The “Brothels, Bootleggers & Booze Tour” that leaves from Arnold’s at 11AM throughout the summer includes the story of the Courthouse Riot of 1884. The story of the riot itself takes up enough time that I cannot go into detail about the murder that sparked it. This is some of the background — the story behind the story.
William H. Kirk was 45 years old. He struggled financially. In an age when men were the sole breadwinners in the family, Kirk’s struggle with money may be why he didn’t get married until age 43, and fathered his first child at age 45, just five weeks before his death. Kirk was also probably insecure about his financial struggles because he had a habit of flashing money around when he had any, making himself appear more flush than he was. That habit lead to his death.
Kirk lived on Elizabeth St. in the West End with his wife of 2 years and his infant child. He worked in a stable in an alley between Mound and Cutter where he bought and sold horses. On the morning of December 24, 1883, Kirk showed his wife a wad of cash he had, telling her that it was $413. He wasn’t showing off. He was trying to reassure the young mother that they were doing fine, that everything would be OK. He even let her count some of the money, all in $5, $10, and $20 denominations, with one single silver dollar, but he took the money back after she had counted only a little of it. He told her that he was going to work but would return early, around 3PM, with presents for Christmas Eve. That didn’t happen. Kirk’s wife waited alone with the infant in what the “Commercial Gazette” described as a “miserably furnished up-stairs room” for three days until the fate of her husband was known.
Kirk’s body was found on the shore of the Mill Creek, just west of Springrove Cemetery. His hat and coat were missing, he had a noose around his neck, and there were pieces of bloody straw stuck to his clothes. The circumstances caused the police to believe that Kirk had been murdered at his stable and the body had been moved. The noose was not the cause of death. It was superfluous. Kirk died from any one of three mortal wounds to his skull.
In the West End stable, police found Kirk’s hat and coat hidden in a stall that was rented by a cartman named John Neill. Neill was 44 years old. He lived alone. When the police searched his apartment, they found dried spots of blood on some of his clothes. When asked about his whereabouts on December 24th, Neill denied being anywhere near the stable, but this contradicted the statements of eyewitnesses. Police also found just under $400 in Neill’s apartment, most of it hidden in the cupboard. When asked about the money, Neill denied having it. The money that he lied about hiding was all in $5, $10 and $20 denominations — large bills for 1883 — with the exception of one single silver dollar. When pressed with more questions, Neill clammed up and said, “we will see what you can prove.” He was taken into custody and everyone seemed sure that the murderer had been caught. A jailhouse snitch even claimed that he heard Neill making vague, incriminating statements while in custody (although the snitch was visibly intoxicated at the time that he shared this information.) The “Gazette” wrote: “Neill is a bad looking customer. He wears gray whiskers and has keen, piercing eyes. His statements are very contradictory and suspicious….all agree that he is the right man to have behind bars.” Neill was so obviously guilty, in fact, that there were public calls for his lynching. The murder was ferocious. Kirk had been beaten savagely and the noose was tied around his neck and pulled upon after his death just to make sure that he was dead; and the murder took place in the middle of the afternoon, in a crowded, bustling part of town, on Christmas Eve.
Luckily for Neill, a livery stable owner came forward with evidence that lead to his exoneration. Blood in a rented wagon lead to the real killers, two stable-hands named Berner and Palmer. Neill was entirely innocent. The fact that his life-savings was roughly the same amount of money that Kirk told his wife he had in his pocket on the day of the murder was just a coincidence. In fact, Kirk had exaggerated to his wife. He only had $235 or $245 dollars, but his tendency to flash cash and exaggerate the amount caused his killers to believe that he had roughly $800 — enough money to motivate them to kill their boss.
Berner’s and Palmer’s trials were bifurcated. Berner was tried first. The trial received a lot of media attention and the verdict sparked one of the worst riots in American history, ending in over 45 deaths, hundreds of wounded, and the courthouse burned to the ground. Obviously, that’s the part of the story that gets the most attention, but Neill is an interesting prelude. The riots caused everyone to forget about how an innocent man was on the fast-track to being hung for murder. Berner and Palmer tried to clean the wagon that they rented to move Kirk’s body, but they had stopped at several saloons along the way, it was dark out and the wagon was black, so they did a sloppy job and left a lot of evidence behind. In fact, they returned the wagon early and tried to get some of their $3 rental back. If they had kept the wagon until daylight and done a better job of cleaning it, they would have probably gotten away with murder. Nobody suspected Berner and Palmer and Neill looked guilty as sin. Just a little more soap and water would have spared Cincinnati a massive riot and probably caused an innocent man to be hung.