Charles Moses Strauss was born in New York City on April 15, 1840, was educated in Boston in both public and Hebrew schools and lived in Ohio, Massachusetts and Tennessee before moving west in hopes of curing his tuberculosis.
While in Tennessee he joined a Memphis dry goods firm and married Julia Kaufman. It was during the Civil War that an incident occurred in Memphis that led him into politics.
General Ulysses S. Grant ordered that all Jews be expelled from his military district, accusing them of illegally trading in cotton. The order was immediately rescinded by President Lincoln, but the event left a bitterness and distrust of Grant among Jewish citizens, and led Strauss to join a group opposing Grant’s candidacy for U.S. president in 1868.
Strauss, with his wife and daughter, Rosalie, returned to Massachusetts. There, at the age of 6, Rosalie died of diphtheria. Strauss contracted tuberculosis and that combined with the tragic loss of his daughter probably precipitated the couple’s move west in 1880.
In Tucson, Strauss served as a member of the school board. In December 1882, with the support of the Arizona Daily Star, he announced for mayor on the Democratic ticket.
His opponent, Hiram Stevens, tried to use the opposition paper, the Tucson Citizen, to inject the issue of Strauss’ religion into the campaign. He persuaded the Citizen to print remarks of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, who was a Jew, hoping that readers would see a connection and guess that Strauss was Jewish.
The Star criticized Stevens for his deviousness, saying: “It is not a recommendation for a man aspiring to be mayor (Stevens) to deliberately pervert the truth . . . Mr. Strauss has not obtruded the circumstances of his being a Jew in public attention nor have his friends . . . We shall elect Mr. Strauss mayor, Jew and all.”
Strauss won the election, 444-419. He took office with a number of reforms in mind. He and the City Council had sometimes stormy relations, but together they worked to build a City Hall, open a public library and provide medical services for citizens.
As mayor, Strauss took an active interest in the capture of Geronimo. He prepared a welcome party for General George Cook’s arrival in Tucson, inviting the general on a moonlight ride to Levin’s Gardens, where a theatrical troupe performed a show for him. The evening ended with food and toasts by the mayor and selected guests.
When Geronimo finally agreed to surrender, Strauss was one of seven civilians in the party that met him.
Strauss ran into trouble when his programs to provide city services and build a water system outran tax revenues. The city issued bonds for the indebtedness, but the action was deemed illegal by a Pima County grand jury and both the mayor and council were indicted. At the trial, Strauss was found not guilty. The indictments against the council members were dropped.
Strauss resigned in disgust on August 4, 1884.
Two years later he won the Democratic nomination for superintendent of public instruction for the Arizona Territory. The campaign was rancorous. Many voters objected when Strauss proposed that parents should pay for textbooks.
Strauss won the election but frontier politics soon got in his way. In 1887, the Legislature voted to make the post appointive. To thwart the Legislature and keep Strauss in the position then-Governor Conrad Meyer Zulick appointed him to the office he been elected to only a year earlier.
However, in 1888, a new governor – Lewis Wolfley – appointed George Waldron Cheney as superintendent of education. Strauss refused to leave the office and stayed on for another year, before being forced out. However his salary for the year was cut off, being paid instead to Cheney. Strauss sued and lost, although he had the support of both the Tucson and Phoenix newspapers.
Strauss went on to serve as chief clerk of the Territorial Council for the session in 1891 and was one of the first members of the Arizona Board of Regents. Once again he was controversial, engaging in a heated argument with the newly appointed chancellor to the University of Arizona, Dr. John Handy, over the size of the first building on the campus. Strauss favored a two-story building visible from downtown, but Handy favored a one-story building. Handy quit.
Strauss’s long fight with the tuberculosis ended the next year. He died on March 14, 1893. He was survived by his widow, Julia, three daughters and a son. He was mourned by all, and in Tucson flags flew at half-staff. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
The Arizona Star memorialized him: “He always declared himself, he was never on the fence in any issue. He was a man of strong likes and dislikes. He might have had a few shortcomings, but his good points of character so far outweighed these that they counted for naught.”
Photo courtesy Abe Chanin; research by Jane Eppinga. ©Arizona Capitol Times