Charles E. Ruthenberg

America's Most Arrested Man

By all accounts he was a very serious young man. Born in Cleveland in 1882, Charles Emil Ruthenberg was the son of German immigrants and the youngest of nine children--the first and only child in the family to be born in America. He grew up in a working class neighborhood of Germans and Bohemians on the west side, in a house on W. 85th Street which is still standing today. As a boy, Charles was a model student who aspired to become a Lutheran minister. But his studies led him to question the fairness of capitalism to the working class in America, and as a young man he became active in politics, running for Ohio Governor in 1910 as a Socialist, when he was just 28 years old.

Described by one reporter as "tall, blonde [and] good-looking," Ruthenberg ran for a number of other political offices in Ohio in the 1910s decade, including several runs at mayor of Cleveland. In the city's 1917 municipal elections, as the Socialist Party's candidate, he received more than 27,000 of the 100,000 votes cast in the five-man race.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Ruthenberg protested against America's entry into that war, which he contended benefited the wealthy at the expense--and very lives, of the working class. He became embittered--some might instead say that he became hardened, when America nonetheless entered the War. He became even more so later by the treatment he received at the hands of police, politicians and the general public when he continued to speak out against the War. In 1917, Ruthenberg was convicted in a federal court for obstructing the draft, and spent a year in prison, where he was tortured by prison officials. He emerged a radicalized man.

Just months after his release, Ruthenberg led a peaceful march in downtown Cleveland on May 1, 1919, in celebration of the working class and the Russian Revolution. Red was the theme of the day, as red banners and red flags were carried. Some even wore red ribbons. It all turned violent when enraged war veterans, who literally saw red, attacked the marchers. Then the police joined in the melee. Dozens of people were injured, and two killed. Ruthenberg and 124 other marchers were arrested, and he was inexplicably charged with assault with intent to kill, although the charges were later dismissed.

After this event, Ruthenberg spent little additional time in Cleveland. In September 1919, in Chicago, he co-founded the American Communist Party, becoming its first Executive Secretary. Already a targeted individual, this new office insured that Ruthenberg would be constantly harassed by law enforcement officials who were fearful of the "Red Scare" to the point of panic. For the next eight years, there was never a time, according to a biographical article written in 1937 by his son Daniel, that he was not either under indictment or in jail, earning him the sobriquet of "America's Most Arrested Man."

In March 1927, at the age of just 44 years, Ruthenberg died suddenly of a ruptured appendix, while his appeal to the United States Supreme Court from his latest conviction in a Michigan court was still pending. Ruthenberg was cremated and his ashes carried overseas to Russia where he was interred in the Kremlin Wall, becoming one of only a handful of Americans to have ever been accorded this honor.