The Cahill brothers, Robert and William, were on their way to a dance at the old Central Turner Hall on Walnut Street when they met the clowns.
The Cahills, along with their friends John Finley, Ernest Bratt, Robert Hackett and Clarence Weise, were walking along State Street in Lower Price Hill, heading for the street car on Eighth Street. Along the way, they came upon three men dressed in clown costumes.
One of the Cahill group asked one of the clowns, “Don’t I know you?” and tried to raise his mask. At that point, pushing and shoving escalated into a full-blown fistfight. Witnesses reported one of the Cahill group shouting, “Let’s clean up on the clowns!” as the six men began beating the three costumed revelers. The Cahills said the clowns started it all, according to The Cincinnati Post [1 Nov 1921]:
“One of the clowns challenged Robert Cahill to battle, police said. The offer was accepted. The two engaged in a terrific fist fight. The clown was worsted. He backed off a few feet and drew his pistol. He fired seven shots.”
A witness, Morris Vangerovsky, a real estate broker with offices in the nearby Second National Bank building, told a different tale, according to the Post.
“According to Vangerovsky, Cahill attacked the stranger, who ran about 100 feet, with Cahill pursuing. When the latter overtook the clown, the latter drew his revolver and fired, the broker said.”
Killed instantly in the shooting was 20-year-old Joseph Clark, who lived nearby and was walking home as the fight broke out. Both of the Cahills were wounded. According to the Post:
“Clark was an innocent bystander. He was on his way home when he saw the fight between the Cahills and the three clowns. The first shot struck Clark in the right breast. Robert Cahill was shot in the right side under the arm, right side of the abdomen, left hip and in the back. Wm. Cahill was struck in the right side of the neck by one of the bullets.”
Robert Cahill’s wounds proved fatal. He died a week after the shooting.
The clowns fled down Hatmaker Street. A short time later and several blocks north of the shooting, a man masked as a clown ran into the Half-Way House bar at 1434 State Avenue to wash his face. He told those present he had been attacked.
To complicate matters, police who responded to the shooting found a fourth clown, “wandering in a dazed condition” near the scene of the shooting. She turned out to be a very inebriated Mrs. Billie McDowell, who ran a rooming house on Vine Street. Mrs. McDowell was so intoxicated, she thought she was in Newport and was thoroughly confused by officers asking about three other clowns.
Acting on a tip, Cincinnati Police the next day visited the F.H. Lawson metalworking plant on Evans Street just north of Eighth Street. There they arrested William Shewmaker on a charge of murder, with two affidavits alleging shooting to kill. Held as witnesses were two fellow Lawson employees, Lucien Moore, and Turner Hensley. They were the other clowns.
Shewmaker claimed self-defense. Hensley backed him up:
“We did not start anything. We were walking along State-av. when a gang jumped us after a remark had been made. We were outnumbered and badly beaten. Shewmaker was given the worst beating. Fearing we were going to be beaten worse, we spread out and started running. I was nearly to Hatmaker-st. when I heard some shots. I didn’t know who fired the shots and kept on running.”
Shewmaker told police he, Moore and Hensley had planned to take a ferry to a party in Ludlow, Kentucky. The weather turned rainy and the trio changed their minds. They were on their way to a street car when the altercation began.
“They overtook me at Hatmaker-st., where they jumped on my back, crowding me against a building. They struck me with their fists and beat me with umbrellas. I felt my strength going and, fearing they would kill me, I pulled out my automatic and fired.”
The case did not come to trial until September 1921. William Cahill was the star witness for the prosecution, but several witnesses testified that the Cahills started the fight. Shewmaker’s attorney, Froome Morris, claimed his client tried to avoid bloodshed:
“Shewmaker’s first two shots went into the ground to frighten the gang, but instead of being frightened the assailants thought he was shooting blank cartridges and persisted in their assault. It was then Shewmaker shot at his assailants.”
The jury couldn’t reach a verdict. They reportedly voted eleven against and only one in favor of conviction on second-degree murder. Failing that, they split evenly on a manslaughter charge, with six voting for acquittal. An effort to convict on assault and battery also failed to find a unanimous vote.
Shewmaker, Cincinnati’s killer clown, walked.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities