Cincinnati’s Ill-Fated 1879 Marriage Picnic

That time 5,000 paying spectators converged on Inwood Park to drink beer and watch prostitutes get married.

Maybe the worst idea ever floated in Cincinnati was the National Association for the Promotion of Marriage. It was the brainchild of a short-term Cincinnati mayor whose good intentions went tragically awry.

Digitized by Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Colonel Robert M. Moore served a brief two-year term as mayor in the late 1870s, and although he himself retained an honorable reputation, his cronies were accused of various financial irregularities. Moore wasn’t enthusiastic about the duties of office and devoted most of his official hours to charitable work, particularly the Newsboys Union, organized to assist the ragamuffins engaged in distributing the city’s daily newspapers.

Moore also fancied himself an expert on love, or at least on the benefits of marriage. He was married to one of the daughters of Reece Price—for whom Price Hill is named—and believed everyone should be married. He was astounded at the number of impoverished young women who told him they couldn’t afford to get married, so he created a charity known as the National Association for the Promotion of Marriage to help these poor young ladies.

At least that’s what he claimed. The Cincinnati Gazette [July 29, 1881] claimed that naïve Mayor Moore was swindled into creating this charity by his clerk, William DeBeck, who was either financially clumsy or criminally avaricious. According to The Gazette:

“DeBeck was a man of fertile brain, and bethought him of a scheme to replenish the exhausted exchequer of his master. Having learned from P.T. Barnum that the world loved to be humbugged, this slow but wily accountant organized a grand national circus for the promotion of marriage, which for prudential reasons was called a society.”

The National Association for the Promotion of Marriage proposed a massive “marriage picnic” to be held Sunday, August 10, 1879 at Inwood Park near the top of Vine Street Hill and the University of Cincinnati. Admission was 25 cents, and every couple who agreed to be married was to receive a gold wedding band, $25, and a load of free furniture. All fees—for the preacher, marriage license, etc.—would be waived. Approximately 5,000 people showed up mostly to enjoy the beer, buffet dinner, and dancing. The crowd was lively, according to The Enquirer [August 11, 1879]:

“The dancing was a combination of all sorts. Fully one-third of the couples were pairs of ladies. And how they danced! Mistakes, that is where the fun came in. Awkwardness, well there were funny cases of that, too. … The frequent rattle of the beer wagon along the road indicated that, though the drinking did not seem conspicuous, the consumption of the beverage was lively.”

Only three couples volunteered to be married. They were Augustus H. Meier and Louise Drier, Frank Noell and Elizabeth Puthoff, and William McHugh and Sophia Zurwelle (or Sorellia, according to different accounts). All three women were working prostitutes.

Image from the Cincinnati Post and extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

It was rumored that Meier and Drier had already been married for several years and agreed to participate in the marriage picnic ceremony just to get the cash, ring, and furniture. It is known that they’d applied for a marriage license in Cincinnati a week before the picnic. Meier sold weinerwurst from a can. He did not sell many. While he wandered the city’s beer halls with his can of hot dogs and basket of bread, Drier entertained men at their home.

Noell and Puthoff were associated with several brothels along notorious Longworth Street. They engaged in the “panel game,” in which she lured men into her chamber and exhausted them with sex, and then he stepped out from behind the wainscoting and robbed them. Again, there were rumors that they were already married. It is known that they had at least one child.

The case of McHugh and Zurwelle was quite different and utterly tragic. She was among the highest echelons of Cincinnati prostitutes. A man named John Froymer paid all of her living expenses, rent for an apartment on Elm Street, and fees for “services rendered.” She went by the name Belle Walker and may have been married at one time to a man with that surname.

Shortly before the marriage picnic, Zurwelle took a shine to young William McHugh. It’s unknown what she might have found attractive, as he was a common laborer who didn’t labor very much. He was in and out of the Workhouse for minor offenses and spent some time in the Columbus Penitentiary for more serious offenses. He had red hair. Although he was tall, he was known as “Little Red” to distinguish him from his older brother, John, who was known as “Big Red.” According to The Enquirer [May 2, 1884]:

“Through some strange cause, she took a violent fancy to McHugh, and proposed leaving her present paramour and going to live with him. He was quite young and at first hesitated to accept the responsibility, but finally yielded to her wishes, and they went to housekeeping on McFarland Street.”

Zurwelle was described as a “quite handsome woman,” as tall as McHugh and “decidedly blonde.” Newspapers describe her as heftier than her husband, but that additional weight was delightfully arranged. Their volatile relationship began when she gave him a venereal disease.

Reports of the triple marriage at the National Association for the Promotion of Marriage picnic describe all three husbands as inebriated. McHugh, in fact, wandered out of Inwood Park and was a fair distance down Vine Street before one of the functionaries hauled him back to say, “I do.”

A couple of the grooms claimed they thought they were participating in sham weddings, but the ceremonies were bona fide. McHugh did not have this excuse. He and Zurwelle were Catholic, and the civil ceremony performed by Justice of the Peace B.M. Wright wasn’t acceptable to their church, so they got the blessing of a priest a few days later.

None of these marriages ended happily, as we shall read in next week’s installment.

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