The Murder that Sparked the Courthouse Riots or How James Whalen Died

I was recently asked to participate in an event called Stand Up History. Various local historians came together at Japp’s to tell stories with a halloween twist. I shared two stories that I see as intertwined: The Murder that Sparked the Courthouse Riots or How James Whalen Died. My history research started with my own family and James’s story was one of the first that made me realize how rich our family histories can be.

A Little Bit About James

James Whalen was born in 1857 to an Irish immigrant and Laborer named James Whalen, and his wife, Emma Faulkner. James was the fourth of ten children. Most of the men in the family worked in the rail yard and James was no exception. By 1877, at age 20, he was an Engineer. We’ll come back to James in a little while.

A Body by the Mill Creek

In 1883, on the morning of December 27th, a man walking to work spotted a body lying in the brush near the Mill Creek. The description of the body is Halloween worthy. He had a half inch rope deeply embedded in his neck. There were wisps of hay caught beneath the rope and his skin, along with hayseeds on his clothes. A bloody handkerchief was tied around his head and at the base of his skull was three gashes which were deemed sufficient to produce death. His left arm was broken. His features were livid, the tongue protruding several inches from his mouth. After the coroner had a chance to examine the body, he said that the skull resembled a cracked coconut shell and was broken into a dozen pieces. 

The body was taken to Habig’s funeral parlor where it was identified as William H. Kirk aged 40. A local grocer had remembered making a delivery to his house on Elizabeth Street and were able to give the police his address. There, officers found his wife. She told the officer that she’d last seen her husband on Christmas Eve, and hadn’t reported him missing because he often went away for days at a time on business. She also told them that he had anywhere from $200-$400 dollars on him when he left the house. No cash had been found on the body, leading to a suspicion that the murder was the result of a robbery. Mrs. Kirk pointed the police to Kirk’s business partner, Mr. Strauss

Mr. Strauss said that the two men had been together until five o clock on the 24th when they split ways at seventh and central following the end of a horse auction. Mr. Kirk told Strauss he was planning to go to the stable to wait for a delivery of feed and would see him the next morning. But he never saw him again. Strauss also explained the handkerchief. Kirk suffered from neuralgia, which caused a sudden and sharp pain along the path of nerves in the face. Because of this he had a handkerchief tied around his head all the time. He also provided the address to the stable owned by Mr. Kirk on W. 9th Street

Suspecting that the hay on his body meant he was killed there, police searched the stable. In the search, they found Kirk’s overcoat and cap stuffed up in the corner of a feedbox, covered in hay and blood. It looked like someone had tried to wash the blood stains out but was unsuccessful…. which tells us that the killers were likely male. (This joke totally landed in the room. I’m the next Jim Gaffigan except I joke about murder instead of food)

Some Suspects

When the police approached the stable, a young man tried to make a quick exit out the back. He was the first of several potential suspects the police brought in for questioning. His name was David White and he was Kirk’s nephew. He’s described as giving several contradictory stories and locked up on suspicion. Before he’d been told of Kirk’s death he guessed that he was being questioned because someone had finally clubbed his uncle to get at his money. 

The next was John Neill, who rented a stall in Kirk’s stable. Kirk had bought a horse from him for $13 and flashed a large roll of cash when counting out the bills. Mr. Strauss confirmed this behavior, claiming to have warned Kirk on several occasions to be more careful. Neill was picked up for questioning and was very evasive. Initially he claimed to only have $27 to his name and then admitted to having another $400 hidden in a cupboard in his apartment. His apartment was small and dirty and his best explanation for why he had so much money was that he had saved it. The police didn’t buy it. Adding to the suspicion of Neill, he had told Mr. Strauss that on the night of the murder he’d found the stable door open at 10 pm and had closed it. Putting him at the supposed scene of the crime

The paper got his name wrong, it was William Berner

The third and fourth were Joe Palmer (pictured below), a black teenager, and William Berner (pictured above), the son of a German grocer. They both worked for Kirk. Palmer was picked up from his house. Berner was initially harder to find, having left the state to visit family, but he returned to turn himself in when he heard he was wanted.

Now that we have our suspects. The working theory was that Kirk left Strauss and went to his stable. As he was feeding the horses he was struck on the back of the head with a blunt instrument which knocked him down. They hit him a few more times to ensure death and then tied a rope around his neck and used it to hoist him into the hayloft and hide the body. The night before it was found, the body was moved from the stable via wagon with the intention of throwing it into the Mill Creek and having it wash out to the river. They missed the water and the body was found.

The Case Breaks Wide Open

It only took another day to get to the truth. David White was dismissed after several people who knew him called into say that he wasn’t nearly smart enough to plan a murder.

At this point, an important witness came forward. Charles Hayman, the owner of the Star Livery Stable. He claimed that two young men, one white and one black had hired a horse and spring wagon to go to St. Bernard. He thought they were employed by Kirk. The police walked them back to the cells and he identified Berner and Palmer. The wagon was searched and blood and hair were found in the bed and on the tailgate. The two were separated and questioned.

Palmer was the first to confess. He claimed that he went to the stable on the day of the murder and met Berner who said he had groceries that needed to be taken to St. Bernard. The pair rented a wagon and brought it to the stable. Berner asked Palmer to watch for Kirk or Strauss and call if they came. When Berner had finished loading the wagon he called to Palmer and they left. As they drove, Palmer reached back in the wagon for a blanket to lay on the horse but was stopped by Berner. He claimed that he believed Kirk’s body was in the back of the wagon and that Berner didn’t want him to see it. He dropped Palmer off, drove away, and then came back a half hour later saying his errand was done. 

After being told of Palmer’s confession, Berner also confessed. He said that he and Kirk had been carrying buckets of water to the horses when Palmer hit Kirk from behind with a hammer. Once he was down he struck Kirk a few more times and then cut a piece of rope from a halter and tied it around Kirk’s neck. Berner claims to have tried to leave but Palmer threatened to kill him too. They searched kirk and took his money which Berner said was $240. Palmer gave Berner $100 plus five dollars to hire the horse and wagon from Hayman.

Palmer and Berner were then put in the same room along with a judge. After hearing the confessions, the judge ordered their houses to be searched. In Berner’s house they found $70 and a shirt with blood on the sleeve. At Palmer’s house there was no money or evidence.

At one in the morning, Palmer added to his statement saying that the two boys had seen Kirk flashing his money and decided to steal it from him. He claimed Berner hit Kirk first and then Palmer struck him again. They tied the rope around his neck and each pulled on an end and tied it tight to make sure he was dead. They robbed him, split up the money, and disposed of the body as described.

Murderers Abound

So, the police had their murderers, but at the time that didn’t mean much. Cincinnati in the early 1880’s had a murder problem. Or depending on how you want to think of it they had a corruption in the criminal justice system problem. But by the end of 1883 people were getting restless as it seemed that murderer after murderer got away with their crime. This article from March of 1884 shows all the murderers that were awaiting trial or sentencing in Hamilton county.

Cincinnati Enquirer March 1884

Berner was represented by a team of lawyers, including a man named T.C. Campbell. History buffs may recognize the name. Campbell was mentor to a young George Cox and was notorious for bribing juries. His first action was to split the trials of Berner and Palmer into two separate trials. Palmer’s family didn’t have the money for fancy lawyers and his was appointed by the court. Berner’s legal team relied on this, they separated the trials in hopes that Palmer would take the full blame for what happened.

When it comes to the trial I’m going to pretty much jump to the conviction or lack thereof. It took awhile to set a jury for the case. Most people had read the extensive newspaper coverage and therefore thought they couldn’t be impartial. By the time the trial was moving, cincinnatians were restless for a conviction. Berner was charged with First Degree Murder, Second Degree Murder, and Manslaughter. The Prosecutor was confident he would be convicted of First Degree Murder. Instead, he was convicted of manslaughter. This miscarriage of justice enraged people in Cincinnati. If William Kirk, a businessman, could be killed on his own property in daylight then what was the world coming to? The judge called the verdict “a damned outrage”. When the members of the jury left the courthouse they were greeted with chants of “Hang them”. 

A reporter asked the Prosecutor what the effect of the verdict would be and he said, “The consequences will be either that murderers will have free license in Cincinnati, hereafter, or there will be a revolution in the popular sentiment and all murderers will hang.”

The Mob Meets at Music Hall

On March 28th, city leaders called a mass meeting at Music Hall. As we all know, the best thing to do when a lot of people are angry is put them in one place so they can feed off of each other’s energy. At the conclusion of the meeting, someone in the crowd yelled for people to storm the jail and hang Berner. 

The Sheriff saw that coming and sent Berner with a Bailiff to Loveland where they were meant to catch a train to columbus. The mob decided they didn’t care whether Berner was there or not, the jail was full of murderers and they were willing to hang any of them. They forced their way into the jail in a few directions. One of those ways was through an underground tunnel that connected the jail and the courthouse. When the mob began making their way through the tunnel the police opened fire shooting several men and killing one.

The next night, the unrest continued. Police set up barricades in an attempt to control the crowd. The Governor sent state troops to assist, some of whom took one look at the riot and joined in. 

Early in the night, the mob set fire the basement offices of the courthouse. They attempted to round the corner of the building to set additional fires but were met with the militia’s muskets.

This, but on fire

The rioters retreated and then waved a white handkerchief so that the dead and wounded could be carried away. A red flag was waved and the mob surged, firing on the barricade. When they were once again pushed back, some fell and were trampled by the masses. As this was happening, fire was spreading through the courthouse. The mob successfully kept anyone from fighting the fire.

This night saw the use of the gatling gun by the militia. The gun was a predecessor to the machine gun. It was spring loaded and fired by a hand crank.

James Whalen Killed

According to an article in the enquirer, on the night the Courthouse burned, James Whalen was “walking along” Court Street with a friend named Mike O’Day. Both men were shot, likely by the gatling gun. O’Day, who lived just a few houses down from James was killed instantly. James was shot in the thigh. He made it home to No. 64 Carr Street. He lived eleven days before eventually dying on Weds April 9th. He was 27 years old and the forty-ninth man to die during the riots. 

The paper described the second night of the riot as revenge on the militia for those killed the night before. “This is the history of the second night. Revenge was the motive of the mob – revenge for those killed during the attack on the jail. The rioters no longer thirsted for the blood of the imprisoned murderers but for the blood of the militia who were preserving law and civilization against anarchy.” 6 Apr 1884 Sunday

There was a joint inquest held by the coroner which found that those killed by gunshot during the first night of the riot, or the storming of the jail, excepting police officers, were breaking the law and were warned repeatedly by the Sheriff that their lives were in danger. 

The coroner’s overall message was that those killed and injured got what they deserved.He ends his statement with “I will further add that in almost every instance the appearance of the various victims gave evidence that they were members of not the better class of society, and in the majority of those whose nativity I could discover they were of foreign birth.”

That wording struck me because it’s the same kind of language that is used to disparage activists and protestors some 135 years later. I’ve started compiling the names of those killed or wounded along with their ages, occupations, and any additional notes on how they died. I’m up to 217 names and there are still more to go. 

Those hurt or killed in the riots were


Bar keepers



Broom makers and 

Brush makers

And that’s only the B’s. Ages range from 15 to 59.

The Riot Ends

Public sentiment shifted against the rioters after the destruction of the courthouse. That plus the gatling gun had the desired effect of quelling the riots. The newspaper ran days worth of articles listing the killed and wounded. More than 50 people were killed and over 300 were injured. And, importantly to the local history lovers in the room, irreplaceable county records were destroyed.

Joseph Palmer was convicted and hung in July 1884. Berner was paroled in 1895 after only 11 years in prison. 

James’s younger brother, Samuel, married and had four children. One of whom was my Great grandfather whose name was James Whalen.

It’s my opinion that the best way to take in history, especially local history, is from the perspective of a normal person. To think of a riot that happened over 100 years ago, it doesn’t give a crisp image of what it would have been like to live there. 

Maybe a crisp image is too much to ask for. But for a 27 year old train engineer who may have been a rioter or a bystander the riot was the last thing he ever experienced. So for me, this story is the story of how James Whalen died.

If you’re interested in finding out if your family was impacted by the Courthouse Riots, reach out on the Contact page.

Sourced from articles in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati Post, and various historical records.

One thought on “The Murder that Sparked the Courthouse Riots or How James Whalen Died

  1. Amy Great research job!!! Kind of ironic that Samuel Whalen was murdered in a strong arm robbery some years later. Case was never solved. Grandpa Larry


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