The Cincinnati Riots: 1884

Court Street Barricade looking East to the Court House in Cincinnati, March of 1884.
Court Street Barricade looking East to the Court House in Cincinnati, March of 1884.

I. The Uneven Hand Of Justice
In late March of 1884, public faith in Cincinnati law enforcement was shaken by a series of unsolved grisly murders and body-snatchings. The people of Cincinnati believed that murderers and other serious offenders were not brought to justice and when they did - they received little punishment.

Their sentiments were echoed and reinforced by a local paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, that produced two issues a day (morning and evening editions) filled with reports of dead small business owners murdered by anonymous thugs in and around the city. These articles, in an effort to underscore the gravity of the crimes, referred to the city as a "College of Murder" for petty thugs and drifters from nearby areas.

The incident that sparked the 1884 riots happened on Christmas Eve 1883. Two men, Joe Palmer and William Berner, robbed and murdered their employer, a stable owner named Kirk, by hammering-in his skull and then strangling him to death for $285.

The duo dumped the body near Mill Creek in Northside. One of these men, William Berner, was eventually spared the gallows by a jury but this decision would nearly destroy the city.

Weaver Alley Barricade looking South East to Plum Street and the City Jail in Cincinnati, March of 1884.
Weaver Alley Barricade looking South East to Plum Street and the City Jail (modern City Hall) in Cincinnati, March of 1884.

The guilty verdict for Manslaughter for Berner came on on March 26th 1884. He would not be executed for Murder despite the testimony of seven witnesses describing Berner's cold-blooded account of his crime given at the trial. The judge, who gave a sentence of 20 years in prison, called the verdict "a damned outrage."

The Enquirer called for a public meeting to condemn the verdict and on the following day, on Thursday March 27th, several mobs of people ransacked jurors' homes. A group nearly beat juror James Bourne[0] to death. Still outraged and gathering more support, these groups then met with a much larger group on Friday the 28th and gathered at the steps of the Music Hall on Elm and 14th in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood adjacent to downtown.

II. A City In Total Chaos
From Music Hall, at 9:30PM, thousands of citizens marched six blocks south and stormed the county jail seeking Berner, Palmer and any other suspected murderers they could find and kill. A small group of Hamilton County Deputies, led by Sheriff Morton Lytle Hawkins, fought to save the jail from a complete takeover. The mobs, armed with pistols and rifles, fired wild shots into the jail then burned and broke all in their path.

Eventually, late Friday night, after continuously losing ground in close quarters gun fights inside and outside of the jail, and nearly losing the entire jail, the Deputies succeeded in holding the facility and protecting the lives of all the inmates from the angry mob that had completely surrounded it.

During the course of the riots courthouse and jail would suffer enormous damage and were eventually both ruined. Coal oil fire bombings, wild gunfire and lynchings claimed many lives including the life of Captain John Desmond, killed during the initial rioting on Friday, whose statue stands watch in the modern courthouse lobby today.

Many rampaging citizens died and valuable records were burned as three day series of assaults, stand-offs and fires raged.

Ohio National Guard in front of Music Hall Walnut/Elm and Central
Ohio Militia in front of Music Hall at Elm and Grant where rioters had marched to the Courthouse.

March 29th 1884. Headline from the Saturday morning edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer: "At Last The People Are Aroused And Take The Law Into Their Own Hands, Enraged Community Rises In Its Might."

That morning, the Sheriff had 117 militia men (of 525 called) and 200 deputies and deputized men in a position that was surrounded and attacked the night before by at least 10,000 angry, armed people. His only choice was to put up make-shift barricades in front of the courthouse and jail. These barricades were manned by a handful of men that could not stop the mob that was returning to the site of the previous night's riots.

At this point, it was clear that the Ohio Militia (a forerunner of the National Guard), needed to be called in from Columbus and Dayton as reinforcements. Their deployment was initially delayed by Governor Hoadly whose political supporters in Cincinnati counseled him not to send in any reinforcements in order to protect his political future.

A small group of Dayton troops, that arrived first downtown, failed to muster at the courthouse due violent clashes with a crowd that was quickly re-constituting itself in the afternoon. A sympathy among the Dayton militia men for the Cincinnati rioters' cause, and an angry populace hurling stones, totally undermined the early actions by the Dayton force.

Unable to break into the jail, the crowd turned it's attention to the unprotected courthouse nearby the jail and set fire to it. Using kerosene and coal oil, they burned important legal and historical documents that were as old as the city itself into ash.

III. The City Burns
At 11PM Saturday night, 425 troops of the Columbus force arrived in downtown Cincinnati. With the courthouse brightly burning and the jail surrounded and under fire, the Ohio Militia began to take up the task of the quelling the crowd gathered immediately around the jail and courthouse under the orange and yellow flames dancing wildly in the night.

From Saturday night to Sunday night the Columbus Militia, gradually joined by more reinforcements, managed to push back and turn the crowd through street skirmishes and use of Gatling guns late in the night on Sunday the 30th of March. Very fittingly, a Midwestern invention[1] was used to solve a Midwestern problem. Eventually, the troops set up a rally point at the Music Hall in Over-The-Rhine where the mobs had originally gathered.

The riots had raged over the course of three days, from March 28th to 30th, requiring forces from the Sheriff's Office, city police, and State Militia from Dayton and Columbus to restore order. In the end, according to the majority of records from the period, forty-five people to fifty people were killed and more than 150 wounded.

The object of the crowd’s rage, William Berner himself, had already been moved prior to the worst of the rioting and briefly escaped from a stopped train during his transfer from the city jail. Berner was quickly re-captured north of Cincinnati, in Loveland, then sent to Columbus, Ohio to begin his 20-year sentence. He was eventually paroled, in 1896, after serving 12 years of his sentence.

Joe Palmer, his accomplice, was not as lucky. On July 16, 1885, one year after escaping the 1884 rioters by insisting they had the wrong man. Palmer became the last man to be executed in Hamilton County [2]. Palmer was led into a private courtyard in the jail where a scaffold had been erected. At 10:02 AM, the trap door fell. Palmer's neck, according to the New York Times article printed the next day, did not break. Instead, he writhed at the end of the hangman's noose for 26 minutes until he finally expired.

The Cincinnati Riots gained national infamy but also helped establish a larger police force. After the riots, a young Assistant Prosecutor for Hamilton County named William Howard Taft was named head of a committee to reform local criminal law. Having been angered at the "farcical" administration of justice in Cincinnati Taft began a long career in law before becoming 27th President of the United States and then Chief of the Supreme Court.

[0] = James Bourne was taken into protective custody immediately before the riots by the Hamilton County Sheriff's deputies.
[1] = The Gatling gun was invented in Indianapolis in 1862 by Dr. Richard Gatling.
[2] = Execution in the state were moved to Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus from 1885 to 1963.

Wikipedia, Cincinnati Riots Of 1884
New York Times, April 2nd 1884, Cincinnati Quiet Again
Cincinnati Enquirer, March 9th 1884, The College of Murder
Heritage Pursuit, A Full Account of the Berner Riot
Record Source, Way Marker
Photo Source, Ohio History Central
NY and OH Reports and Periodicals, Courthouse Fire of 1884

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