Filed Under Conflict

The Cleveland Circulation War

When Competition between the Plain Dealer and the Leader Turned Deadly

On November 21, 1914, Thomas Gibbons, a switchman employed by the B&O Railroad, was shot dead near the intersection of West 75th Street and Detroit Avenue on Cleveland's West Side. It was the culmination of a more than one year-long circulation war between two of the city's leading newspapers that had now suddenly turned deadly. Was Gibbons an innocent bystander or did he get exactly what he deserved? Well, in 1914, that all depended upon whose newspaper you were reading.

In a business where circulation numbers have historically counted for nearly everything, there was probably never any love lost between the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Leader. The Plain Dealer--a partisan Democrat paper, was founded in 1842. The Leader--founded a decade later, became the Republican counterpart when, in 1859, fiery Edwin Cowles became its editor. In the years that followed, the ideological competition between the papers took on a personal dimension as the editors often exchanged barbs, including this one which appeared in an article reprinted by the Leader in 1876: "When the snarling, ill-conditioned editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer gets drunk and falls out of the third story window of his boarding house, people in the street who catch a glimpse of his florid face and sanguinary hair cry out: 'Behold, that blazing meteor!' " In 1885, the competition, if anything, intensified, when the new owner of the Plain Dealer, Liberty Holden, began publishing a morning edition in direct competition with the Leader.

It wasn't long after these competitive foundations of the relationship between the Plain Dealer and Leader were formed that the twentieth century arrived, ushering in a period that has been called Cleveland's "golden era of journalism." The two rivals were just two of the city's six dailies--not to mention the numerous weeklies and ethnic newspapers, all of whom were vying for the attention of the city's reading population. The situation for these newspapers soon reached critical mass and some sought new methods to improve their bottom line, or to at least stay in business. One was merger. In 1905, the number of dailies operating in the city was reduced to four when the Cleveland News was created from the merger of three of the dailies. Then, Dan R. Hanna, the son of the late Republican kingmaker Marcus Hanna, employed a different type of merger. In 1910, he purchased the Leader and then purchased the News two years later. But despite this merger of ownership, a year later both the Leader and the News trailed the Press and the Plain Dealer in circulation. As the old adage goes, desperate times now demanded desperate measures.

According to Plain Dealer accounts, the Circulation War began in the summer of 1913 when Hanna, who had ties to Chicago's newspaper industry through his brother-in-law Joseph Medill McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune, imported a number of Chicagoans to Cleveland. These included William P. Leech, formerly an editor of a Chicago newspaper, and two other men, who would later be widely associated with organized crime--Arthur "Mickey" McBride, who founded the Cleveland Browns in 1944 and was a target of the Kefauver Crime Commission hearings here in 1951, and James "The Built" Ragen, who was gunned down in Chicago in 1946 by mobsters who had taken over Al Capone's gang. Leech became Hanna's general manager for both papers and Ragen the Circulation Manager for the Leader, while McBride was assigned the same Circulation position, which entailed building up the paper's circulation numbers, at the News.

Despite his recent arrival in Cleveland, James Ragen wasted no time in going after the Plain Dealer. At his direction, newsboys (also called "newsies"), hawking the Plain Dealer at well-traveled intersections of the city, were threatened or roughed up. Bundles of Plain Dealer papers dropped off at street corners all over the city were torn up or mysteriously ended up in dumps. And, just to show that he was a hands-on manager, Ragen, on November 17, 1913, personally participated in an attack on Joseph Unger, a Plain Dealer newspaper distributor (also called a "circulator") on the east side of town. For his part in that attack, Ragen was convicted in a Cleveland court in January 1914 of assault. Amazingly, he retained his job at the Leader.

For the next year, attacks against newsboys and their distributors took place all over Cleveland, most of them initiated by employees of the Leader. One of the last occurred on November 17, 1914, when three armed men attacked William "Scance" Chambers, a west side distributor for the Plain Dealer, at the corner of West 117th and Detroit Avenue. Chambers, who some believed was also a member of a west side Irish street gang, didn't take the attack sitting down. According to Cleveland News reports--which though biased carried a certain ring of truth, he and another Plain Dealer distributor assembled a group of "toughs," and on the evening of November 21 transported them to Detroit Center--a cluster of retail stores and saloons on Detroit Avenue near its intersection with West 75th Street and Lake Avenue, to exact some revenge. While most of the hired toughs were having a drink at Louis Schwartz' saloon at 7507 Detroit, Chambers and Thomas Gibbons stood outside watching for the Leader delivery truck. They were standing there when it showed up at around 9 PM. Soon, several shots rang out and Gibbons fell to the ground, bleeding from a bullet wound to the neck. He was rushed to German (Fairview) Hospital, but later died from his injuries.

