Cincinnati Roared into 1921 with Guns Blazing

The city’s first New Year’s Day under Prohibition was noisy but subdued.

One hundred years ago, Cincinnati announced a new year with a bang. Several bangs, in fact. The newspapers reported dozens of gunshot incidents, as if the city was a free-fire zone.

What goes around comes around. Just as we are happy to see 2020 fade into memory, cartoonist Rube Goldberg affirmed that our ancestors were just as happy to see the curtain rung down on 1920.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Jim Dimson, 34, earned the honor of first person arrested in Cincinnati on January 1, 1921. Patrolmen Harry Breckroege and Peter Schadel arrested Dimson after he fired four rounds from a second-floor window at his home as bells and whistles welcomed the new year.

Bart Marchioni, manager of the American Ice Cream Company on Sixth Street, narrowly missed being struck by a bullet fired through his front window at midnight. Cryn Stockoff, 26, was struck in the hand by a stray bullet while walking on Apple Street in Northside shortly after midnight.

As the clock struck 1921, Patrolman James Fritz found a group of men firing pistols at an electric streetlamp at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Hazen Street. The policeman dispersed the impromptu shooting gallery, but one of the shooters, Gordon Cassell, 24, punched him in the head and ran off. Fritz fired five shots from his service revolver at the fleeing miscreant, striking him in the hip.

Ferdinand Moeller, 22, of Newport, and Ernest Wells, 28, of Covington, were both shot while attempting to hold up a truckload of illegal whiskey being transported through Cincinnati. Also shot in the robbery attempt was Joseph Kline of New York City, one of the armed guards assigned to protect the shipment of bootleg hootch.

William Wright, 13, of Meade Avenue in the East End was shot through his right arm by a friend while they played with a pistol.

Arthur Spiegel, beginning a brand new term as Police Court judge on New Year’s Day, found four cases of discharging firearms within city limits on his docket.

Perhaps Cincinnati was just trying to find a new way to blow off steam. The transition from 1920 to 1921 marked the first New Year’s Eve under the iron thumb of Prohibition. The Cincinnati Enquirer [January 1, 1921] noticed a distinct absence of jollity as the year transitioned:

“The new year was ushered in propitiously last night with scores of watch parties and midnight dinners, both large and small, and with the usual accompaniment of noise, but the hilarity and spontaneity that has long been characteristic of the New-Year celebrations was strangely absent.”

According to The Enquirer, alcohol was not totally absent, despite the new federal law, as citizens often had private stocks remaining legally in their own houses. Still, partiers tested the limits of public drinking by sneaking the odd flask or two into a hotel ballroom. Per The Enquirer:

“The lid was on tight and the first day, even the first minute, of 1921 was christened with water, coffee, tea and other safe and sane drinks.”

And yet four inebriants found themselves in Police Court as the day began, charged with public intoxication.

Part of the somber celebration might be attributed to economic problems as Cincinnati suffered, along with the rest of the U.S., through a financial depression following World War I. The newspapers featured cheery messages from bankers and businessmen promising better days ahead.

Still, the papers referred so often to the “high cost of living” that it earned its own acronym (HCL) in editorial cartoons. This was a time when grocers advertised coffee at 17 cents per pound, eggs at 36 cents per dozen, butter at 54 cents a pound, and bread at 9 cents per loaf. The large package of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes went for 10 cents a box.

That a new era was dawning was made clear by the New Year’s Day announcement that President-Elect Warren Harding would eschew the traditional horse and carriage and ride to his inauguration in an automobile. The Cincinnati Post announced a plan to construct the city’s first parking garage, a facility designed to hold 1,000 motor cars. Within a decade, autos shoved everyone else off of Cincinnati’s streets.

Elated by their success in banning alcohol, a number of reformists took aim at Sunday activities of any sort (other than religious services), leading to one of the hottest political debates as 1920 faded into 1921.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The big political debate roiling Cincinnati’s otherwise placid demeanor was the prospect of a national Blue Law prohibiting theaters, athletics facilities, concert halls, and restaurants from opening on Sundays. Wilbur F. Crafts, chairman of the International Reform Bureau, issued a public denial that his straight-laced organization had proposed any such thing. Still, dozens of other “progressive” organizations were likely suspects in a movement that faced stiff opposition among a public just beginning to understand the full weight of restrictions imposed by Prohibition.

The Enquirer raged against blue-nosed reformers it labeled a “frenetic minority of alleged purists” who aimed to censor the fruits of human creativity.

“In various localities throughout the country self-styled ‘Christian civic leagues’ are butting their heads against plain and honest American common sense. The activities of these consecrated individuals reach their climax in the demand for the clothing of nude statues and the veiling or destruction of nude paintings.”

Asserting that “throttling art” has historically resulted in an increase in crime, The Enquirer bemoaned the possibility that the Cincinnati Art Museum might be made over “into a home for superannuated spinsters and reformers who have burned out their energies in the labor of clothing this bright world in sackcloth and ashes.”

One good and wholesome endeavor thrived in Cincinnati in 1921: competitive walking. The idea of running long distances had not yet taken root in town, but high-speed sauntering was in its heyday. Sebastian Linehan, champion walker and president of the local chapter of the American Walkers Association, distributed a New Year’s circular encouraging members “to make the coming year a notable one in Cincinnati in the heel-and-toe game.”

By mid-afternoon on January 1, 1921, the Queen City had settled down to business as usual. The first robbery of the year was reported at 5 p.m. that day by West End grocer Markus Sterkin, who claimed the theft of two boxes of chewing gum.

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