“When Is A Brothel Not a Brothel?” And Other Legal Niceties Debated In Cincinnati Courtrooms

A brief morality tale featuring two spiteful lawyers, a few brothels, and some impressive facial hair.
Portrait of William Ampt
Portrait of William Ampt

Image from: Cincinnati: The Queen City 1788-1912 By Rev. Charles Frederic Goss Volume 3, Page 159 Published 1912 Digitized by Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

As the newly elected Hamilton County Prosecutor in 1871, William Ampt roared into office by firing off a dozen indictments for keeping brothels and a half-dozen more for keeping gambling houses. Prosecutor Ampt showed up in the courtroom of Judge Joseph Cox, ready for a big win and bigger headlines as he endeavored to clean up the city.

Ampt had indicted the top brothel owners in Cincinnati. The list of defendants included such legendary procurers as Mollie Chambers, Mollie Dean, Frank Hall, Lizzie Homan, Maria Jones, John Jung (among the very few male brothel owners), Sallie Marshall, Viola Page, Annie St. Clair, Elizabeth Stuart, and a woman known only as Madam Miller. The gamblers under arrest were Robert Barker, Frank Corry, James Davis, Thomas Lytle, John McKinney and Richard Southgate.

Awaiting Ampt at the courthouse was Major Charles H. Blackburn, defense attorney. Blackburn, on the premise that the charges were identical, had asked the court to consolidate all of the prostitution cases into a single case, and to combine all of the gambling cases likewise.

As Prosecutor Ampt stammered, Blackburn unloaded his volley. The indictments, he said, were duplicitous, repugnant, invalid and defective. According to the Cincinnati Gazette [16 Feb 1871], Blackburn argued that Ampt had failed by simultaneously charging the defendants with keeping both brothels and “houses of ill fame”:

“Our statutes on this subject,” he said, “were transcripts of the common law, and the common law might be said to incorporate in them. At common law a brothel was one thing, and a house of ill fame was another. Nor did it help the matter to connect them by the word ‘otherwise.’ As well might a man be indicted for stealing a horse, otherwise called a mare, or for entering in the night season, with felonious intent, a dwelling house, otherwise called a store.”

Tact in Court
Portrait of Major C. H. Blackburn

Portrait From: Tact in Court: Containing Sketches of Cases Won by Skill, Wit, Art, Tact, Courage and Eloquence. With Practical Illustrations in Letters of Lawyers Giving Their Best Rules for Winning Cases Published 1892 Page 64 Digitized by Google Books Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

In other words, did the defendants operate brothels or did they operate houses of ill fame? Since they are different things, Blackburn said, each requires different evidence.

Blackburn then noted that none of the indictments named specific addresses, none provided any sort of proof that prostitution had taken place, and none of the indictments were signed by prosecuting witnesses. Such shoddy work, Blackburn claimed, invalidated the entirety of the prosecution and asked that all indictments be quashed.

Prosecutor Ampt asked the court for time to prepare a suitable response to these charges. It is important to reply, Ampt said, not only for personal reasons, but to uphold the integrity of the prosecutor’s office:

“He desired to say that he was anxious to sustain these indictments, for reasons not merely personal, but because he had followed the forms used so successfully by his predecessor during the last two years. They had been held good heretofore, and he felt interested in sustaining them still.”

Who was this predecessor? What former prosecutor had achieved such success with his indictments that Ampt had merely copied them? Who had established this shameful tradition of slapdash legal poppycock? Why, it was none other than Major Charles H. Blackburn, who had become a defense attorney after losing the prosecutor’s office to William Ampt in the last election.

This revelation did not bring the slightest blush to Major Blackburn’s cheek. He admonished his successor in the prosecutor’s office:

“Take care of your side of the case and I will attend to mine. The records of this Court show how I sustained indictments drawn by me, and I don’t ask the prosecutor to do anything whatever on my account. I did not come, however, to make a personal controversy, but to offer a legal argument. I will say, however, that these indictments are not such as I drew when I was Prosecuting Attorney.”

Judge Cox agreed with Prosecutor Ampt and allowed the indictments to stand. The parties pled out or were found guilty. Brothels and “houses of ill fame” assumed synonymy in Cincinnati’s legal system.

It is interesting to follow the subsequent careers of Mr. Ampt and Mr. Blackburn.

Although he remained deeply involved in politics as a supporter of Ulysses S. Grant, William Ampt never again stood for election himself after his two-year term as prosecutor. When he died in 1909, he was celebrated as “Citizen” Ampt for the many lawsuits he had filed over the years, as a private citizen, to derail public expenditures that he believed were unnecessary, wasteful, or criminally motivated.

Blackburn’s life story veered off in different directions. Not long after his thwarted efforts to exonerate the Cincinnati madams, Major Blackburn was sued for divorce. His long suffering wife claimed that Blackburn had abandoned her to take up residence with Viola Page—one of the madams he defended in his famous case. When Blackburn died in 1901 it came out that he was in debt to his landlady for thousands of dollars, leading his friend, Judge Howard Ferris, to eulogize:

“Though possessed of a keen intellect, he was a child in finances.”



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