During the late 1800s, city bosses commonly assumed control over city governments. They did not gain power legally. The bosses were not elected to office. They used blackmail and bribery to convince legal city officials to grant favors to and to follow the wishes of the city bosses.
City bosses established virtual dictatorships over their cities, using illegal means to do so. Bosses, however, did make some improvements in city life during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. As industrialization occurred and thousands of Americans moved to cities seeking employment, city governments had tremendous difficulty providing necessary services to the city's residents. City bosses commonly filled that void by having streets cleaned, by enforcing laws (at least the ones they chose to enforce), and by providing other services. While bosses allowed gambling and prostitution to occur to award their loyal supporters, they also greatly reduced the availability of these items by only allowing a small number of their followers to engage in these activities. The city bosses' advisors and political supporters became known as the "city machine."
One of the most famous city bosses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was George Cox. Cox emerged as the most powerful member of the Republican Party in Cincinnati, Ohio by the mid 1880s. He chaired the Hamilton County Republican Committee. Cox virtually ran the Cincinnati city government by becoming a city boss. Like other city bosses, Cox used gifts and money to build support for himself among the working class in Cincinnati. During elections, Cox would then have his followers vote for the candidate that he supported. As Cox once stated, "The people do the voting. I simply see that the right candidates are selected." By the late 1800s, if a person sought a political office in Cincinnati, he had to receive Cox's endorsement to win the office. Cox also required the people that he placed in office—the machine—to appoint loyal Cox followers to other government positions. These positions included police officers, firefighters, street cleaners, secretaries, and numerous other occupations.
By 1905, Cox had managed to provide nearly every Republican ward chairman a city office. To build support among the Democratic Party, Cox also appointed members of this party to forty percent of the city offices. To show their appreciation to Cox, these appointees had to turn over 2.5 percent of their salary to the Hamilton County Republican Committee. Cox then used this money to buy votes during elections. In particularly close elections, Cox paid residents of nearby states to come to Cincinnati to vote illegally. He also had no problem with some voters casting more than one ballot under assumed names, as long as the person voted for Cox's candidate.
By 1905, Cox's dominance of Cincinnati government began to fall apart. Over the next several years, Cox encouraged his supporters in the city government to annex surrounding communities. Many of the people in these neighborhoods were middle-class residents. They opposed Cox's political corruption. Many of these people were supporters of the Progressive Movement and sought to return Americans to traditional and more moral values. With this influx of new voters—voters that Cox could not control—the city boss failed to have his candidate elected mayor of Cincinnati in 1911. City bosses maintained their power by guaranteeing that they could fulfill their promises to candidates. Cox failed to do this in 1911, and his machine quickly deserted him. During the early 1900s, Progressive reformers also hired city managers—college-educated specialists in city operations—to assist mayors and city councils in meeting the needs of the cities' residents. Typically, city managers had earned college degrees in business. As city governments improved conditions within cities, bosses quickly lost their power.