Filed Under Biography

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.

Images

Ruthenberg at Market Square Charles Ruthenberg appeared at many public gatherings in Cleveland giving speeches opposing America's entry into World War I, which he contended benefited only the rich at the expense of the working class. Here he appears at Market Square, across W. 25th Street from the West Side Market, on October 28, 1917. Note the vigilant police officers standing near him. Source: Courtesy of the Charles E. Ruthenberg Collection, Ohio History Connection
Lorain-West 85th Neighborhood Charles E. Ruthenberg was born on Cleveland's West Side in a small house on Florence Street--today, West 85th, just north of Lorain Avenue. This 1881 Cleveland Map shows how sparsely settled the neighborhood was at the time of Charles' birth in 1882.
Birthplace on the West Side Charles E. Ruthenberg was born, and grew up, in the house at 2219 W. 85th Street. The above photos show the house as it appeared in 1964 (left) and 2015 (right). Source: Cuyahoga County Archives (left photo) and Jim Dubelko (right photo)
Another Ruthenberg Family Home Charles Ruthenberg's father August built this house at 2215 W. 85th Street--just to the north of his house at 2219 W. 85th, in the early 1890s. It was home to two of August's married daughters and their families, and later to his son William and then to other Ruthenberg descendants. The family sold the house in 1975. Source: Cuyahoga County Archives
Charles E. Ruthenberg (1882-1927) As an earnest young Socialist. Photo taken circa 1911-1912.
Running for Mayor of Cleveland On September 25, 1911, the Plain Dealer ran this article on Charles E. Ruthenberg during his bid that year to become Cleveland's first Socialist mayor. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
In View of City Hall This 1912 photograph shows a building on East 6th Street, just north of St. Clair--and within view of City Hall, bearing a campaign sign for the Socialist Party and mayoral candidate Charles E. Ruthenberg. The large building in the background is the Central Armory. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photo Collection
The Death of America's Most Arrested Man On March 3, 1927, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported the death of Cleveland native and American Communist Party founder, Charles E. Ruthenberg. An implacable foe of capitalism, in death Ruthenberg had to take a backseat to an article about one of the Roaring Twenties' greatest capitalist icons--Babe Ruth. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Ruthenberg Funeral Children from a Communist Party youth group form a honor guard before the coffin of Charles E. Ruthenberg, founder of the American Communist Party, in Chicago, March 1927. His body was later cremated, and his ashes carried to Russia where they were interred in the Kremlin Wall. Source: Courtesy of the Charles E. Ruthenberg Collection, Ohio History Connection

Location

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “Charles E. Ruthenberg,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 30, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/722.