Cincinnati’s Violent Yet Forgotten Past

The “good old days” weren’t always so good, according to 100-year-old crime statistics.

In September 1916, the State of Ohio issued a report on violent crime throughout the state. During the first nine months of that year, Ohio had recorded 277 murders. Although 47 mostly rural counties reported no murders at all that year, the rest of Ohio’s 88 counties logged bloody tallies that would surprise today’s citizens.

The deaths of Detective Albert Wegener and Officer George Le Poris on a single day symbolized the free-fire zone Cincinnati had become in the early 1900s.

Cincinnati Post (1917), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The state’s most populous counties, Cuyahoga and Hamilton, were responsible for 100 of those murders. In 1916, Cuyahoga was Ohio’s most populous county, home to Cleveland’s 800,000 residents. No surprise, then, that Cuyahoga led the list with 51 murders.

Hamilton County’s tally ranked second, but it was a very close second. In a year when Cincinnati counted 400,000 residents—half that of Cleveland—Hamilton County recorded 49 murders, almost equal to Cuyahoga’s record. By year’s end, Hamilton County Coroner Arthur C. Bauer tallied 69 murders. The next year was even worse, with 75 murders committed in 1917.

Compare those statistics, 100 years later, to the homicide data compiled by Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco. In 2016, she recorded 90 homicides in all of Hamilton County. In 2017, she recorded 107. While that appears to be a substantial increase, it must be remembered that Hamilton County’s total population in 1917 was below 500,000, while in 2017 it was more than 800,000.

To mathify that comparison, the Hamilton County murder rate in 1917 was around 15 per 100,000, while the 2017 murder rate was approximately 13 per 100,000. While not a huge drop from a century ago, it’s still a decline.

Cincinnati’s violent past is reflected in the number of police officers murdered while on duty. The Greater Cincinnati Police Museum maintains a thorough record of fallen officers. Since 2000, the museum counts six officers murdered while on duty, two by gunfire and four by perpetrators operating a motor vehicle. The museum maintains records for the entire metropolitan area so, of those six murdered officers over the most recent 22-year period, just two were from the Cincinnati Police Department. Compare that to the five year period from 1913 to 1918, in which nine Cincinnati Police officers were shot to death, including Detective Albert Wegener and Officer George Le Poris.

It was a dark day for the Cincinnati Police Department on November 12, 1917. Detective Wegener, tipped that someone was trying to pawn stolen watches at Walton Levi’s shop on Central Avenue, responded and confronted the suspect. A struggle ensued, and the suspect pulled a revolver from his coat and shot Wegener just above his heart. The suspect escaped, prompting a citywide manhunt.

When word got around that Wegener had died from his injuries, every available police officer joined in the search, including off-duty motorcycle officer George Le Poris. Dressed in streetwear, Le Poris charged into a building in which the suspect was said to be hiding. Finding nothing, he emerged as other police arrived. One pointed at Le Poris and shouted, “There he is!” The other police opened fire, killing him.

Just as today, citizens railed against the prevalence of criminal activity and violence in the city. Pastor George R. Robbins of the Lincoln Park Institutional Baptist Church thundered against the local crime wave, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer [February 28, 1910]:

“Honestly, let us confess there is a carnival of crime in Cincinnati. The numerous crimes, the gilt-edged corruption calls forth protest from many quarters, and is arousing pulpit, press and the better class of people.”

The 1920 robbery of Dow’s Drugs in brightly lit and crowded downtown Cincinnati unnerved the citizens and led to calls for action.

Cincinnati Post (1920), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The brazen robbery of a brightly illuminated Dow Drug Store shocked a city that associated crime with nighttime assaults in poorly-lit alleys. According to The Cincinnati Post [December 3, 1920]:

“Banditry has moved into the heart of the downtown district. Hitherto during the present crime wave bandits have been content to commit their more daring crimes in the dark places of the city. Uninterrupted success seemingly has inspired ambition for triumphs in the business center.”

One newspaper put the blame on professional gamblers, welcomed into a “wide open” city by Boss Cox and his minions, who turned a blind eye so long as bribes kept the casino doors open. At least one Cincinnati city councilman tried to restrict gun sales, but his motion was defeated. A local businessman recommended that Cincinnati employ police dogs like the cities he saw in Europe. And, it must be noted, the newspapers published letters blaming the recent influx of African Americans into the city.

It’s evident that fear of crime helped inspire the votes in favor of the 18th Amendment ushering in Prohibition. There was a firm belief, dashed by the blood-soaked realities of the Roaring Twenties, that booze was the root of all evil and abstinence would make criminal courts obsolete.

Almost 50 years ago, a chap named Otto Bettmann published a book titled, The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible, bursting the gilded memories of folks who swore life was better and the world was brighter when they were wee tams. Bettmann was roundly ignored, of course.

Cincinnatians are no different. We look back at our old black and white photographs and see our strait-laced ancestors smiling through their honest and hard-working labors, surrounded by neighbors so friendly and trustworthy that no one bothered to lock their doors. But it’s all a fantasy.

Crime of all sorts has always been common in Cincinnati, and so have complaints about crime. An argument might even be made that crime is less common today than it was in the “good old days” of the Queen City.

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