The newspapers called it a riot, though it was more like a popular uprising against high-handed enforcement of Prohibition laws. The Cheviot Riot grew out of the arrest, by the mayor of North College Hill and his deputies, of a housewife in Dent. As I wrote about last week, mayors today are confined to the jurisdiction from which they’re elected, but under Ohio’s Prohibition laws mayors enjoyed legal superpowers.
While federal law prohibited only the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages, Ohio’s Crabbe Act banned even simple possession of any sort of alcohol. Ohio mayors were justices of the peace, a county office conveying countywide authority, which allowed mayors to enforce any state law anywhere in the county.
North College Hill Mayor Albert R. Pugh had no interest in municipal matters. During his two-year term from 1924 to 1926, North College Hill went bankrupt, its sewer system went into receivership and the schools came close to shutting down. Pugh was single-mindedly focused only on abolishing liquor everywhere.
With funding from the national Anti-Saloon League, Pugh hired a posse of deputies and began raiding houses and businesses all over western Hamilton County. The marauders almost met their match in the summer of 1924 when they launched a raid on the fishing camps surrounding Miamitown. Sure, the fishermen had a good supply of homebrew and moonshine, but they also packed fire arms and put up stiff resistance until Pugh called in reinforcements from the local Ku Klux Klan. (You can’t make this stuff up.) The Klan, among its other beliefs, was officially opposed to alcohol.
Although Pugh’s deputies made arrests from Cleves to Colerain and from Cincinnati’s West End to the Indiana border, the sleepy town of Dent seemed to be their richest hunting ground. Pugh raided two Dent roadhouses, the Nine-Mile House and the Meadow Inn, so often that federal agents finally padlocked both establishments. The hills and hollows around Dent hid dozens of moonshine stills.
On November 1, 1924, Pugh and three of his deputies knocked on the door of Harry and Mary Smith. The Enquirer reported:
“According to Mrs. Smith, the deputies seized her, twisted her arms behind her back and bruised her shoulders. When her husband came to her rescue the officers, she alleged, drew revolvers.”
Pugh denied his men used unnecessary force in the arrest, claiming they acted only to prevent Mrs. Smith from destroying the bottle of moonshine that constituted their evidence of illegal possession.
Mrs. Smith filed suit, and a warrant was issued by Green Township Justice of the Peace Samuel Williams. Pugh and his minions were ordered to appear on November 10 in Williams’ courtroom upstairs at the old Odd Fellows Hall in Cheviot.
They arrived to find no place to park in the entire village. Cheviot was swarming with curiosity seekers eager to see Mayor Pugh get his comeuppance. A crowd numbering more than 1,000 surrounded the hall. Nearly 600 spectators squeezed their way into a courtroom that, at best, might hold 400.
Mary Smith’s attorney was late in arriving, so late that Williams announced a continuance. That decision did not sit well with the assembled throng. One of the bystanders fired up an organ at the back of the hall and began playing “How Dry I Am.” Someone turned out the lights. When the lights were switched back on, one of Pugh’s deputies had a broken nose and another was bleeding from a scalp wound. Women and children screamed. Cheviot’s constables were unable to clear the courtroom or the building, but Pugh and his deputies were led down a back stairway into the basement.
Cheviot Mayor Clifford Hay called Cincinnati Police for assistance, and city officers under command of Lieutenant Eugene Weatherly arrived to find the hall completely surrounded, a cordon of Green Township and Cheviot constables barely holding the mob back. The mood was ugly. According to The Enquirer:
“Feminine voices urged the men to further efforts with cries of ‘Get those Liquor Court deputies.’ Mutterings of hanging sounded through the throng. ‘Give us those men or we’ll get some gasoline and set fire to the place,’ growled the mob. Police remained quiet.”
Weatherly played a waiting game. As the crowd gradually thinned, he brought a couple of cruisers to the back of the hall, loaded up Pugh and his men and drove down Harrison Avenue toward Cincinnati. They were followed by rioters in a half-dozen vehicles until police blocked Harrison at the Fairmount border and turned back the rioters at gunpoint.
Back in Cheviot, realizing that Pugh had eluded them, the mob started smashing windows along Harrison Avenue. They located three cars belonging to the North College Hill deputies, hauled them into the middle of the road and set them on fire.
“Mayor Hay said … the mob was not composed of residents of Cheviot. Cars from Kentucky, Cincinnati, Hamilton and villages of Hamilton County lined the streets of Cheviot, it is said, indicating that disapproval of the Liquor Court was widespread.”
No one was ever charged for perpetrating the Cheviot Riot. Mrs. Smith eventually got her trial—four trials, actually. Although three separate juries awarded her damages amounting to $1,700, judges kept setting aside these judgments as excessive. Finally, an appeals court awarded her $1,000 for her troubles.
Another of Mayor Pugh’s arrests was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By then, Pugh had already left office in disgrace when North College Hill abolished its own Liquor Court. The people had spoken, and it was becoming apparent that Prohibition was doomed.