Cincinnati’s celebrated son, William Howard Taft, is recognized for many things. Among his accomplishments, he remains the only person to serve as both United States President as well as Chief Justice. But few remember another of “Big Bill’s” claims to fame: Crime Fighter.
It’s true. For a year or so following his graduation from the Cincinnati Law School, Taft served as Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Hamilton County. His duties were not confined to law books and the courtroom. The hefty young man put up his dukes when ruffians needed some discipline.
On September 11, 1881, a gang of four “young East End roughs,” all of them white, marched into Bucktown, then a largely African-American neighborhood. It was not a friendly visit.
The gang included David Butler, 17, Patrick Joy, 18, and Pete Scully, 18. Their leader, 21-year-old Fred Cambridge, gathered a pile of bricks and hurled one at any black man who walked by. A couple of Cincinnati Police officers nabbed Cambridge, but the rest of the hooligans scattered. The Cincinnati Commercial carried the second chapter of this arrest [12 September 1881]:
“A few minutes afterward Officer [John] Connelly saw Pat Joy rush out of a saloon on the corner of Eighth and Main, with a beer glass. He stopped to take him in and Dave Butler rushed out to his pal’s assistance. Pete Scully followed suit and for a brief period the air was full of bricks and bowlders. Officers Connelly and [Thomas] Ryan with the assistance of Prosecuting Attorney Wm. H. Taft, who happened to come along at that time, finally overcame the gang of roughs and steered them to the Hammond Street Station.”
It was not the only time young Mr. Taft brought a white man accused of attacking African-Americans to justice. In October 1881, Taft successfully prosecuted the case against William G. Meyers, stable boss on a railroad project in Mount Auburn, who shot and killed an African-American worker named Abraham Lewis. The case turned on Meyer’s racial animosity and a statement by Meyers, heard by several witnesses that he was “going to shoot one of those G-d d-n negroes” on the railroad crew. As Lewis rode by the stables, leading a group of mules, Meyers confronted him, apparently without provocation, and shot Lewis in the neck. Although Taft pushed for a conviction on second-degree murder, the court found Meyers guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to 15 years in the Ohio Penitentiary.
When he took on the Meyers trial, Taft had just concluded another trial in which he procured a conviction despite an unusual hostile witness in the person of the victim herself. Defendant Richard Harris was accused of attempting to kill his wife by slicing her throat. Harris had evicted his wife, Melinda, and young son, and she had taken refuge with her sister. After some months, Harris appeared at his sister-in-law’s, intoxicated, demanding to see his son. Melinda refused to see him and he barged into the house and grabbed her. Witnesses heard Melinda shout, “I am cut!” Harris ran from the house but was captured.
When Harris’ case came to trial, Melinda could not be found. Taft and his investigators located her living with her husband’s parents in Covington, and convinced her to appear in court, where she refused to confirm that her husband had injured her in any way. Despite Melinda’s refusal to cooperate, the jury found Harris guilty.
Perhaps the most sensational case young Bill Taft prosecuted involved Joseph Payton, accused of killing his lover, a young prostitute named Nellie Stickley, in 1878. A first attempt to convict Payton ended in a hung jury, and a new trial convened in 1881, with Taft handling the prosecution. A lengthy extract of his opening statement, published in the Cincinnati Gazette of February 18, 1881, demonstrates Taft’s skill as an orator:
“The girl, entering just upon the threshold of her young life, was taken off without a word of preparation, poor, fallen creature that she was, and ushered into the awful presence of her Maker. The defendant still lives, unpunished for the crime, at which human nature revolts, and it is for you, by your verdict, to stamp upon this crime the seal of your just condemnation.”
Thomas C. Campbell, responding for the defense, maintained that Taft was totally on the wrong track, since Payton was obviously insane. Attorney Campbell, in equally fervid oratory, made his lurid counter-argument:
“We expect to show, by medical testimony, founded upon numberless incidents of that character, that the defendant’s mind was diseased, and that he had hallucinations and manias, and that one of them was of a homicidal tendency; that he was in this condition of mind at the time of the killing; that his characteristics were those of a greater number of persons confined to-day in Longview and similar institutions in the country; that he was suffering greatly from sleeplessness, a sure accompaniment of insanity; that he was grossly addicted to masturbation; that he was a somnambulist, something which very often produces insanity, and showing a disordered mind.”
The jury bought Campbell’s argument and acquitted Payton on grounds of insanity. By all accounts, Taft took the defeat with equanimity. Campbell, however, was outraged when Payton, assigned to the Probate Court for evaluation, was judged completely sane and walked, a free man. Campbell wrote and published a booklet condemning the probate system in Hamilton County and accusing the sanity examiners of malfeasance.
After just a few years as prosecutor, Taft resigned to become Collector of Internal Revenue for the Cincinnati district, an appointment made personally by U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. When Taft appeared at his final court date, the Cincinnati Enquirer editorialized [2 February 1882]:
“Mr. Taft was very popular with every body connected with the Court, and his departure is very much regretted.”
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.