Little Bits of History

March 27

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 27, 2017

1884: The Cincinnati riot begins. In the 1880s, Cincinnati was a rough industrial city and had a rising crime rate in part due to problems with labor issues and in part due to government corruption. The Cincinnati police force had 300 men and 5 paddy wagons. During the early part of the decade, 50 people were arrested for murder and of those, only four were hanged, the sentence for a guilty verdict. On January 1, 1884 there were 23 accused murderers awaiting trial. Corruption in the city controlled election results and the placement of judges along with influence of juries. In early March the Ohio River flooded with a crest at 71.9 feet leading to even more chaos in an already chaotic city. The papers were calling for justice in a city rife with murder.

On December 23, 1883, a German living in Cincinnati, William Berner and his accomplice, Joe Palmer, a biracial African-American, robbed and murdered their boss, a livery stable owner. They then dumped the body several miles away. Berner’s lawyer went through 500 potential jurors before he could find twelve men to sit on the jury. A long trial had seven different people on the stand testifying to Berner’s admission of planning and carrying out the execution of his employer. Despite this, the jury brought back a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder. The public was outraged. Palmer was tried in a later and separate trial and was found guilty of murder and hanged.

The papers called for a public meeting to condemn Berner’s verdict and even the New York Times reported on the miscarriage of justice. One of the jurors was harassed by irate citizens and spent the night in the police station for protection. When he headed home, the crowds threatened to lynch him and the police were called in. Later in the day, the juror was beaten and another juror was pelted with rotten eggs and dead cats. Another juror was fired when he returned to work. By the next day, the state militia was called in to try to control the angry mobs who were ready to administer their own justice to Berner, who had been secreted away for his safety.

A mob of 10,000 threw bricks and stones at the jail when they found Berner gone. Then they tried to set the jail on fired. The mobs continued to riot the next day and attacked the jail, unsuccessfully. They moved on to the courthouse and set it on fire. A gunfight broke out and nearby stores were looted. Before order was restored, 56 people had been killed with over 300 more wounded and the courthouse was destroyed, making it one of the most destructive riots in American history. Berner served his twenty years in prison and the local political bosses were forced to retire.

Laxity of laws gives the Queen City of the West its crimson record. Preeminence in art, science, and industry avail nothing where murder is rampant and the lives of citizens are unsafe even in broad daylight. – Cincinnati Enquirer, March 9, 1884

For once we find ourselves sympathising with rioters. – London Spectator

A riot is the language of the unheard. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

We hoped against hope that what we had been doing was enough to prevent a riot. It was not enough. – Jerome Cavanagh

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