Cincinnati’s Law & Order League Fulminated Against Pornographic Pollution

The city’s obsession with dirty pictures goes back to the 19th century when morality groups railed against obscene pictures decorating local saloons.
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The Night Owls promised “three distinct changes before the audience,” suggesting a proto-striptease as the showgirls shed glamorous garments for increasingly revealing attire.

From Cincinnati Commercial Gazette 10 April 1887 Images extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Cincinnati’s obsession with dirty pictures goes way back, long before Robert Mapplethorpe sent the Queen City into a tizzy with his “Perfect Moment” exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1990.

As early as 1854, The Ohio Organ Of The Temperance Reform, published in Cincinnati, railed against the obscene pictures decorating the city’s saloons. The newspaper had an idea where those naughty paintings originated:

“The fashionable saloon keepers who ride in their fine carriages, occupy prominent seats in high places, and control the elections of our officers, are confederates with prostitutes, and it is not unlikely that the obscene pictures which cover their walls are furnished by the proprietors of houses of infamy.”

In 1864, while the Civil War raged, William Walker, who kept a small bookstore on Third Street was hauled in on charges he sold obscene pictures to young boys for 30 cents apiece—a tidy sum in those days. According to a reporter for the Daily Commercial [14 July 1864], who was obviously a connoisseur:

“A large number of the pictures were seized—several thousand in all. The most of them are photographs—some colored—and in their variety they represent as vulgar a collection probably, as were ever seen.”

When a Cincinnati scam artist, Dr. William Raphael, who conducted his work under the guise of fortune-telling, was arrested in 1876, one of the charges brought against him involved his library of erotica. According to the Enquirer [30 April 1876]:

“Among the number was a volume of obscene pictures of men and women naked in conditions too horrible to describe.”

It was not only criminals and fly-by-night conmen who dealt in salacious images. Meyer Silverglade, proprietor of The Hub, one of the premier saloons in town, was dinged in 1901 on a charge of exhibiting obscene pictures at his elite establishment.

A fair number of Cincinnati’s saloons reserved a small back room as a gallery to display photographs and paintings of “the kind men like,” as they once described such images. William Miller, keeper of a saloon at Second and Ludlow streets in the East End, was arrested for just this reason and readers of the Cincinnati Post [11 April 1892] could almost hear the reporter smacking his lips as he described the inventory:

“In the rear of his bar he has a little room partitioned off where to gratify his depraved mind and the vile tastes of a particular few of his patrons, he has arranged a large number of obscene pictures so suggestive and disgusting as to call for police interference.”

Some of the photographs in question were imported. Pictures from Paris always carried a risqué cachet. But some were homegrown. George Morrison and Frank Jennings appeared in police court in 1890 to answer charges they enticed young women from the West End— location of Cincinnati’s red-light district at the time—to pose for obscene photographs. Although the evidence was “too filthy” to be heard in court, both men were fined.

A young woman in stage costume, from Cincinnati Commercial Gazette April 1887

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Because newspapers were too timid to publish testimony that was “too filthy” to be heard in court, or to print images of a “suggestive and disgusting” nature, we might wonder just what all the fuss was about. Or, we might have been left wondering had not the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, in the issues for 13 April and 14 April, 1887, published illustrations that were condemned by a Cincinnati watchdog group.

The Law and Order League was dedicated to removing all sorts of immoral activity from Cincinnati. They opposed gambling, prostitution, anything enjoyable (theater, music, baseball, saloons) on Sunday and, of course, pornography. The League published a resolution in the Cincinnati Post [18 April 1887] blasting the Commercial Gazette for publishing the two images reproduced here:

“Resolved: That we solemnly protest against the violation of the law by the publishing and circulating of such obscene and indecent pictures as appeared in the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette of April 13 and 14 in connection with the advertisement of the ‘People’s Theater,’ and we hereby call upon the Mayor and Chief of Police to prevent such exhibitions as are advertised by them.”

A young woman in stage costume, from Cincinnati Commercial Gazette April 1887

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The mayor and police chief did nothing of the sort and the reviews for the People’s Theater production were generally favorable and often enthusiastic. The troupe in residence was the Night Owls, who boasted eight handsome women and three costume changes “made before the audience, a novelty only to be seen in the Night Owls.” In addition to the leggy women, the Night Owls featured a “funny Dutchman” (German comic), a couple of French duetists warbling tunes from the latest operas and a gymnast or two. Rave reviews appeared for several weeks with no evidence of police or other interference.

Still, filthy pictures were not universally condoned in Cincinnati, despite being promoted as “the kind men like.” A dispute about the propriety of indecent images in a saloon erupted into fisticuffs in the wee hours of November 22, 1898. Frank Eagan and Harry Talbing had spent the evening pouring suds down their throats at an East End watering hole. In his cups, Talbing insisted on displaying one of his French postcards. Eagan took offense and demanded that Talbing return the offensive photo to his pocket. Talbing demurred and Eagan smacked him upside the head. The battle escalated and the pair found themselves in front of Police Court Judge Edward Schwab. Even though Eagan initiated the tussle by striking first, it was Talbing who went to the Workhouse for 30 days, based on his taste in art.

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