Two Sly Cincinnati Landlords Foiled by Spunky Shopkeeper

Two Sly Cincinnati Landlords Foiled by Spunky Shopkeeper
On the left side of this 1866 photograph of Cincinnati’s West End, next to the “Clifton House” sign, there is the long, low Sixth Street Market at the intersection with Central Avenue. A block north, at Seventh Street, Cincinnati seamstresses would have found Barbara Siebert’s notions shop.

By Walter S. Glazer, Digitized by the Cincinnati Historical Society Library and Archives and extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

Do not mess with Barbara Siebert. That is the lesson learned too late by landlords Joseph Zanoni and Peter Bichard in 1874.

Zanoni and Bichard ran a couple of saloons in Cincinnati in the 1870s. Peter’s was on Pearl Street near Main and Joseph’s was on Seventh Street, just west of Central. In addition to their saloons, the partners owned some real estate, including what the newspapers called a “water-proof shed” on Central Avenue, just around the corner from Joseph’s saloon. This one-story building they rented ten years earlier, in 1864, to Barbara Siebert.

Barbara, a widow, was born in France. She had a little boy named Eugene. Barbara and Eugene came to the United States around 1856 when Eugene was an infant and almost immediately moved to Cincinnati where Barbara is listed in the 1857 city directory as a seamstress. A few years later she opened a notions stand at the northeast corner of Fifth and Plum streets. “Notions” were small items used in sewing and would have included buttons, collar stays, bodkins, thimbles and such. When she moved into the hovel owned by Joseph Zanoni and Peter Bichard in 1864, Barbara opened her own notions shop at a permanent address. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [10 May 1874] business was so good, she soon expanded:

“Shortly after Barbara took possession of the place, at the beginning of the lease, she found the place smaller than the demands of her business required, and she added a story to it, giving her a bedroom or two up-stairs.”

Business remained good. Eugene did well in school. Barbara invested in her little building. The newspaper refers to her as an old lady but Barbara would have been only about 50 in 1874.

“After a few years, Barbara slapped on another story, atop the one which she had formerly put up, giving what was originally little more than a water-proof shed quite a respectable appearance, and adding to her stock of apartments two or three more.”

Indeed, the city directories list a couple of Barbara’s tenants. Her landlords were undoubtedly pleased by the improvements to their flimsy shack because, when Barbara’s ten-year lease was up, they refused to renew it under any terms. Zanoni and Bichard informed Barbara that the improvements she had made to their property were now theirs. She had to move out.

“Her indignation and disgust may be pictured when the hard-fisted proprietors flatly refused to again lease it to her, or even listen to any terms to that effect.”

So, Barbara Siebert hatched a plan. She would leave the place exactly as she found it. On the day the lease expired, she hired a crew of 20 carpenters.

“She said ‘nothing to nobody’ and at 2 o’clock Friday morning, as Messrs. Zanoni and Bichard were about turning in with their respective families, the sounds of tearing boards and falling splinters broke painfully on their ears, and so near that the thought rushed simultaneously to both of them that the old woman was carting off her two upper stories.”

Although this is surely journalistic exaggeration—Bichard lived out of earshot several blocks away—the landlords rushed to the scene and found the destruction almost complete.

“By the light of the stars and the street lamps they found about twenty men, each with a weapon of house destruction in his hands, and each busy in breaking away the boards and walls of Barbara’s improvement. Vain, vain to remonstrate.”

Zanoni and Bichard raged. They demanded to know if Barbara had consulted a lawyer before ordering this wholesale demolition.

“’I didn’t consult no lawyer when I put it up,’ calmly she answered, ‘and I guess I won’t consult one when I take it down.’”

The landlords did consult an attorney and went running to the younger Nicholas Longworth of King, Thompson and Longworth, who told them that the deed had been done and they had no recourse.

Barbara Siebert relocated to the other end of the block, just a bit south of Eighth Street on Central and re-opened her notions shop. She maintained that little shop for nearly 20 years, disappearing from the city directories about 1893 when she would have been about 70 years old.

Although Barbara claimed not to have consulted an attorney, that may not have been entirely true. According to the 1877 city directory, her son Eugene, still living at home, had hung out his shingle as a practicing attorney.

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

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