You Can Still Smell the Burning

Smoke drifted in choking clouds across the city. Alarm bells rang out as the fire blazed. Engines rushed to the scene but were met by a vicious mob 10,000 strong. The citizens of Cincinnati had risen up to exact their own justice against William Berner, whose mockery of a trial had been the latest in a long line of corrupt criminal cases. When it was discovered that Mr. Berner had been removed from the city before the rioting began, the citizenry decided to take their anger out on the representation of the institution that had failed them: the Courthouse itself.

On March 30, 1884 the Hamilton County Courthouse, and the law library housed inside it, burned to the ground. Among the immense losses of that night, the complete collection of the Law Library, over 17,000 books, was lost to the inferno. Only 9 books survived. Recently I was digging through some old materials when I came across the charred remains of a book packed tightly away, a testament to the violence of that night. As I opened the glass case, I was instantly struck by the smell. It’s as though the fire just went out. Almost 140 years later, the acrid smell of scorched paper still permeates the book and I was suddenly transported in my mind to that night. The gunfire, the frustrated citizenry, the fear and uncertainty, the massive loss.

The events leading up to the riots of 1884 are well documented in the newspapers of the time. It was projected that Cincinnati would become the largest city in the country by 1900, but crime and corruption took their toll. According to the Annual Report of Cincinnati for 1884, 92 Cincinnatians were murdered that year and 284 more were arrested for shooting with intent to kill. To put that in perspective, 70 Cincinnatians were murdered in 2017 (Enquirer) and the population is a full 40% larger than it was then. Corrupt politicians and criminal attorneys like “Boss Tom” Campbell regularly bought juries and judges so that a fair trial was virtually impossible. When William Berner, who had been charged with murdering his employer for his bank roll, was found guilty of manslaughter despite a preponderance of evidence against him (including a signed confession), the “Paris of the West” stormed their own Bastille.

A peaceful meeting at Music Hall erupted into a full-blown riot when the inebriated attendants decided to storm the Courthouse and hang all of the prisoners being held there. The Sheriff, deputies, police, militia and full fire brigade defended the Courthouse valiantly. In the beginning they attempted to reason with the rioters but when several infiltrated the prison via a tunnel, pandemonium broke out. The captain of the militia ordered his men to fire their weapons over the heads of the rioters in the tunnel. As you can imagine, bullet ricocheted everywhere. Several rioters were struck as bullets bounced off the sides and ceiling of the tunnel and the unspoken agreement not to use lethal force on both sides was destroyed.

Between Friday, March 28 and Sunday, March 30, 56 people were killed and over 300 wounded. Rioters, police and militia clashed in the streets and alleys throughout the heart of the city. Businesses were destroyed as looting and lawlessness spread. It took the combined effort of over 800 militiamen and U.S. Troops called out by Secretary of War Robert Lincoln to quell the riots and restore peace at last.

Most of the world looked on the riots as barbarism at its worst, but acclaimed French author Victor Hugo gave an impassioned tribute to the rioters, which was immortalized in the minutes of the Cincinnati Literary Club:

The Paris of the old world annihilated the Bastille. The Paris of the new world destroyed the Court House. The 14th July 1789 directed the infuriated masses against the bulwark of hereditary despotism. The 30th of March 1884 dashed the waves of public indignation against the stronghold of legal corruption. The noble citizens of that city, 1789, who rated justice higher than law wrote in letters of livid flame the Mene, Tikel, Upharsin upon the walls of the desecrated temple of justice The rioters of Cincinnati inaugurated the era of glorious revolution; they were champions of justice: they were more than champions: they were heroes: they were more than heroes: they were men. The world says so, France says so- I say so.

Whether vigilante heroes fighting for justice or alcohol-fueled mob, however you view the actions of the citizens of Cincinnati, the losses of the riots of 1884 are incalculable. While the loss of life and livelihood cannot be understated, the loss of the Law Library was a colossal blow to the legal community that can still be felt today. We were able to rebuild some of our collection from the generous donations of attorneys, judges and intellectuals around the world, but there are noticeable gaps on our shelves. We have a complete collection of the Cincinnati Court Index (known as the Law Bulletin and Reporter until 1892) that stops abruptly at 1884. Every year before that was sacrificed to the flame. Court records and reports, materials of immense historical and genealogical value, were wiped out. Knowledge that was lost forever.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…



Stern, J. S., Jr. (1984). It was the Best of Times; It was the Worst of Times. Queen City Heritage, 42(1), Spring, 3-12.

Plattner, S. W (1984). Days of Dreaad. Queen City Heritage, 42(1), Spring, 13-38.

Armstrong, Robert D. (1991). Nevada printing history: a bibliography of imprints & publications, 1881–1890. University of Nevada Press.