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They Called it The Toughest Street in Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on May 17, 1936

They Called It “The Toughest Street in Dayton”

by Howard Burba


            “What was the toughest street in Dayton back in horse and buggy days?”

            The question seems to have resolved into a heated argument among that army of older residents now qualified to claim membership in the “I Remember When” club. And the interesting part of it is just about the time it appears to be settled, with the honors even between old Pearl st., Home av. And Western av., up pops another old-timer to contend that for pure, unadulterated toughness little old “Joe st.” could easily have walked off with the palm.

            I’ve told you about the hectic days on Home av. when Nelson Driggs operated a roadhouse and, as a side line, the most flourishing counterfeiting plant west of the Alleghanies. And you doubtless recall my effort to paint a word picture on this page of the years when Western av. was the city’s western corporation line and the hangout for criminals of every race, color, creed and previous condition of servitude. But I’ll have to plead guilty to overlooking little old Joe st.

            Thirty and more years ago there was a beaten path between police headquarters and Joe st., with but a single detour, and that led past the Sixth st. station house. There was a general belief at the old patrol house on St. Clair st. that if the horses should be hitched to the patrol and turned into the street driverless they would make a bee-line for Joe st., so often had they made the trip. But that sort of comment is superfluous. You want to know about Joe st. itself and something about its activities in an age some people still persist in designating as “the good old days.”

            Thirty years ago, as police reporter on this newspaper, the writer volunteered to do a little crusading in the hope that Joe st. could be forced to take some sort of moral bath and don garments of respectability. It was the old process of pouring water on a duck’s back. Joe st. could no more change its morals than the leopard of biblical days could change it spots. Anyhow, here’s how I pictured Joe st. to readers of this newspaper 30-years ago, in an issue of The News dated Jan. 12, 1906:

            “It has been the belief of many that the houses of ill-repute once scattered over the fair face of the Gem City had been banished to remote districts, but people who live in that part of the city south of the canal and lying between Main and Warren sts. know that such is not the case. There lies Joe st., a shabby, zig-zag thoroughfare, beset with lowest vice.

“Joe st. starts at Warren, just south of the canal bridge. It runs westward the length of a short block, southward another block, and thence westward again to its junction with Lincoln st. On this last westward section of Joe st., known as ‘South Joe’ fronts the big cigar factory of Joseph J. Schaeffer.

            “South Joe is now wholly free from the evils that blight other sections of the street, except for the fact that the atmosphere, the odor and the hideous noises of the neighboring dives reach the dwellers along the entire thoroughfare when windows and doors are open.

            “The worst dens, the houses inhabited by the creatures who set the pace, are located on North Joe. Going into the stret from Warren you pass first, on your right, the coal yard of Charles C. Wilson and the lumber yard of P. W. Minnigan. Then you come to two small frame houses, each of one story and attic. Twins, they are, and as alike as two peas. Then comes a frame house, larger than both the others put together.

            “Those three houses are said to be the property of the Swedenborgian church of Urbana, O., Alfred Pruden having presented to them the income from the properties. The amount of the income derived from the rental of these houses cannot be ascertained, but it must be considerable as tenants of this class do not haggle about pennies when it comes to renting quarters for themselves. In one of the smaller houses and in the large house as well, can be found white women living with Negro men and supporting them in idleness with their wages of sin.

            “This little group of three houses, paying tribute to a church society, would hold the record here for cussedness were it not for the fact that a couple of houses at the other end of the block insist upon setting a still faster pace. These houses were owned by a man known to all as ‘Big Eye’ Wolf, now dead.

            “One man said: ‘Just six blocks from the courthouse to Joe st., the toughest spot in town. The shameless exhibition these people make of themselves at all hours of the day and night is a disgrace to any civilized community. You do not see them at their worst now. Negroes do not like cold weather and most of the wild inhabitants of Joe st., are of that race. Some of the women are white, but their male companions are always black, brown or yellow. When the weather will permit, you will see them lounging around, both in the houses and on the sidewalks and streets, in all stages of dishabille. They loll about the street, making the neighborhood hideous with their obscenity and profanity. If any man, not suspected of being an officer, passes along the street, he is flagged at every turn and urged to enter the spider’s web.

            “Yonder at the elbow of the street you can see the corner of Louis Heitman’s cigar factory, where about 170 white girls are employed. For at least one-third of them, this would be a short cut to the street car that would carry them to their homes, but in order to avoid this nest of iniquity they are obliged to make long detours as they come and go. Around the elbow, on S. Joe is Joe Schaeffer’s cigar factory, employing about the same number of young women. These girls, when their way lies toward Warren st., pass through an alley that was opened not long ago by Cosminsky, the owner of the property on the east side of the street where it turns south to Lincoln. The girls are afraid to pass through Joe st. There they would be in danger of insult or, at least, their ears would be assailed by all of the foul words that depraved tongues can fashion. None of these places are conducted as organized houses of prostitution. Such places are eminently respectable compared with these sinkholes of vice.

