Ringing Down the Final Curtain: A Most Curious Assortment of Cincinnati Deaths

Cincinnatians who were killed by clowns, horns, sleds, and more.
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James McKenna learned the hard way not to run while holding a sharp implement. When he fell, a toy tin horn punctured his jugular vein.

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Over the years, quite a few Cincinnatians have shuffled off this mortal coil under very curious circumstances. Here are eleven examples from the macabre annals of our city’s history.


Death by Clown #1

It was Halloween night in 1921. Joseph Clark, a factory worker, was walking home through Lower Price Hill near the intersection of Eighth and State. He may not have noticed, across the street, that a fracas involving three men wearing clown costumes battling a half-dozen rowdies had escalated beyond mere fisticuffs. One of the clowns, William Shewmaker, pulled a gun and fired several rounds either very poorly aimed or as warning shots. One shot hit Clark squarely in the chest and he died at the scene. One of the assailants, Robert Cahill, died later from a gunshot wound. A jury failed to convict Shewmaker, the killer clown.


Death by Tin Horn #1

On a delightful spring evening in 1877, 14-year-old James McKenna and his friends chased each other along Ellen Street, then located along the base of Mt. Adams. Their game appeared to involve grabbing and holding a child’s tin horn. The street was steeply inclined and poorly maintained. As he ran down the hill, tin horn in hand, James tripped on a tree root bulging out of the pavement and fell lengthwise on the slope. The tin horn punctured his jugular vein and blood spouted profusely from the wound. James attempted to struggle home, just a block away, but fainted halfway there. His friends carried his lifeless body to his distraught mother.

The Chalk Will

Julia Butterfass, an invalid aged 67 in 1895, was despondent and regularly announced that she planned to end her life. So often had she declared her morbid intent, and so often failed to carry out her threat, that her family stopped paying attention. Her chronic condition was exacerbated by the declining health of her husband, Jacob, a varnisher who could not hold a steady job because of his own health issues. One morning, Julia arose to prepare breakfast and then made a fateful decision. She returned to her room and scrawled her last will and testament in chalk on the floor of her closet. When the rest of the family woke up and noted her absence, they searched the house and found her note, which read: “Good-bye friends. I am tired of life and am going to commit suicide. I leave all my clothes to my daughter.” Searching outside, the family discovered that Julia had drowned herself in the backyard cistern.
Distraught by her own failing health as well as that of her husband, Julia Butterfass drowned herself in a cistern, but not before scrawling a suicide note on the floor of her closet.

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Incinerated by Mouthwash

In November 1894, Leah Clifford was 20 years old and worked as a prostitute in Georgia Hudson’s brothel at 145 George Street in the West End. As she dressed to attend the theater one evening, Leah opened a bottle of mouthwash, prescribed by Dr. Charles Muscroft and prepared by druggist David Allen. Whether improperly prescribed by Dr. Muscroft or improperly compounded by Mr. Allen, the bottle contained a dentifrice known as pyrozone dissolved in highly flammable ether. When Leah lit a match, the bottle exploded, spraying her with incendiary liquid. She ran screaming from the house, setting fires wherever she stumbled. Transported to the hospital, she died hours later and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

Sledding Into Eternity

Frank Mauntel was 19 in 1919. He was a linotype operator and lived on Milton Street, just off Sycamore Hill. In December of that year, the snows landed heavy and froze overnight. Sycamore Hill was the hottest “coasting” hill in the city and young people assembled there in packs to try their skill navigating the precipitous drop down to Liberty Street. Mauntel took his turn and hurtled downhill, just as an automobile driven by Albert Schraeder of Delhi chugged through the intersection. Mauntel didn’t stand a chance. He was the 71st death by automobile in Cincinnati in 1919 and the second to die by sledding or “coasting” in the streets.

Frozen in a Quarry

Henry Mastrup and John Mastrup were brothers who lived in South Fairmount at the base of Bald Knob. In 1905, they eked out a spare existence digging limestone out of Anthony Spitzmueller’s quarry at the top of Amor Street. Henry had been feeling poorly, but rallied one February afternoon and said he would take a walk, wrapping himself in three layers of clothes. When Henry did not return in time for dinner, John went looking for his brother. In the winter darkness, John found Henry frozen to death, sitting on a large stone in the quarry. John lit a match to examine the body, determined that he was in fact extinct, then walked home to eat dinner, leaving his brother’s corpse in the quarry all night. In the morning, John flagged down a cop, who called a patrol to remove the body. The coroner, incredulous, asked John why he had left his brother’s frozen body outside all night. John said he knew the quarry could not be reached by a wagon in darkness and he knew no harm would befall his brother overnight.

