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Dayton's Part in Ohio's Worst Riot

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, April 16, 1931


By Howard Burba

Reading the dark chapters of Buckeye state history it is not difficult to determine that the courthouse riots in Cincinnati in the year 1884 were, from a standpoint of actual bloodshed and loss of life, the worst ever recorded in the long life of the commonwealth.

     To older residents, not alone of Ohio but of the entire middle west, mention of that event recalls the stirring scenes that attended it, the wild excitement for almost an entire week over it, and gave the city of Cincinnati a reputation for rowdyism that she was long in living down.

      Starting as a purely local affair, and growing out of a long series of crimes for which the perpetrators had, through one technicality or another, been permitted their freedom, the Cincinnati courthouse riot became state wide in interest.  For before it was completely quelled every military company in the state was participating in it. That meant that men from almost every county in the state were actually engaged, while near at hand and ready for emergency, stood men from many states in the ranks of Uncle Sam’s regular army, ready to take a hand the moment the outbreak reached a point where the state guard could not control it.

     While residents of the Queen City had grown bitter in their personal arraignment of the courts, and had shown no hesitancy in condemning their lax methods of handling crime, it was not until March 28, 1884, that they became emboldened to the point where a meeting of protest was publicly called.  It was held in Music Hall, on the evening of that date, and the chief speaker was A. G. Kemper.  He spoke of the rapid increase in crime in Cincinnati, and emphasized the necessity for stricter law enforcement.  He had not delivered his address with a view to inciting open rebellion against the forces of law and order; at no time during his talk did he suggest violence as a remedy.  But an open invitation to his hearers to go forth and wreak vengeance upon those responsible for the more recent crimes committed in the neighborhood was not needed.  The mob spirit was smouldering in the hearts of practically every man at that meeting that night—and in the hearts of a good many thousands who were not in attendance.  It needed but a spark to set it aglow.  That spark came as the crowd left Music Hall and moved down Twelfth st.  It came in the form of just three words shouted by someone far up toward the head of the moving throng, yet heard by all.  “To the jail!” were the words that served to ring up the curtain on the bloodiest riot of all times in Ohio.

     From a peaceable band of citizens bent wholly upon finding some means of bettering law enforcement conditions, that audience at Music Hall had become a mob.  Moving in the direction of the jail, their numbers were swelled as word quickly flew about the city that a lynching was about to be staged.  In a way, this report occasioned no surprise.  Everyone was familiar with conditions.  Corrupt juries and a vast lawless element had apparently been encouraged instead of frowned upon by those in charge of law enforcement.  Robbery and murder were of daily occurrence.  The worst criminals either escaped punishment entirely or were punished in the mildest possible form.  Decency had come to be resentful.  The murder of a Mrs. Rose at Glendale, a suburb, a year before had filled the public mind with horror; then came the murder of a harmless old man named Kirk by Brenner and Palmer.  Fast on the heels of that the assassination of still another aged citizen, a Mr. Thomas, and his entire family.  Then the trial of Charles Brenner and his conviction for manslaughter in face of a complete confession from his own lips to the effect that he had, with an accomplice, slaughtered Kirk for a paltry purse of $285.

     When that mob started from Music Hall to the jail it was with a view to making him its victim.  No man within its ranks could foresee the outcome, the terrible slaughter, that was to climax their movements.  Reaching the jail they found that Sheriff Hawkens had taken refuge in the courthouse nearby, but had, earlier in the evening, dispatched a deputy to Loveland, with the prisoner in charge.  Heavily disguised, Brenner was driven to the station from the jail, but in some way news of the attempted coup spread throughout the neighborhood.  The result was that when the accommodation train for Morrow pulled in, the deputy had difficulty in getting him safely aboard.  Then the report was circulated that he had escaped through the train, and it was this report, reaching the ears of the fast-swelling mob about the jail downtown that started the first outburst of violence.

     Breaking into the store of B. Kittredge & Co., the largest hardware concern in the state, firearms, ammunition and steel saws were secured.  At the same time another group, sensing the need of firearms with which to protect themselves in the event they were rushed by the police, visited the old Veterans’ Regiment armory, taking all the guns and ammunition to be found, along with a small cannon.

     Mayor Thomas Stephens was confined to his home with illness.  Sheriff Hawkens, from his place in the courthouse, telephoned a riot call to the police. Before they arrived, however, the mob had battered in a jail door and were in conflict with deputy sheriffs stationed in the halls.  Someone outside fired a pistol.  Almost instantly it became a fusillade.  When a semblance of order could be restored, it was found that four persons had been struck by the flying bullets, a policeman being the most seriously injured.

     Scarce had the echo of the shots died away until flames were springing high in an alley alongside the jail.  A report that the mob had fired the jail served to bring fresh recruits to its ranks.  Within the hour a detachment of state guards, quickly assembled, reached the scene on the run and, scarcely pausing for a command, began shooting into the crowd.  Several fell beneath their onrush, one man, Lew Kent, a laborer, being killed outright.  Encouraged by the arrival of the militia the deputy sheriffs succeeded in overpowering a score of rioters already within the corridors of the jail and they were locked up.  In the meantime, firemen, battling desperately in a rain of flying bricks and missiles of every form, succeeded in extinguishing the flames in the alley which proved to be no more serious than a huge bonfire, lighted by members of the mob when street lights were shot out or shattered by flying stones.

     For the second time the militia received orders to fire, and this time their leaden messengers of death crashed through the jail windows.  Newton Cobb of Manchester, O., was among the first to fall.  Worked into a high state of frenzy and loudly insisting that the firing was unnecessary, the mob seemingly acquired a new spirit of determination.  While the injured were being carried to a drug store at Court and Walnut sts. for medical attention, barrels of kerosene were being rolled up to the jail through the alley alongside.

     Then up Main st. came a reserve force in the shape of several hundred rioters mobilized in the notorious tenderloin district known as “Over the Rhine.”  With one man playing a fife and another a drum they marched to the jail in military fashion, and soon their identity was lost among the milling throngs.  Their arrival, however, was the signal for another onslaught on the jail.  This time the small cannon, snatched from the armory earlier in the night, was brought into play and several balls fired at the jail shattered woodwork and masonry.

     With the arrival of daylight other companies of state guards began arriving on the scene.  But daylight had brought no cessation of activities in the ranks of the mob, nor had their determination been lessened with the passing of darkness.  It served to reveal to onlookers, however, a scene that baffled description.  The streets had been barricaded with boxes, barrels and heavy objects of every description.  Behind these determined men lay with pistols, shotguns and rifles protruding—all covering the jail and the police and militiamen surrounding it.

     All members of the Fourth regiment had deserted with the exception of 96 men.  And along with them the two companies, A and B, from Dayton.  Among the first to arrive on the scene, they were also among the first to leave it.  It must be said, if the records are to be kept straight, that at no time, from the moment the outburst started until it was at an end, was there another display of “cold feet” to equal that staged by the Dayton militia-men.

     There may have been extenuating circumstances, though it still is difficult to write an alibi for them or to raise any towering monument to the heroism of Dayton militiamen at the Cincinnati riot.  Possibly the best thing to do, under the circumstances, would be to write the facts briefly, and let silence serve as a salve.

     The facts are that Dayton’s two companies of militia marched up Main st.  They viewed the threatening breastworks ahead of them.  They lined up in the face of what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle, and when ordered to fire they broke ranks. For the second time they were formed into line, for the second time they were ordered to fire—and for the second time they apparently never heard the order.  They were marched back to the depot, and returned to Dayton.  It is recorded that they went back on the following morning.  But, like the rainbow, they only succeeded in displaying their brilliance after the storm had passed.

     There was no lack of military power by the time the sun had climbed into the sky on that Sunday morning in March,1884, regardless of the distaste of Dayton and Cincinnati guardsmen for the smell of gunpowder.  The First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth O.N.G., along with the First and Fifth batteries and the 13th Gatlings, were on the scene, a total of 2000 armed men under command of Col. Freeman.  Across the river Uncle Sam held his regulars in readiness to step in at the first attempt at violence to any federal property.

     Throughout Sunday there was firing at intervals by both rioters and militiamen.  Out in the residential districts, or from the hilltops that offered a clear view of the downtown streets, thousands watched for the clash they felt must surely come at any moment if the mob hoped to overpower the militiamen and destroy the jail, as seemed then to be their sole aim.  Every hour found more companies of militiamen taking their stand at vantage points in the neighborhood of the jail.  New Lexington, Zanesville, Newark and Mount Vernon sent in reinforcements during the early morning hours.  From Gov. Hoadley’s office at Columbus went orders to every military company in the state of Ohio to proceed at once under arms to Cincinnati.  Martial law had been declared with the rising of the sun.

     Over the wires early Sunday evening went this dispatch to the newspapers of the country:

     “The streets of Cincinnati present this Sunday night a strange appearance indeed.  Innumerable concert halls, saloons, restaurants and other places of resort are closed and knots of men are standing around discussing the situation.  Instead of promenading the streets or seeking the different places of amusement as usual on Sunday evening, they are remaining close to their homes or seeking such points downtown as will permit them to watch the maneuvers of the rioters and the militiamen without danger from bullets that are constantly flying through the air.

     “It is common expression among citizens that the reception given the mob on Friday night was a great mistake.  The people say openly it would have been better to have given up the criminals who are being so carefully guarded and let them receive the well-merited punishment which it appears cannot be accorded by proper legal procedure in this county.  The presence of the militia, and constantly arriving reinforcements, seems to add to the mob’s determination to hold their ground.  It has not served in the least to intimidate the rioters.”