            “In these dirty holes each person pretends to be independent of the others. They are “roomers” and the persons renting rooms to them disown all responsibility for the conduct of their tenants.

            “Oh, yes, they have been raided by the police time without number, and they have been carried away in the patrol wagon by the loads. But they always come back. If not the same individuals, then others who take their places and keep up the pace that characterizes activity on Joe st.

            “’Mr. Fluhart, who owns the Florence flats across the street there, and a row of flats on Jefferson st.-you can see the rear of the buildings from here-also owns the property on which Wilson’s coal yard is located at the corner of Warren and Joe sts. Mr. Fluhart was instrumental in driving out of the neighborhood all the places listed by the police as regular houses of prostitution, but when he tacked Joe st. he failed to accomplish his purpose. As fast as one tenant could be driven out or sent to the workhouse another of the same character would appear. The street is an eyesore to Mr Fluhart. I don’t believe the ever looks this way when he visits his property across from Warren st.’

            “Another man said: ‘If there is a Negro on that cursed street who ever works at any honest occupation I have never caught him at it. They are vicious loafers to the last man, living on the wages of a woman’s sin. I refer, of course, to those living in the houses you have mentioned. On the south side of the street the residents are all respectable people as far as I know until you come to the Wolf property. Around the first turn you will see the sign “Furnished Rooms” on most of the houses on Joe st. That is, down there, the badge of iniquity.

            “’It seems to me there must be some way of driving these people out. If such as these may remain, it was folly to drive the others away. The worst of it is that the young girls who work in the factories within sight and sound of these dives cannot help hearing and seeing daily things that should never be seen by self-respecting girls, or boys either, for that matter.

            “The men of Joe st. do not work, as I have said. There is a coal yard here where male help is often needed, but the proprietors say they are never able to employ any of those living on Joe st.-they refuse the jobs offered. They don’t have to work so long as their women furnish them with their daily bread and nightly booze. When the weather is warm and these wretches are able to be out of doors one cannot even pass the end of the street without danger of becoming an involuntary witness of the most degrading scenes.’

            “Capt. Allaback recalls the days when he was a patrolman and walked a beat that included Joe st. It was called Dock st. then. The elbow rounding south was called Dock alley and the portion running west to Lincoln was called Long st. A few years ago these names were discarded and the entire street christened ‘Joe,’ probably in honor-though it’s a doubtful honor-of Joe Schaeffer, whose cigar factory fronts on that part of the street formerly called Long st.

            “Minnie Johnson, who lives in the large hourse belonging to the Swedenborgian church, boasts that she once ‘cleaned up’ on seven policemen, but Cat. Allaback says that this is a pipe dream. She never licked even one policeman, though she always puts up a hot fight.’

            “Daisy Lloyd is the lessee of the two smaller houses of the church property, the one next to the large house being sublet to a Negro named Miller.

            ‘Sergt. Bassett, who used to be on police duty in that district, recalls the case of Lish Moore, a dusky Venus, who had the art of trouble-making down to a science. Lish was a cocaine fiend and when she was well under the influence of the drug she would fight until she became exhausted.

            “’She generally had all the clothes off her back by the time we would get her down to the patrol box and all the way to the station she would fight. The last time Lish was arrested was in the summer of 1904. She was taken to the station house and locked up in a cell. The next morning she was dead. She had gone the pace and that sort of death was her reward.’

            “’Several years ago,’ said Capt. Allaback, ‘Em O’Day kept a house on the street. One day she threw a fellow through the front door. He was drunk when we picked him up. But he was able to furnish bail and shortly after his arrest he was released. That night he again forced his way into Em’s place and again he started a rough house. Em promptly produced a revolver and shot him dead. That must have been 20 years ago, or along about 1886. Em lived in one of the smaller houses that is now the property of the Urbana church people.’

            “Several years ago a woman named Stella Brown, who lived at No. 29 was driven off of Joe st. She removed to Bond st., in Riverdale. She shortly after made up her mind that life was not worth living, so she called up the undertaking firm of Roller and Wilborn, on W. Fifth st., and gave the order for her own burial. When the undertakers arrived at the house to request more details they found the corpse.

“The whites and the Negroes used to hold the street in common but now the whites have pulled out and sought other quarters. The white race is now represented on Joe st. only by the degraded women who live with colored ‘protectors,’ whom they refer to as husbands when the police pay them a visit to check up on their activities.

“In the latest raid on Joe st., and that was but a few nights ago, the drag netted but one white person. She didn’t count, because she has no permanent abode, and is just as apt to be picked up in Western or Home avs. as in Joe st. ‘Bellbrook Minnie’ makes her home just wherever she happens to lay her hat and most of the time she doesn’t own a hat. She is a harmless soul, though there’s a sort of legend around police headquarters that at one time she was a highly attractive and respected rural resident of the southeastern part of the county.