The killing of Thomas Gibbons--regardless of whether he was an innocent victim, as alleged by the Plain Dealer, or a co-conspirator as alleged in the Cleveland News, galvanized the public to stop Cleveland's Circulation War. Mayor Newton Baker was outraged by the killing and promised that the war between the Leader and the Plain Dealer would soon end. Two Leader employees--Harvey Callahan and Frank O'Neill, were indicted for murder. After a two week jury trial in January 1915, however, which featured dozens of witnesses and wildly differing reports by the competing newspapers, Callahan, was acquitted. The charges against O'Neill, his alleged accomplice, were then dropped. Despite the prosecutor's failure to get a conviction in the case, there were thereafter no reported new incidents of violence between Cleveland Plain Dealer and Leader employees. Perhaps the owners of the two newspapers had sat down over a martini and declared a truce. Clearly at some point they did sit down, because just two years later, in August 1917, Hanna sold the newspaper to the Estate of Liberty Holden, now owner of the Plain Dealer. Publication of the Cleveland Leader abruptly came to an end, also ending more than a half century of competition, as well as at least one war, between these two historic Cleveland newspapers.

Images

Two Opposing Versions of the Death of Thomas Gibbons On November 21, 1914, the 24-year old B&O railroad switchman was shot and killed on Cleveland's west side. Just two days later, the city's news media was already attempting to sway public opinion as to why and how he died. The Cleveland Press (left) was the city's most popular newspaper at the time and ostensibly not involved in the ongoing Circulation War between the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Leader. The Cleveland News (right), however, had a distinct bias as it was owned by the same company that published the Cleveland Leader. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Liberty E. Holden (1833-1913) An industrialist and patron of the arts, Holden was the owner of the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1885 until his death in 1913. Shortly after taking over the reins of the paper, he introduced the morning edition of the Plain Dealer, placing it in direct competition with Edwin Cowle's Cleveland Leader. He died just as the Circulation War between the Plain Dealer and the Leader began. This photograph was taken circa 1910. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection
Dan R. Hanna (1866-1921) The son of legendary Republican kingmaker, Marcus A. Hanna, he was active in the M. A. Hanna Co., the family's mining enterprise, for most of his adult life. In 1910, he entered the newspaper business, purchasing the Cleveland Leader. Two years later, he purchased the Cleveland News, thereby bringing two of Cleveland's four daily newspapers under single ownership. Hanna, who brought tough Chicagoans with gangster ties to Cleveland in 1913 to improve his papers' circulation numbers, undoubtedly learned a thing or two about how to run a newspaper from his brother-in-law, Joseph Medill McCormick, the owner of the Chicago Tribune. This photograph was taken in 1921, the year he died. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection
Competitors On Superior and East 6th In the nineteenth century, most of Cleveland's newspapers had offices and printing plants in what is today the Warehouse District. In the years 1896-1913, three of Cleveland's dailies--the Plain Dealer, the Leader, and the Press, moved from that business district to the Superior-East 6th area, constructing new buildings near City Hall, which was then located on the site where Cleveland Public Library stands today. The above 1930 photograph shows a part of the Plain Dealer Building (right) built on the northwest corner of Superior and East 6th between 1908-1911, and the Leader Building (left), built directly across Superior by Dan R. Hanna in 1912-1913. Hanna also built the similar-looking Hanna Building on the corner of East 14th and Euclid Avenue in 1921, in honor of his late father. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection
The Cleveland Press Building The above 1937 photograph shows the Cleveland Press building on the northwest corner of East 9th and Rockwell. The building was erected in 1913, the year the Circulation War between the Plain Dealer and the Leader began. Of the four daily newspapers published in Cleveland in this era, the Press was the only one which ostensibly could publish unbiased stories about the war. The Press operated out of this building until 1958 when it moved into a new building on the northeast corner of East 9th and Lakeside. Creator: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Measuring the Competition In 1913, Dan R. Hanna, owner of the Cleveland Leader, brought James "The Built" Ragen to Cleveland to manage the paper's Circulation Department. The above reports for October 1913 published by the Plain Dealer (left) and the Leader (right) show that the Plain Dealer was significantly outselling the Leader. Ragen, who signed the circulation report for the Leader, was arrested less than one month later for organizing and participating in an assault upon a Plain Dealer distributor who was delivering newspapers to a street corner. He was convicted in a Cleveland court in January 1914, but amazingly was permitted to retain his position with the Leader. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection
