This Day in History – March 27th, 1884

Cincinnati in the 1880s was a tough industrial city with a rising crime rate due, in part, to general dissatisfaction with labor conditions. The Cincinnati police force had 300 men and 5 patrol wagons. In this period they arrested 50 people for murder, but only four were hanged. By January 1st, 1884, there were twenty-three accused murderers in the jail. The political system was corrupt, with leaders notorious for controlling elections and manipulating judges and juries. In March 1884, the city was still reeling from a devastating flood the previous month when the river crested at 71.9 feet (21.9 m). A full page article published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on March 9, 1884, said: “Laxity of laws gives the Queen City of the West its crimson record. Preeminence in art, science, and industry avail nothing where murder is rampant and the lives of citizens are unsafe even in broad daylight.”

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Cartoon on the case from Harpers Weekly. Caption: A Murderer Hung in Time Saves Nine.

On December 24th, 1883, a young white German named William Berner and his accomplice, Joe Palmer, a man of mixed African and Caucasian descent, robbed and murdered their employer, a livery stable owner in the West End. The murderers dumped the body of their victim, William Kirk, near the Mill Creek in Northside. After the men had been arrested, 500 potential jurymen were called before Berner’s lawyer accepted the jury of twelve. After a prolonged trial, on March 26th, 1884 the jury returned a manslaughter verdict despite the testimony of seven different people to whom Berner had admitted his cold-blooded planning and execution of the murder. The judge, who gave a sentence of 20 years in prison, called the verdict “a damned outrage.” The next day, the newspapers called for a public meeting to condemn the verdict. Tried separately, Palmer was hanged.

A New York Times article, dated March 27th, 1884, reported that James Bourne, one of the jurors, had spent the previous night at Bremen-street police station after being threatened by a mob. Returning home on the morning of March 27th, a crowd threatened to hang him but was dispersed by the police. Later he was severely beaten and was again taken to the police station for his own safety. Another member of the jury, Charles Dollahan, was pelted with rotten eggs and dared not return home. Louis Havemeyer was told he was fired when he went to work. A crowd tore the blinds from the house of L Phillips in Liberty street, and threw dead cats and rotten eggs through the windows before discovering they had the wrong Phillips, not a member of the jury. The foreman of the jury, A. F. Shaw, had gone into hiding.

The next day rioting broke out in the streets of Cincinnati, but we shall visit that on March 28th . . .

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