It has often been said that the best way to make a small fortune is to start out with a large fortune, and that was certainly the philosophy of Horace K. Wilder.
Today, the Wilder name is hardly remembered in Cincinnati. There is a minor street in Price Hill marking the boundary between East Price Hill and Lower Price Hill named for the Wilder family, but that’s about it. At one time the Wilders owned more than 60 acres of land, a significant portion of the hilltop and eastern slopes of Price Hill.
Horace Wilder, in other words, grew up in comfort if not outright luxury. His family had money, even if they were not inclined to spend it ostentatiously. There was no Wilder mansion up on Price Hill, unlike the substantial residences of their neighbors Reese Price and Peter Neff. Still, Horace knew the value of money. That knowledge even got him into trouble.
As a young man, just starting out in the world, Horace lived with his uncle William Wilder. Horace’s mother died when he was quite young and his father not much later. Horace and Uncle William spent the summer of 1892 in Florida and returned home at the end of August. Horace took the family carriage out to visit friends and Uncle William discovered that his pocket book, containing $115, was missing. He contacted the police and had Horace arrested. As court testimony revealed, Horace was innocent. As he left the house, he realized that his uncle, sitting on the lawn, was quite inebriated and might easily be robbed by any passer-by. Horace put the pocket book in the house and let Uncle William sleep it off.
On achieving the age of 21 in 1893, Horace came into a substantial inheritance and immediately launched a campaign to spend it all as soon as possible. Horace quickly earned a reputation in Cincinnati as an easy mark, but his revels extended to Hamilton and Louisville. One day, Horace hired a cab to take himself, a boxer named Charles Slusher and an artist named Henry Niemeyer on an expedition to paint the town red. According to the Cincinnati Post [5 December 1893]:
He ”bought Slusher a pair of gloves, Niemeyer a hat, gave the latter $2 on two different occasions, and allowed him to pick up the change when he broke a bill and bought champagne and beer for a gang of ‘cadgers’ who followed them about.”
When Horace awoke the next morning, he was convinced he had been robbed and had saloonist Jack Page arrested on suspicion. Page provided sufficient evidence to have the charges dropped, the evidence being that Horace was too drunk to remember that he had spent the supposedly stolen money. Page turned around and sued Horace for slander and Horace had to shell out a thousand dollars to soothe Page’s temper.
With Page mollified, Horace moved his base of operations uptown to Kissel’s beer garden in Over-The-Rhine. There, he beheld the comely chanteuse Ida Reynolds and declared his intent to marry the young lady immediately. After delivering a veritable greenhouse of flowers to Miss Reynolds’ dressing room, followed up with cases of bubbly, he popped the question, but she turned him down.
Horace next caught sight of Bessie Miller, a woman of alluring countenance but mysterious circumstances. It turned out that she was a kept woman, the mistress of a caterer serving a prison term for embezzling from the Phoenix Club. Horace’s ardor cooled.
With his exploits filling the newspapers almost every day, Horace’s family grew concerned. Word got around that one of his uncles wanted to have the court put Horace in a guardianship. Horace took the hint and departed for the Oklahoma Territory to stay with one of his brothers until things cooled down in Cincinnati.
Three months later, Horace was back in town, announcing plans to open a gambling joint in Northern Kentucky, financed by yet another sale of his inherited Price Hill property. Not mentioned in any of the stories about Horace’s shenanigans on this trip through Cincinnati is the fact that he was now a married man. While in Oklahoma, Horace married Zula Belle Shaffer on 7 February 1894. By all accounts, Miss Shaffer was a beautiful and accomplished young lady well established in the social register of the western territory. She was 18 and had been born in Ohio.
Married or not, Horace continued his wastrel ways. By April he was in Hot Springs, Arkansas and word got back to Cincinnati that he was broke and reduced to pawning a diamond stick pin to pay his hotel bill.
Horace came close to getting himself killed in Cincinnati that autumn. At the Grand Saloon, an establishment smack in the middle of Cincinnati’s red-light district, Horace got into an argument with a sporting man named Billy Finlaw. Witnesses said they were arguing about an actress named Florence Miller. Words were said and Finlaw pushed Horace to the floor. Finlaw told his companions that, if he had a gun, he would blow Horace’s head off. One of his pals took him up on the threat and handed him a pistol, having first removed all the ammunition. Finlaw ran outside, confronted Horace and pulled the trigger a half-dozen times with the gun just inches from his face. Horace got the message and split.
But not for long. A month later, the papers reported that Horace had purchased a carriage and a fine horse and transported his friends around to all the resorts in the Tenderloin. That purchase was reported almost simultaneously with the sale of Horace’s last remaining lot in Price Hill.
Maybe he ran out of steam. He certainly appeared to run out of money, For whatever reason, Cincinnati heard nothing from Horace for almost three years, and then learned that he was dead. Word came from Oklahoma that Horace had overdosed on morphine, presumably a suicide.
The report was wrong. Horace’s brother, Charles Rollin “Roll” Wilder had received an identical share of inheritance as Horace. He took his money west and invested in Oklahoma land, holding down a position as an executive at one of the territorial banks. Horace stayed with him whenever Cincinnati got too hot for comfort. Horace did overdose on morphine, but pulled through, a much chastened man.
He moved back to Cincinnati. This time he brought his wife along. They rented a little house on Neff Avenue in Price Hill, one of his family’s former properties. Horace worked as a bookkeeper, a police officer and a carriage salesman. It was not a happy home. Horace moved out and took rooms on Garfield Place. Zula sued his sister and brother-in-law for encouraging Horace to abandon her.
The feuding in-laws were still airing the family’s dirty laundry in court when Horace died, this time for real. He was only 32. Burial was in the family plot at Spring Grove Cemetery.