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Emil Seidel (1864–1947) was a patternmaker who served as the mayor of Milwaukee from 1910 to 1912. He was the first Socialist mayor of a major city in the United States. Seidel is also remembered as the Vice Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America in the 1912 presidential election.
Seidel was born December 13, 1864 in the town of Ashland in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania of ethnic German emigrants from Pomerania, part of the German empire. His family moved to Wisconsin in 1867, living first in Prairie du Chien before moving to the state capital of Madison. Emil's father, Otto Seidel, was a carpenter and his mother, Henrietta Knoll Seidel, was a homemaker.
Emil attended public school up to the age of 13, when he dropped out to become a woodcarver. He continued to study after leaving school, reading extensively. At the age of 19 he started a trade union of local woodworkers, becoming the organization's first secretary.
At the age of 22, Seidel went abroad to refine his skills as a woodcarver. He lived for six years in Berlin working at his trade during the day and attending school at night. It was in this period that Seidel first became an active socialist.
When Seidel returned to the United States in 1892 he joined the Socialist Labor Party of America. Seidel was a charter member of the first SLP branch in Milwaukee. He also became an active member of the Pattern Makers Union.
Seidel later joined the Social Democracy of America (established 1897), the Social Democratic Party of America (established 1898), and the Socialist Party of America (established 1901) in turn. Seidel resided briefly in Washington state, serving as the first secretary of Local Redmond SPA in the fall of 1901.
In 1904 Seidel was one of nine Socialists to win electoral victory as Milwaukee city aldermen, elected in the city's 20th ward. He served two terms in that position before making his first mayoral run in 1908. He was returned as a city alderman at large in the election of 1909.
In 1910, Seidel was elected mayor of Milwaukee, becoming the first Socialist mayor of a major city in the United States. During his administration the first public works department was established, the first fire and police commission was organized, and a city park system came into being. Seidel cleaned the town up with strict regulation of bars and the closing of brothels and sporting parlors (modern-day casinos). During his administration that Seidel employed the noted American poet and author Carl Sandburg as his personal secretary. It was Seidel's socialist inclinations that attracted Sandburg to Milwaukee.
In his Spring 1912 bid for re-election, Seidel faced the combined forces of the Democratic and Republican parties, who ran a single candidate in order to defeat Seidel and the Socialists. Despite winning more votes in 1912 than in 1910, Seidel was defeated by Gerhard Bading, a local doctor, professor of surgery, and commissioner of health.
Freed from his mayoral duties by electoral defeat, Seidel became a logical choice as the Socialist Party's nominee for Vice President of the United States on the ticket with Eugene V. Debs. The pair won a respectable 901,551 votes in the 1912 presidential election (6% of the total).
Seidel tried to win re-election as Mayor of Milwaukee in 1914 but was soundly defeated. He was returned to the city council as an alderman at large in the city election of 1916. He would win re-election in 1918, remaining at the post until 1920.
Seidel was an opponent of World War I voted against Milwaukee's purchase of Liberty bonds to help finance the war effort. He also was an outspoken opponent of a proposed Milwaukee "loyalty ordinance." In the superheated wartime political climate, marked by political repression of the anti-war movement, Seidel ran afoul of the law when he was arrested on November 12, 1917 in Horicon, Wisconsin following a speech that he made there. Seidel was charged with "tending to provoke an assault or breach of peace during and address" and was fined $50.
Seidel retired from political life in the middle 1930s. He remained a resident of Milwaukee, living on the Northwest side of the city, passing his time painting, composing music, creating poetry, and writing his autobiography.
Emil Seidel died in Milwaukee on June 24, 1947 following an illness of several months' duration related to complications from a heart condition. Seidel was 82 years old at the time of his death.
Seidel's unpublished memoirs reside in Madison at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where they are available to scholars on microfilm.
David S. Rose
|Mayor of Milwaukee|
Gerhard A. Bading
|Party political offices|
|Socialist Party of America Vice Presidential candidate|