A founding settler. A bootlegger extraordinaire. A trailblazing rabbi. Look closely and you’ll find that some key chapters of our city’s history are written on its tombstones.
1. Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz and his wife Nesha, Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery, Covedale
Thanks to Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz and his patented ultra-fast baking machine (matzo in 18 minutes flat!), unleavened bread, which had formerly been an expensive luxury, became a household staple for Seders around the country—and Manischewitz became a household name. He founded his company in 1888, shortly after Reform Judaism was itself founded by Cincinnati’s own Rabbi Isaac M. Wise (of Plum Street Temple fame). Though Lithuanian-born, Manischewitz and his wife Nesha are buried in the hills above the city where he built his matzo empire.
2. The Sellman Family, Washington Park
Dr. John Sellman served in the Revolutionary War under General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. In 1794, after further service in the Northwest Indian War, he resigned and moved to the fledgling city of Cincinnati. Sellman set up a physician’s office on Front Street between Sycamore and Broadway and also served as a citizen surgeon at the Newport Barracks. Along with his wife, four daughters, and two grandchildren, Sellman is memorialized in Washington Park, which for many years served as a cemetery and potter’s field before the land was appropriated for public use and the graves moved to other locations in the city.
3. George Remus, Riverside Cemetery, Pendleton County, Kentucky
George Remus’s story is the stuff of legend: The infamous Prohibition-era bootlegger and his second wife Imogene lived lavishly on his ill-gotten gains (throwing huge parties, staging Oprah-style car giveaways, and so on). In 1925, he went to prison for (some of) his crimes and Imogene began an affair with an undercover cop, filed for divorce, and frittered away Remus’s vast fortune. Here comes the infamous part: On the way to the courthouse to finalize said divorce, Remus had his chauffeur tail Imogene’s cab through a crowded Eden Park, ran her off the road, and shot her dead in broad daylight. Remus, a lawyer by trade, defended himself in a sensational murder trial, claimed temporary insanity—and won. He remarried and lived out a quiet life in Falmouth, Kentucky, where he is buried. The explanation for how his tombstone—which features two angels carrying a woman—was damaged is fittingly wacky: Supposedly, a disgruntled person called up Remus’s third wife, Blanche Watson, complaining that a known criminal shouldn’t be memorialized with biblical characters. So Watson went to Remus’s grave, and for reasons known only to her, broke off the angels’ wings.
4. Wesleyan Cemetery, Northside
The saga of Wesleyan Cemetery has almost eclipsed its remarkable history: In 2002, absentee caretaker Robert Merkle was convicted of embezzling nearly $100,000 from the cemetery’s trust fund. While he attended to his legal problems, the 24-acre property fell into even worse disrepair; to this day, grave markers are still being damaged and stolen. But people willing to fight for Wesleyan and its approximately 17,000 graves have set about fixing it up and getting its story told. More than 1,000 military veterans are buried at the 171-year-old cemetery, many of whom fought in the Civil War: William Steinmetz was just 15 when he volunteered for a “forlorn hope” suicide mission during General Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg in 1863 (he survived and was awarded the Medal of Honor); William Fox was killed in action at the Second Battle of Winchester, Virginia; and Daniel Robison was the only black Civil War veteran to have a marker before contemporary conservation efforts. Even further back: Robert Badgley, a very early settler of Cumminsville, built a cabin nearby in 1795. And then there’s the grave of John Van Zandt (or “Van Sandt,” according to his tombstone), a former slave-owner who helped countless slaves escape to free states and Canada, and whose 1847 Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of slavery is required reading for students of the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. He is thought to be the inspiration for the character John Van Trompe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
5. Benjamin Stites, Pioneer Memorial Cemetery, Columbia-Tusculum
Early landowner John Cleves Symmes gets a lot of credit for purchasing the huge tracts of untamed hills and river valleys that would eventually become Cincinnati. But his investment wouldn’t have gone far if adventurous folk like Benjamin Stites, a trader from Pennsylvania, weren’t willing and able to buy up those acres (at the low, low price of less than $1 per) and get them settled. Stites and his party of 26 settlers—including four young children—arrived at the mouth of the Little Miami River in the fall of 1788. By 1790, the first school in Hamilton County was up and running (along with the first Protestant church in the Northwest Territory, a mill, and a pack of 50 cabins), and Columbia Tusculum was well on its way to being Cincinnati’s first established neighborhood.
6. Christian Waldschmidt, Waldschmidt Cemetery, Camp Dennison
Camp Dennison is well known for its role in the Civil War as a Union Army training site and hospital, but its history goes back to the earliest days of Cincinnati’s founding. Settler Christian Waldschmidt was yet another Pennsylvanian to purchase acreage from John Cleves Symmes in the late 18th century. After spending many fruitful years building a Pennsylvania Dutch–style home and store, and overseeing the founding of a school, industrial mills, and a blacksmith shop, he and his family were buried on this site. Decades later they were joined by hundreds of Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners of war who died in Camp Dennison’s hospital. Shortly after the war ended, the Union and Confederate soldiers were reinterred at Spring Grove Cemetery and Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, respectively. But Waldschmidt—himself a veteran of the Revolutionary War—remains in his namesake cemetery near his 1804 homestead, which now operates as a museum.