The scam was called the “injured husband racket” or “badgering,” but the occupants 145 Elm Street in Cincinnati played the dodge with some fascinating twists.
Here is how it worked in Cincinnati in the 1890s: A woman walked the streets until she found a likely target—a well-dressed man of visible means who appeared to be looking for a good time. The woman told the man that she was respectable, not one of those unsavory prostitutes, but she was lonely because her husband was out of town and she would enjoy some company. They repaired to her place and got comfortable when, to her apparent surprise, her husband burst in and confronted the home-wrecker. After a scuffle, the victim agreed to turn over all of his cash and jewelry to keep everything quiet, and to get away unharmed.
The building at 145 Elm was conveniently located near lots of men of means looking for a good time. It was two blocks east of a big railway station and two blocks west of the Chamber of Commerce. The entire block, on the west side of Elm south of Fourth Street, is now occupied by the 1906 Renaissance Revival-styled Textile Building.
In the 1890s, a row of two- and three-story frame buildings crammed into this block opposite Benham Alley. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [19 October 1891]:
“No. 145 Elm Street is a three-story stone-front house with an attic, and is situated on the west side of the street, two doors below Fourth. The rooms are rented to all classes, but most of them are prostitutes of the street-walking order.”
One evening, a somewhat elderly gentleman who identified himself as Dr. Henderson of Seventh Street rang the bell. He asked for a girl named Lottie but a woman who identified herself as Mrs. McGraw told Dr. Henderson that Lottie was not available. Mrs. McGraw informed the doctor that her husband was also out and invited the good doctor to accompany her upstairs. He did so. After the usual preliminaries, Dr. Henderson disrobed and climbed into bed.
“In a few minutes, there was a loud rap at the door, and the woman yelled ‘Oh, here comes my husband!’ The husband did come. He is a little wiry fellow who says his name is Jim McGraw. When he saw a man in his bed and his wife in the room, he became desperate.”
McGraw grabbed the doctor by the throat and began berating his outrageous behavior. It appears that McGraw miscalculated on two factors. First, Dr. Henderson had some experience in how things worked. Second, Dr. Henderson may have had some years, but he was no frail old man.
“Henderson did not look at it that way. He did not think it was on the square so he began to fight back. Even if he is an old man he is still able to give up a good scrap. He struck out right and left and the injured husband was floored.”
Amid the fracas and the screaming someone called the police and the trio ended up at Central Police Station where no one was surprised that not one of them wanted to press any kind of charges. (And you will not be surprised to learn that no city directory at the time lists a “Dr. Henderson” at all, much less one on Seventh Street.) Everybody was released by the police.
The lieutenant in charge, however, became suddenly very curious about 145 Elm Street and sent Sergeant Edward Hill and Officer Aloysius Stenger around to check it out. They found the janitor, who proved very cooperative and suggested the cops visit two young ladies occupying the front rooms on the first floor. They claimed to be married, said the janitor, but they had an awful lot of gentleman callers every evening. Hill and Stenger followed the tip and found Hazel Armstrong and Lillian Rafferty demurely seated at a table reading in their parlor.
“They had their hats and clothes on, and appeared to be trying to hide someone. The officers suspected that there were some men in the rooms and started to search for them. The officers looked under the bed, in the closets and every other place, but could find no men. The officers noticed the girls throwing glances to one of the doors and Sergeant Hill looked behind it and discovered a wardrobe.”
It was an ordinary looking piece of shabby furniture but, when Sergeant Hill opened the left-hand door, he almost fell into the basement. There was a hole cut into the wardrobe and through the floor, creating a chute with a 15-foot drop.
“Before taking the girls to the station house the officers went down-stairs in the basement and found the outlet of the chute. It was into a dirty room occupied by an old woman who said she did not know who put the chute there or what it was used for. She did say, however, that she had seen men come down the chute and run out into the street as the room occupied by her faces right on the sidewalk.”
As Armstrong and Rafferty lured men back to their place, they convinced their victims to hide in the wardrobe when the “injured husband” pounded on the door. Falling to the basement, the victims fled rather than return to the upstairs to regain their wallets while confronting the angry “husband.”
The newspaper reported that a man nicknamed “Riverside Heiny” had been dropped through the chute at 145 Elm and that a prostitute named Mamie Morris was robbing men at that address.
The very nice Textile Building now sitting on that block was built to consolidate all of Cincinnati’s major textile manufacturers and dealers in one location. It appears that the “injured husband racket” had succeeded in consolidating many of its major players 15 years earlier.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities