Scruffy with fawn-colored medium-length fur, Cincinnati’s first police dog got his name, Handsome, a bit sarcastically. Some 120 years ago, Patrolman James “Big Jim” O’Neill found the abandoned furball on a bitter winter’s night shivering in a doorway in the rough-and-tumble and now long-gone downtown neighborhood called The Bottoms.
The oral history on Handsome is a little fuzzy, but every account says he made numerous arrests in his 14 years accompanying O’Neill and other patrolmen fighting crime along the city’s riverfront. We know O’Neill was killed on the job in 1915 and Handsome died some years before him, so Handsome patrolled the streets at some point between 1890 and 1910, back when The Bottoms was a place for the down and out. It was known as “rat row,” home to “rousters, tramps, no-accounts, and crooks,” according to one source, and “sausage row,” named less for Cincinnati’s thriving pork industry than for its basement brothels.
The neighborhood hadn’t always been so seedy. Earlier on, The Bottoms was Cincinnati’s gateway, where 19th century visitors stepped off their riverboats. Population and industry expanded in the 1870s, when Cincinnati was the second-largest U.S. center for steamboat construction, christening more than 50 steam-powered vessels a year. According to the neighborhood’s historical marker in Lytle Park, The Bottoms was “a dense urban neighborhood full of churches, full of people” that stretched from the riverbank north to Sixth Street, west to Walnut Street, and east to the foot of Mt. Adams.
In its heyday, The Bottoms was home to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, Pearl Street Market, and Spencer House Hotel, all since razed. Some recognizable Cincinnati names got their start there; the Lindner brothers owned an ice cream shop, and Buddy LaRosa sold produce on Pearl Street. The historical marker paints the picture of a safe neighborhood where people looked out for one another.
By the start of World War I, though, the shipyard business was almost nonexistent. Buildings sat vacant, and The Bottoms became a dangerous place.
As the stories go, Handsome would walk ahead of his police colleagues and had a nose for sniffing out crime. It was said the dog was once on the scent of a murderer and trotted off on his own. Not long after, his partners heard the faint sound of his barking. They traced the noise to a steamboat, where Handsome had cornered the man below deck in a dark hole.
Handsome is still around, you know. His police friends loved him so much that when the city’s top veterinarians couldn’t save Handsome and he died, they had him taxidermized. Stuffed Handsome guarded a hallway at police headquarters for years, spent some time on display at the Public Library and at the Fraternal Order of Police building, then was put in storage.
Today, the Greater Cincinnati Police Museum is Handsome’s keeper. That’s where he keeps an eye on a remarkable collection of historic police gear and equipment as well as what’s said to be the world’s largest collection of police badges. A bit of The Bottoms preserved.
Greater Cincinnati Police Museum, 308 Reading Rd., Suite 201, Pendleton, (513) 300-3664