Cincinnatians love to tell stories about their favorite town and some of the oddest and least expected are actually true. Here is a passel of true—or at least well documented—stories that rarely make the standard lists of Cincinnati trivia.
Cradle Of Spades
As the longtime home of the United States Playing Card Company, it is hardly surprising to learn that popular card games were invented right here in Cincinnati. Uno, for example, was created by a Reading, Ohio barber named Merle Robbins in 1971. At least one card game historian, George Coffin, believes that the game of Spades was invented in Cincinnati sometime between 1937 and 1939. Coffin was an authority on Bridge and its variations. Spades, sometimes known as Call Bridge, was apparently adapted by college students as a simplified version of Contract Bridge.
A Church With A Perpetual Policy
The Cincinnati Equitable Life Insurance Company, founded in 1826, remains in business as it approaches its bicentennial. In 1837, the company issued what became the city’s oldest insurance policy when Wesley Chapel purchased it. By the 20th century, the premiums were fully covered by the dividends generated by the policy. Wesley Chapel conducted funeral services for William Henry Harrison in 1841 and hosted John Quincy Adams in 1843 when he came to town to dedicate the Cincinnati Observatory. The original chapel was razed in 1972 and moved—along with the perpetual policy—to an Over-the-Rhine location.
New York Who?
From 1885 until 1995, Cincinnati had its very own stock exchange. Based on the second floor of the Dixie Terminal building for much of that century, the Cincinnati Stock Exchange boasted the most active trading floor between Chicago and the East Coast. An early adopter of digital technology, the local exchange moved first to Chicago and later to New Jersey where today, affiliated with the New York Stock Exchange, it does business as NYSE National.
St. Christopher’s Drive-In
In 1928, Father William P. O’Connor created the first drive-through shrine to honor Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers, at St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church, 4030 River Rd. The shrine featured a life-size marble statue of the saint with staff in hand and with the Christ Child on his shoulder. The Cincinnati Enquirer [2 July 1928] reported: “As the first shrine for automobilists to be erected in America, it has attracted nation-wide attention and has received notice in European papers.” In 1971, Father O’Connor’s successor, Father William Sicking, was struck and injured by a passing car in front of the shrine. The St. Christopher statue has since been replaced by a statue of St. Vincent De Paul.
Tricky Dick Rescues Putz’s
The plans for I-74 were well along when the proposed route came to the attention of Lillian Ehrhardt, one of the third generation to operate Putz’s Creamy Whip at the bottom of the Montana Avenue hill. Mrs. Ehrhardt realized the new highway would run just three feet from the back door of her business. She fired off a letter to President Richard Nixon on September 9, 1971, explaining that the highway would eliminate the picnic grove behind the store and also remove the driveway needed to make deliveries. She soon got word that the fence line would be moved back another nine feet along with a couple of visits from state transportation officials who wanted to meet someone who had the clout to reroute an interstate highway.
There was no question that the bull elephant starring in John Robinson’s circus was one cantankerous beast. Named Chief, he had killed at least two men, one of them being his trainer. He occasionally broke out of winter quarters in the West End and rampaged through the streets. He had a habit of tossing any dog that got within trunk range. Robinson had enough and sent Chief to the Cincinnati Zoo where his temper abated not a whit. The Zoo, worried Chief might harm a valuable animal, put out a call for local sharpshooters. Chief was executed by firing squad on December 10, 1890. Later that week, elephant steak was on the menu at the Palace Hotel.
There is definitely a tunnel under Roll Hill. Supporting a large apartment complex today, that hill, wedged between South Cumminsville, Fairmount and East Westwood was once a barrier to the Cincinnati & Western Railroad. Old plat maps clearly show the tunnel’s east entrance near Faraday Road. Contractors building I-74 in the early 1970s found the remains of the western entrance. Whether the tunnel goes all the way through the hill is a matter of debate, as are the numerous reports of people who swear they have seen a locomotive with a copper boiler and brass bell, apparently buried when the railroad project was abandoned during the Civil War.
