Christmas Spirits In The Courtroom, For Better Or For Worse

The Spirit of Christmas wafted through the courtrooms of Cincinnati 100 years ago, in 1915.

Judge William D. Alexander of the Cincinnati Municipal Court was inspired by the Spirit of Christmas to give the gift of freedom to Thomas Clifton, 23, serving a six-month sentence in the Cincinnati Workhouse. Mr. Clifton’s family—wife Edna, 20, three-year-old Harry, 18-month-old Jessie and two-week-old infant Thomas—was destitute and confined to a couple of derelict third-floor rooms on Front Street near Plum, surrounded by warehouses and railroad tracks.

Edna Clifton holds two-week old Thomas Clifton Jr. while daughter Jessie stands at her knee.
Edna Clifton holds two-week old Thomas Clifton Jr. while daughter Jessie stands at her knee.

Cincinnati Post, 24 December 1915; Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Although it was Judge Alexander himself who had sentenced Clifton to six months in jail, the Judge was feeling magnanimous in the days before Christmas. He cut two months off so the husband and father could return home in time for the holiday. According to The Cincinnati Post [24 December 1915]:

“Judge Alexander blames Clifton’s environment and his companions for his trouble. When he was 11 years old his parents were divorced, and he went to the old House of Refuge to live. ‘I don’t think that Clifton ever had his chance, so now I am going to give it to him,’ said Judge Alexander. ‘He has a job and three nice children to work for.'”

In a nearby courtroom, Municipal Judge Arthur C. Fricke was also confronted by the Spirit of Christmas in the form of a little Jewish girl. Jennie Skenazy skipped school to answer a summons presented to her mother. The Skenazys were Sephardic Jews from Turkey. They spoke a dialect of Judeo-Spanish. When Jennie’s mother was confronted by a policeman and charged with littering the sidewalk with garbage, she had no idea what he was saying. Jennie, who had learned English in school, knew her mother was in trouble, so she went to court. When her mother’s name was called, little Jennie stood up. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [24 December 1915] she appealed to the Judge:

“‘My mama is a Spanish lady, Judge,’ she explained. ‘She knows no English.’ Judge Arthur Fricke was touched by the plea. ‘If you say so, Jennie, I’ll let your mama stay home Christmas,’ he said. Mrs. Skenazy was not in court. Her case will be continued Tuesday.”

With the benefit of a century of progress (and extensive document archives) we can look through the lens of history and discover the rest of the story.

Alas, Thomas Clifton blew his chance at happiness. On his release, Edna Clifton expressed happiness:

“He is a good boy and will try hard now, I am sure. I can hardly wait until he sees the new baby.”

But Thomas Clifton was not a good boy. He was arrested again, this time on federal charges, for helping to steal 70 automobile tires from a railroad car. He spent a year in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Within days of being released, he was back in court on assault charges.

Edna divorced Thomas and moved on, marrying a man named David Shannon. The 1920 census finds Edna and David living with Edna’s parents. By 1940, Edna and David had at least five children of their own, plus the three she had with Thomas. David Shannon, a mechanic at the Red Top Brewery, died at Dunham Hospital of tuberculosis in 1945.

Edna remarried again in 1949. Her third husband, John Rowland, was a widower. Their happiness was short-lived. Six months after the wedding, Edna succumbed to breast cancer. She was not yet 55 years old. Edna is buried in Cincinnati’s Baltimore Pike Cemetery near her second husband and some of her children.

Young Jennie Skenazy maintained her outspoken character. When the U.S. Government levied a tax on ice cream in 1919, such that a nickel cone carried an additional one-cent tax, Jennie was among the school children who signed a petition demanding its repeal.

In 1926, Jennie married a man who called himself James Elias. His birth name was Yeoshua Elisou. James was also a Sephardic Jew, apparently. Although he gives his birthplace as Greece, he lists his native language as Spanish. James earned his American citizenship in 1928, Jenny in 1941. By 1930, the Elias family, including two sons, had moved to Chicago. James was a salesman of household furnishings.

James died at age 80 in 1982. Jennie lived to be 98, dying in 2002, grandmother of four and great-grandmother of seven. There is every indication she was a beloved matriarch.

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

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