A Commercial Toxin

On her 1908 death certificate, Daisy Sherman was described as a “harlot.” Under the name of Madge Simpson, she entertained customers at a brothel operated by Nan Newman at 309 Longworth Street. It was, sadly, all too common for sex workers of that era to end their lives by suicide. The most frequent method chosen by women was to ingest some vile potion, usually morphine or laudanum or carbolic acid. What distinguished Daisy Sherman’s exit from this vale of tears was her swallowing a commercial product that had only recently been introduced to Cincinnati – Lysol disinfectant.

Poem to a Pipe

Bookkeeper Charles Drinker, aged 54, shot himself in the head one chilly morning in December 1905. He was estranged from his family and out of work, yet he went to his reward after leaving behind two light-hearted compositions. One was a jocular note to the coroner, hoping that his earthly remains might find some use in an anatomy laboratory. The other was a farewell poem to his tobacco pipe, the stalwart briar that had accompanied him for some years. Drinker’s final encomium read:

From thee, old friend, I have had my last puff;
To leave thee thus, I know, ‘tis rough
For in trial, trouble and tribulation
You have been my only consolation.
Now, alas! of use no more
You can’t accompany me to the other shore.
For on that shore there is no smoke –
I tell you, old friend, this is no joke.
You, like myself, have had your day –
You remain briarwood – I return to clay.

Drinker was not shipped to one of the medical schools. He was buried in the Potter’s Field.


Death by Tin Horn #2

John Schaeffer was a shoemaker who lived in Covington. In 1897, he was unemployed and so purchased a supply of gewgaws and set up a little streetside stand on Fifth Street in downtown Cincinnati. One evening, a customer asked for one of the tin horns Schaeffer had for sale. The horn was at the bottom of a display hanging from a long pole. Schaeffer lifted up the pole to extract the desired tin horn and made contact with an arc lamp hanging over his little toy stand. The electrical current paralyzed Schaeffer immediately and the strength of the current repelled anyone attempting to come to his rescue. When someone finally switched off the streetlight, Schaeffer’s corpse slid to the pavement.

Death by Clown #2

On the evening of January 10, 1854, there was a “small Spanish theatrical representation” on Stockton Street in San Francisco. A 13-year-old boy named William Snyder, who had been born in Cincinnati, was peddling candy and peanuts. For whatever reason, Manuel Reys who was described as being a “mentally defected” circus clown grabbed William by the heels and swung him around several times. By the time Reys released the boy, blood was flowing from William’s mouth. William was rushed to a hospital where he died. Manuel Reys was arrested for murder and his case was sent to the grand jury, but it doesn’t appear he was ever legally charged. The death was eventually found to be accidental. William was buried in the Yerba Buena cemetery.

When Freda Eisele learned that her suitor, Elbert Wise, was married, she tried to avoid him, but he persisted. And then he died mysteriously.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Was It Poison?

The coroner’s official verdict claimed that Elbert Wise died from blood poisoning as the result of a ruptured spleen, but there were many unanswered questions. Wise’s wife, Katherine, found her husband slumped on the front stoop very early on the morning of 14 April 1895. He claimed he had been poisoned; that he had drunk some beer and found a greenish substance at the bottom of his glass. He lingered in a delirious state for three weeks before he died. It turned out that he had been “keeping company” with the unmarried 26-year-old Frieda Eisele for a couple of years. Freda discovered that Elbert was married and attempted to break off the relationship. Elbert persisted in seeing Freda over her mother’s objections and it was with Freda and her widowed mother that Elbert drank that fatal glass of beer. The coroner’s finding of natural causes ended any investigation. It was very curious, therefore, twenty years later, when Freda’s aged mother killed herself by swallowing an arsenic-rich dye known as Paris Green. One wonders whether she had ever used that substance before.

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