The scientist was German-born Fred Braun. There weren’t many like him in Cincinnati back in 1880, and there aren’t many like him today. Braun was a naturalist for hire. At the time, that meant he collected curious things for wealthy patrons. His primary Cincinnati patron was a prosperous liquor dealer.
Mr. Braun operated what he called a “naturalist agency” out of two buildings at 15 and 17 West Canal Street. That placed him on the south side of what is now Central Parkway, in the block immediately west of Main Street. According to the Cincinnati Gazette [15 June 1878]:
“The building, a four-story brick, is occupied by Frederick Braun, a dealer in geological specimens and other curiosities. He had the house full, from cellar to garret, with the greatest variety of telluric fragments . . . “
In an 1877 advertisement, Mr. Braun described in some detail what the Gazette reporter referred to as “telluric fragments.” In short, Mr. Braun collected, and sold, a lot of unusual stuff:
“This establishment has been opened for the purpose of selling, purchasing and facilitating the exchange of objects of Natural History and Archaeology. The main branches are, however, Palaeontology, Geology and Mineralogy. We have now such a well assorted stock of Minerals, Rocks and Fossils on hand, that we can furnish complete and systematical collections for Schools, Academies and Colleges, at short notice and at the most reasonable rates, and of any desired dimensions.”
In addition to tons of specimens, Mr. Braun also had what he thought was a secure lease to the premises. He did not appear to understand that he also had a new landlord. Braun had signed a two-year lease with the Cincinnati agent of the New York landowner. Shortly after Braun took occupancy, the New Yorker sold the property to Anna Miller and her husband Lawrence. It is not clear whether the New Yorker knew (or cared) whether he already had a tenant.
Anna Miller wanted her building emptied immediately and fired off several increasingly threatening letters to Mr. Braun, who ignored them because he was not aware that the building had been sold. The matter came to a head on Friday, 14 June 1878 when, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer:
“ . . . without any previous warning, a Constable and posse of men came to Braun’s house, about seven o’clock, and began removing his things, Braun claims, with unnecessary haste, causing him considerable loss. The Constable, who does not appear to have much respect for fossils, threw Braun’s large collection out into the street, and Braun charges that he wanted to wake his children up and take away their bed, but was restrained by the remonstrances of Mrs. Braun.”
Injunctions flew in several directions and the long and short of the legal kerfuffle required Braun to move, but gained him a couple of months to do so. He and his family and his telluric fragments moved to a house at the bottom of Ravine Street.
Why was Mrs. Miller in such a hurry to throw Mr. Braun’s geologic specimens – which turned out to be quite valuable – into the street? What did she want to do with the two buildings on the south bank of the canal? A glance through the old city directories reveals that Lawrence and Anna Miller were very familiar with these buildings. From 1870 to 1875, Lawrence Miller ran a saloon at 15 West Canal. It appears that the Millers wanted to return to a prosperous location.
That is exactly what happened. Under Anna’s name, 15 West Canal Street is listed as either a wine house or saloon from 1879 until 1884. At least, that’s what the city directories say. The United States Census of 1880 uncovers a somewhat different purpose for this property. Anna Miller is recorded as living at 15 West Canal Street, upstairs from the saloon, but 17 West Canal Street – the building formerly containing Fred Braun’s collection of geological specimens – is clearly identified as a brothel. The census records five prostitutes and the three-year-old daughter of one of the “frail sisters” living there.
Is it possible that Anna Miller, living next-door and running her saloon had no idea what was going on? Not according to the newspapers. As early as May 1879 and as late as August 1883, Anna Miller was regularly arrested for keeping a house of prostitution at that address. And it’s not as though Anna’s occupation was unknown when she evicted the law-abiding Fred Braun and his family. Anna’s rap sheet as a madam or prostitute extends back to 1868.
After 1884, Anna Miller’s trail goes cold. Businesses other than prostitution took over the buildings on West Canal Street. By then, it was too late for Fred Braun. He had moved on to New York, where he had a sweet deal providing specimens to the Yale University Museum. Mr. Braun died in 1918 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 77 and known as the oldest American dealer in fossils, according to an obituary in the American Journal of Science [October 1919]:
“He was often employed by individuals and museums to make collections of fossils, or to arrange and label their material. He was an indefatigable collector, willing to go anywhere, under the most trying of conditions, and his results were always good. He was, however, an independent character who would do things only in his own way, and for this reason he never reaped the reward that might and should have been his. The finest specimens he laid away for his private collection, always hoping to sell it intact to some institution as the Fred Braun Collection. No one, however, was able to purchase it in his time, but it is to be hoped that the collection will be acquired by one of our larger museums.”
While he still lived in Cincinnati, Fred Braun was honored by an amateur paleontologist named S.A. Miller who named a newly discovered fossil Holocystites brauni in recognition of Braun’s contributions to the study of local fossils. It was Braun, in fact, who found this previously unidentified fossil and gave the specimen to S.A. Miller. Who was this S.A. Miller? Why, he was Fred Braun’s attorney, the man who tried to stop Anna Miller from evicting Braun and his family.
In 1878, in Cincinnati, in other words, a prostitute and a scientist walked into a courtroom and the prostitute won.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.