Cincinnati Curiosities: The Haunted Ohio River

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Who murdered Billy Fee on the night of August 25, 1890? And, why? No one ever confessed. No one was ever convicted. The guilty parties got away. Maybe that’s why Billy’s restless ghost haunted the Ohio River down near Lawrenceburg.

Billy Fee’s naked corpse is carried to a watery grave by Bert Rusk. Or is it John Keys? The mystery was never solved.

Newspaper Illustration rom Cincinnati Enquirer 16 January 1891; Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand


The investigation was shoddy. At first, the victim’s body was misidentified. Then the three eyewitnesses told conflicting tales designed to implicate anyone but themselves. Was it larceny, jealousy, lust, or treachery that inspired the horrid deed? Only the dead know, and the dead aren’t talking.

We know that Billy’s death sentence was written when John Keys married pretty Eva Dickinson in the parlor of her parents’ Cincinnati house. John was 19, Eva was 17. Their families were unhappy about the wedding, but the marriage license records two parental consents on file. The newlyweds told their families that they would depart for their honeymoon by train.

They lied. Instead, the two teenagers boarded a shanty-boat to float down the Ohio toward St. Louis. John and Eva were not alone. Tagging along on the bridal excursion were two men, Bert Rusk and Billy Fee. Rusk clerked in a Cincinnati pharmacy. Fee was somewhat older and worked in a factory. He traveled under the name of William Moore.

At least one newspaper claimed that Fee (alias Moore) had courted Eva before Keys proposed to her, but another newspaper said Fee used a pseudonym because Eva had never met him, yet knew of his unsavory reputation. Rusk later claimed that Keys had committed crimes, including murder, as Fee’s accomplice.

There is not the slightest indication that Eva had any objections to two of her husband’s buddies enjoying her honeymoon. The shanty-boat drifted lazily down the river, docking near Covington one night and at Delhi the next, before tying up at the wharf in Lawrenceburg on August 25.

That night, all witnesses agreed that there was an argument between Fee and Rusk over some money. Rusk accused Fee of robbery. Fee pleaded innocence. A dozen people saw the quartet leave their shanty-boat, climb into a skiff and row to the Kentucky side of the river. They said they were going fishing.

What happened next is anyone’s guess. Witnesses on the Lawrenceburg side heard screams punctuated by gunshots. Everyone agrees that only three people rowed back across the river to Lawrenceburg.

The trio scattered by train in different directions. Eva returned to Cincinnati. The two men were in the wind. A few days later, a farmer pulled the nude body of a man out of the river down by Big Bone Lick. The corpse had gunshot wounds in his chest and head and his neck bore a deep gash from ear to ear. At first, the body was believed to be Bert Rusk. By the time investigators realized the dead man was really Billy Fee, aka William Moore, police in three states were on the hunt for the perpetrators.

Although Bert Rusk, John Keys, and Eva Dickinson were all arrested, no one was ever convicted of the murder. Rusk blamed Keys. Keys blamed Rusk. Eva accused Rusk and later Keys. She divorced Keys and married a house painter named Will Grable.

As for Billy Fee, legend says that his spirit was agitated, hungry for justice, and hanging around Lawrenceburg and the river spooking passersby. The first victim was a young man named Christie, who caught a boat one night from Lawrenceburg to Petersburg. According to the Enquirer [6 August 1891], just as the vessel passed the site of the murder:

“The boat had gone some distance down the river when Christie sprang to his feet and, with husky voice and dilated eyes, tremulously called attention to the shadows on the darkened waters, insisting he saw the murderers and their victim. Before he could be restrained he leaped over the side of the boat into the river.”

Christie was rescued, but the incident caused a stir among the river folk. As the New Year dawned, riverside residents of Lawrenceburg reported eerie hauntings almost every night. The Enquirer [11 January 1892] reported:

“These nocturnal visitors, according to the description given by those who claim to be eye-witnesses, give forth unearthly shrieks and groans that recall in a vivid and highly disagreeable manner the sounds heard by so many people the night of the brutal shanty-boat murder. It is said that shots are heard in rapid succession, and the flash of peculiar lights frequently seen as phantom figures flitter about in the awful stillness of the night.”

Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of Billy Fee’s restless ghost lay on the desk of Lawrenceburg City Clerk Joe Frazier. It was a flat stone, bearing a pattern that looked remarkably like a human face. The Enquirer [20 April 1899] described it:

“Under a magnifying glass the expression of the countenance is one of terror and appears to be that of a beardless young man. What adds interest to the strange tracings on the stone is the fact that it was found on the Kentucky side of the river at the ill-fated spot where Billy Fee, the victim of the shanty-boat murder some years ago, knelt and pleaded in vain with his heartless murderers to spare his life. The stone attracts considerable curiosity and superstition invests it with weird significance because of its being found in such a grewsome [sic] locality.”

Although his murderer was never brought to justice, Billie Fee’s body was eventually exhumed from a little graveyard in Hamilton, Kentucky. His remains were brought home to Cincinnati and buried at Old St. Joseph Cemetery in Price Hill.

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

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