Reckless soldiers, pork plants, citizen riots: there are a lot of ways a municipal courthouse can be destroyed, and over the years Cincinnati’s Hamilton County Courthouse has been the victim of all three. Most “burned counties” have been the victims of accidental fire or flood; many in the Southern states were destroyed during the Civil War. Cincinnati’s dramatic history begs the question: perhaps we should be storing archival records somewhere a lot more boring than a courthouse? Something to consider.
The Thrice-Burned Cincinnati Courthouse of Hamilton County, Ohio
Establishing a court of justice is one of the first significant steps a growing community makes as it becomes a municipality. Cincinnati started early, in 1790. Hamilton County’s first courthouse established what is now downtown Cincinnati’s Government Square. This first courthouse was a log cabin built by volunteers, with a whipping post planted in front so residents could observe the direct application of justice. There was no jail at the time, so whipping was the only real punishment the court could offer. The log cabin courthouse served Hamilton County until 1802, when the booming city constructed a new, two-story limestone building complete with cupolas and a large wooden dome, but during the War of 1812, when soldiers were stationed there to use the building as a barracks, they accidentally set fire to it and it was destroyed.
The city found a new site at the intersection of (naturally) Court Street and Main Street and got to work replacing the building by 1819. By 1849 Cincinnati’s dominance in the pork-processing industry had imparted the nickname “Porkopolis” to the city and unfortunately, a fire that began in a nearby pork plant leaped across the rooftops to the courthouse’s rebuilt dome and the entire building went up in flames.
This time, Cincinnati was determined to rebuild differently. Using more fireproof materials such as limestone, marble, and steel, the building was a massive three-story edifice built at the cost of nearly $700,000, a massive expenditure for the time. It opened in 1862. It lasted only 22 years.
In 1884 Cincinnati became the site of one of the nation’s worst civil conflagrations, after years of political corruption in the city led to a riot involving tens of thousands of Cincinnati’s citizens, police force, and National Guard. It started with a trial.
Cincinnati’s city government had been corrupt for decades. After the Civil War, the Democrats and Republicans came together to form a thoroughly crooked coalition in which politicians on all sides were bought and paid for. In a scheme similar to those taking place in New York City’s Tammany Hall, parties approached elections as a competition between who could pay for the most voters, and how frequently they voted on the day. By 1884 law and order existed only sporadically in Cincinnati, with severe punishments mostly directed at people of color. Criminals regularly walked free. The Cincinnati Enquirer dubbed its city the “College of Murder” and locals were disgusted by the failure of government.
The 1884 trial of William Berner brought all these issues to a head. Berner and an accomplice, Joe Palmer, were charged with the murder of livery stable owner William Kirk, a respected local businessman, during their armed robbery of his business. Berner was quickly arrested. At his trial, seven individuals testified that Berner had confessed both his premeditated intentions to murder Kirk as well as admitting his guilt after the fact. When the jury returned with a verdict of manslaughter, not murder, even the judge recognized something was fishy, calling the verdict “a damned outrage.” The jury had been bribed but the decision stood. Word spread quickly.
The following night, 28 March 1884, thousands of people rallied at the city’s Music Hall to condemn the verdict and the city’s corruption in general. When the rally ended, those thousands poured out on the downtown city streets and began marching to the courthouse. Their intention was to take justice into their own hands by breaking into the courthouse with the intention to lynch Berner and Palmer.
The prisoners had already been moved to safety. But the rioters were determined to leave their mark, tearing the building apart using battering rams and kerosene. Ten thousand people participated in the riot, leaving many wounded and five dead, including one police officer.
But the riot wasn’t over. The next evening a mob of thousands of citizens returned to the streets to protest. By this time the Governor of Ohio had reluctantly called up the National Guard to assist the local police force, but many of them either stayed home or joined the riot themselves. With almost all police forces protecting the jail and its prisoners (nearby the courthouse), the courthouse itself was left undefended. Rioters broke in, ransacked the building, and set it ablaze. The crowd only abated in the early hours of the morning when the Cincinnati police brought in a Gatling gun, one of the earliest machine guns, to use on the crowd. Several people died that night and the rest finally went home.
By the following day, Sunday 30 March, the anger of the people was still red-hot. Generalized rioting and looting broke out all over the city. By evening some of the rioters were targeting the soldiers defending the jail. They were met with volleys of machine-gun fire into the crowd by the soldiers, and were finally dispersed.
When it was all over on Monday morning, hundreds of civilians had been wounded, approximately 50 people were dead, and the National Guard itself had lost two soldiers and incurred approximately 40 casualties. Berner, a white German immigrant, had managed to escape during the riot but was re-arrested shortly thereafter and sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 12 before being released and disappearing into history. His associate, Joe Palmer, who was biracial, was tried separately and sentenced to death by hanging. The gruesome spectacle of Palmer’s botched hanging (it did not go quickly) convinced local lawmakers to move future executions to the less-public venue of the Ohio State Penitentiary. Joe Palmer was the last person executed in Hamilton County.
