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How one question led to the discovery of historical documents believed to be long gone

The Hamilton County Courthouse in the aftermath of the riots of 1884.
Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
The Hamilton County Courthouse in the aftermath of the riots of 1884.

It all started with whiskey.

Specifically, a search by Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Central Services Division Manager Jason Alexander for records related to a supposed 1869 lawsuit brought by the government of Japan against Cincinnati whiskey manufacturers on allegations their products made Japanese citizens sick.

Despite an exhaustive search, Alexander found no evidence the lawsuit happened. He did find something else — a cache of records predating the infamous 1884 riot and fire which destroyed Hamilton County’s previous courthouse.

Some of those records have the signatures of well-known historical figures. But at the time, Alexander says, they were just everyday people.

"What's interesting to note is that these people are known to us now," he says. "These signatures are famous now, but at the time, they were just simple attorneys."

Murder begets anger, which begets unrest

To understand how remarkable and unexpected the find was, you have to know a little about the history of the courthouse. Hamilton County has had more courthouses burn down — three — than any other county in Ohio.

The 1884 fire was especially dramatic. It started when two young men — one with some African ancestry named Joe Palmer and another, a white man named William Berner — were charged with murder. A jury convicted Palmer and sentenced him to die. Tried separately with the help of an attorney well known for bribing juries, Berner — who admitted to striking the killing blow — received only a manslaughter conviction.

Anger erupted over the verdicts and a riot ensued.

Hamilton County Judge Melba Marsh is working on a book about the history of the court. She says the outrage boiled down to one question.

“Can justice be bought at the courthouse?”

A growing crowd marched from a meeting at Music Hall to the county jail, where it broke in and tried in vain to find Berner. By the second day of the unrest, the crowd turned its attention to the largely unguarded courthouse. Eventually, they set it ablaze.

“The burning, the looting," she says. "The books. And all of the records.”

It took three days and National Guard reinforcements with a Gatling gun — a rapid fire, multi-barrel gun — to get the riot under control. About 50 people lost their lives, and the county court faced a huge problem — how to conduct business with almost all of its records burned.

What happened then would be 'huge news today'

Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Pavan Parikh says it’s hard to overstate the enormity of the incident at the time.

“When you talk about the riot at the courthouse in 1884 and the burning of the courthouse and the loss of all these records — this was the eighth largest city in the country," he says. "That would be huge news today, and it was huge news of that day.”

Parikh says the rediscovered records are much the same in format and content as you’d see today, with a couple very key differences. For one, they’re hand-written. For another, today’s records may not be quite as historically interesting in the future.

“Now, as we have technology, we’re making that push toward more electronic fillings," he says. "You’re not going to have those signatures. So let’s say some attorney in Cincinnati becomes President of the United States someday. You won’t be able to find that signature from when they were just starting out in their legal career.”

The oldest of the records recently uncovered — dated to 1846 — likely survived multiple of those fires.

“These records survived because they were in a safe," Clerk Archivist Alexander says. "Then upon completion of the current courthouse in 1919, they would have been put in the safe that was deconstructed in the year 2000 for renovation, put into boxes, put somewhere, and then here we are now.”

Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Central Services Division Manager Jason Alexander reviews records predating the 1884 courthouse fire.
Nick Swartsell
Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Central Services Division Manager Jason Alexander reviews records predating the 1884 courthouse fire.

While the clerk staff haven't found any presidential signatures yet, Alphonso Taft — father of president and U.S. Supreme Court justice William Howard Taft, and an important figure in Cincinnati history himself — signed one of those documents in 1864.

Alexander says it’s an exciting find.

“Alphonso Taft was not only the founder of the Cincinnati Bar Association, he was a judge on our Superior Court of Cincinnati, and he was also secretary of war, U.S. attorney general and minister to Austria Hungary as well as minister to Russia. Definitely one of the more notable Cincinnatians.”

Alexander says court staff believe records exist among the rediscovered documents that have the signature of Alphonso Taft’s son, future president William Howard Taft. The search continues for that elusive autograph.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.