Cincinnati Sheriff John Ludlow hanged James Mays on October 26, 1792 from a gallows erected on Fifth Street a little east of Walnut. According to Charles Greve’s Centennial History of Cincinnati, the hanging on the south side of what is now Government Square was a popular spectacle:
“The execution was public, as all such affairs were at that time, and the people gathered from every direction to see it. Excursions were brought into the city and many came as far as fifty miles to be present.”
Mays earned the distinction of being the first civilian executed in Hamilton County by stabbing his friend, Matthew Sullivan, during a drunken argument. Although the first civilian, Mays was not the first local execution. William L. DeBeck, in his anonymously published book, Murder Will Out, credits the U.S. Army, based at Fort Washington, with sentencing death by firing squad:
“The first capital punishment ever meted out in our city, was in 1789, when two soldiers, named John Avers and Matthew Ratmore, were shot at the south-east end of Fort Washington, in the eastern part of this city, for desertion. Of course, the records, and even the particulars of the affair, have long since been lost, and the only evidence of the matter we now have, are the traditions handed down from the old pioneers who witnessed the execution.”
Cincinnati’s pioneers witnessed a fair number of executions and other public punishments. In its early days, Cincinnati didn’t even have a proper courthouse. According to pioneer citizen Jacob Burnet:
“A room in the tavern of George Avery, near the frog-pond, at the corner of Main and Fifth streets, had been rented for the accommodation of the Courts; and as the penitentiary system had not been adopted, and Cincinnati was a seat of justice, it was ornamented with a pillory, stocks and whipping-post, and occasionally with a gallows.”
The citizens enjoyed watching criminals endure their punishments and became outraged when they did not get a good show.
In 1807, Cincinnati was riveted by the trial of one Charles Vattier, who was convicted of stealing thousands of dollars of public money from the office of a local official. He was sentenced to prison and to receive 10 lashes. On the day he was to be whipped, Vattier was led out by a troop of light infantry and stood on the whipping platform while the sheriff read a letter from Ohio’s acting governor. According to the Liberty Hall newspaper [26 May 1807] the acting governor raised some legal concerns about Vattier’s conviction and granted a full pardon from the whipping. Vattier was led back to his cell, but:
“The public mind seemed much dissatisfied with the interference of the acting governor: an effigy was hoisted on the platform, and the 10 stripes were laid on it; after which it was burned amidst the shouts of a multitude of spectators, who immediately retired, without the least appearance of riot.”
Vattier escaped corporal punishment, but Cincinnati got to watch plenty of whippings. One early settler recalled the sheriff inflicting “forty stripes save one,” upon a woman convicted of setting fire to haystacks, while another recorded the same punishment applied to another woman guilty of theft. A man named Paddy Grimes earned 29 lashes for stealing some vegetables. Sometimes, according to historian Charles Greve, sentences involved more than one punishment:
“A discharged soldier, Peter Kerrigan, married Mary Murphy without publishing the banns; thereupon William Maxwell, the owner of the Spy [Cincinnati’s early newspaper], who felt that he was entitled to the advertisement, caused him to be arrested and Peter received 10 stripes on the bare back and stood four hours in the public pillory and went to jail for three months.”
Most whippings were administered by the sheriff or town jailer but, sometimes, according to Charles Greve, the citizenry believed that official justice was too lenient and added some of their own:
“Abraham Mezmer was so fond of matrimony that he married two women. He got 75 lashes and was confined for 90 days and fed on bread and water only. At the end of his imprisonment some of his second wife’s early admirers furnished him with a coat of tar and feathers and rode him out of town on a rail. Both wives married again and their children became prominent citizens.”
Even before Cincinnati had a proper courthouse, it had a jail. Most inmates were imprisoned for debt, rather than criminal activity. The jail was run by a man named Levi McClean (or McLean) who was relatively indulgent unless he was in his cups. According to pioneer Samuel Stitt:
“The first jail was on Water street, west of Main. It could be readily seen from the river.
The debtors and criminals were all shut up together; but in daylight the jailer allowed them the liberty of the neighborhood, they taking care, whenever the sheriff was about, to make tracks to the jail as rats to their holes. There was a whipping-post, when I came to Cincinnati, about one hundred feet west of Main, and fifty feet south of Fifth street, near the line of Church alley. Levi McClean, the jailer, did the whipping. I saw a woman whipped for stealing. McClean would get drunk, at times, and in these frolics would amuse himself by whipping, with a cowhide, the prisoners in jail, all round, debtors as well as criminals.”
Public hangings continued in Cincinnati until 1867. After that, punishment for capital offenses moved to the state penitentiary in Columbus.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities