This is part of an occasional series on the history of the Chagrin Valley
We frequently get requests through the Chagrin Historical Society website for information about people or places. Many times, these inquiries turn up interesting tidbits of Chagrin history. A few months ago, we received a request for information about Joseph H. Wolfram. The person making the request was a granddaughter. She knew that he was once mayor of Chagrin but growing up she said they were not allowed to talk about him, and she wanted to know what happened.
What followed was an interesting journey through Chagrin Falls Exponents, ancestry.com and the county recorder’s website.
Joseph H. Wolfram was born in 1882. His father Johanne Wolfram was a renowned piano teacher in Cleveland in the early 1900s, teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Joseph became an attorney and worked for a variety of businesses in Cleveland as a corporate lawyer. He married Marie Geffine in 1911. In 1919 they purchased a home on Hall Street in Chagrin Falls which was put in Marie’s name. In 1922, they sold the Hall Street home and purchased the home on the corner of Church and Center streets.
Mr. Wolfram became very active in the Chagrin community. He was a Mason and when the Chagrin Falls Savings and Loan company formed in 1921, J.H. Wolfram was their attorney. In December of 1924, he began a term as Justice of the Peace in Chagrin. In 1925, he ran for mayor in the Republican primary. He received one vote. He then formed an Independent political party and ended up winning in the general election. He served as mayor from 1926-1927. His term of office was unremarkable, and he received good press. He decided not to run for a second term, but instead ran for the Cuyahoga County School Board. He received a strong endorsement from the Exponent newspaper. There were four people running for two seats. Mr. Wolfram came in third.
For the next six months Mr. Wolfram ran ads in the Exponent for his Insurance Agency, which he had purchased from H.S. Kent. In April of 1928, the Exponent reported that Mr. Wolfram was appointed by the Electric Company to settle disputes over rights of way appraisals (the Electric Company was expanding and running lines throughout the area.)
In the July 3, 1928 issue of the Exponent there is an ominous announcement by H.S. Kent. He wrote that due to the “unfortunate circumstances” he was assuming all of the insurance accounts of J.H. Wolfram. What happened? An article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer dated July 28, 1928 begins to tell the story. He had gone to Cleveland and was to take the streetcar to Canton for business, telling his wife Marie that he would be back the next day. He didn’t return. He was last seen buying a ticket in the bus station, giving the clerk four $20 bills and receiving $2 in change. The day after his disappearance a Cleveland detective showed up at his house with a warrant for his arrest. It seems that he had been forging checks due to his clients, as well as taking money for insurance contracts and pocketing it. The article speculated that he was also actively playing the stock market. Lloyds Ltd. of London, who were the insurance agents for the bank, indicated they were going to place notices about Mr. Wolfram in 5,000 cities stating, “We’ll find him if we have to chase him all over the country.”
The county recorder’s site shows that the home on the corner of Church and Center streets was sold at a sheriffs auction in 1929. An article in the March 1, 1929 the Exponent stated: “Attorney Joseph Wolfram who disappeared eight months ago has been found in the East. He has been in serious physical condition and not right. The family has been giving him care and as soon as his condition permitted, he will be brought home.” Then the March 19 Exponent had an announcement stating, “Guardian appointed for J.H. Wolfram.” The article said that in “probate court, Judge Addams appointed Mrs. Marie H. Wolfram as guardian for J.H. Wolfram due to mental incompetence.”
An intriguing tidbit is that a border crossing record has a Joseph Wolfram crossing into the United States at Nogales, Arizona on Feb. 12, 1929. The record is blurry and hard to read, but the age and physical description fit, medium height, brown hair and brown eyes. He is traveling alone, had no relatives in Mexico and had no visa.
The 1930 census shows Mr. Wolfram living in some type of group home in East Cleveland. his occupation is listed as unemployed. His wife Marie is listed on the 1930 census as being the hostess/manager of a different group home in East Cleveland. The 1940 census has him living in a Salvation Army group home in Dayton. Under the census question “wages earned in 1939,” the answer was zero. His draft card from 1942 also shows him living in this group home.
Wolfram was able to rehabilitate himself. He married Sara Zimmerman in 1949 and the Columbus, Ohio city directory for 1953 and 1957 lists him as working as a clerk for the State Division of Taxation. The 1959 and 1960 Columbus, Ohio directory had him listed as an attorney for the State Division of Taxation. He passed away February 1967. His obituary published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, referred to him as a former Cleveland lawyer who had made his residence on the east side. No reference was made to either Chagrin Falls or the scandal.
If you have questions about Chagrin history, let us try to answer them by visiting our website at chagrinhistory.org.
Mr. Bourisseau is president of the Chagrin Historical Society board.