A silhouette occupies the frame for former Toledo mayor John Berdan, for whom no photo or other likeness has been found.
For decades, The Blade and others have used a photograph of a man, John Berdan, and called him the first mayor of Toledo. Turns out — according to family members and local historians who have been doing some homework — the photo is actually of the first mayor’s son, also John Berdan.
“I don’t know who made the original mistake,” said Donna Christian, a librarian in the local history and genealogy department at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. “If you didn’t know the mayor died so early, it’s always possible that he did have a photo taken when he was older, but he died much too young.”
John Berdan was elected the first mayor of Toledo in 1837. He died of the ague — a malarial disease common in the swampy area of Northwest Ohio — in 1841, two months shy of his 43rd birthday.
On Friday, on the 22nd floor of One Government Center, a public dedication was held to showcase a project by the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, in which portraits of most of this city’s 56 mayors were hung in the mayor’s reception area. Portraits of the mayors who couldn’t be located were replaced by avatar figures to create uniformity. The photo of Mayor John Berdan’s son — given to the Arts Commission from The Blade’s archives — was installed earlier in the week. On Friday, it was replaced with an avatar.
It will likely stay that way.
“I’ve never been able to locate any kind of likeness that was the [first] mayor,” Ms. Christian said. “The chances that John Berdan [the mayor] had a photograph taken, I would say, is about nil, when you look at the history of photography.”
Louis Daguerre’s development of the daguerreotype process, or the first photographic process, was introduced in 1839, but its popularity didn’t emerge until the Civil War era.
The current mayor, Paula Hicks-Hudson, is familiar with the photograph that is associated with the first mayor of the Glass City.
“I’m not sure how it started, but that’s why I think it’s so important that we memorialize and recognize all these mayors, so we don’t have these kinds of mistakes,” she said.
Ms. Christian started doing research on the questionable photograph a couple of years ago, when a library patron questioned it.
The commanding image of a Mr. Berdan wearing a white button-down shirt, bow tie, and stylish overcoat, an intently serious look on his bearded face, has popped up a lot over the years — both in reference to the first mayor and to his namesake.
In the book Men of Toledo, published in 1895, the photo appears with the caption “John Berdan” but no reference to which man is being shown.
In a publication three years later, Men of Northwestern Ohio, a slightly different photo taken from the opposite viewpoint appears with a short synopsis about John Berdan — the mayor’s son.
One of Ms. Christian’s oldest recollections of seeing that same photo was in an article published in The Blade by reporter Ralph Phelps in 1958 about the elder John Berdan, and how he came to be the first mayor of Toledo after its incorporation as a city in 1837.
Former Toledo mayor Mike Bell, left, current Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson, and former mayors Donna Owens and Carty Finkbeiner pose in front of the ‘Portraits of Toledo Mayors.’
A 1959 booklet that profiled all of Toledo’s mayors, put together by Mr. Phelps, contains the same photo, as does the publication Legendary Locals of Toledo, by Barbara Floyd published in 2016.
Mike Berdan, a great-great-great grandson of the first mayor, said he was told for years that the portrait hanging in the family home was the first mayor.
He said he began to do his own research on his distant relatives a few years ago, and came up with the same answer as the library. He said he has never seen an image or painting of the elder John Berdan.
He questioned other factors — the style of clothing is off for the early and mid-19th century, and like Ms. Christian, he noted the photo is of a much older man. John Berdan, the son, died in 1902 at the age of 71, according to his obituary that ran in The Blade that month — with the photo in question.
But the photo isn’t the only mix-up.
Mike Berdan said he noticed there are several references online that indicate that Mayor John Berdan is buried in Historic Woodlawn Cemetery in West Toledo.
Both politicalgraveyard.com and genealogy.com state the historic mayor is buried at Woodlawn. Even Woodlawn’s Web page gives the history of John Berdan the mayor under information about notable families buried there.
Indeed, there is a John Berdan entombed at Woodlawn’s mausoleum with nine other relatives with the same last name, said Jennifer Hart, family service adviser for Woodlawn, but that John Berdan — the son — died in 1902.
John Berdan, the mayor, is buried in Forest Cemetery in North Toledo, according to city of Toledo records.
The city’s first mayor came from New York, settling in Toledo in 1835, and soon after established a reputation as an astute businessman after forming a partnership with B.H. Peckham and Co. and creating a commission and forwarding warehouse at the edge of Lagrange Street and the Maumee River.
He served two one-year terms as the city’s mayor before being elected as associate justice of the Court of Common Pleas for Lucas County, where he remained until his death.
The younger John Berdan wasn’t the mayor, but like his father, his resume is nothing to sneeze at. He was a partner in the wholesale grocery firm Berdan & Co., formerly Secor, Berdan & Co., for more than 30 years.
He was one of the original forty-niners, his obituary states, heading to California to mine for gold for many years before returning to Toledo and establishing a banking house that later became the First National Bank of Toledo.
But he didn’t lead the city.
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.