Thursday, March 27, 2003

Guest Column

Riot of 1884 among bloodiest in history

By Mark Painter
Guest columnist

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Cincinnati Courthouse Riot of 1884. The carnage and destruction in 1884 far exceeded what happened two years ago.

In the 1880s, many Cincinnatians thought the criminal justice system was corrupt. There had been rumors of jury bribing, and there were long delays in trials. Murders were common. There were 93 murders in Cincinnati in 1883! (Compare that with 49 in 2001, 65 in 2003.)

A full-page article ran in The Cincinnati Enquirer, on March 9, 1884, headlined "The College of Murder." The story reported:

"Laxity of laws gives the Queen City of the West its crimson record. Pre-eminence in art, science, and industry avail nothing where murder is rampant and the lives of citizens are unsafe even in broad daylight."

The incident that sparked the riots happened on Christmas Eve 1883. Two men had robbed and murdered their employer, a stable owner, and dumped his body near the Mill Creek in Northside. One man was white, the other black. Everyone thought they would hang, which was the punishment then for murder.

But the first one to come to trial, the white man, William Berger, had a shady lawyer, Tom Campbell, whom the family had scraped together money to hire. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter. Manslaughter was a lesser offense, and saved Berner from hanging.

People were outraged, and the newspapers inflamed their passions. Many thought the jury had been bribed.

A protest meeting was held at Music Hall, but it got out of hand. A mob marched on the jail, which was behind the Courthouse. Their intention was to take and hang Berner - and perhaps all the other 23 murderers inside. But the sheriff had already been moved Berner out of town by rail.

In the next few days, 56 people were killed in the rioting - police, militiamen, firefighters and rioters. More than 200 were injured. About 10,000 white rioters took part. The mob held the area around the courthouse for three days, battling with police, militia, and firefighters.

On March 29, the mob burned the courthouse to the ground. William Desmond, a lawyer and captain of militia, was killed by a gunshot as he tried to protect the courthouse. A statue of Captain Desmond now graces the lobby of the present courthouse.

While the courthouse burned, a regiment of militia from Dayton arrived by train. When they saw the scene at the courthouse, they caught the next train back to Dayton.

Because local militia had trouble firing on their friends and neighbors, more state militia were sent in by railroad from Columbus. They stopped the out-of-control crowd. The Columbus troops brought a Gatling gun, which made an impression on the mob.

In the aftermath, more people were hanged, including Berner's co-defendant, and some reforms were made. William Howard Taft, then a young lawyer, was named head of a committee to reform the criminal law. He had been incensed at the "farcical" administration of justice in Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati Courthouse Riot was atypical. Not caused by race or wartime draft or labor strife, it stands as one of the most destructive riots in American history.

Judge Mark Painter serves on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals. He is the author of two legal books and a biography, William Howard Taft: President and Chief Justice, to be published this year.

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Guest column: Riot of 1884 among bloodiest in history
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