Saturday, September 04, 1999

Sheriff risked neck to stop lynching

Mob stormed jail, courts in 1884

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A mob, angered by a grotesque spree murders, set fire to the courthouse.
(Enquirer file/Cincinnati Historical Society)
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        In the good old days of a bad old year, Sheriff Morton Lytle Hawkins invited Cincinnati to a hanging:

        You are hereby permitted to witness the execution of Joseph Palmer. In the jail yard on Friday, Oct. 10, 1884, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

        The death of a killer would have been the final act in a grotesque spree of violence and murder that gripped Cincinnati in 1884. It reached its peak on March 28-30, when thousands of citizens, frustrated and demanding justice, stormed the jail, trying to lynch Mr. Palmer and his accomplice, William Berner. Sheriff Hawkins and others fought to defend them. The incident — one of the bloodiest in Ohio history — left more than 50 people dead, 250 injured and the courthouse sacked and burned.

        Mr. Palmer avoided the hangman until several years later, but he would become known as the cause of the Courthouse Riots and the last prisoner executed in Hamilton County.

        Now, 115 years later, an overheard conversation has led a local historian to piece together long-forgotten accounts of the riots, and help the sheriff gain permanent recognition for his bravery.

        Steve Barnett, a law enforcement historian and director of community relations for the sheriff's department, has persuaded the Ohio Bicentennial Commission to commemorate Sheriff Hawkins with a 4-by-4-foot cast-aluminum historical marker, to be erected on a grassy patch between the north and south buildings at the Hamilton County Justice Center, on the site where deputies set up temporary headquarters during the riots.

        One side of the marker will honor the sheriff, the other

        will explain the riots. A ceremony will be held on the site early next year.

Courthouse burned
        The violence began on March 28, when 8,000 people gathered at Music Hall to hear speeches about criminals committing murder and not paying for it. Such talk jolted otherwise sensible men to new heights of fury. When somebody yelled, “To the jail!”, the mob picked up ropes and guns and set out to hang Mr. Palmer and his accomplice, who were charged in the death of a livery owner.

        The only thing that stood between the growing mob and the county's prisoners that night was Sheriff Hawkins — a Civil War hero — and 150 deputies, local police and state militia.

        “Nobody anticipated a riot that night,” Mr. Barnett said. “But things got out of hand. All the buildings around the courthouse were filled with the dead and wounded.

        “The crowd attacked the jail first, pouring oil into it to force the sheriff to open the cells. But he held his ground. When the rioters didn't do enough damage to satisfy themselves, they commenced a full onslaught of the courthouse. They really did a number on it.”

        Rioters burned the courthouse to a blackened shell. County records were destroyed. The jail, in a separate building on Sycamore Street, was heavily damaged. It was connected to the courthouse by a tunnel that the rioters attempted to storm. Both buildings sat on the site of the present courthouse, across the street from where the marker will go.

        Mr. Barnett, a former history teacher, knew little of the riots until he heard two deputies discussing Sheriff Hawkins' exploits. Intrigued, he sifted through material in back rooms of the courthouse for evidence of Cincinnati's darkest days. He discovered original riot photographs, related books, yellowed newspaper accounts — even the invitation to the hanging.

        He obtained Mr. Hawkins' Civil War pension application, death certificate, marriage license and other papers. After months of study, Mr. Barnett felt he knew the dark-bearded sheriff.

        He assembled a thick file on the riots and asked Sheriff Simon L. Leis for permission to apply for the historical marker from the Bicentennial Commission in Columbus. Mr. Barnett's 100-page submission, including original newspaper accounts of the riots, impressed the commission with its detail, said spokesman Brian Newbacher.

        “The riots are a little-known but important historical event that should be remembered,” he said. “The sheriff stopped something that could have been even worse.”

Sheriff's destiny
        Destiny prepared Sheriff Hawkins for the challenge. At 17, he left school to join Company F of the 34th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which was decimated during the Civil War. He rose from private to first lieutenant before the war's end, and was wounded in Virginia fighting in 1864.

        Upon his return to Cincinnati he joined the Star as a reporter and, eventually the Enquirer..

