Cincinnati’s Conscience and the Last Cox Machine Judge

Alfred Segal and Dennis Ryan were the city’s public odd couple for 50 years.

The Cincinnati Post sprung a surprise party for Alfred Segal in 1954. Segal, who wrote a daily column under the pen name “Cincinnatus,” marked 50 years in the employ of the city’s afternoon newspaper. The newsroom chipped in and bought him a wristwatch engraved “To Al, the conscience of Cincinnati.”

Cincinnati Post Columnist Alfred “Cincinnatus” Segal

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Judge Dennis J. Ryan

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

It is unlikely that Judge Dennis J. Ryan would have applauded the sentiment, but he surely would have understood. On multiple occasions over two decades, Segal used his column to comment on Ryan’s rulings, sometimes approvingly, more often critically.

Segal and Ryan made quite the odd couple. Ryan was born in 1881, Segal in 1883, and they both began their professional lives in 1904. Ryan lived in Westwood, and Segal was an east-sider. Ryan was Catholic, Segal Jewish. Ryan had a reputation for strict sentencing, especially for what he called the “gun-toting type,” repeat offenders, and reckless drivers. Segal, following years of attacks on the political machine of Boss Cox, devoted the next half-century to preaching tolerance and compassion.

Ryan first landed in Segal’s sights in 1925. Ryan was a rookie judge, one of the final few candidates nominated by the crumbling political machine of Boss Cox. Segal, after decades of investigative reporting, rejoiced as Cincinnati adopted the Charter form of government. When Ryan offered a young scofflaw a chance to turn his life around, Segal [July 27, 1925] approved:

“If Cincinnatus were a judge he would rather be one who could say, ‘During my term of office I saved a number of men from prison and gave them fresh starts,’ rather than one who boasts, ‘During my term I sent large numbers of men to prison.’”

Cincinnatus took a harsher tone in 1930, when a woman faced Judge Ryan with forgery charges. Ryan gave her five to 20 years in prison, and she snapped, “And they call you square!” The judge added two years to the sentence. Segal [November 17, 1930] was outraged:

“Are two extra years in prison a just punishment for offending a judge? One can commit manslaughter and get no more than that. Therefore, Cincinnatus moves that you relent from your stern judgment and punish this woman no more than she deserves and only for the crime for which she was convicted.”

Judge Ryan did just that, subtracting the additional sentence. His change of mind earned praise in print from Segal. A few weeks later, Segal again praised Ryan when the judge declined to send an accomplice in a payroll robbery to prison because of the torment it would cause the man’s wife and five children.

Motorists charged with traffic violations dreaded having their cases assigned to Ryan, who took a hard line on such activity. On February 7, 1938, Judge Ryan sent a man to prison for killing one man and injuring three others in a Reading Road accident. Segal approved, sort of:

“If this is to be the fate of killers on the roads hereafter, I ought to be more careful, says Cincinnatus. … Yet Cincinnatus (were he a careless or drunken driver) might find some comfort in this case. This driver who was convicted by a jury was a Negro. Perhaps juries might be more considerate of me, who is of the white race? Should there be the same justice for me who is white as for him who is black?”

Segal brought out the hammer again on February 17, 1939. It seems a German immigrant, a naturalized citizen, failed to appear in answer to a summons and was arrested. He was hauled before Judge Ryan, who scolded, “You ought to be sent back. You are not fit to be a citizen!” That got Segal’s typewriter steaming:

“Tut, tut, your honor! Let’s not start this! If it gets to be the practice to send back immigrants who don’t respect the government in all departments, what will become of the country? (For in a way of speaking, we are all immigrants and the only difference between one immigrant and another is that his father came over on an earlier ship.)”

Ryan drifted back into Segal’s good graces in 1940, when he declined to send an elderly couple, accused of cheating the welfare system of $15 a week, to prison and instead mandated probation.

But when a 20-year-old woman was convicted of manslaughter in 1942, Judge Ryan sentenced her to one to 20 years in prison. The woman had married at 15. Her husband was away in the army, and she got pregnant through an affair. She gave birth to a baby she believed was stillborn and placed it in an ashcan. The baby was found alive but died soon after. Segal objected to the prison sentence in a series of Cincinnatus columns, noting that the Salvation Army had stepped up to oversee her probation. Segal [June 13, 1942] raged:

“The Salvation Army which, like the judge, hates the sin also regards the sinner. It can’t always despise the sinner. What circumstances made her the sinner? What abject poverty? What despair? And who is there without sin? The Salvation Army takes these things into account and gives compassionate judgment.”

Judge Ryan got a nice bit of publicity on January 24, 1946 (not from Segal) when The Post ran a cute story about his innovative judicial wisdom. A young couple had filed for divorce and appeared in Ryan’s chambers. Instead of dissolving their marriage, the judge ordered the couple to go to the movies, specifically to take in Bing Crosby’s current hit, The Bells of St. Mary’s. According to the paper, as Der Bingle crooned “In the Land of Beginning Again,” the pair clasped hands, forgave each other, and agreed to drop their request for a divorce.

Cincinnatus would have none of it. The next day he opined that another factor was more influential than Bing Crosby or Judge Ryan: the welfare of a 2-year-old daughter.

“It sounded romantic enough as reported in The Post yesterday … Cincinnatus hopes that when Bing Crosby’s song wears off, as it must, they will remember the more rational cause that brought them together—that small girl.”

Alfred Segal was notably silent when Judge Dennis J. Ryan died in 1954, with nary a word of memoriam. Within months, however, Westwood proposed that the City of Cincinnati rename Westwood Commons in his memory. And so it was that Ryan Playground carries the name of a judge who endured the intense scrutiny of Cincinnati’s conscience throughout his judicial career.

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