Imagine Cincinnati as the undisputed U.S. gambling capital, eclipsing any meager efforts by Las Vegas or Reno to aspire to that crown. Imagine the Statue of Liberty—the real thing—towering over Central Parkway. It might have come to pass, if only Prince Trampantogo had made good on his promises…or had been real.
Prince Trampantogo has been among the most enduring hoaxes ever perpetrated on the gullible citizenry of Cincinnati. We were fooled by his first appearance in 1883, bamboozled again in 1943 and in 1950, again in 1974, and again as late as 1980.
The Prince’s name should have been a giveaway. Trampantojo (note the j instead of a g) is Spanish for an artistic technique better known by its French translation, trompe l’oeil, or “fool the eye.” Prince Juan Pablo Trampantogo most certainly fooled the eye of readers of The Enquirer as they read about his 1883 arrival in Cincinnati. The Prince allegedly had deposited $90 million in gold at the Citizens’ National Bank. The city’s leading men were summoned to his rooms at the Grand Hotel. Reporters swarmed like moths around an electric bulb. Finally a doughty Enquirer scribe managed to enlist artist Francis Pedretti as translator and breached the walls of discretion surrounding the Prince, who spoke not a word of English. To this enterprising reporter, the Prince outlined his scheme:
“I propose to keep continually on hand, deposited in the Chemical National Bank of New York City, the First National Bank of San Francisco, the Boatmen’s Bank of St. Louis, and any Bank in your city, having a capital of $5,000,000, the sum of $50,000,000 in cash as a guarantee, that for a period of ninety-nine years, I shall thoroughly clean, pave, and tunnel for telegraph and telephone wires and sewerage purposes, the entire City of Cincinnati; in return for which I am to have the privilege of purchase of the four squares in the city, extending from 7 to 11 on Vine, and from Vine to Elm, at the rate of $1,000 a foot for the bare land, paying damages for the buildings thereon, as may be estimated by 3 disinterested parties, or an equivalent amount in Lincoln Park, to build 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. It will enrich your city beyond comparison, and make Cincinnati the only spot in the world where spendthrifts will come and throw away their loose change; it will give employment to millions of laborers, artisans, and workmen.”
Decorating this massive casino would be Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Goddess of Liberty which, according to Prince Tampantogo, “I notice the New Yorkers cannot raise money enough to procure.” The prince itemized the plush carpets, marble pillars, brass statuary, and other decorations for his Temple of Fortune devoted to roulette, rouge et noir, faro, keno, poker, and “all the games of every nationality and people of the face of the earth.” Exhausted by his interview, the reporter made his farewell to the generous royal just as the cathedral bells struck the hour of midnight to begin the day of April 1, 1883.
If Enquirer readers of 1883 did not immediately comprehend that this was an elaborate April Fool’s joke, surely their suspicions must have been aroused when none of the other daily newspapers printed anything related to the plans of the munificent Prince Tampantogo. On this amazing story, The Times-Star, The News Journal, The Gazette, The Commercial Tribune, The Penny Post, The Volksblatt, The Freie Presse, and The Volksfreund were silent.
In 1943, the long-awaited Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors, researched by the Ohio Writers Project and financed by the Works Progress Administration, landed on local bookshelves. Contained within (page 186) is a description of the Prince’s proposal, with this curious dénouement: “This was too good to be true and, in point of fact, nothing ever came of it.”
Apparently, this uncritical repetition of the 60-year-old hoax inspired the venerable Alfred Segal, columnist under the nom de plume “Cincinnatus” at The Cincinnati Post, to revive the prank. Segal wrote [May 4, 1950] under the headline “Cincinnati Could Have Been a Reno But Officials Snubbed Prince’s Offer”:
“A friend of licensed gambling has dug up some facts of local history which suggest what Cincinnati might have been if it hadn’t missed the boat back in 1883.”
In Segal’s analysis, Cincinnati’s corrupt government rejected the Prince’s offer so as not to offend the many local gamblers.
“It may be that the prince got nowhere with his proposition because what he was thinking of was practically a gambling monopoly for himself. The city authorities couldn’t let the local boys down that way.”
The Enquirer delighted [May 15, 1950] in tweaking the competition. In a harrumphing column opening with “Come Now, Mr. Segal!” the Grey Lady of Vine Street chastised the evening paper’s correspondent:
“If the date of the issue (April 1, 1883, April Fool’s Day to the commoner, Mr. Segal) in which Prince Juan’s story appeared didn’t signal caution to its reader, there were certain irregularities, to say the least, that should have.”
Forgetting that old saying about people in glass houses, The Enquirer itself revived the Trampantogo hoax in 1974, reprinting the Prince’s offer verbatim in a Sunday Magazine walking tour. Despite an editorial caveat buried in the article’s subtitle, authors Mary Gustafson and Barbara Jo Foreman seem to accept the tale at face value:
“The proposal was not accepted by the city fathers and the prince left Cincinnati in disgust. So fashionable townhouses instead of a gambling palace came to line Garfield Place.”
The hoax returned in 1980, when City Councilman Joseph M. Decourcy proposed a gambling casino on Cincinnati’s riverfront. His colleague, David Mann, responded that the idea was neither new or original and cited—in detail—Prince Trampantogo’s 1883 designs. No one appears to have enlightened Councilman Mann about the spurious nature of his source.
As The Enquirer’s Owen Findsen pointed out in 1995, the Prince Trampantogo story was not only an April Fool diversion but also a biting satire on city politics of the day. A February 1883 flood had slathered Cincinnati streets with muck. The Ohio General Assembly offered a million dollars in repair funds. Republican representatives vetoed the relief, worried that such a package would imply the Republican machine in charge of Cincinnati at the time was incompetent. The veto backfired. Democrats swept into power in city elections a week after Prince Trampantogo made his satirical appearance.