MATOWITZ, GEORGE J. (24 Apr. 1882 - 28 Nov. 1951) was born in Humenné, Slovakia. His father Karl Matowitz was a cabinet maker. Seeking an opportunity for a better life, Karl brought his family to Cleveland in 1892. The family settled on Woodland Ave. George’s education in Cleveland began in the old Brownell School but he was unable to attend for long.
Due to his father’s ill health, George was forced to leave school and go to work early. He worked in an upholstery shop, as helper on horse drawn wagon making deliveries, as a streetcar motorman, and as a fireman on a steam locomotive for the BALTIMORE & OHIO RAILROAD.
In the spring of 1905 George saw an ad in a local newspaper. The CLEVELAND DIVISION OF POLICE was seeking applicants to join the police department. He answered the ad and was accepted. Appointed a Patrolman on 8 May 1905, it was a source of pride to him in later life that his appointment was authorized by Mayor TOM L. JOHNSON.
George was ambitious. Word was out that CPD Chief FRED KOHLER was seeking a stenographer to work in his office. Starting a trend, George took night classes to learn shorthand and presented himself at the chief’s office. He got the job. He thus began a daily association with one of the most influential figures in the department’s history.
In 1910 George took the civil service examination for the rank of sergeant, gaining his first promotion. His first assignment in that rank was to form the CPD’s Mounted Unit.
In 1913 he took the exam for the rank of lieutenant, earning this rank with less than ten years service. During this time he began to correct the flaws in his formal education by taking general courses at night as his work schedule permitted. This was a long process but it culminated in a law degree in 1925.
His rise through the ranks continued. In 1918 he became a captain, and took on what he remembered as one of his favorite assignments: officer in charge of the detective bureau.
In 1920 his experience and knowledge were put to the test. On the last day of the year Wilfred Sly and George Fanner were murdered in a particularly brutal payroll robbery (see: SLY-FANNER MURDER CASE).This crime was committed in broad daylight by a gang whose members successfully fled the scene.
Public opinion was aroused by this crime. George was told to pursue the perpetrators to the ends of the earth if necessary, but to see to it that they were arrested and returned to Cleveland to stand trial for murder. In this he succeeded, securing convictions and death sentences for the killers. There was one exception, Angelo Amato, who escaped on foot and evaded pursuers for fifteen years. Arrested in Italy in 1935, he was tried and convicted for his role in the murders. George traveled to Italy to give testimony in the trial, helping to bring the case to a successful conclusion. This had required many hours of diligent police work and pursuit of suspects to Mexico and Sicily. This favorable outcome led to promotion to the rank of Inspector and placed George in line to become CPD Chief.
When Chief JACOB GRAUL retired in 1930 the Chief’s job became open. George received the highest score on the civil service examination and qualified for the position. Appointed Chief provisionally in the autumn of 1930, he received the permanent rank in March 1931, slightly less than 26 years since he had raised his right hand to take the oath of office as a patrolman.
The last CPD Chief to hold the rank under civil service protection, he retained that rank until his death.
Despite his many successes, Matowitz’s tenure was not without controversy. Serving under safety director ELIOT NESS, the department pursued Cleveland’s infamous TORSO MURDERER unsuccessfully. Labor strife wracked the city, and the department endured several displays of disturbing levels of corruption. George’s personal reputation remained spotless.
On the day he died, a local newspaper ran a front page editorial commending him in the following words: “He weathered the storms but at the cost of much personal happiness. He lost a great deal of his jovial heartiness, but he never lost his personal interest in the young men who entered the department year after year. He was a model for them of honesty and decency, and they took to heart his encouraging words, study and work will do it.”
With his two sons by his side, Matowitz died after a long illness in November 1951. He had completed 46 years of service to the department.
His passing led to a change to the city charter which took civil service protection from the CPD Chief. Those who came after him served at the pleasure of the mayor. Over the past 70 years since George Matowitz died, the department has had more than 30 Chiefs, with none beginning to approach his twenty year span of leadership.
In the CLEVELAND POLICE MUSEUM today may be seen a bronze plaque in his memory placed by the Fraternal Order of Police in the old Central Police Station upon his death, making him the only chief so honored in the department’s 150 year history.
Last updated: 10/25/2022