Trouble Followed Cincinnati’s Hunt Sisters Through The ‘Gay Nineties’

Your mother would have hated the Hunt sisters.

By the time they grabbed front-page headlines in Cincinnati, Ida May and Clara had married out of the Hunt surname, but everyone knew they were the daughters of the notorious Jennie Hunt, who operated a succession of brothels in the West End. Although both sisters were married, they were well known “women about town.”

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The sisters made the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer

On October 2, 1884, Ida May Hunt was married in Mama Hunt’s brothel at 103 George Street. She was just barely 16 years old. Her 18-year-old husband, one Russell Pettibone, was a clerk at the Pettibone Manufacturing Company, purveyors of band and military uniforms as well as flags and other regalia. The Pettibone family knew nothing of the nuptials and Russell intended to keep it that way. The marriage record, filed at the Hamilton County Courthouse, includes the scrawled notation, “Don’t Report.”

Fat chance. The Cincinnati Enquirer found out about the marriage and chased down the bride, her mother, the groom, his father, and even the justice of the peace for comment. By all accounts, Russell Pettibone married quite the beauty. The Cincinnati Enquirer [8 February 1892] described her as a:

” . . . delicious blonde with golden hair and grey eyes framed with sweeping lashes. Her complexion is a marvel of beauty, and altogether she is as beautiful as an artist’s dream.”

The occasion of this description was a front-page article exposing Ida May’s illicit affair with Anson H. Millman, a dentist from Chillicothe. The Enquirer described how, accompanied by a detective, Russell Pettibone burst into a room at a house of assignation (what we might call a “no-tell motel”) and found Millman in the arms of Mrs. Pettibone.

“The dentist lay in bed, his head resting on his arm. Seated on the side of the bed, with one arm around the dentist’s neck, was Mrs. Pettibone. So startled was she that she seemed paralyzed and unable to remove the member, and the picture the couple presented was one calculated to draw a husband’s vengeance down on the guilty woman.”

After months of rumor and legal wrangling, a sad story emerged. Russell traveled a lot for the Pettibone company, and left his lonely wife and their young daughter, Hazel, for weeks at a time. When Russell was in Cincinnati, he frequented the fleshpots of the West End, buying expensive gifts for his favorite girls. He spent more time angling for a promotion in the Ohio National Guard than he did with his family. In his absence, Ida May’s beauty attracted much attention, particularly from Dentist Millman, who sent many letters and telegrams arranging meetings in Cincinnati and Chillicothe.

Although Russell filed for divorce first, he withdrew his suit and agreed not to contest the matter when Ida May later sued on the grounds of non-support. The legal maneuvering was apparently concocted so Ida May could retain custody of their daughter.

Ida May next appeared on the front page in a scandal featuring her sister, Clara. In 1893, a young Wells Fargo clerk named Billy Orchard had absconded with more than $5,000. He embezzled the funds to impress Mrs. John R. Phillips, whose maiden name was Clara Hunt. Mr. Phillips was an invalid and Clara Phillips ran a boarding house to support him. Newspapers describe the boarding house as classy and richly appointed. Clara Phillips is also described as a beauty:

“Mrs. Phillips is a rosy-cheeked brunette with flashing black eyes and bright and intelligent countenance. She is a brilliant conversationalist and has a vein of wit and humor underlying all she says, and, when she wants to be sarcastic, can hold her own with anybody.”

Clara Phillips, when first approached by the police, claimed she knew very little about Billy Orchard. He was, she said, nothing more than one of her boarders. And then the police found the tintype.

Taken at Coney Island, the tintype photograph plainly showed Billy Orchard with his abundant mustache pouring a bottle of beer into a glass held by none other than cigarette-smoking Clara Phillips. Seated next to Mrs. Phillips in the photo was her sister, Ida May Pettibone, and behind Mrs. Pettibone was Chillicothe Dentist Anson H. Millman, proof that their affair continued nearly two years after the front-page exposé.

A Coney Island photobooth tintype shows embezzler Billy Orchard, with the massive mustache, pouring beer into a glass held by Mrs. Clara Phillips. Seated next to her is her sister, Mrs. Ida May Pettibone. Standing right is Ida May's paramour, Anson Millman.
A Coney Island photobooth tintype shows embezzler Billy Orchard, with the massive mustache, pouring beer into a glass held by Mrs. Clara Phillips. Seated next to her is her sister, Mrs. Ida May Pettibone. Standing right is Ida May’s paramour, Anson Millman.

Cincinnati Post, 17 October 1893; image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The Hunt girls had a thing for dentists apparently, because Clara reappeared in the scandal columns in 1896, when Ben Taylor, a Cincinnati dentist, was arrested for fraud. Heavily in debt after buying nice things for Clara Phillips, Dr. Taylor set fire to his dental office and tried to file a claim, but investigators discovered that he had previously removed and sold all the expensive equipment covered by the policy. He then rented some high-priced guns and attempted to sell them, but was caught.

Clara disappeared from the public record after the Taylor scandal, but Ida May composed a second chapter to her life. On November 27, 1907, she and Russell Pettibone remarried in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Witnesses to the ceremony were Hazel Pettibone, the couple’s daughter, and Mary Pettibone, Russell’s mother.

Throughout the Millman scandal, the newspapers agreed that Russell’s mother doted on her granddaughter and took Ida May’s side in the dispute. This loving kindness reached an unusual height in 1914 when the infamous madam, Jennie Hunt, died. Mary Pettibone allowed Ida May’s scandalous mother to be buried in the Pettibone family plot in Spring Grove Cemetery.

Russell and Ida May remained married until their deaths in the late 1940s. They remained in Michigan, and made their home with their daughter, Hazel.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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