In 1919 a new Hamilton County Courthouse was unveiled in Cincinnati. 102 years later, it remains standing today. It still houses many of the county’s vital records (some have been transferred to the archives at the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Historical Society), but almost nothing before the 1884 riots exists, making Hamilton one of the many "burned" counties across the country.
One week after the riots a scheduled election took place in Cincinnati. Most of the incumbents, the same politicians whose corruption sparked the citizens’ outrage, won.
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“Burned County” Research - Did the Stories of Your Ancestors Truly Go Up in Flames?
The term “burned county” was first used in reference to the burning of courthouse buildings in the Southern states by Union troops during the Civil War and the ensuing record loss. However, the Civil War was not the only reason for loss of records, and the phrase “burned county” has now come into common use for any county where there was a significant loss of records, whether it be by fire or disaster (both the natural or man-made types). Now the dreaded words are not the bane reserved for those researching in the Southern states only.
When researching in a “burned county,” think outside the box; it may be possible to rebuild from the ashes, so to speak, compiling the “lost” information from alternative sources. Just because the record you would traditionally seek is no longer extant, it doesn’t mean that the information that you hoped that record would provide has been lost as well. It was the county [records] that were destroyed, not all possible documents, so seek records that were maintained at the city, district, state or federal level. Also, make sure that the research extends to identifying exactly which records were damaged or lost, as it is common that at least a portion of records survived. Keep in mind that some county records were also reported to the state, such as vital records, and duplicate copies may be available.
Learn about the county history and geography, including boundary changes. A comprehensive understanding of the locality, including a timeline of major events, can prove extremely useful in identifying alternate records and archives to pursue. It is common to find records for ancestors outside of the county of residence. For example, if an ancestor lived near the county line, they may have conducted business in the town nearest them, which may have actually been located in a neighboring county. Natural obstacles, such as a creek or river that flooded regularly, were another reason that ancestors would “seek the path of least resistance,” documenting events in an alternate jurisdiction. Less restrictive laws, such as younger age requirements or shorter wait periods, provided reason for many young couples to cross state lines to get married. In the case of an elopement, crossing county lines and traveling to an area where someone was less likely to know their parents was another common marriage scenario.
Land was the most important asset, so it was important that ownership and boundaries were recorded. Following a disaster, the landowners would often bring their personal copies of deeds to the county courthouse to be re-recorded, so even though the original records were lost, the property record may still be found, just recreated at a later date. Re-recordings sometimes include records for marriages or other events that may have had a financial impact. Don’t overlook delayed recordings, sometimes created long after the event occured, such as with some birth records. With the advent of Social Security, many individuals made their way to courthouses to apply for a delayed record of birth in cases where the original was lost or was never created in the first place.
Research is most effective when you have a specific question to answer. Craft a succinct question and identify documents which might include information that would provide the answer to that question and seek those out in the alternate jurisdiction. If the specific record cannot be found, think about alternative records which might provide details, whether it be direct or indirect in nature, that may lead to the answer.
Seek records which were created by an organization other than a government entity. Did the ancestor belong to a fraternal organization or society? Membership records are often rich in biographical details, such as birth dates, occupations, address, names of family members, and the like. Publications, such as newspapers and city directories, provide a wealth of information and can prove invaluable in detailing the lives of antecedents. Church records are another great source for information and can provide as much detail as their civil counterparts, sometimes even more so.
Genealogical research in burned counties is tedious and time consuming and requires some very creative thinking, but is definitely not impossible. Be patient and tenacious and you may just be surprised what you find!
Ohio History Connection (https://ohiohistorycentral.org/ : accessed 12 May 2021), “Cincinnati Courthouse Riot.”
Greg Hand, Cincinnati Magazine (https://www.cincinnatimagazine.com/ : accessed 12 May 2021), “Battling the Political Machine in 1884.”
Vanessa Seeger, Hamilton County Law Library (https://lawlibrary.hamiltoncountyohio.gov/ : accessed 12 May 2021), “You Can Still Smell the Burning.”
Randy McNutt, Cincinnati.com (http://enquirer.com/ : accessed 12 May 2021), “Sheriff Risked Neck to Stop Lynching;” viewed via, Archive.today (https://archive.ph/20130705202537 : accessed 12 May 2021).
Library of Congress, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection Division, digital images, New York Public Library (https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/ : accessed 6 May 2021), digital image from still image stereograph print, “Cincinnati court house after the riot of 1884,” 1884, catalog id b11708099.
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cincinnati Riots 1884 Harpers Weekly.png : 13 May 2021), digital image of original illustration, “File:OP 13 Country Store and Emigrants Noonday Hault (9091286045).jpgFile:Cincinnati Riots 1884 Harpers Weekly.png;” image uploaded by user Aymatth2.
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chicago in Flames by Currier & Ives, 1871 (cropped).jpg : 13 May 2021), digital image of original illustration, “File:Chicago in Flames by Currier & Ives, 1871 (cropped).jpg;” image uploaded by user GreenMeansGo.
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