Source of Scripture
Cincinnati plays a significant role in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints, or Mormons. Significantly, the third edition of the Book of Mormon was printed by the firm of Shepard & Stearns on Third Street in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati edition remains an important influence in the Latter-day Saints church and was critical to the most recent (1981) edition of the Book of Mormon. The 1840 Cincinnati edition was the final edition of the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith would personally revise and it used the original Book of Mormon manuscript instead of the printer’s manuscript, which had been used for the first and second editions.
Origins Of Ecdysiasm
There is a fair amount of controversy about the origins of that classic burlesque entertainment known as the striptease. More than one source points to Heuck’s Opera House at the corner of Thirteenth and Vine Streets in Cincinnati as the birthplace of this erotic spectacle, and the birthday sometime in November 1901. Brought to town by Manager James Fennessy to perform the pseudo-Oriental “cooch” dance at Heuck’s, Millie De Leon, known as “The Girl In Blue” discarded her elaborate costume at an after-hours show that shocked the city, but launched her career. She was extolled as “the first real queen of American Burlesque” and “burlesque’s first truly national sex symbol” by Robert C. Toll in his book, “On with the Show: The First Century of Show Business in America.”
The Paris of America
Among Cincinnati’s biggest boosters lately has been Emilio Estevez. He has received a bit of ribbing because of recent statements in which he referred to Cincinnati as “The Paris of the Midwest.” Those folks chortling at Estevez’s apparent hyperbole are probably unaware that Cincinnati was commonly nicknamed the Paris of America, especially between 1880 and 1910. Eastern residents, especially, were impressed by the construction of Music Hall, the birth of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the success of the May Festival, and the renown of some of the city’s artists and writers.
Pigs As A Public Service
Well up to the Civil War, Cincinnati had no system for garbage removal. The pigs that made Porkopolis famous took care of everything. Well, almost everything. Well into the 20th century, municipalities made a distinction between “ashes” meaning inorganic waste and “garbage” meaning organic matter like food scraps. In Cincinnati, ashes got dumped anywhere you could find a hole or a gully and pigs roaming the streets gobbled up anything remotely edible. By the 1870s, pigs arrived in box cars and a street-cleaning substitute had to be found.
Who Owns The Streets?
Before 1917, there was no such thing as jaywalking in Cincinnati. Photographs and engravings dated before that year show a vibrant life going on in the middle of the street. People crossed the street in any direction and people stood in the middle of the street to have a conversation. Horses and horse-drawn vehicles just threaded among the pedestrians. Crosswalks existed, but only as raised areas to keep pedestrians’ feet out of the mud and horse poop. The automobile, even operating at a top speed of 10 miles per hour, caused so many injuries that manufacturers adopted a blame-the-victim approach and insisted it was pedestrians who were at fault. Cincinnati succumbed to pressure and instituted fines on May 21, 1917 for anyone who crossed a street outside the crosswalk.
Homegrown Secret Society
During the late 1800s and well into the 20th century, Cincinnatians belonged to dozens of secret societies—everything from the various Masonic associations to the Odd Fellows to more obscure groups like the Heptasophs or the Harugari—all organized elsewhere. In 1901, a group of Cincinnatians announced the formation of a brand-new secret society, the Itan-nic-nic. Composed of leading businessmen, this organization for some years helped organize the annual Fall Festival, a predecessor to today’s Oktoberfest.
Slow To Get Gas
While Cincinnati may never delay the end of the world, the city sure took its time adopting electricity and natural gas. The old Cincinnati gasworks made money coming and going. They bought up tons of coal and heated it to create a vapor called “town gas” while turning the coal into coke. The company sold the town gas to light streets and homes and sold the coke for more than they paid for coal. No wonder the Gas, Light & Coke Company kept clean-burning natural gas out of Cincinnati until 1909 and kept Cincinnati from creating a city-wide electrical system until 1904.
Baseball On Ice
In 1868, the year before they went pro and dominated every opponent over a lossless season, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, known then only as the “Cincinnati Club,” played a game of baseball on ice. It was February 4, 1868 and the Union Grounds had been flooded for use as a skating rink. The “famous Cincinnati Club” took the field, or rink, against a “picked nine” selected from the Live Oak and Buckeye baseball clubs. The picked nine slaughtered the nascent Red Stockings 31 to 7 over just three chilly innings.