The Last Days of Cincinnati’s Notorious Noodle Factory Saloon

Prostitution, gambling, fisticuffs, and murder were on the establishment’s regular menu.

The Miami and Erie Canal even now, a century after it was replaced by Central Parkway, evokes intense nostalgia among Cincinnatians. The old canal was, of course, our “Rhine.” Civic memory gilds pastel panoramas of vernal bouquets, Venetian gondolas, zaftig frauleins, and schooners of amber lager.

Tony Noetker picked the wrong night to threaten Archie O’Brien. As Rose Turner, proprietress of the Noodle Factory, screamed, O’Brien fired a single shot into Noetker’s heart.

Image digitized by the University of Minnesota Libraries and extracted by Greg Hand

In reality, the canal was pretty much an open sewer surrounded by factories and warehouses and bathed in stench. The saloons bordering the canal represented the lowest dives in the city, and almost all of them rented their upper floors and back rooms for prostitution or gambling or both.

At the southeast corner of Walnut Street and the Canal—the location of today’s Kroger On The Rhine—the infamous Noodle Factory saloon brought in a clientele interested in one of two pastimes: fisticuffs or watching fisticuffs. The reputation, such as it was, was accrued during the proprietorship of the legendary Minnie Wolf, who was often described as weighing more than 300 pounds. Here is The Cincinnati Commercial of July 18, 1875:

“Minnie is a ponderous specimen of humanity and appeared at the station in a stunning green silk, perspiring profusely and in a very bad frame of mind. The ‘boys’ commenced making their bets that she would not be locked up, for the reason that she could not pass through the cell doors. She beat all their calculations however by ‘squeezing’ sideways through the door.”

Despite her heft, Minnie was regularly associated with a collection of male admirers, both paramours and paying customers. She eventually purchased a more stylish brothel on Central Avenue, and management of the Noodle Factory passed through several madams until Rose Turner took over in 1884.

By most accounts, Rose tipped the scales in the same class as Minnie and did her best to maintain the Noodle Factory’s unsavory character. She had five prostitutes housed upstairs, her boyfriend behind the bar, and her husband in the back room, apparently overseeing some gambling.

Rose’s boyfriend was Arthur “Archie” O’Brien, a plumbing contractor who specialized in government jobs he could milk for double and triple payments through fraudulent vouchers. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [February 4, 1885]:

“O’Brien has been in the habit of hanging around the saloon much of the time, being a particular friend of the proprietress. In fact he has been on intimate terms with Mrs. Turner for years. Once when he went to Kansas she followed him. She also went to Louisville after him. The woman’s husband, an old man, puts up at the house but has nothing to say when O’Brien is about.”

On the evening of February 3, 1885, a feud between O’Brien and a sometime thief named Anton “Tony” Noetker came to a deadly climax. Noetker had a long rap sheet and had, in fact, survived the 1884 Courthouse Riot while imprisoned in the county jail on charges of knifing to kill. He was a regular at the Noodle Factory and at Christian Rapp’s saloon on the opposite corner. At closing time, O’Brien had to physically haul Noetker out of the saloon. Sprawled on the icy sidewalk, Noetker threatened revenge. Next evening, he bounced between the Noodle Factory and Rapp’s, guided back and forth by another ne’er-do-well named Jake Schultze.

“On the Walnut Street side he stood still and cried, ‘Now I’m going to get even.’ Mrs. Turner screamed. She saw something in his hand she thought to be a revolver. O’Brien quickly turned around, opened the drawer, and seizing a pistol fired at Noetker. The distance between the two men was about ten feet. Noetker, without a murmur, stepped back and disappeared. O’Brien placed the weapon back in the drawer and started out to see if Noetker had been hit.”

He had, the .32-caliber slug piercing his heart. Noetker was carried into Rapp’s saloon but was dead before he could be hoisted onto a table. O’Brien pled self-defense and the jury agreed, but the authorities decided that this disturbance provided a good excuse to take care of the Noodle Factory once and for all. Rose Turner was charged with keeping a house of ill-fame. Her five tenants were charged with vagrancy. Each of the girls was arrested in the company of a male client, and the men all faced charges of loitering. Old Man Turner got three months in the Work House for vagrancy. Rose adopted a strategy often used by madams to avoid fines and jail time. According to The Cincinnati Post [February 13, 1885]:

“This morning in Police court, Rose Turner, the corpulent landlady of the low dive at Canal and Walnut, where Archie O’Brien killed Tony Noetker on the night of Feb. 3, pleaded guilty of keeping a house of ill fame, and appealed to the clemency of the court with the statement that she had grown tired of the business, and if given 15 days’ time would sell every article of furniture she had, and never open another lupanar.”

It’s possible that Rose kept her word because she was not present when the police raided the house a month later, arresting Rachel Darby, a madam who actually owned the building, and several prostitutes who had worked for Rose Turner. Just a week later, the Noodle Factory burned to the ground. The cause, fire inspectors said, was probably arson. The building had been vacant since the last raid, all the furnishings and fixtures hauled out, and it was apparent that the fire had started in several widely separated areas.

Although many citizens were delighted to see this blot on the city’s moral landscape erased, someone recalled the old dive with fondness more than 40 years later. The Cincinnati Post ran a promotion throughout 1927, asking readers to share reminiscences of the “good old days.” On June 20, a contributor identified only as “W.H.N.” submitted:

“Do you remember when the Noodle Factory was in full blast at Walnut and Canal streets?”

One wonders if the editor thought that memory had something to do with spaghetti.

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