Throughout the history of Cincinnati, there were a great many “occasions of sin” ready to entrap young people and reduce their moral fortitude to wicked ashes. Houses of prostitution and saloons obviously spread their snares, but so did billiard parlors, theaters, circuses and amusement parks. Modern readers may be shocked to learn that Cincinnati spent several decades concerned about the lures of temptation offered by the Public Library.
On first impression, one might believe that this concern had something to do with literature, because Cincinnati still gets in a huff about literature. It is true that early librarians had to regularly explain that contemporary novels were not intended to guide Cincinnati youth onto the primrose path to perdition. Although Cincinnati begrudgingly accepted modern fiction as somewhat acceptable reading matter for young people, “immoral” books were another matter entirely, as the Cincinnati Gazette [30 July 1881] thundered:
“ . . . there are upon the shelves of the Public Library, intended for general circulation, books of an improper character full of moral poison . . . the road to ruin begins, in many cases, right at the counter of the Public Library, an institution sustained by taxation and under the control of the Board of Education.”
But no, the really big concern about the Public Library was the ability of men and women to meet in the alcoves to plot sexual escapades of unimaginable depravity.
Blaming the head librarian Thomas Vickers for this lascivious behavior, an anonymous correspondent fired off an accusatory letter to the Cincinnati Enquirer [27 October 1874]:
“I am able to prove . . . that the Library Building is frequented by prostitutes, and that it is used as a place of assignation by young girls. It is a general rendezvous for people who are on the loose. I know a number of young men who boast of the facility which the Library has afforded them in their nefarious business – all under the administration of the austere Vickers.”
Librarian Vickers instituted strict rules to ensure that the sexes were separated as distantly as possible in the Library. Men and women, for instance, received the books they requested at separate desks, and women had a dedicated reading room to keep nefarious men away. Unfortunately, a necessary remodeling project resulted in men and women collecting books at the same desk, and the Cincinnati Daily Star [12 January 1878] despaired of the consequences for Queen City morals:
“It will be remembered that when Mr. Vickers was appointed Librarian, it was found necessary, from an existing evil – a tendency to make the Library a rendezvous for the purpose of carrying on flirtations between the sexes – to prevent, by railings and strict regulations, the intermingling of the sexes. By the new system these barriers are removed, and all sexes and conditions of humanity are now brought into direct contact. This will be regretted by many.”
Part of the difficulty in maintaining moral quarantine was the human element – specifically the inability of the guardians of morality to determine at a glance who was innocent and who was depraved. The Cincinnati Gazette [22 August 1874] asserted that the blame did not lie with the designated enforcers, the Library watchmen:
“They can distinguish between a man and a woman, but their eyes are not sufficiently educated to tell whether a certain woman is the wife of a certain man. They are obliged to enforce the letter of the law – to make all the men take the one side, and all the women the other. Nearly every day some man becomes incensed at these watchmen, but if the former will only consider a moment, they will see that the latter are only doing their duty.”
All of this worry might have been nothing but local tut-tutting had Cincinnati’s Public Library not featured in one of the most celebrated breach-of-promise lawsuits in the entire 19th Century. A young Kentucky maiden sued a United States Representative from Kentucky named W.C.P. Breckinridge. Congressman Breckinridge, according to the plaintiff, Madeline Pollard, stalked her while she was a student at Cincinnati’s Wesleyan College for Women. He talked her into accompanying him on a carriage ride, during which he molested her, then arranged an assignation the next day at the Cincinnati Public Library.
According to a book on the case, “The Celebrated Case of Col. W.C.P. Breckinridge and Madeline Pollard,” by Fayette Lexington, published in 1894, Pollard testified:
“I went to meet him at the public library, as he had promised that if I would come there the next day he would attend to that matter for me. I went to the library and he told me that he could not talk with me there, because the rules prohibited conversation, and suggested that I go with him in the cars to the house of a friend, where he could talk over my business with me and determine what could be done. He took me in the cars to a point as near George street as the cars ran—a neighborhood with which I was wholly unfamiliar, and in which I had never been—and walked with me to a house which he represented was the house of a friend of his. We were admitted and shown into a little parlor by a woman who then withdrew.”
George Street happened to be the epicenter of Cincinnati’s red light district, and the house Breckinridge took Pollard to was a brothel, in which he maintained her for several days before absconding with her to Lexington.
Breckinridge promised to marry Pollard after she bore him two children. She believed him so much that she published engagement announcements in several newspapers. He very publicly married another woman, so Pollard sued – and won.
All because of an assignation at the Cincinnati Public Library.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.