     Along about 8 o’clock Sunday evening, as darkness fell on what was to prove the bloodiest night in Cincinnati’s history, there appeared to be a concerted movement on the part of the rioters to establish themselves in the immediate vicinity of the courthouse.  To forestall any violence at that point, troops from Columbus were immediately sent to take up guard duty in the alley running alongside.  Scarcely had they reached the scene, however, until they met with a volley from the rioters.  A number were seriously injured; one met death.  Examination revealed that the latest victim of the mob’s fury was Capt. Desmond of a Cincinnati company and one of the most prominent young attorneys in the city.  The volley was returned, and from their barricades and out of Main st. poured the mob, facing the fire as it battled its way into the courthouse corridors.

     For a few brief moments the fighting assumed the nature of a hand-to-hand struggle.  The clash of bayonets and rifles, the ring of bullets, the angry shouts of the frenzied rioters mingled with the ripping, tearing sound of shattering woodwork as the mob tore away doors and partitions within the courthouse.  They had succeeded in driving the militiamen from the corridors, but at an awful cost.  Bodies were strewn in the streets in front, in the alley alongside, and even into the halls, while here and there men dropped rifles as bullets pierced arms or bodies and hurriedly bored their way through the tangled mass to reach a near-by drug store or doctor.

     From a window on the alleyside of the courthouse rolled a wisp of smoke.  A moment later and it was fairly pouring from the doorways.  The mob had fired the building.  It was the climax of their warfare against the legal corruption on which they blamed the need for such violence.  Records were torn from filing cabinets, record books were snatched from shelves, all went to feed the flames.   There was no attempt to save the priciest volumes that could never be replaced.  To the mob they were just so much fuel for a fire they did not intend to see die down until the entire structure had been reduced to ashes.   And they succeeded to the fullest, for once under way there was no checking the flames.  The holocaust has soon complete.

     Apparently satisfied with their work, the rioters began gradually to thin out.  Ambulances carried injured soldiers to the hospitals; injured rioters were given attention by doctors who dared to venture on the scene as the last volleys rang out before the torch was applied to the courthouse.  Still the militia was streaming in on every train; some coming by special trains provided by the railroad companies when Gov. Hoadley’s order went out to every unit in the state to concentrate in the Queen City.  By dawn on Monday morning there were 8000 armed soldiers in downtown Cincinnati.

     A careful survey of casualties on Monday morning revealed that 28 had been killed outright and, so far as it was able to determine, 54 had been injured, several of whom later died of their wounds.

     It was difficult to estimate the property damage.  The jail was badly damaged, huge blocks of masonry having been torn from the walls, every window broken, and havoc wrought inside.  The furnishings and equipment in the jailer’s home had been reduced to kindling; pictures had been torn from the walls, glass smashed against near-by articles of furniture and then trampled under feet.  In the courthouse the destruction was even more complete.  Not a record was saved, nor a desk, table or chair.  Only such documents as happened to be locked within he several fireproof vaults withstood the terrific heat.  Monday found only the blackened and broken walls remained standing.

     Peace came to Cincinnati, but at an awful price.  For three days and nights mob spirit had run rampant, and there was a reign of terror such as few communities have ever experienced.  Apparently forgotten after the first outburst, the murderer, Brenner was confined within the walls of the state penitentiary at Columbus.  The jurymen who sat at his trial, as well as the trial judge and a number of his associates about the courthouse, viewed the scene of destruction from afar, and then, it is recorded, not until several days after the mob had dispersed.  Casual threats of violence wafted to their ears during the early hours of the rioting about the jail served to forewarn them, and they sought shelter far from the maddened throng.

     Cincinnati residents have never believed that firing the courthouse was a part of the mob’s original program.  In fact, men who had an active part in the outbreak are known to have stated afterwards that it probably would have been prevented by the rioters themselves had they known that it was to be carried out.  But in the excitement following the shooting at the courthouse, and seemingly driven crazy for the moment by the bloodshed and scenes of destruction all about them, a little handful of men, more violent than the rest, started the blaze that once under way, could not be extinguished.

     Forty-seven years have passed since that carnival of bloodshed and destruction.  Yet there are thousands who recall it as though it were yesterday.  They remember every detail of it.  They still point to it as an example of the extremes to which men will go when they feel in their hearts that justice is being ravished at the hands of corrupt and conscienceless officials.

     The Cincinnati riots form one of the darkest chapters in the history of an Ohio municipality.  But Dayton has never found it in her heart to point a censoring finger.  She couldn’t very well when she stopped to consider how little her members of the old Fourth regiment had to do with stopping it.