The Pugh Alley Poker: Ann Doherty

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.

Born in Ireland in 1831, Ann Doherty had been married for some time now to a talented Irish hatter named Patrick. The couple had three children born in Ohio by the time the war came in 1861: James, 5; Mary, 3; and John, 1. They lived on the western edge of downtown Cincinnati’s 14th Ward, populated heavily with Irish immigrants, 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 was perhaps changing a diaper or her hanging some laundry to dry in the streets, above where the mud-covered hogs and grubby children could dirty them again, blowing in the windtunnels of the alleyway, which carried the stench of the livery stables nearby and human feces. A woman’s screams of sheer terror echoed 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, 21 May 1861, Ann appeared in court before new Judge James G. Saffin 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. Still today, women (especially women of color) who defend themselves against rapists, abusers, and abductors are likely to see jail time. I don’t know if their marriage survived. After all, Patrick was paying a hefty fine for her actions, and they would have been enemies of the abusive men in town. Patrick disappeared from records after 1864 and reappeared with a new address in 1872 at 53 E 7th Street (what is now 35 E 7th) between Walnut and Vine. Whether that was with Ann is hard to tell. Here he lived until 1878 when he drops off the record again. Their children are hard to track, as they had common names, and the Hamilton County marriage records did not denote their parentage.

Right after the Pugh Alley incident, Patrick (and possibly Ann) stayed, but Cornelius fled to the other side of downtown Cincinnati. I don’t know Mrs. Murphy’s full name. There’s a high probability that her story didn’t end well, likely too scared to leave her abusive husband. What other options were there for a divorced woman who’d been beaten?

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.

Take the Ann Doherty Tour

Or don’t. Because Pugh Alley no longer exists, as that stretch was demolished to make room for I-75. You can see where it was standing from Central Parkway between Perry and 4th. We’re unfortunately about to see a similar situation come to pass nearby in the West End due to construction of the FC Cincinnati stadium. Some of the West End, including the beautiful unfinished Mallory mural, will be erased, much of it already forgotten or ignored by the city in general. When the structures fade, so often does the history follow. The Murphys’ second home has also been built over, but I guess feel free to get pizza at Lucy Blue. While eating, envision Ann, who wasn’t afraid to knock out some abusers with an iron poker, and imagine that superheroine cooking her own meals on an open flame.



This entry was composed by S.E. Andres.

S.E.’s Notes:

  • If you have any information on these two families or are descendants, please let me know.
  • I used what little information possible to gather what truly inspired, using the first report as what actually happened and the second as the lies Cornelius Murphy accused.
  • Photos here are sourced from maps indicated in the bibliography and from Google Maps.

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