Emil Lesser (born August 21, 1855 in Riga, Russian Empire; died November 2, 1915 in Los Angeles, California) was a newspaper publisher, restaurateur, hotelier and a developer of Powderly and Trevillick.
Lesser was the son of the Saxon consul in Riga, and was born there, in what is now the capital of Latvia. His parents died when he was young and he was taken in by relatives in Borna, near Leipzig. He attended Leipzig University before immigrating to the United States, arriving at the port of Galveston, Texas. He visited Cullman and spoke with its founder, John Cullmann, before settling in Birmingham in 1883 as a reporter and agent for the German language weekly Anzeiger des Südens. He opened a restaurant above the Exchange Saloon on May 22, 1884. He later relocated to the Dude Saloon, at the corner of 2nd Avenue North at 20th Street
In the late 1880s, through his association with the Knights of Labor, Lesser was implicated in an alleged fraud related to the sale of the Labor Union newspaper. He was also involved in real estate development in the Powderly area as a founding partner of the Mutual Land & Improvement Company which subdivided Powderly, and of the Beneficial Land and Improvement Company which developed nearby Trevillick. Emil Lesser & Associates constructed the Birmingham, Powderly & Bessemer Railroad streetcar line, with plans to sell it to Ladenburg Thalmann & Company of New York. The failure of London's Baring Brothers bank affected the financing for the deal and it was eventually sold out of receivership to the Birmingham Railway & Electric Company.
In 1892 Lesser purchased the Metropolitan Hotel adjoining the Union Station, which he operated until at least 1904, adding restaurateur Paul Gilardoni to the staff in 1900. Lesser was publisher of the Birmingham Courier, also in German, when he was elected president of the Birmingham Press Club.
Lesser represented the Press Club on the Birmingham Police Commission from 1897 to 1899. Lesser was also one of the founders of "Turn Verein", a social club made up mainly immigrants who had come to the United States from the German Federation during the Revolutions of 1848. As a leader of that group he was heavily involved in the city's short-lived Carnival celebrations. He also served as a director of the 1900 Alabama State Fair.
Lesser published a travelogue of his experiences in Europe in 1900. He was a member of the Association of German Writers in America, the German National Association, and the North American Singing Federation.
Lesser took a second wife, the 24-year-old former Alice Silverman, in 1896 and had a daughter, Freda, with her in 1899. The three moved to Los Angeles, California in 1912, seeking to improve Alice's health. He purchased the St George Hotel at 115 East 3rd Street there and moved into a house on East Adams Street with Alice's nephew and another couple who were partners in the hotel. The hotel was damaged by a fire started by wiring in a linen closet on November 19, 1912. Three people died, and Alice was seriously injured and became an invalid.
Emil Lesser disappeared from Venice Beach, where he customarily swam, in November 1915. His clothes were found in a bath-house on the beach, and he was presumed to have drowned, though his body was never recovered. Some suspected he had boarded a ship bound for Chile, and his life insurance was not paid out. He was survived by Alice, and Freda. A headstone was placed in his memory at Birmingham's Cemetery Emanu-El, where he had previously been a trustee.
- Lesser, Emil (1900) Reise-Briefe aus der alten Heimat. Birmingham: Birmingham Courier
- Newfield, Morris (November 4, 1911) "History of the Jews of Birmingham". The Reform Advocate, p. 21
- Spengler, Otto (1913) Das deutsche Element der Stadt New York: Biographisches Jahrbuch der Deutsch-Amerikaner New Yorks und Umgebung.
- "Emil Lesser drowned" (November 11, 1915) The Cullman Democrat
- Cruikshank, George H. (1920) History of Birmingham and Its Environs: A Narrative Account of Their Historical Progress, Their People, and Their Principal Interests. 2 volumes. Chicago, Illinois: Lewis Publishing Company.
- Elovitz, Mark H. (1974) A Century of Jewish Life in Dixie: The Birmingham Experience. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press ISBN 0817369015
- McKiven, Henry M. (1995) Iron and Steel: Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama, 1875-1920. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press ISBN 0807845248