What’s in a name? Everything.
Pick a time travel vehicle: the TARDIS, the Delorean, the Time Machine. I would happily hop into any of the above if that meant I got to walk the streets of some of Cincinnati’s vanished neighborhoods. The conceit is, of course, that the time travel vehicle will take you back home … but what I wouldn’t give for a walking tour. There are plenty of stories that touch on Rat Row, Flat Iron Square, or Bucktown. These communities often held Cincinnati’s citizens in poor socio-economic straits. They were the home to Irish, African-American, fallen women, and others who didn’t fit the mold of 19th century social progress. Read the newspapers. These neighborhoods have been the scene of many Cincinnati tales, but this one includes one of its more (in)famous residents: Elizabeth Carter. Known as “Big Liz” for her girth, she certainly left an indelible mark as the first woman in Hamilton County to be charged with murder.
Our anti-heroine was born in Glasgow, Georgia to slave parents. Like many folks who sought progress, she found herself in the Paris of the West. Our story starts along the banks of the Ohio in August of 1890. Imagine the humidity, the lingering sun, the balmy nights. But Big Liz was waylaid by love. William (Bill) Taylor was her man. She fought for him, fought against him, and eventually found herself staring at oblivion. There are stories that include Big Liz in a knife-fight with a female rival for Bill’s affection, in a fight with Bill that ended in her shooting him, and in an altercation in which she took two bullets meant for Bill. Clearly, Big Liz was a woman of passions and a woman who was regularly in trouble with the law. But we know that the law rarely stood up for a woman, much less a woman of color. Bill certainly didn’t stand up for her, either. He decided to start seeing other women. This infuriated Big Liz, who said that he’d be faithful to her or die.
The woman in question was beaten and Big Liz encountered Bill, who attempted to fight her. Most of our sources indicate that Bill was a slight man and Big Liz stood over 6’ tall and weighed anywhere from 250-400 pounds. He attempted to break a chair over her head before running away. But it was out in the neighborhood that Bill and Big Liz were angry. People were talking. It was a little shocking then, that everything seemed back to normal and loving the very next day. About 12 hours later, Bill was dead. While initial reports claimed a death from illness, a witness came forth with information that gave the coroner pause. This man, George Rankin, claimed that Big Liz had asked him to buy Rough on Rats (arsenic with a little bit of charcoal for color) and a bucket of beer. With an additional autopsy revealing the contents of Bill’s stomach included arsenic plus Rankin’s statement, Elizabeth “Big Liz” Carter was charged with murder.
The evidence against Big Liz should have hardly held up in court and it revolved around the autopsy results as well as Rankin’s statement. Neither Rough on Rats nor said bucket of beer was ever found in her home. Her defense attorney was able to round up several witnesses who claimed that Bill felt ill the day before. She even took the stand to declare her innocence. Nevertheless, the jury convicted her of first degree murder. She was the first woman in Hamilton County to be charged with a capital offense. She was not, however, the first woman to be a victim of racism and racist ideology. The newspapers had a heyday. Many expostulated on how she might be hanged, given her size. Many indicated that the Prison Warden would have to build a new gallows to allow for her frame so that the rope would not snap and she would not lose her head in the process. Even one of her jurors, after the sentencing, was seen discussing the sentencing. His description of events were littered with derogatory imagery, stating that she should hang and stood as “brazen as the devil”. As soon as this was identified, the defense attorney filed a motion for a new trial. Big Liz would face a jury again; yet still a jury of white men.
By January 1891, the papers were treating Big Liz with a modicum of decency. Experts decreed that she needed a medical representative present at the second autopsy, that embalming fluid could have played a role in the Coroner’s findings, that circumstantial evidence should not have convicted her of murder. She found herself on the stand again in March, telling the same story. At this point, the Enquirer painted her as a weeping woman who declared her innocence and stood by her story from her first trial. The jury convicted her of second degree murder. Big Liz wouldn’t hang. But she would certainly spend the rest of her life in jail.
There are many accounts of Big Liz’s time in the Ohio Penitentiary, many of which outlandishly speak about her size and her fiery temper. There are stories involving her breaking up her fellow inmates’ fights and treating them with kindness as well as stories that suggest she suffered incalculable depression for being convicted. That would all change in 1898, however. Due to her behavior as well as statements by George Rankin denying Big Liz ever asked him to buy Rough on Rats, her sentence was commuted and she was free. She asked to leave Big Liz behind, wanting to be known as Lizzie Carter.
Writing this story touches on many of the issues we face as a society today: law and order, discrimination based on race and/or gender, justice. We do not know Lizzie Carter’s final resting place and honestly, it seems right. After having gained such notoriety in her life, perhaps it’s for the best that this unique woman is assigned to rest. This article is my attempt to imbue her story with something that she lacked in life: justice.
Lizzie Carter was wronged by the system that was supposed to protect her just as today there are African-American women who face discrimination on a multitude of fronts. I wish better for her and for them. And I’m going to start by respecting the wishes of this woman to say her name and spell it correctly. Three cheers for Lizzie Carter.
By Chelsie Hoskins
Take a Tour:
While the neighborhoods Lizzie Carter called home are a part of Cincinnati’s invisible past, we recommend a walk along Smale Riverfront Park. Make sure to stay six feet apart from any additional park-goers, but enjoy some sunshine. It certainly won’t be as dank as August 1890. There you can glimpse the foundations of riverfront housing, the glorious Roebling Bridge, and maybe you can even have a socially-distanced cold one at the Moerlein Lager House.
- Wicked Women of Ohio by Jane Ann Turzillo
- Weekly Law Bulletin: Ohio Cases (Vol 24-30)
- “From Bucktown to Vanceville: Cincinnati’s Lost 19th Century Neighborhoods” by Greg Hand
- East Carolina University Digital Collections “Rough on Rats”
- Historical lights and shadows of the Ohio State Penitentiary and horrors of the death trap by Daniel J. Morgan (check out this source for a drawing of Lizzie Carter)