        In time, Mr. Hawkins left the paper and ran for sheriff. The job proved stressful in Cincinnati's winter of discontent. In February 1884 the Ohio River flooded, cresting at a then-record 71.1 feet and leaving thou sands homeless. A financial panic had left many people out of work and reduced the wages of others.

        A number of brutal crimes further upset the city. Body snatchers broke into an Avondale home, killed a family and took their bodies to sell to medical schools. By early 1884, the Hamilton County jail housed 23 murderers.

        Newspaper editorial writers and cartoonists stirred anger by exposing alleged injustice and deriding political hacks.

        The killing of William Kirk brought citizens' anger to a boil. On March 24, a jury convicted Mr. Berner, 18, a stable worker, of manslaughter in the death of Mr. Kirk, his employer. The victim had been beaten with a hammer, strangled, robbed of about $300 and dumped in a remote area near Cumminsville.

        Though sentenced to 20 years in prison, Mr. Berner was still being held in jail when the riots started on March 28. His accomplice, Mr. Palmer, 19, who had not yet been tried, also was in the jail.

        “People were upset with the manslaughter conviction,” Mr. Barnett said. “They thought it should have been for murder.

        “The feeling I get from reading old accounts is that you could buy justice. Murderers languished in the jail, and many people felt frustrated. Meetings were held at Music Hall and the issue escalated. The crowd — good citizens, not-so-good citizens; white-collar, blue-collar — attended.”

Speakers built frenzy
        Veteran Judge A.W. Carter told them: “What could be done with a corrupt jury and corrupt lawyers?” The crowd replied, “Hang them all!”

        Despite a lack of street leadership, the mob moved toward the jail like a black cloud. Men used guns, rocks and bottles to enter a part of the jail.

        “The sheriff had gotten wind of trouble and had moved Mr. Berner out of his cell (dressed as a woman to disguise him) and onto a train with some deputies,” Mr. Barnett said. Mr. Palmer remained in jail. “The crowd wanted him badly. When they finally got to him, he claimed they had the wrong man ... and they believed him.”

        On March 29, the mob broke into the courthouse. Rioters entered the treasurer's office, piled furniture in it and set it on fire. A

        Through it all, Sheriff Hawkins battled. He didn't want to shoot citizens, but they fired first. He called for the National Guard. That night, Capt. John J. Desmond, a Cincinnati lawyer who led Company B of the First Regiment of the Ohio National Guard, was killed at the courthouse. His death seemed to rally the jail's defenders.

Gatling gun ended it
        On March 30, the Guard set up its Gatling gun, an early version of the machine gun.

        “The deadly Gatling gun, the product of a Cincinnati inventor, yielded its thrumming voice to the yelp of the pack,” the Daily Times Star noted later, “and that weapon, more than any other single agency, was responsible for the return to sanity of the thousands who had been swept off their feet by fiendish desire to kill.”

        As quickly as they began, the Courthouse Riots ended.

        As far as Mr. Barnett can tell, only one man was was prosecuted for a role in the riots, and he was acquitted.

        Mr. Berner served 12 years in prison, then left for Indiana and obscurity.

        Appeals stopped Mr. Palmer's October 1884 execution, but he finally was hanged on July 16, 1885, in front of 400 invited spectators who needed tickets to enter the jail yard. (“A big social affair,” Mr. Barnett said.) An Enquirer headline read: “Only One, When There Should Have Been Two.”

        Mr. Palmer had the dubious honor of being the last man executed in Hamilton County. “Palmer died harder, and consumed more time in dying, than anyone on record,” the Enquirer reported. “His neck was not broken, and the job was considered bungled.” As a result, prisoners thereafter would go to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus for execution.

        After his term, Sheriff Hawkins returned to the work he enjoyed most — newspapering. He moved to St. Louis briefly, then back to his hometown as the Enquirer's managing editor. He was later appointed police commissioner and Ohio's adjutant general.

        He died at his Norwood home in 1929, at age 86.

        “He was quite a man,” Mr. Barnett said. “A real hero who should be recognized. He survived the Civil War and the riots and the newspaper business. So I guess he did something right.”


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