An unprovoked assault: Some thoughts on masculinity in 19th-century Over-the-Rhine

One day, when researching the history of 205 W. McMicken (a building I'm helping to rehab), I discovered the below news article. While I had researched Adam Best before, the owner of the building and proprietor of the mineral water company within 205-207 W. McMicken, and I knew of his competitive business acumen, the article suggested a physical demonstration of that competitiveness, a ruthlessness, a masculinity that I hadn't considered.

 Adam Best and his sons’ calculated attack on Louis Schwing at the corner of Elm and W. McMicken.  Cincinnati Enquirer , April 25th, 1879. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Adam Best and his sons’ calculated attack on Louis Schwing at the corner of Elm and W. McMicken. Cincinnati Enquirer, April 25th, 1879. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The article, as you can read, tells how in the spring of 1879, Adam along with his sons received a serious reprimand from the law for assaulting a man – potentially a business rival. On this occasion, the Best boys and friends waited outside the saloon on the corner of Elm and W. McMicken for Mr. Louis Schwing. Upon Louis’ exit from the bar in the early evening, the Best men – the so-called “mineral-water men” – struck, kicked and drug their victim to the point of unconsciousness. We soon see Adam in court, sued by Louis. Later charged with disturbing the peace, Adam found himself in court again.

  Cincinnati Enquirer , April 26th, 1879. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Cincinnati Enquirer, April 26th, 1879. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

 Cincinnati Enquirer, May 19, 1879. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Cincinnati Enquirer, May 19, 1879. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

While a tale of Adam Best physically assaulting saloonist Louis Schwing provides an interesting anecdote, it also offers a glimpse into what manhood and masculinity meant for men like Adam at the end of the 19th century. When historians study attitudes and actions that make up something like manliness, factors of race, sexuality and class come into play, meaning that different men felt different expectations and experiences of how to be a man. His class, definitely his skin color, whether or not he was a native English speaker and U.S.-born citizen –  such identifying features prescribed societal expectations for him, especially with regard to how violent or passive others assumed he would be.

Race and class were big factors in understandings of manhood back then. Adam Best was a German-speaking immigrant to America yet fairly well-to-do, given he owned real estate and his own business. We know what he physically looked like – in terms of hair and eye color – but his stature is hard to make out from an old portrait. We do know his skin was relatively light. He was, in his time, understood as a white man. Around the turn of the 20th century, race was a hot topic. What we now call scientific racism and eugenics possessed a lot of currency in this era. Emerging from 19th-century scientific and political arguments over different races and their inherent qualities, eugenics used “scientific knowledge” and cast “races or peoples” as biologically different. Nordic, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic peoples sat at the top of this racial hierarchy (meaning eugenics designated them the “whitest”). Eastern and Southern Europeans were considered a lesser race, though not as lowly as people from Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Africa. People of mixed-race backgrounds ranked the lowest.[i]

Adam’s whiteness competed with his immigrant status in Cincinnati, for even if popular culture theoretically saw him as more white and assimilative than someone from Italy, he was still a foreigner. Despite that millions of immigrants poured into America, powering its industrial boom around the turn of the 20th century, nativism still was a powerful force, especially in Cincinnati. Immigrant-dense neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine offered Adam both familiarity and community with other German speakers, but his residence and business there also contributed to undoubtedly some native Cincinnatians’ hostility toward him.[ii]

Adam’s whiteness matters in the story of his attack on Louis Schwing. Over the 19th century, as Adam immigrated to America and aged in Cincinnati, ideas of manhood changed. Throughout much of this century, literature depicted (white) Victorian manliness as self-control, altruism, morality and gentlemanliness. Self-help books of the time cautioned men not to overeat, to be physically fit, to exercise caution and good judgment in business and – above all – to sexually control themselves, limiting intercourse to the sole arena of marriage. But by post-Civil War decades, ideas shifted. The word “masculinity” came into being, as did the notion that men – to be “real men” – should be physical, at times, aggressive creatures. Popular culture showed manly men as physical and sexual forces and formulated that American civilization progressed by white men "conquering" their environments. But psychologists also feared the “over-civilization” of these men; as the middle-class professional class grew, office work bred lethargy, not muscles and vivacity. Working-class immigrant men – who were consistently seen by “respectable” society as the more aggressive counterparts to more privileged men – also threatened to undermine white, wealthier men’s masculinity.

