Poppycock And Bunkum: Here Are 19 Myths That Cincinnati Refuses To Give Up

Did Mark Twain really say Cincinnati was behind the times? Did Carrie Nation smash any saloons here? Do munchkins live at Mt. Rumpke? Learn the truth behind these and other local myths.

Cincinnati loves a good story, and we certainly have some doozies. Some of our favorite stories about our favorite town are actually true. Some of our dearest and most treasured stories, however, persist despite a complete lack of evidence and not an iota of proof. Among them:

Cincinnati is located upon seven hills.

To be geologically technical, Cincinnati has no hills at all, only valleys. The central basin in which our downtown is located is surrounded by what geologists call an eroded peneplain. In other words, our town occupies a glacially scoured, level plain into which streams have cut a network of valleys. What we count as “hills” are just tongues of this surrounding plain extending into the central valley—and once we start counting those, there’s no stopping. One recent survey has identified at least 80 named Cincinnati “hills.”

A woman named Ida Martin, who lived in a hollow sycamore tree and did laundry for the soldiers at Fort Washington, gave her name to Mount Ida, later renamed Mount Adams.

It is authentically reported, by an eyewitness, that a woman who did laundry for the soldiers at Fort Washington lived in a hollow sycamore tree on the slopes of what later became Mount Adams. However, that source does not give her name. There was a domestic servant named Ida Martin who lived on what later became Mount Adams, but this was long after Fort Washington had been demolished, this woman was not a laundress and she lived in a cabin, not a hollow tree. Mount Adams was previously known as Mount Ida, but that nickname was a reference to classical mythology, not to any woman who lived in the area. Somewhere along the line, these three separate facts got conflated into a treasured Cincinnati fable.

Arnold’s Bar opened on Eighth Street in 1861 and three generations of Simon Arnold’s family lived upstairs for 98 years (brewing gin in a bathtub).

According to the Cincinnati City Directory, Simon Arnold indeed occupied part of a building on the north side of Eighth Street, just east of Main in 1861. However, he was not running a saloon. He was building billiard tables, because he was a carpenter until 1877. From 1856 to 1877, there was a saloon on the north side of Eighth Street, just east of Main, but it was run by George and Wilhelmina Weber, not anyone named Arnold. The Arnold family did not take over that saloon until 1877, when Wilhelmina Weber retired. From 1922 until 1933, no bar, saloon, speakeasy or restaurant operated out of that address at all. No one from the Arnold family lived in that building from 1926 until 1933. The story of Arnold’s founding date and continuous occupancy appears to have been embellished by Elmer Arnold in 1959 when he sold the venerable establishment to Ernst Wiedemann.

Carrie Nation had a lot to say when she visited Cincinnati, but she appears never to have uttered the most famous quote attributed to her.

From Library of Congress

Carrie Nation, on a visit to Cincinnati, declined to smash any of the notorious Vine Street saloons, claiming, “I would have dropped from exhaustion before I had gone a single block.”

Carrie Nation did, in fact, visit the Queen City at least twice. During her visits, she did not demolish a single saloon. She also gave numerous interviews while she was in town. In none of those interviews did she claim exhaustion prevented her from attacking Cincinnati saloons. Rather, she pointedly explained that she arrived here under a court-imposed performance bond she would forfeit if she demolished anything. The famous quote does not appear in print until 20 years after her Cincinnati visits.

Mark Twain said, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 10 years behind the times.”

Samuel Clemens, who famously wrote under the pen name of Mark Twain, spent a fair amount of time in Cincinnati but probably never spoke or wrote the quote he is often blamed for.

From Library of Congress

Everyone quotes Mr. Samuel Clemens and his eschatological analysis of the Queen City, but no one has ever provided a decent citation for it. The quote appears in none of his voluminous writings. To confuse matters, multiple scholars have found similar quotes attributed to quite a few famous folks about quite a few other cities. To further confuse matters, the quote sometimes appears as one sentence and sometimes as two sentences and the lag, while usually 10 years, is sometimes 20 years. In brief, if Mark Twain ever uttered such a comment, no one appears to have recorded it.

The Cincinnati subway failed because of poor design and cost overruns.

