Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 6, 2015
Driving through Toledo, Ohio recently, the idiom Holy Toledo came to mind. Today, Toledo is thought of as a quiet and conservative town, but it wasn’t also so. In fact, from the late 1800s through to the 1930s, Toledo’s reputation was anything but quiet and conservative. It was known as a den of inequity overrun by gangsters and mobsters and crooked politicians — an immoral and corrupt city where it was open season for gang violence, illegal bootlegging, gambling, and corruption.
For example, in the 1890s, the Governor of Ohio, William McKinley (yes, the same William McKinley who was elected President of the United States of America in 1896) was debt ridden. People such as Andrew Carnegie, Charles Taft, and other wealthy associates came to his rescue, and once elected President, McKinley repaid their help with special favors and special privileges.
In the 1930s, Purple Gang member Yonnie Licavoli was running Toledo’s bootlegging and gambling interests and was perceived as untouchable by the police. Licavoli’s biggest claim to fame was that he was one of the few people ever to tell Al Capone where he could and couldn’t go with his business, locking him out of Detroit, and living to tell the tale.
What this means is that Toledo was oftentimes called “Holy Toledo” as a euphemism because it was the farthest thing from holy. But everyone understood that, just like everyone understood that the expression Holy Toledo was meant to be one of surprise or astonishment (as are many idioms that being with Holy such as holy cow, holy smoke, and holy moley).
The expression remained in use well after the Depression era as well.
Taking a peek at how it’s been used over the last few decades, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette of January 13, 2009 described Toledo as Ohio’s Glass City as well as Frog Town, and revealed that the population of Toledo was officially larger than the population of Pittsburgh by more than five thousand residents! The article by journalist Rich Lord was titled, “Holy Toledo, Look What City Just Passed Us By In Population.”
The Miami News edition of May 12, 1980 published an article about Danny Thomas who supposedly startled his audience at a $100-a-plate fundraiser in Lansing, Michigan by admitting that he hated no-caffeine coffee. It was a shock because just a few years earlier, he was the spokesman for a commercial that peddled a no-caffeine coffee. The story headline read: “Holy Toledo! Danny Thomas Has Been Lying All Along.”
Back on October 11, 1971 there was an article published by Sports Illustrated about the Toledo Rockets who, at the time, were enjoying the nation’s longest winning streak. Writer Joe Jares discussed how Ohio University came close to putting a period at the end of all that for the Toledo Rockets were it not for what the writer referred to as “this hobgoblin quarterback named Chuck Ealey.” The quarterback had a remarkable history, having played in 57 games of varsity football in high school and college, with each game being a winner. The article was aptly entitled, “Holy Toledo! Chuck Ealey Nearly Lost One.”
In the book “Red War” by mystery and detective author, Judson Pentecost Philips (August 10, 1903 – March 7, 1989) and journalist Thomas Marvin Johnson, published by Doubleday Doran in 1936, the expression was used.
“You seem to know everything, Mr. McWade.”
“Holy Toledo, I wish I did!” groaned the Westerner. “But there ain’t one of us can figger out what’s up — except somebody’s in for a well double-crossin’.”
Unfortunately, there’s considerable confusion about how the expression initially came about and it doesn’t appear in publications prior to the mid-1930s.
What is known about Toledo, Ohio is that it was named after Toledo in Spain, and that city in Spain is known as the “Holy City of Toledo.” Likewise, it would seem that Toledo, Ohio was known back in the day for having as many churches as it had bars and taverns, with the greatest concentration of churches located on Collingwood Boulevard. But there’s no proof to substantiate this as being the reason for the saying.
It’s also a fact that comedian Danny Thomas (6 January 1912 – 6 February 1991) — who was raised in Toledo, Ohio, attended Woodward High School as well as the University of Toledo, and began his professional career in 1932 — popularized the expression Holy Toledo in his comedy routines. Between the comedian’s use of the expression and it’s appearance in “Red War” published in 1936, it’s safe to say the saying was used and understood by most everyone during the 1930s.
As a note of interest, back in the 1590s, Toledo steel (from Spain, not Ohio) was used in the manufacture of medieval swords. Toledo, Spain had been a steel working center since the 5th century BC. Toledo steel swords were chosen by Hannibal for his army, and legions from the Roman Empire relied on Toledo steel swords. In other words, Toledo steel swords set the standard in excellent weaponry.
The Toledo steel swords were the swords that defeated Muslim armies during the Holy Wars in medieval times. And it was Toledo steel rapiers that became the choice of French Musketeers. The reputation of Toledo steel swords was so widespread that even Japanese Samurai had their katana and wakizashi forged in Toledo with Toledo steel.
In another side note, it was in 1085 that Toledo, Spain became one of the recognized centers of Christian culture after it was liberated from the Moors by Alfonso VI of Castile, Leon and Galicia (June 1040 – July 1109). When the Crusades began (1095 – 1291) it was Toledo steel swords that went into holy battle.
While it would exciting to peg Holy Toledo to the Crusades or to Medieval times, the fact of the matter is that Idiomation was unable to find the idiom published before the 1930s and as such, the best that can be guessed at is that it first came into use sometime in the 1920s, gaining ground in the 1930s.