The view from Devou Park in Covington is magnificent. Many, perhaps most, people believe the hilltop resort provides the very finest perspective to appreciate Cincinnati. That is certainly the opinion of folks who publish the many postcards featuring panoramas snapped from Devou Park.
Very few of the sightseers enjoying the beauties of Devou Park stop to ponder how much their delight was paid for through prostitution and slum tenements.
It didn’t start out that way. What we know as Devou Park was originally the family estate of William P. Devou and his wife, Sarah Ogden Devou. William was a milliner; he made and sold hats. He earned enough to buy hundreds of acres of Northern Kentucky hillside around 1860 and moved his family to the bluffs overlooking the Ohio River. The Devou homestead still exists. It is now the older part of the Behringer-Crawford Museum.
Devou the Elder was no mad hatter. He made scads of money and sent his sons to Europe for college educations. William Junior and Charles came home and worked briefly at dad’s hat shop, but William had other plans and began buying property, lots and lots of lots, as it were.
It was said that William P. Devou Jr. never sold property, only bought more. He was very much a hoarder. He made a fortune renting his many properties by the day, the week or the month. Rents ran $3 to $7 a month for a room, more for a house. His rent receipts were printed on two sides. One side had the receipt form, the other was an eviction notice if the tenant skipped a rent payment.
While Devou owned properties all over the city, the majority of his rentals lay in Cincinnati’s West End, the Eighth Ward, otherwise known as the Tenderloin, otherwise known as Cincinnati’s Red Light District. In her autobiography, “Dirty Helen” Cromwell described how she was introduced to prostitution, and to William P. Devou, by a prostitute named Ella:
“George Street was, in a nutshell, the Queen City’s Temple of Aphrodite and Adonis. Tenderloin was readily available to fit any pocketbook. Ella was notorious in Cincinnati and was considered a favorite of the street. She had been, in her time, the companion of William P. Devou, until he married a colored woman. Mr. Devou was one of the richest men west of the Alleghenies but had been seen, at one time or another, by every resident of Cincinnati as he pushed a cart through the streets collecting rags and junk from garbage pails. His hobby of collecting litter was not his sole source of income. He owned practically every house on George Street and nearly all of the squalid tenements in the West End, and he made the rounds of his tenants every week, perched languidly on a sway-back white horse.”
Although the United States Army forced Cincinnati to slam a lid on the Tenderloin during World War I, prostitution remained the primary occupation along George Street well into the Great Depression.
According to Steve Tracy’s “Going To Cincinnati,” Devou fit right in:
“The music of orchestras of black musicians who entertained in George Street’s houses, too, moved out onto the street, and all the area was supposed to have been cleaned up. Residents recall that George was still a place in the twenties and thirties where prostitutes could be found. Millionaire white man William P. Devou still was connected with George Street as a property owner, and he and his colored wife lived in a bare room that ‘equaled in squalor the worst of his tenements’ in the area, and he would have most likely heard the blues performed there.”
It’s estimated that as many as 70 brothels housing some 700 prostitutes lined George Street and the neighboring Sixth and Longworth streets between Plum and John. This was the heart of William P. Devou’s real estate empire. He owned around 120 buildings inside the Red Light District. Many of these brothels were elegant and sumptuously furnished, but that was due to the madams who ran the houses, not because of the cheapskate landlord.
Devou had a simple money-making philosophy: Collect rent and spend it on land. He slept on a cot at the back of his office on George Street next-door to a brothel, cooked his own meals, and never hired anyone to repair anything in his buildings, doing all the work himself. Relying on himself for repairs might have been feasible with a dozen buildings, maybe even 20, but Devou owned more than 200 rental properties in total and was constantly in court paying fines for allowing his impoverished tenants to live in grossly deteriorating tenements. None had indoor plumbing and relied on “vaults and catch basins” instead of flush toilets. Raw sewage bubbled up in the back yards where children played. The Cincinnati Post called Devou’s West End holdings “Darkest Cincinnati.”
Devou’s father died in 1897, his mother in 1910. William Junior was named executor of the estate. William and brother Charles donated the family homestead to the city of Covington on condition that Charles could live there for the rest of his life. Charles died in 1922 and William in 1937. According to the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky:
“In April 1938, an appraisal of Devou’s estate listed 240 pieces of property, valued at $963,630. He also had personal wealth of $105,961.”
All but a pittance of this million-dollar inheritance, funded in large part by brothel rents, was bequeathed to Covington, to be expended on the maintenance and upkeep of Devou Park. For several years, Devou’s real estate was held in trust, with a bank collecting rents from the properties Devou once visited on his sway-backed horse. Alfred Segal, who, for many years, opined about local matters in his “Cincinnatus” column for the Post, observed [10 December 1937] the irony involved in the disposition of Devou’s slum properties:
“It seems rather amusing for tenement houses in Cincinnati’s West End to keep on producing rents for the upkeep of trees and flowers in Covington.”
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.
(Thanks to Molly Wellman for loaning her very rare copy of Helen Worley Cromwell’s autobiography, Dirty Helen, for research on this post.)