By Andrew Young

Pen & Sword Press (Westholme Publishing). 268 pages. £15.99.  ISBN 978-59416-246-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Cincinnati, Ohio was in, 1896, a major city. It stood on the north side of the confluence of the Licking and Ohio rivers. and on the opposite side, in Kentucky, were the smaller cities of Covington and Newport, which tried to assert their own characters, but were generally seen as part of what was known as Greater Cincinnati. Andrew Young says that Cincinnati was in slow decline in importance as other cities, such as Cleveland and Chicago, grew in size and, thanks to the development of the rail network and other factors, outstripped Cincinnati.  But he adds that it was still reasonably prosperous and “there was ready work in the tan yards, breweries, and factories”.

Like any large conurbation, Greater Cincinnati had its seamy side, but it came as a shock when, in January, 1896, a fourteen year-old boy taking a short cut across a field to his place of employment, which was actually within the boundaries of Newport, stumbled across the body of a headless woman. The police were called, reporters arrived quickly, and so did crowds of people who trampled the area around the body and picked up anything that they thought might serve as a souvenir of the scene. Their macabre enthusiasm even extended to plucking bloodstained leaves from the bushes where the body was found.

There was nothing to immediately identify the woman. With the head missing it was impossible to circulate a picture of some sort, or even a description. Fingerprinting was then in its infancy and, in any case, would only have been of use if the dead person’s fingerprints were on file somewhere. The police were baffled.  A post-mortem revealed that the woman was pregnant, and there were traces of large amounts of cocaine in her stomach. At that time it was believed that cocaine could help in inducing a miscarriage. It was initially suggested that she might have been a prostitute. The area where the body was found was known to be used by prostitutes and soldiers from a nearby army post. But checks on soldiers didn’t produce any useful information.

To add to the confusion, there were disagreements among officials who visited the scene of the crime, and also examined the body, about whether the woman had been killed in the field, or had died elsewhere and then moved. Bloodhounds were used to try to locate the victim’s head, and a nearby reservoir was drained, but to no avail. It had been noted that the head appeared to have been severed from the body with a certain amount of skill, and that suggested someone with a degree of medical knowledge. A Dr Kettner came under suspicion. He had a history of bigamy and one of his wives seemed to have disappeared. It looked like a promising scenario, but eventually came to nothing. There were other false trails as the usual oddballs, who turn up with wild ideas about crimes, came and went. 

The breakthrough came not because of any police investigations, but due to the actions of Louis D.Poock, the owner of a Cincinnati shoe-shop. The local papers had highlighted the bizarre nature of the crime and, in their reports, had referred to, among other things, the shoes the woman wore: “They were a pair of black cloth-topped dress shoes size 3 ½”.  He asked if he could see the body, which had been taken to a morgue in the city, and then looked at the shoes.

Poock noted that the shoes were of good quality, and from his knowledge of the shoe trade ascertained that they “had the appearance of having been made by some manufacturer in Cincinnati, Ohio, or that vicinity”. He’d also noticed that the woman had feet that were webbed between the toes. But it was the shoes that intrigued him most of all. In his experience not too many cloth-topped shoes of that size were made and sold. And as shoes had numbers stamped inside them to show where they came from, he reasoned that he might be able to track down the manufacturer and who the shoes were supplied to. It needs to be borne in mind that shoe shops in the 1890s often catered for customers who were measured for fittings and the shoes then specifically ordered for them.

It was thanks to Poock’s efforts that information came to light that enabled the police to ascertain the woman’s identity, and eventually arrest her killers. What happened next is fully detailed by Young as witnesses, not all of them reliable, came forward, and evidence was accumulated. The case had attracted national interest and provided material for sensational journalism guaranteed to arouse emotional responses in readers.

The crime, its background in terms of the people involved, and the activities of Poock and the police, obviously make for an interesting story in itself. But Young is concerned to place what happened in a wider context. As noted earlier, Cincinnati was a city that had prospered in the nineteenth century, and even though it was slowly sliding in importance, it still had a reasonably large population and could boast some signs of being more than just an industrial centre. As Young notes: “With parks, zoo, and a great music hall, it became known to some as the `Paris of the Midwest’ “. Charles Dickens, when he visited America in 1842, spoke of it favourably, though that was admittedly when it was in its heyday.

On the other hand, the 1890s, even in areas such as Greater Cincinnati, could always throw up examples of what might be called “frontier justice”. When the killers were arrested in Cincinnati itself, the authorities in Newport, where the body had been found, insisted that their trial should be held there. There were then worries that, because feelings were running high due to the way in which journalists had written about the case, a lynch mob in Newport might take matters into its own hands and not wait for a trial. Young discusses the prevalence of lynching, especially in the South where it was usually blacks who suffered from mob rule, but it wasn’t unknown for white criminals to also experience it. 

Prior to the identities of the killers being established there had been suspicions that tramps may have been responsible for the woman’s death. There were wide concerns with regard to tramps, who were seen as “an unsavoury group, prone to committing crimes”. Young says that, “In 1896 there was nothing particularly romantic about tramps. They were either hard-luck drifters or angry rabble; they were a social problem that lacked a solution”.  And the “Great Panic” of 1893 had caused mass unemployment, which increased the number of men wandering the country in search of work. In 1894, Jacob S. Coxey, a wealthy and eccentric Ohio businessman, led what was termed “Coxey’s Army” in a march on Washington to demand that the government bring in a programme of public works. Some people looked on “Coxey’s Army” as a kind of crusade, but others saw it as allowing a large body of shiftless men to beg and steal their way to the capital. Coxey’s crusade, if that’s what it was, soon petered out when his “army” largely drifted away.

Some tramps were arrested in connection with the headless body crime, but were quickly released once it became obvious that they were innocent.

Fear of tramps was often aroused by reports of their habits and activities by the press. Sensational journalism was the order of the day, and it was certainly in evidence in connection with the Cincinnati murder. What is striking is the degree to which reporters were given access to crime scenes and criminals. They were frequently present when suspects were questioned by police, and were able to report in detail about what was said. Names and descriptions were widely printed in newspapers. This led to problems later when witnesses were asked to identify people they claimed to have observed at certain times and in certain places. They were likely to pick out someone whose features they’d seen in a newspaper. It didn’t assure the accused of receiving a fair trial.  

It’s more than probable that the police did eventually arrest the right people responsible for the death of the young woman involved. And she was young and only in her early-twenties. The fact of her pregnancy gives Young an opportunity to write about attitudes towards unmarried mothers, abortion, and sexual mores generally. The fluid state of American society at that time led to a mixture of restrictive social laws, written or unwritten, clashing with new ideas about women’s emancipation and mobility. Practices acceptable in cities were not necessarily tolerated in small towns and rural areas. And the age-old problem of relatively naïve young women being exploited by more-sophisticated men also played a part in what happened.

Unwanted is both an intriguing crime story and a social document with interesting things to say about aspects of American society in the late-nineteenth century. Andrew Young has dug up a wealth of primary documentation from newspapers and other publications of the period, along with informative general background material. He also writes clearly and to the point.