Charles Bowles, Detroit’s Worst Mayor Ever

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The Ku Klux Klan, which backed Bowles for Mayor, raising crosses in 1925. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Klan-Approved, Voter-Recalled

How bad, really, can you be? America has had its fair share of terrible leaders, from corrupt Congressmen to brothel-frequenting senators to arrogant governors who have claimed the only way they can lose an election is to be ‘caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.’ But in the annals of elected deadbeats, Detroit, Michigan, may well take the cake.

In the book Wicked Detroit, author Mickey Lyons tells the story of one Charles Bowles, who started his career in public life as a young litigator (surprise, surprise). Ambitious, greedy for office, unscrupulous in his legal practice, his first campaign was as a write-in candidate for a special mayoral election in 1924.

While some Detroiters knew of Bowles already, they were about to learn a whole lot more. In the 1924 campaign, none other than the Ku Klux Klan—a genuine presence in the upper Midwest, arising in reaction to the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South—endorsed the young upstart. Bowles, ever the savvy candidate, denied his own membership but willingly accepted the votes of any Klan sympathizers who backed his platform. Their support of his candidacy was so great that shortly before the election, thousands of Klansmen disrupted speaking engagements of Bowles’ opponents, overwhelming even the riot police sent to disperse them.

Charles Bowles, 1930. Image sourced from Wicked Detroit, courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection.

Bowles lost that first race by a mere 10,000 votes. The following year, during the regular election, Bowles garnered even more support from the KKK, who went so far as to march through downtown in white hoods and cloaks, and burn crosses across the city. He lost that race too, by about 30,000 votes, as Detroit breathed a sigh of relief. But Bowles was not done. After a stint in the local judiciary, where he showed breathtaking favoritism and misjudgment, he returned in 1929 for another go at the top of City Hall.

As Lyons records, running against his old opponent, Joseph Smith, Bowles ran a sophisticated ‘whisper camapign’ to discredit Smith and stir racial resentment among the electorate. He also, brazenly, announced the endorsement of other candidates who had given no such thing, and who had to scramble to undo the damage done by Bowles’ lies. Yet the damage was done: even after identifying fraudulent votes (including 192 ballots cast by the dead), officials declared Bowles the winner of the 1929 contest by 7800 votes.

Immediately he set to work, consolidating law enforcement under his corrupt silken glove, and allowing illegal gambling to flourish across the city so long as local casino bosses regularly came to visit him at City Hall. Ignoring the presence of organized crime so long as it benefited his operations, Bowles furthermore refused to engage with the public or the press on any matters at all.

Things could have continued (and worsened) but for the efforts of one justice-minded individual, police commissioner Harold Emmons. It took Emmons’ launching a surprise series of raids on illegal gambling houses while Bowles was away on vacation to call attention to the extent of corruption in Detroit. In retaliation, Bowles swiftly fired Emmons, and replaced him with a chosen crony. But by this time the people of Detroit had had enough.

With Emmons publicly taking a stand against Bowles, and providing incriminating evidence of Bowles’ graft, conspiracy, and collusion with organized crime, a recall campaign kicked into gear. As Lyons notes, within two days, the recall effort had raised tens of thousands of dollars (no small feat in 1930, the first full year of the Great Depression), and by the end of the campaign, Bowles had been ousted by over 30,000 votes.

He had lasted barely seven months in office. Unsurprisingly, the disgraced mayor called the entire recall a fraud, a conspiracy, and sought for the rest of his life to regain public office. He failed on every count. Lyons tells the end of the story well:

“Bowles spent the rest of his life chasing the fame and power of his glory days, to no avail. He ran for Congress in 1932 and 1934 and lost. A bar owner placed an ad in his name for the 1943 mayoral race as a prank. Bowles ran for his old office, recorder’s court justice, in 1945 and again in 1950 and was soundly defeated. He never again held public office. After his wife, Ruth, died in 1937, Bowles remarried in 1940, and his second wife divorced him three years later, denouncing him as a bitter, abusive man. Charles Bowles died on June 29, 1957. In his will, he left the entirety of his estate to an educational trust for his five grandchildren. His ex-wife received two broken lamps.”

That bad. The answer is: that bad.

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