Who Would You Least Expect To Find At An 1871 Sabbath-School Picnic In Cincinnati?


When a Cincinnati congregation organized a Sabbath-school picnic in 1871, they sold tickets and arranged for a steamboat to carry everyone upriver to the picnic grounds. It was there that the church elders discovered, to their surprise, a real, live madam, proprietress of one of Cincinnati’s many brothels, accompanied by one of the prostitutes who worked in her house. What to do? What to do?

The Cincinnati Commercial [13 June 1871] doesn’t identify the church involved in this story, but other evidence suggests it was the Methodist Episcopal Christie Chapel on Court Street in the southern West End.

Before it was marketed as “The Coney Island of the West,” Parker’s Grove was a popular picnic venue for Cincinnati organizations, with regular service by steamboat from downtown.

Digitized by the Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/cph863/

A class leader from the Sabbath school canvassed the neighborhood, selling tickets to the upcoming picnic, to be held at Parker’s Grove – the forerunner of Coney Island. This energetic salesman found himself on Eighth Street, where he rapped upon the door of a woman identified by the Commercial only as “Madam B____.” She was reluctant, but bought four tickets on account of her mother “who is an old lady and quite religiously inclined.” The madam suspected the Sabbath school might not want her company. She told the newspaper reporter:

“Well, I asked the Brother when I took the tickets for mother, another relative, Sis here, and myself, if there would be any trouble getting on the boat. He said no if my mother was with me.”

The quartet showed up at the foot of Fifth Street at 8:00 a.m. on the appointed day and there was, in fact, no difficulty at all getting on the boat. One of the brethren even took the madam’s hand and helped her aboard. Once aboard, “Sis,” one of the “working girls” who populated Madam B_____’s brothel, was invited to join the Sabbath school students in a game of Copenhagen. Since today’s young people spend far too much time staring at computer screens and not enough engaged in wholesome recreation, we provide this description of Copenhagen as recorded in Champlin’s and Boswick’s, 1890 book, The Young Folk’s Cyclopædia Of Games And Sports:

“Copenhagen, a game played by any number of persons, who stand in a circle holding a rope whose ends are tied together. One of the players stands in the middle of the ring, and tries to slap the hands that hold the rope, using only one of his own hands at a time. The players must always hold the rope with at least one hand, and can try to escape being slapped only by changing hands rapidly, taking hold first with one and then with another. If anyone’s hand is slapped or he lets the rope go altogether, he must take the place of the one in the ring. As the game is often played, a girl tries to slap only boys’ hands and a boy only girls’ hands, and when a hand is slapped the players kiss as they change places.”

Kissing was something that Sis knew all about and she also knew about boys and their inclinations. She declined to join the Copenhagen circle:

“I was in the Sabbath-school business only a year or two ago myself, and I know how this game works and what the effect is when they get to hugging and kissing. I was afraid I’d forget myself and let out a naughty word if the young men got too rough.”

The trip up the Ohio River passed uneventfully and the boat soon headed into shore at Parker’s Grove. It was only at this point that an elderly committeeman approached Madam B_____ and Sis and informed them that they would not be permitted to go ashore. The madam was outraged:

“I said, ‘In the name of God, what have we done?’ We were dressed modestly, and we went there to enjoy ourselves decently. We went on the invitation of one of the brethren. We had paid our way, and they had taken us aboard. They said we were improper characters. I got mad then, and let out that there were several of their church men, and women and girls along that were as improper as I am.”

The church refused to refund their money, and then the captain of the boat weighed in and announced the madam and her employee could not stay on the boat. Between the two prohibitions, they couldn’t go ashore nor could they remain on the boat.

“The only thing they’d allow us to do was to get in the yawl and go down to the ‘dummy’ car (rail line) or go out and meet the Fleetwood (another river boat). Finally they hustled us into the yawl. The bottom was full of water, and we got our feet wet. We both were crying. We had never heard of human beings in a country like this being treated that way for simply behaving themselves.”

What really galled Madam B_____, she said, was the hypocrisy. She had once attended church, even while running her “resort,” and was always welcomed as long as she brought her purse:

“They never talked about me being an improper character so long as I dropped the dollar bills into the bag. And – well, I could tell you things about the brethren that would make you stare.”

You will not be surprised, dear reader, to learn that no one from the church stepped forward to ask for a correction to this story after it was published by the Commercial.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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