On Today’s Episode Of Cincinnati’s Most Wanted: The Notorious Nuttle Gang

Travelers east of town shuddered at the thought of this nasty group of brigands descending upon them—but the Nuttle Gang’s grip on Cincinnati did not last.

Few motorists rumbling through the I-71 valley east of town give a thought to the long-lost lair of the notorious Nuttle Gang. For a good portion of the 1880s, however, travelers through that area at the base of Mount Adams lived in fear of the brigands. Alvin F. Harlow, in his “The Serene Cincinnatians,” sums up the legend:

“For several years in the 1880s a band of thugs, the Nuttle gang, harbored in an old railway tunnel, running from Deer Creek under Avondale, which had been years in building and was finally abandoned. A policeman chased one of the ruffians to the mouth of the tunnel one day, but dared not enter it. Not until some of them were caught outside their lair was the band broken up.”

The tunnel in which the Nuttle Gang sheltered from police interference was constructed during a pre-Civil War initiative to run a railroad line from downtown Cincinnati to Dayton. A significant portion of this tunnel was completed, from approximately Elsinore Place to just beyond Eden Park Drive. The line was never completed and the whole project forgotten after other railroads found cheaper routes into the city.

The abandoned railroad tunnel adopted as a hideout by the Nuttle Gang is clearly visible in the middle of Deer Creek Valley. The photo dates from about 1880 and looks generally north from the hillside below the Art Museum. That’s Gilbert Avenue in the foreground and Hunt Street, later renamed Reading Road, at the base of the hill beyond the tunnel. The elevated tracks were used by the Toledo, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railroad.

From "Narrow Gauge in Ohio" by John W. Hauck, Pruett Publishing, 1986 The photo dates from around 1880

Abandoned tunnels are almost a cliché among outlaw gangs, but the Deer Creek cavern provided superb security for the local ruffians. It was capacious enough to store oodles of boodle, and any invaders peering into the subterranean darkness would be silhouetted against the bright opening, making easy targets. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [27 July 1932]:

“In this era the most notorious of several group of local rowdies was the Deer Creek bunch, known as the Nuttle Gang. They made Dublin Street, or “Turn Back Avenue,” their hangout, but operated over a considerably wider area. Breweries sending wagon loads of beer to Walnut Hills put on an extra keg or two for the Nuttle Gang, nor did the drivers interfere when they took their toll. Wayfarers suffered at their hands and for several years they terrorized that neighborhood.”

One of the Nuttles—Dan, one of the family who gave the gang its name—complained that people blamed every petty crime or disturbance near Gilbert Avenue on the Nuttle Gang, identifying every bum or petty crook collared in that part of town as a member of the group. It cheapened the prestige of the gang, Dan huffed.

Ironically, for a gang that gained such a sordid reputation, the ringleaders—James “Cock” Nuttle and William “Billy” Nuttle—were sons of a policemen killed in the line of duty. The modus operandi of the Nuttles involved swarming a victim, making identification and apprehension difficult. When the gang beat up a grocer who refused to give them liquor on credit in 1879, police filled most of the cells in the Hammond Street station with James Flannery, John Smith, Patrick “Shad” Nuttle, Dan Nuttle, Tom Haydon, Billy Nuttle, Thomas Nuttle, Pat Frasey and Bridget (Yes, a woman.) Flannery.

The Nuttle Gang levied a toll of a barrel or two of beer from every brewery wagon heading up Gilbert Avenue toward Walnut Hills.

From The Illustrated Police News 14 July 1883 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The next year, according to the Cincinnati Gazette [3 March 1880], one of the Nuttles used the old railroad tunnel to escape from the police. Shad Nuttle and William Burke robbed a butcher on Gilbert Avenue and his cries brought two police officers, whistles blowing, onto the scene. Burke was captured quickly.

“Officer Butler chased Nuttle into the old tunnel at the upper end of Deer Creek, where he hid himself. A watch was placed at the mouth of the tunnel, and Nuttle will be arrested when he concludes to come out. Two of Nuttles brothers were sentenced to the penitentiary Saturday. Another Nuttle is in the Work House.”

The Nuttles’ domain extended so far as to create friction with a West End gang led by Buck Mullaney. After one scrap, Red Morris of the West End boys challenged Billy McGee of the Nuttles to a shotgun duel. Although both gangs showed up south of Covington for the showdown, the challenge devolved into a general free-for-all with numerous injuries. They were a rough bunch. In 1882, Billy Nuttle won a barroom brawl but was later sued by Allen Combs, who lost the tussle. Combs claimed Nuttle caused $2,100 in damages by biting off the end of his nose.

In addition to lawless mayhem, the Nuttles had a legitimate side hustle around election time. The local Democratic Party hired the thugs to maintain order (meaning to chase off any Republican voters) at a couple of East End polling sites. The chaotic and bloody 1884 election inspired a Congressional investigation that highlighted the Nuttles’ strong-arm tactics.

The beginning of the end for the Nuttles came, not from police arrests, but from internal dissension. In 1887, James “Cock” Nuttle was shot and killed by James “Jaydice” Kennedy after an argument about a woman. Even in death, Cock Nuttle caused trouble. As an undertaker’s wagon hauled his body home from Good Samaritan Hospital, the vehicle tumbled down a twenty-foot embankment near some railroad tracks. Nuttle’s coffin shattered and his body was thrown onto the ground. The coroner, called to the scene, ruled that the corpse was intact enough for burial.

In 1894, Billy Nuttle died from pneumonia in the city hospital and his obituary included the dreadful fates of a half-dozen Nuttle Gang members: “Dickety” Quinn succumbed to delirium tremens, “Yap” Skelly shot by the cops, Charley Keegan broke his neck falling from a train, Cocky Smith killed by a rival, George Fay a hunted fugitive, Dan Flannagan jailed in St. Louis.

Once the Nuttles were gone, the Deer Creek Valley was designated as the Hunt Street Dump, Hunt Street being the former name of Reading Road. By the early 1900s, the valley had been completely filled in with tons of garbage and refuse. The retired dump was graded and converted into a playground with six baseball fields. The old railroad tunnel slumbered under the detritus.

In 1951, the city looked into using the buried railroad tunnel as an air-raid shelter, but those plans led nowhere. A decade later, construction for I-71 burrowed through the old tunnel and brought back memories. Si Cornell, in the Cincinnati Post [22 March 1966], revived some of the old tales:

“I-71 construction workers who uncovered the pre-Civil War railway tunnel near Eden Park’s entrance have reported finding old beer bottles (particularly from the Bellevue Brewery) in the rubble. This isn’t particularly surprising. Maybe 80 years ago, when the Deer Creek Commons was an odiferous dump, the ‘Deer Creek Gang’ hung out in the tunnel, through which no train ever ran. Favorite stunt of these notorious loafers was to steal whatever possible from any brewery wagon that ventured anywhere near. This liquid loot was lugged into the tunnel for the gang’s consumption. Wonder is that the construction workers aren’t finding whole kegs, not mere bottles.”

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