Cincinnati Police Sergeant Edward C. “Doc” Hill was a big guy. The 1890 history of the Cincinnati Police Department reported that he stood six feet one inch tall and weighed 246 pounds. In a department of mustachioed officers, he boasted a full array of mutton-chop sideburns.
“Doc” was, in other words, a natural Santa Claus, so it was no surprise that the Camp Washington Methodist Episcopal Church recruited him for Christmas duty at the party they organized for their Sunday School classes.
Sergeant Hill was something of a celebrity in Cincinnati. He was the son of “Squire” Francis Hill of Pleasant Ridge, a well known suburban magistrate, and had a reputation for scrupulous honesty. He was especially tough on illegal gambling operations, but also turned in some dishonest cops. “Doc” was 38 years old before he joined the police force. He had worked as a salesman and auctioneer and so was put in charge of the annual police auctions of unclaimed items.
On Christmas Eve in 1890, Sergeant “Doc” Hill reported for duty as “Santa pro tem” at the Camp Washington Methodist Episcopal Church on the northwest corner of Sidney and Hopple streets, where the Reverend J.W. Magruder served as pastor.
The church had a jolly event arranged for the Sunday School children. After games and songs, the highlight of the occasion would be Santa himself, dropping down the chimney with a sack of toys. In order to keep the room warm, there was a fire in the real fireplace. For Santa’s entrance, the Sunday School built a temporary fireplace and chimney on another wall. Inside the chimney was a set of rough ladder-like steps, so “Doc” could lower himself to the floor.
Unfortunately, the folks who built the temporary chimney neglected to take measurements from Sergeant Hill. He had no sooner begun his descent into a room filled with gleeful children when his substantial girth plus costume padding obstructed the entire flue.
Santa was stuck.
In addition to his other talents, Sergeant Hill apparently had quite an extensive and colorful vocabulary, which he drew upon to communicate his immobility, employing, no doubt, his finest auctioneer voice. The Cincinnati Enquirer [26 December 1890] reported this diatribe with creative euphemism:
“When the bogus Santa Claus made his downward plunge and got jammed, he began to recite the lamentations of Jeremiah in long meter and then switched off into the orthodox ceremony prescribed for those in danger of death at sea.”
Volunteers rushed to rescue the imprisoned Saint Nicholas, if only to quiet the flood of contumely washing over the tender ears of the gathered youngsters. Someone grabbed a hatchet and began chopping at a board, hoping to pry it loose. Regrettably, the effort only pried loose a ten-penny nail and drove it into Santa’s leg. Then he really turned up the volume:
“He had just begun the Psalms of David when the iron entered his soul (only it wasn’t his soul) and he at once emitted a screech that could be heard from Dan to Beersheba if he had shouted in the Holy Land.”
Impaled or not, Santa managed to wriggle enough that he dropped a couple of feet, exposing the audience to a peculiar sight:
“By a violent effort he descended far enough to show the best part of his manly legs in the fireplace. The pants remained above, and the spectators below—the good little boys and girls—saw only a pair of gyrating red flannel indescribables, at the end of which were a gigantic pair of Arctics with brass buckles and fur (rabbit skin) trim.”
Confronted by the red flannel underwear and overcome by the explosion of invective from inside the chimney, the little children came to a disturbing conclusion:
” . . . the impression that took hold on the little ones was that the Evil One had been captured in the attempt to steal their presents.”
The roomful of children erupted in shrieks of panic and fled the scene. The adults, now convinced that they had slain the poor police sergeant, followed.
Finally, Santa’s pants ripped and he flopped down onto the Yule log, slicing a gash in his flannel-covered posterior. Most of his costume remained wedged in the chimney above. Sergeant Hill called a patrol wagon to cart himself home to Northside, where a doctor patched his wounds.
The children recovered as well, but they had a Christmas memory they never forgot.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities