By Sean E. Andres
Cincinnati, as a burgeoning city during wartime, was not a kind city to women. And neither were its men. In fact, May 1861 saw several women commit suicide by drowning themselves in the Ohio River, and a few were found washed up dead on the banks. It was an entirely different matter than men’s accidental deaths by drowning while bathing or petty fights of masculinity going too far, resulting in a shooting. Yes, the men were called to war, but it was the women who were dying. This is the story of two women who were called to their own war, one in which both would react in vastly different ways to the patriarchal norms.
Thirty-year-old Irishwoman Ann Doherty lived with her hatter husband Patrick on the western edge of downtown in Pugh Alley, next door to Cornelius Murphy, “a habitual wife-whipper,” and his wife–another Irish family.
While Patrick was away at work on Friday, 17 May 1861, Ann heard a woman’s screams of sheer terror echo through Pugh Alley above the din of everyday life. It sounded like it came from the Cornelius Murphy house. Ann dropped everything she was doing, swept up the fire poker beside the fireplace, and rushed to the Murphy house. The daring woman flew through the door and found Cornelius Murphy choking his wife, who was begging Ann for help in short gasps of air, nearly dead. A furious and ferocious Ann, with all her might, brought down her iron poker on his head, severely fracturing his skull. Cornelius toppled to the floor, unconscious. Mrs. Murphy was safe… for now.
Cornelius was soon resuscitated, but Ann was arrested for attempted murder and held over with a $2,000 bond, a sum she wouldn’t be paying off. That’s the equivalent today in 2018 of about $55,000.
The following Tuesday, Ann appeared in court for her crimes on Cornelius Murphy, rather than her standing as defendant in self defense of an abuse victim. The testimonies from both Cornelius Murphy and his wife had shown a story that changed since Mrs. Murphy and Ann told it last. Mrs. Murphy had succumbed to the fear of her husband. He was alive and still a threat to her, so she’d do everything possible to reconcile, including throw Ann to the wolves. Now Mrs. Murphy was “most zealously against her deliverer.”
Cornelius’s deadly spousal attack was now described as a “pleasant family fight.” In downplaying the distressing and dangerous event, the plaintiff simultaneously made Ann into a monster by exaggerating her actions for a brutal effect, certainly unladylike. They claimed that Ann repeatedly smashed his head against the door and pounded him with an iron poker and a wooden box. It’s unnecessary savagery they were trying to prove: the unladylike Ann was intent on not only hurting him but killing him.
Ann was held over in $250 to appear at court again for her sentencing. We don’t know the sentencing or when it took place. It must not have been sensational enough to publish in the newspaper again, especially as the war took up more and more of the paper every week. (By the end of May, all but two columns of a four-page paper were of the war and ads.) Prison records were lost in a fire, so we don’t know how long Ann was detained.
I’d like to think that Ann was released, and she went back to her merry way of being a vigilante superhero. But I don’t know.
If you are or anyone you know is in abusive relationship, seek help from Women Helping Women. It’s dangerous to stay and dangerous to leave. They can help.
- U.S. Census Records
- Williams Directory
This entry was composed by S.E. Andres.