            “Some years ago this character now known in police circles as ‘Bellbrook Minnie’ was caught in the police dragnet for the first time. She came into headquarters sobbing and through the night she sobbed in the woman’s ward at the station house. She was, in fact, still sobbing when arraigned in police court. But she wiped away her tears long enough to explain to the judge that she had come to town to put some flowers on her husband’s grave, had met up with some friends who enticed her into a grog shop and had been the innocent victim of hilariously inclined companions. She was released with a fatherly word of advice.

            “At frequent periods from that time on she fell into the hands of the police. And always when she appeared-sobbing, of course-in police court her plea was the same-that she had merely come to town to put some flowers on her husband’s grave and then her ‘foot had slipped.’ Someone gave her the sobriquet of ‘Bellbrook Minnie’ and that’s the only name she is known by in police circles. No long workhouse sentences are ever passed out to ‘Bellbrook Minnie.’ No judge would have the heart to do that. So she drifts along with the flotsam and jetsam of the underworld, harms no one save herself and, though her mind and her morals have been wrecked by her one most grievous vice-strong drink-she manages to live from one station house visit to another and never forgets her alibi-‘I just came to town to put some flowers on my husband’s grave.’

            “Two little Negro girls, whose mother lives in Joe st. are pupils of one of the public schools. The principal of that school is a benevolent lady who wishes to see all of her little charges happy. It was quite late on Christmas Even when she remembered that she had not sent presents to the two little Negro girls. She had their house number, so providing herself with two pretty dolls she arose before daylight on Christmas morning and started out with her message of happiness and cheer. It was still dark when she reached the house. She found that the family lived upstairs and her first impulse was to leave the presents with the women below. But the woman advised her to go up.

            “’Dey jist been havin’ a party up dah.’ said the woman.

            “So the school principal climbed the rickety stairs. She found the mother of the family on a rude bed with an hour-old infant by her side. There were five other children in the room, the oldest of whom was 7. The lady presented the dolls, duly admired the new baby, and finally inquired:

            “’Where’s the baby’s father?”

            “’Oh, he’s way down in Tennessee.” answered the mother. ‘I ain’t seen him for foah years.’

            But with all its sins, Joe st. was a source of information to the police and in more than one instance furnished clews which led to the capture of badly wanted criminals. Joe st. residents appeared to bear no grudge against those who wore the uniform of a police officer despite the fact that their thoroughfare was visited oftener by the men in search of police information than any other one in town. Strangers who found themselves on Joe st. were always under suspicion and on numerous occasions descriptions of new arrivals filtered through to headquarters in time to make possible the arrest of a criminal before he could seek another hideout.

            Memory takes me back to a day, not long after the word picture of Joe st. had been published, when strolling fishermen on the river levee just south of the railroad bridge made a gruesome discovery. They found the body of a Negro woman lying in deep grass and weeds just off the beaten path which ran along the crest of the levee. Within a few minutes a patrol load of police and this representative of the press were on the scene. And such a scene! Not only was the body soaked in blood, but the trampled weeds and grass for a distance of several feet around it resembled the floor of an old-time slaughter house.

            There was no clew at hand and none among the onlookers could identify the body of the killer’s blood-soaked victim. It was while waiting for the coroner that one of the Negro residents of that section of the city said he was not sure but he thought he had seen the woman at one time on Joe st. Two officers moved away from the little group standing about the body and a moment later they were headed toward that thoroughfare. They began gathering up the residents, white and black, and herding them toward the patrol wagon. Quite naturally Joe st. supposed it to be just another police raid and there was grumbling and muttered imprecations. Then it was explained that they were being taken to the morgue to see if they could identify a woman who had been found over on the levee with her throat cut from ear to ear. The event immediately assumed the proportions of a jollification. The fact that for once they were working with the law instead of against it proved such a novelty that laughter and good cheer succeeded vicious frowns and guarded threats.

            They not only identified the victim as a woman who had at one time been a Joe st. resident, but they recalled that she had a ‘gentleman friend,’ a one-legged mulatto who hobbled around on a peg-leg and who was supposed to live somewhere in the vicinity of the Union depot. That was all the police needed. In 10 minutes they had reached Eaker st., picked up a man answering the description even before he had time to change from the blood-stained garments in which he was dressed.

            Within another 10 minutes he had confessed the crime, not only confessed it, but voluntarily led officers to an outhouse in the rear of the place of his arrest, into the pit of which he had cast the razor used in committing the crime.

            Joe st. had redeemed itself in the eyes of the police. But not for long. Later on the clang of the patrol was heard in the neighborhood, not once but many times. And then gradually, and to the police mysteriously, Joe st. began to behave itself. Some sort of reformation had set in down there. The patrol horse passed on and a humming motor took its place. A newer generation came on and the horse-and-buggy generation passed out.

            “The world must be getting better,” said that fine old gentleman we lovingly referred to at police headquarters as ‘Cap Allaback,’ when we met him on the street a few months before his death.

            “What makes you think so, chief?” we asked.

            “Joe st. has reformed,” he said. And to an old-time police reporter there was a world of meaning in that.