This Day in History – March 29th, 1884

The Cincinnati riots of 1884, also known as the Cincinnati Courthouse riots, were caused by public outrage over the decision of a jury to return a verdict of manslaughter in a clear case of murder. A mob in Cincinnati, Ohio, United States attempted to find and lynch the perpetrator. In the violence that followed over the next few days, over 50 people died and the courthouse was destroyed. It was one of the most destructive riots in American history.


On March 29th, 1884, the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper supported the rioters in its Saturday morning edition, with a headline saying “At Last The People Are Aroused And Take The Law Into Their Own Hands, Enraged Community Rises In Its Might”. However, the civic leaders, who had at first supported the vigilante action, became alarmed. They suspected that the mob was led by socialists and anarchists, the “dangerous classes”. Although the Governor of Ohio, George Hoadly, was asked to call for reinforcements, he moved slowly and did not order deployment of additional militia units until 5PM on the Saturday. Many of the guards failed to report for duty. Some of the 1st regiment soldiers even participated in the riot. The out of town soldiers, who did obey orders, were unable to reach Cincinnati in time to prevent escalating violence by rioters who had been paid that day, and had spent their money in the bars.


During the day, the defenders of the jail erected barriers in the surrounding streets, improvised from vehicles, construction materials, grindstones and barrels of salt. The militia abandoned the armory and moved to the jail with all the arms and ammunition. The jail was now extremely crowded and ill-equipped to feed the occupants. Two to three hundred policemen were present, although they refused to play an active role in the fighting, as well as 117 local militiamen and the criminals resident in the jail.


In the evening, the mob gathered again in front of the courthouse and the jail. A gunfight broke out, lasting several hours. The crowd managed to set fire to the courthouse and blocked attempts by firemen to put out the blaze. The courthouse was destroyed. Rioters also started breaking into nearby stores. One store owner and his assistants shot three looters dead. Eventually reinforcements started to arrive by train. A force of 300 militia from Dayton met the crowd three blocks from the jail but then retreated back to the railway station. A more resolute force of 425 militia from Columbus arrived around 11PM armed with a Gatling gun, managing to clear the streets around the jail and courthouse. However, fighting continued elsewhere in the city until 3AM.

The following day, on March 30th, 1884 the Cincinnati Enquirer changed its tune, and in its Sunday morning edition described “Fire and Fury, The Reign of Terror” and “Awful Scenes in Cincinnati”. The riots resumed later on Sunday despite growing numbers of troops. There was one more assault on the militia before calm returned to the city. The Secretary of War Robert Lincoln had called out U.S. troops. When they arrived, there was little for them to do apart from remaining on call in case of further trouble. The rioters had returned to work and calm had been restored. In the course of the riots, 56 people had died and over 300 had been wounded.

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