In his exhaustive review of “Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway” (2010), Jacob R. Mecklenborg notes that, despite the usual financial shenanigans of the Boss Cox political machine, Cincinnati’s Rapid Transit Loop project (which we know as the subway) was actually pretty well thought-out and potentially quite viable. Mecklenborg concludes that the newly elected Progressive city administration of 1925 could have saved the project but declined to do so to avoid giving the remaining Cox minions a victory. Most of the alleged shortcomings of the subway were actually unfounded Progressive propaganda from the 1920s.

Charles Manson attended Walnut Hills High School and/or used to hang out in Mount Adams.

After his arrest and conviction in California, Cincinnatians suddenly began remembering Charles Manson’s early days in Cincinnati. Or, shall we say, misremembering?  All the documentation – and Manson’s life has been inspected to the subatomic level – affirm that young Charles was shipped out of Cincinnati by age five, never to return. While it’s not impossible that he drifted through town from time to time, his high school years were spent in various reform schools. The period in which he allegedly hung out, swilling tequila in Mount Adams, find him involved in West Coast scams or serving time in California prisons. We can’t deny he was born here, but there’s no evidence Manson returned after an unhappy infancy.

Cincinnati chili gets its distinctive flavor from chocolate.

A great many Cincinnatians inaccurately yet vehemently insist that the secret ingredient to Cincinnati chili is chocolate. Most “authentic” Cincinnati chili recipes in print or online make this claim. The myth may be traced to Marion Rombauer Becker, who took over compiling the “Joy of Cooking” on the death of her mother, Irma Rombauer. Marion’s “Cincinnati Chili Cockaigne” recipe (the “Cockaigne” label signaled that the Rombauers served that dish at their home in Cincinnati) was the first to claim a dubious role for chocolate. As Cincinnati chili maven Dann Woellert has repeatedly noted, the families who actually cooked and served our favorite dish deny there’s any chocolate involved.

Thomas Edison read every book in the old Ohio Mechanics Institute library.

Thomas Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” certainly read a few books, but even he would be defeated by the ponderous shelves of the OMI library.

From Library of Congress

Young Tommy Edison spent a fruitful year in Cincinnati as a telegraph operator and he even did some tech support for the early Procter & Gamble. For a young inventor, the most useful resource in Cincinnati would have been the library of the Ohio Mechanics Institute, with 10,000 volumes on science and technology. However, to read every book, Edison would have had to consume 27 volumes a day and master a dozen languages. Edison sent an autographed photo to the Institute in later years, thanking them for allowing him to use the library and maybe that’s where the rumor started.

The first bathtub in the United States was installed in Cincinnati.

A satirical essay by H. L. Mencken, titled “A Neglected Anniversary,” was published 28 December 1917, in the New York Evening Mail. Mencken claimed that the first bathtub in the United States was installed in a Cincinnati home by one Adam Thompson in 1842. Although this was totally “fake news,” it was repeated as truth many times over the next century and still pops up as “fact” online today.

Superman is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

The earthly remains of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on television during the 1950s, were held in a vault at Spring Grove Cemetery for a couple of months in 1959 while his mother sorted out a permanent resting place. Although she wanted a mausoleum in Cincinnati, it proved impracticable. Reeves’ body was eventually cremated here and the ashes shipped to California, where they remain today.

UC’s Crosley Tower entombed an unfortunate worker during construction.

Crosley Tower at the University of Cincinnati is a monument to brutalist architecture and is now scheduled for demolition. It was originally poured in 1969 as a single piece of concrete. Rumor has it that a workman fell in as the slurry was being pumped, and because the pour could not be interrupted without extravagant cost, he remains entombed there. Construction of this building was heavily documented and no one fell in. Rumors that workers dropped a Volkswagen into the mix while pouring are also false.

There’s a village of evil little people out by Mount Rumpke.

Although the rumor was disproved years before the alleged “Munchkinville” was demolished, there are still people who swear a “Tiny Town” of malicious little people exists out in Colerain Township. All the rumors trace back to the Handle Bar Ranch, originally a bicycle rental station later devoted to horse-drawn hayrides, owned by the late Percy and Anna Ritter. Mr. Ritter’s idiosyncratic architecture and Mrs. Ritter’s unusual décor inspired generations of high school students to mount midnight forays looking for munchkins. The alleged Tiny Town has been consumed by the expansion of the Rumpke waste disposal operation.

