There are regular complaints these days about aggressive panhandlers soliciting funds at various locations around town. It will be of little comfort to learn that beggars of that ilk have operated in Cincinnati for ages. During the late 1800s, the most aggressive were even organized. Since their ultimate goal was to fill a bucket with beer they were known as “bucket gangs.” According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [27 August 1882]:
“The ‘Bucket Gang’ are a bad lot, known to the police and saloon-keepers, particularly the latter. Their business, while an old one, improves like all others of a more legitimate character, in that some ingenious member invents a new scheme every now and then, by which a drop of ‘bugle paint’ can be secured. The ‘Bucket gang’ are, in more polite terms, men who will do any thing for a drink, and drink most any thing that resembles or tastes like liquor.”
[As an aside, that term, “bugle paint,” is not much in use these days. It refers to the ability of alcohol to turn the drinker’s nose (his “bugle”) red.]
Bucket gangs ranged from pitiable to dangerous. It cost eight to ten cents to fill a standard pail, known as a growler, with beer, providing one drink apiece for four men. Of course, “standard” covered a lot of territory in those days, so a growler might be an actual bucket of some sort, or it might be an oyster can or some other suitable receptacle.
Members of the bucket gangs were disinclined to find a paying job and so they spent a great deal of time devising assorted schemes to cobble together a dime’s worth of change to fill their suds bucket. A national publication, the Illustrated Police News [13 February 1886] catalogued several stratagems cooked up by Cincinnati bucket gangs.
“A scheme that is worked in Cincinnati is called the ‘bridge game.’ A beat will station himself about a square from the Ohio River bridge and stop every passerby with, ‘Won’t you please give me enough money to cross the bridge? I can get a job of work in Covington or Newport, but the bridge has to be crossed.’ Hardly a man will refuse a plea of this kind, so they are almost always successful.”
The Police News related the story of a bucket gang left high and dry in the middle of the Courthouse Riot of 1884, with not a penny between them to slake their thirst. Finally, one of their number had an inspiration. He appointed one of the gang to go to his house and tell his mother that he had been shot in the riot and it would cost a dollar to bring him home.
“They were all loud in their praise of his excellent suggestion. One started at once for the fellow’s home. Going up two flights of stairs, a rap on the door soon brought Mrs. J_____. He told a pitiful tale of how her son was shot, and the patrol wagons were so busy carrying away the dead that they could not bring him home, but there was an expressman on the corner who would bring him home for a dollar. His distracted mother could not give the dollar quick enough. Her son was brought home that night, but not shot – only half-shot.”
Another ruse was known as the stamp racket. In this endeavor, the bucket gang split up, each going to a store or business to ask for a stamp so he could send a letter to his dear mother, or his sister or some other relative. Few shopkeepers failed to be moved by such heartwarming tales and soon the gang had enough stamps to trade for some amber refreshment.
The Enquirer offered a few more examples of dipsomaniac creativity. For example, it was common practice for a saloon-keeper to stack his emptied beer barrels on the sidewalk in front of his place so the brewery driver could grab them quickly and haul them back for refill. The bucket gangs knew that “empty” was never totally empty, so the cold light of dawn often found a crew tipping the exhausted kegs nearly vertical to capture the few remaining precious dregs.
Another once-successful dodge had fallen into obsolescence by the 1880s because it had been used too often and saloon-keepers were wary of it. Among the best solvents for whitewash was stale beer and those men in the trade usually had an agreement with a neighborly barkeep to save any sudsless lager for his use. The bucket gangs would send one of their younger members into a likely saloon to explain that he was helping his dear old father on a whitewashing job and would there be any stale beer around? Sometimes the publican turned over the dregs and sometimes he chased the beggar down the street.
Sometimes, whether because they were out of stratagems or because they were incapable of devising one, bucket gangs descended to brute force and the Cincinnati police courts were full of such miscreants. It appeared that almost every neighborhood had its own variation on the bucket gang.
Scott Gerhardt was accosted in 1883 by a bucket gang based on Hunt Street in Pendleton. He was surrounded while the gang leader asked for a dime. While complying with the demand, Gerhardt pulled $1.35 from his pocket, all the money he had. According to the Enquirer [25 September 1883]:
“This one of the gang grabbed and succeeded in escaping with it after a severe tussle in which the victim was roughly dealt with.”
The Sixteenth Ward bucket gang, usually congregating around the corner of Court and Cutter Streets in the West End, attacked Eugene Sturgeon, a Cincinnati Water Works employee, one February night in 1886. Sturgeon, on his way home from work, recognized the gang and tried to run away, but was felled by a tossed brick. Thinking they had killed their victim, the gang scattered, but Sturgeon recovered enough to make his way home.
The Commercial Tribune [5 September 1881] reported a tussle between Officer James Dunn and four members of a bucket gang who had commandeered a canal boat tied up between Vine and race streets as their headquarters. As Officer Dunn attempted to arrest the ringleader, a fellow named Pete Nolan, the other three jumped him and, despite their various degrees of inebriation, were getting the best of him. Dunn drew his revolver and fired one shot, striking a conscientious citizen who was rushing to his aid. Dunn maintained his grip on Nolan and managed to deliver him to Central Station. The injured civilian was treated at the city hospital.