How Cincinnati’s Marriage Picnic Connects to the 1884 Courthouse Riot

Part 2 of the story of maybe the worst idea ever floated by a Cincinnati Mayor.

In last week’s installment, we learned about three couples joined in matrimony during the 1879 Marriage Picnic at Inwood Park. Each of the three brides engaged in some form of prostitution. Here is the rest of the story, including the connection to Cincinnati’s infamous 1884 Courthouse Riot.

William McHugh was hanged at the Hamilton County Jail on May 2, 1884, among the last public executions in Cincinnati.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

During the Marriage Picnic, Louisa Drier married Augustus Meier, a wienerwurst vendor. According to The Cincinnati Gazette [July 29, 1881]:

“Louisa was not at all particular as to whether Augustus or some other fellow shared her bed.”

Among the customers Louisa entertained while Gus sold hot dogs was the butcher who made the sausages he peddled. One day, Louisa got really sick and Gus appealed for help to the National Association for the Promotion of Marriage—sponsors of the Marriage Picnic—and was told the association had gone bankrupt. Louisa died at the City Hospital of a massive hemorrhage and was buried in Potter’s Field. Gus left town.

Elizabeth Puthoff and Frank Noell were also wed at the picnic, but did not set up housekeeping together. Mrs. Noell, under the name Lizzie Mayrose, entertained clients at two Longworth Street brothels, the first run by Mary Lippincott, the second by Jenny Hall. It was alleged that Frank robbed Lizzie’s customers after they fell asleep. By 1881, the ravages of chronic enteritis prevented Lizzie from servicing customers, but Madam Hall kept her on as a charity case. Lizzie died at St. Mary’s Hospital.

The third couple, the McHughs, wrote the Marriage Picnic’s final, tragic chapter. Sophia McHugh had abandoned a rich sugar daddy to take up with the ne’er-do-well “Little Red” McHugh. When he couldn’t provide, Sophia found men who would reward her for sharing her charms.

William McHugh, insane with jealousy, murdered his wife, surrounded by eyewitnesses, at the Sixth Street Market on July 23, 1881. With a newly purchased butcher knife, he stabbed her in plain view of the large Saturday market crowd. The single thrust punctured her heart, and Sophia died almost immediately.

McHugh’s prosecution dragged on for years. Despite a multitude of witnesses, despite abundant evidence of his rage at her continued forays into prostitution and threats of divorce, despite proof of premeditation in his purchase of a new knife just hours before the attack, it took three trials to convict McHugh of murder in the first degree.

The long slog toward justice—McHugh’s first two convictions were overturned on appeal—enraged a city alarmed by rampant crime. According to Steven W. Plattner, writing in Queen City Heritage [Spring 1984]:

“Unfortunately, in 1884 Cincinnati also acquired an international reputation for the failure of its legal system to deal fairly and expeditiously with criminals, particularly those accused of murder.”

On March 9, 1884, The Cincinnati Enquirer devoted its front page to a rogue’s gallery of mugshots under the headline “College of Murder.” According to the newspaper, the city had witnessed 92 murders in the past year and 284 arrests for shooting with intent to kill.

Smack in the middle of this roll of infamy was William McHugh, whose third appeal was even then working its way through the Ohio courts. He was one of the poster children for a damaged, politically corrupt justice system where jurors, witnesses, and judges all gobbled patronage payments while the populace thirsted for vengeance. The Enquirer story summarized the dangerously flammable tinder accumulating in Cincinnati.

The spark that exploded an inferno was the robbery and murder of a West End stable owner by two teenaged employees. When one of the murderers was found guilty of manslaughter instead of premeditated murder, Cincinnati erupted.

An angry but mostly peaceful meeting at Music Hall transformed into a mob marching toward the Courthouse, intent on hanging the boy or, failing that, stringing up the two dozen murderers awaiting trial in the county jail—including William McHugh. For two days, Cincinnati burned and gunshots rang through the city. So fierce was the fighting that a regiment of soldiers, deputized from Dayton, arrived in town, took one look at the melee in the Courthouse Square, and caught the next train home.

The final toll is inconceivable to modern Cincinnatians. At least 56 men and boys were killed, more than 300 seriously wounded, and hundreds more suffered injuries of lesser degree. The interior of the regal 1851 Courthouse lay in ruins, while the stone façade remained an empty shell.

On May 2, 1884, his appeals exhausted, William McHugh was hanged, according to The Commercial Tribune:

“… in full view of the Court-house ruins, from which, Phoenix-like, Justice re-asserted her sway.”

The hanging was a botched job. The drop failed to break McHugh’s neck, and he hung at the end of his rope for 16 minutes while Dr. Samuel W. Craig, his ear against the condemned man’s chest, listened to the ultimately fading heartbeat.

The Cincinnati Gazette [July 29, 1881] reported a jailhouse interview with McHugh in which the reporter asked what happened to Sophia McHugh’s wedding ring, among the benefits of the Marriage Picnic.

“She sold it,” said McHugh, looking down at the floor of his cell. “How much did she get for it?” continued the reporter. “Fifty cents,” said McHugh. “It was only worth about sixty-eight cents, though, when it was new. It was only a snide affair, not even good plate.”

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