There is an exploded crematorium once used for Satanic rituals in Miami Heights.

There is most definitely something out in the woods near Buffalo Ridge Road in Miami Heights, but it has nothing to do with Satan. After Cincinnati’s “fireproof” Chamber of Commerce building burned in 1911, the massive granite masonry was acquired by the Cincinnati Astronomical Society who hoped to build a world-class observatory overlooking Miamitown. Costs rose astronomically (ahem!) and then the Great Depression landed so the observatory got not much further than a foundation, a few walls and piles of randomly delivered used granite. It looked like a building had exploded out in the woods, hence the rumors. Some of the stones were salvaged to build a Stonehenge-like monument to architect H.H. Richardson in Burnet Woods. The rest have been swallowed by a county park.

Greg Hand personally inspected the ruins of the abandoned Miami Heights observatory in 1971 and can attest it was never a crematory.

From Greg Hand collection

Hordes of fanatics draped in “resurrection robes” climbed Cincinnati’s Brighton Hill, awaiting the end of the world in 1843 or 1844.

Cincinnati was, indeed, a hotbed of Millerism in 1843. The Millerites, followers of New York preacher William Miller, did believe the world would end in 1843 or 1844. There are newspaper accounts of Millerites quitting their jobs and giving away all of their possessions and being very disappointed when the world did not end according to William Miller’s calculations. However, the scene of white-clad cultists perched on any of the local hills appears to be only rumor.

A Cincinnati doctor used to prescribe ketchup as medicine.

While not entirely true, this legend is not entirely false, either. During the 1830s, a self-licensed Cincinnati “doctor” named Archibald Miles marketed a concoction he called “Miles’ Compound Extract of Tomato, the Genuine Tomato Pill,” derived from the fruit of tomatoes. This was back in the day when people were surprised to learn that the tomato, although a member of the deadly nightshade family, was not, in fact, poisonous. If it wouldn’t kill you, folks reasoned, it must make you stronger and so they attributed all sorts of medicinal properties to tomatoes. Miles sold so many pills he had to recruit a national sales team to handle the volume. But he sold tomato extract in pill form, not ketchup.

A mysterious European prince once offered to finance Cincinnati’s transformation into the gambling capital of the world but was turned down by City Council.

In 1883, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on the arrival in town of Prince Juan Pablo Trampantogo who, having deposited $90 million in earnest money in a local bank, announced plans to personally finance the transformation of the city while building “the largest, finest, and most complete gambling establishment in the world, to which the crowned heads of Europe and the entire sporting world shall throng with perfect freedom.” Although it was a total hoax, published on April Fool’s Day, the Prince Trampantogo story was repeated by local sources with complete credulity in 1943, 1950, 1974, and 1980.

Theda Bara once owned a Spanish-style villa on Victory Parkway.

Thanks to the dogged research of Ann Senefeld, who publishes the excellent “Digging Cincinnati” blog, we know this is simply not true. Ann tracked ownership of the alleged Theda Bara property from Mary Droesch, who built the villa in 1923 through Raymond and Lorene Frankel (1933-1942), Coleman Harris (1942-1949), Lillie Goldsmith (1949-1953) Lillian and John Lutz (1953-1956), Ida and Clifford Schaten (1956-1968) and Joseph Link Jr. (1968-1979) to Xavier University. At no point was it owned by silent film star Theda Bara or her family, and there is no record she ever rented the property. It has been demolished.

The City of Cincinnati demolished a neighborhood called Kenyon-Barr.

No one, other than the staff of the city planning office, ever referred to a section of the West End as Kenyon-Barr. Kenyon and Barr were two streets that intersected at ground zero for a Cincinnati urban renewal project. The designation “Kenyon-Barr” does not appear in print until 1952, when it served to identify a portion of the West End slated for demolition. Once the area was leveled, the city discovered that no one wanted to build anything in an area they’d named Kenyon-Barr, so they hired a marketing expert who suggested renaming it Queensgate.

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