Penny Slots Sparked A War Between Hartwell And Cincinnati’s Saloons

How did the former independent village of Hartwell end up leading the charge against the Cincinnati political machine of Boss Cox?
A policeman arrests a tearful penny slot machine in this 1905 cartoon from the Cincinnati Post.

Image Courtesy The Cincinnati Post, March 15, 1905 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

How did the former independent village of Hartwell end up leading the charge against the Cincinnati political machine of Boss Cox? Hartwell’s involvement was all about booze.

In the long campaign to outlaw alcohol, the forces of Prohibition employed a variety of tactics to nibble away at the Empire of Demon Rum before the Eighteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1919. Among the weirdest schemes attempted in Hamilton County led to a war between Hartwell and Cincinnati’s saloons.

In 1905, public opinion was still very much opposed to Prohibition, at least in the cities. Rural counties, especially in Ohio, had already voted themselves dry. The “dry” element in urban areas took aim at easy targets, such as saloons that stayed open after midnight, served liquor on Sunday, or promoted gambling.

Usually church-based, the dry organizations included the Ministerial Alliance, the Citizens League, and others. Their modus operandi was to send spies into targeted saloons, observe post-midnight or Sabbath-day drinking or back-room gambling, then swear out warrants. They found an ally in Hartwell Mayor James A. Lowes.

Although there were at least four saloons inside the Hartwell village limits, Hartwell was considered a dry town and Mayor Lowes wanted to keep it that way. The saloons inside Hartwell and those in neighboring Carthage, St. Bernard, and Springfield Township irritated him and so the Ministerial Alliance organized reconnaissance. It didn’t go well, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer [February 10, 1905]:

The attempts of the Ministerial Alliance to close the roadhouses along the Springfield pike almost culminated in a riot yesterday, and four alleged agents of the alliance left the vicinity of Hartwell pursued by an angry mob that threatened to give them a bath in Millcreek. The men were badly beaten up and left a trail of blood in the snow near White Hall as they fled from the place.

Despite the setback, Mayor Lowes issued warrants for the arrest of four Springfield Pike saloonists—Charles Martindill, Oliver P. Naylor, Harry Schulte, and John Wagner. Lowes fined Naylor and Schulte $75 and costs for being open on Sunday; Wagner and Martindill got $50 for hosting games of chance.

Emboldened by this success, Mayor Lowes decided to go after bigger game in the big city. On the invitation of a “Citizen’s Anti-Gambling Committee” financed by the ironically named James N. Gamble, president of Procter & Gamble, Lowes went looking for a Cincinnati saloon to bust. The target would be penny slot-machines. These so-called “silent salesmen” boosted saloon business because they paid out in tokens—not cash—that could be used only for drinks and cigars in the saloon itself. It was estimated that Cincinnati saloons employed some 6,000 to 10,000 of these machines.

How common were penny slots in Cincinnati? Around 1900 a popular vaudeville act had two comedians piloting a balloon around a fog-shrouded stage. One asks if the other can see where they are. “No,” the other replies. “I can’t see a thing, but we must be flying over Cincinnati because I can hear all the penny slot machines.”

Gamble’s committee recruited the Hartwell mayor because no other magistrate would act against saloons and gambling joints and risk the wrath of Boss Cox’s machine. In 1904, Gamble’s team compiled an air-tight case proving that Cincinnati City Councilman Joseph Schweninger ran a gambling joint at 1714 Vine Street. They showed the affidavit to J.B. Matson, Justice of the Peace for Delhi Township. Squire Matson refused to issue a warrant for Schweninger’s arrest. According to the Cincinnati Post [December 17, 1904], Matson was afraid of reprisal:

[Cox’s minions] have the police court, they have the criminal courts, and they will soon have the Insolvency Court. I am an attorney and expect to practice law here, so I cannot afford to incur their enmity.

Hartwell’s Mayor James A. Lowes had no such qualms. The wealthy vice president of the John H. Hibben Dry Goods Company, Lowes had to answer only to his constituents for a position that paid no more than a few dollars a year.

When Gamble’s committee came knocking with a case against Meyer Silverglade’s Hub Café on Fountain Square, Mayor Lowes was all in. Silverglade, the committee claimed, had several penny slot-machines in his saloon. Lowes issued the warrant, had Silverglade arrested, and fined him $50. According to the Cincinnati Post [March 11, 1905]:

The Mayor of a village such as Hartwell has the power of a Justice of the Peace throughout the county, hence his authority to dispose of the slot-machine cases.

All of the saloonists paid their fines under protest and appealed their convictions. It took almost a year, but Judge Frederick Spiegel of the Common Pleas Court, upheld Mayor Lowes’ authority in a ruling on February 17, 1906.

It appears Silverglade, at least, could afford the fine. He sold his saloons and bought the Crown Brewing Company. After Prohibition shuttered that business, he retired to Florida where, on his death, he left an estate valued at more than $500,000.

The Hartwell ambush lit a fire under the Cincinnati city administration. Mayor Julius Fleischmann, who may have already decided not to run for a third term, gave the word of Police Chief Paul Milliken: “Chief, the slot machines are doomed. All slot machines, of all kinds, must be out of all stores of all characters by April 1.”

The raid did not satisfy everyone. Hartwell Village Council met to rein in their mayor, contending that he left the village open to criminal activity while sending police officers out of town on gambling raids. One Cincinnati City Councilman orated against Fleischmann’s order in favor of an “open” town.

Cincinnati annexed Hartwell in 1912. It turns out Hartwell’s citizens were more interested in the cheaper streetcar fares they would pay as a Cincinnati neighborhood than in keeping their village alcohol-free as an independent municipality.

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