Shot from a Delivery Truck In the evening hours of November 21, 1914, Thomas Gibbons was shot and killed by Harvey Callahan, a distributor for the Cleveland Leader. While the justification for the shooting was hotly contested by the Plain Dealer and Leader, most of the basic facts were not. Gibbons, in the company of William "Scance" Chambers, a distributor for the Plain Dealer, approached a Leader delivery truck parked on the south side of Detroit Avenue, just west of its intersection with West 75th Street. In the delivery truck were three Leader employees, including Callahan. An altercation occurred and Gibbons was shot. The above photo taken in 1920 is of a delivery truck that likely resembled the truck in which Callahan was riding when he shot Gibbons. Creator: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Mayor Outraged! On November 24, 1914, just three days after the shooting death of Thomas Gibbons, Cleveland mayor Newton Baker was quoted in the Cleveland Press as "outraged" over the death of Gibbons. Saying that the war between the Plain Dealer and Leader had to end, Baker ordered his Chief of Police to disarm all newspaper distributors (circulators) operating in the City of Cleveland. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Like an Armed Camp That's how the Cleveland Press on January 12, 1915, described the first day of the trial of Harvey Callahan, Cleveland Leader distributor, charged with the murder of Thomas Gibbons. Show in the photograph left to right are: Frank "Tom the Dog" O'Neill, charged with murder; Harvey "Chipper" Callahan, charged with murder; and James "The Built" Ragen, the Circulation Manager for the Cleveland Leader. The trial lasted for two weeks, as dozens of witnesses testified to their recollection of how the shooting occurred. Callahan was ultimately acquitted. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
"Scance" Chambers breaks under withering cross-examination At least that is how the Cleveland News, owned by the same company as the Cleveland Leader, saw it. The News took some journalistic liberties depicting the State's chief witness as literally under a "spot light" held by Defendant Callahan's attorney. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
The Cheyenne Gang At the January 1915 murder trial of Harvey Callahan,the defense introduced into evidence this expense report which William "Scance" Chambers had submitted to the Plain Dealer shortly before the trial began. The defense contended that the entry labeled "Chian Bunch" referred to money which "Scance" had paid to the Cheyenne Gang to help him exact his revenge against Leader employees for their attack upon him just four days before Gibbons was shot and killed. The Cheyenne Gang was the name of an Irish Street gang that operated in the Gordon Square neighborhood, possibly for generations. At one time in the late nineteenth century, it was known as the McCart Street Gang. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Detroit Center The intersection of Detroit Avenue, West 75th Street and Lake Avenue was known as Detroit Center, because it was here that the trolley had a turn-around. This 1934 photo, taken just 20 years after the Circulation War, shows this once bustling intersection--a perfect place for newsboys to hawk their papers. Detroit Avenue is the street running from top left to bottom right. The shooting of Thomas Gibbons would have taken place on the south side of Detroit, just west of West 75th Street, the street shown top middle of the photograph. Creator: Raymond Pianka Collection
Site of Shooting and Louis Schwartz' Saloon According to most of the witnesses who testified at the Harvey Callahan murder trial in January 1915, the shooting of Thomas Gibbons took place near Beekes & Zimmer confectionary store at 7503 Detroit Avenue. While the building that housed that retail shop no longer exists, the building immediately to the west still does. That building, which housed Louis Schwartz' saloon, was where two car loads of "toughs," allegedly assembled by William "Scance" Chambers and another Plain Dealer distributor, drank, while waiting for the Leader Delivery truck holding Harvey Callahan and Frank O'Neill to arrive. Creator: Google Maps

Location

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “The Cleveland Circulation War,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 28, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/733.