found plenty of other complaints to raise against Bowles. It charged that the mayor "substituted secrecy for frankness in public business," had attempted to "weld street railway and other city employees into a political machine," had "threatened the success of municipal ownership" by attempting a streetcar fare hike, and had forced Couzens off the Detroit Street Railway Commission.

The Klan found a voice in the city's politics again, charging that the recall effort was a Catholic hit job. Other supporters said the city's newspapers, most of which threw their weight behind the effort, were upset because Bowles had reduced their influence over the city. Ultimately, however, the petition had accumulated 111,270 signatures when it was filed on June 18, well above the 89,467 needed to call a special election. There may have been even more; Time reported that of about 400 lawyers collecting signatures in the city, two had their petitions seized by police. Wilcox said he wouldn't stand for such behavior by the officers.

Bowles sought to delay the election and was able to win a temporary injunction, but it was later removed. A recall election was scheduled for July 22. When the results were in, 57 percent of the voters, a majority of 30,956, favored removing Bowles from office. The idea that Bowles was colluding with the underworld grew more popular with a sharp increase in violence during the lead-up to the recall election. In a 19-day period, there were eleven murders. It was enough to draw Governor Fred Warren Green to Detroit to start his own investigation and threaten martial law.

The last of that set of murders was shocking enough that it overshadowed the result of the recall. Gerald E. Buckley, a popular radio broadcaster and well-known anti-Bowles partisan, went on the air with the election results on the late evening of July 22. He returned to the La Salle Hotel, where he was residing, and sat down in the lobby to read a newspaper. At about 1:40 a.m., three men came entered the hotel and gunned Buckley down, hitting him with 11 bullets.

Over 100,000 people attended Buckley's funeral. Many felt that they only had jobs during the Depression because Buckley had made an effort to find employment for the city's residents. Angry citizens charged that Bowles had sent hitmen to rub out Buckley as payback for his influential efforts to oust the mayor. Others thought the killing was a response to Buckley's denunciations of gambling, or his testimony in a gangland double homicide that he witnessed outside the same hotel where he was later murdered. Police commissioner Wilcox took a different approach: he said that Buckley was himself involved with the mob, and had taken part in racketeering and extortion. Though he claimed to have an affidavit accusing Buckley of receiving $4,000 from a racketeer, he was unable or unwilling to produce it for the press.

The public didn't buy it. The Detroit Times wrote a story agreeing that the motive for Buckley's murder was involvement in racketeering, and included an accusation from Bowles that Buckley had offered to change his tune on the mayor if he were paid off. In response, the newspaper was deluged by complaints, had about 12,000 people cancel their subscriptions, and lost several advertisers. Other papers blasted the slaying as a direct result of negligence in the city government. The Detroit Free Press said Buckley was dead "because the government of the city of Detroit failed to maintain a decent check on banditry and gunmen, but allowed them to think that the town is wide open and 'easy.' His blood cries from the ground for vengeance; and his death is a solemn warning to the municipal officials and to the city."

Bowles was set to continue his roles as mayor until a special election in September, and sought to remedy some of the things that had led to the recall and his own unpopularity. He denounced Buckley's murder as "a terrible thing," abolished the central vice squad, and supported more raids against speakeasies. Gillespie, whose name had come up almost as much as Bowles' in the various implications, resigned. These actions may well have been due to the fact that the recall election did not guarantee that Bowles would be removed from office; he was allowed to run in the election to try to keep his job.

Bowles put in an impressive showing at the special election, which included five contenders. When the result was called, he had earned 93,985 votes, besting by about 8,500 votes George Engel, a former civil service commission chairman who had received the endorsement of the recall committee. Victory, however, went to Democratic candidate Frank Murphy, a judge of the recorder's court, who received 106,637 vote.

Murphy's inauguration had to wait another 13 days. Bowles challenged the result, charging irregularities and fraud in the election. Some citizens responded by filing a lawsuit demanding his speedy removal. "Bowles is in by right of a valid election, the election last fall," said Charles S. Abbott, Bowles' attorney. "Nothing, we contend, has occurred since that time to put him out." Though Bowles threatened to take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, he later ceded the election to Murphy after the City Election Commission failed to find anything that significantly affected the vote.

Three men were indicted in the Buckley shooting, and the prosecutor in the case accused them of being leaders in the vice world who had also contributed $11,000 to Bowles' campaign. Bowles had already recovered from his recall, however; at about the same time that the charge came out in March of 1931, he was nominated in a nonpartisan primary to take up his old job as judge of the recorder's court. Buckley's accused killers were later acquitted, though Time reported that two of them were immediately arrested on other charges.

Continuing his law work, Bowles also took several more stabs at different elected posts. He ran for the House of Representatives in 1932 to 1934. He lowered his sights to the state government later on, making bids for circuit court judge in 1941 and the state house of representatives in 1950 and 1952. Bowles passed away in July of 1957.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, "Klan Candidates Picked For Council" in the Ludington Daily News on Nov. 4 1925, "Police Guard Ballots Pending Recount Demand" in the Ludington Daily News on Nov. 7 1929, "Couzens Saves Himself From Being Fired Again By Declining Position" in the Ludington Daily News on May 20 1930, "Resignation Of Police Head Requested" in the Evening Independent on May 21 1930, "Citizens' Committee Formed To Circulate Petitions For Recall Of Detroit's Mayor" in the Evening Independent on May 22 1930, "Turmoil In Detroit" in Time on Jun. 2 1930, "Detroit Mayor Loses Last Suit To Halt Recall" in the Chicago Tribune on Jul. 9 1930, "The Recall In Detroit" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jul. 10 1930, "Detroit Radio Announcer Is Shot To Death" in the Evening Independent on Jul. 23 1930, "Admits Buckley Affidavit Is False" in the Evening Independent on Jul. 25 1930, "Death In Detroit" in Time on Aug. 4 1930, "Murphy Elected Mayor Of Detroit" in the Ludington Daily News on Sept. 10 1930, "Chas. Bowles Asks For Recount" in the Ludington Daily News on Sept. 15 1930, "Bowles Is Bound To Hold On To Office Of Detroit Mayor" in the Ludington Daily News on Sept. 17 1930, "Buckley's Murder Laid To Vice War" in the Milwaukee Journal on Mar. 3 1931, "Detroit's Question" in Time on May 4 1931, The American Mayor: The Best and Worst Big City Leaders by Melvin G. Holli, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle, Frank Murphy: The Detroit Years by Sidney Fine, The Industrial Revolution in America by Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Detroit: A Motor City History by David Lee Poremba

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