 Robert La Grange’s  Manhood , 1886. Lots of people like him were very concerned with masculinity and health (and super long titles). Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Robert La Grange’s Manhood, 1886. Lots of people like him were very concerned with masculinity and health (and super long titles). Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

In this mix, then, how did others view Adam’s assault of Louis? What perhaps went through Adam’s mind?

 Adam Best as an older man. Courtesy of the Research Center for German Emigrants in the U.SA. (DAUSA).

Adam Best as an older man. Courtesy of the Research Center for German Emigrants in the U.SA. (DAUSA).

The press derisively called him and his friends the “mineral-water men” and cast the assault as excessive. Without a doubt, many saw physical aggression like Adam’s as evidence of his immigrant background; for even if his income level said otherwise, there were many who saw immigrants as always and inherently working-class and rowdy.

And maybe Adam’s actions embodied that there was some truth to his immigrant culture supporting a more aggressive masculinity. Maybe in his mind attacking another man was not that ridiculous of a plan. His actions also might indicate that the shifting ideas around manhood made it slightly more acceptable to attack somebody in the late 1800s, given the emphasis on male superiority via a physically fit body. 

The site of the attack is also important. While the lawless Northern Liberties (area north of Liberty Street) were incorporated into the city in 1849, some of its libertine activities (it was known for prostitution, gambling, many saloons) persisted and perhaps made street fights such as Adam's more acceptable. 

A few other possible scenarios/explanations:

Adam Best was a war veteran. Born in Osthoven, Hesse-Darmstadt on August 7th, 1827, he immigrated to Ohio in 1848 as a political refugee. He was forced to flee his home due to his participation in the 1848 revolution in what-is-now southwest Germany. He might have been a simple cooper back then but nonetheless his experience predicated some knowledge of fighting. 

It's also worth pointing out that Adam Best and his wife Appolonia had several sons: Jacob, John, Adam, August and Henry. They had one daughter too, also named Appolonia after her mother, but usually called Adeline. Perhaps the Best boys were being protective of Adeline? Records show she never married but let's consider that being single, then or now, does not mean one lives a life of monkhood. Things still happen. Perhaps Louis Schwing was disrespectful to her? 

What other power dynamics were at play?

Louis Schwing, born in 1838 in Baden, was slightly younger than Adam Best, though by 1879 – the year of the attack – both were middle-aged men. Louis immigrated in 1858, ten years after Adam. It seems, judging by his frequency in local news, that Louis might have been a provocateur, more than Adam. In 1867, he was arraigned for keeping a disorderly house; in his trial, he obstinately insisted on having a full twelve-member jury evaluate his case, even though ultimately they all found him to be guilty. In 1873, and then in 1876, Louis was again in trouble, in 1876 for shooting another man, and ten years after that, in 1886, for “assault to kill.”[iv]

  Cincinnati Enquirer , July 10th, 1867. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Cincinnati Enquirer, July 10th, 1867. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

  Cincinnati Enquirer , December 27th, 1876. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Cincinnati Enquirer, December 27th, 1876. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

  Cincinnati Enquirer , February 18th, 1886. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Cincinnati Enquirer, February 18th, 1886. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

About two years after the confrontation between Adam and Louis, they are in court again. And in 1887, Louis was in police court once more for disorderly conduct.[v] So, perhaps it’s both the big developments in the past — things like shifting ideas of manhood — and the little details — like what a headache Louis Schwing could be for another man like Adam — that matter.

  Cincinnati Enquirer , February 23rd, 1881. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Cincinnati Enquirer, February 23rd, 1881. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

  Cincinnati Enquirer , August 7th, 1887. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Cincinnati Enquirer, August 7th, 1887. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

[i] Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race; or, The Racial Basis of European History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[ii] Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2002); John Higham, “American Immigration Policy in Historical Perspective,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 21, No. 2, Immigration (Spring, 1956): 213-35; John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New York: Antheneum, 1971); Michael D. Morgan, Over-the-Rhine: When Beer was King (Charleston: The History Press, 2010).

[iii] Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[iv] 1880, 1900 Federal Census, Ancestry.com; “Demanded a Jury,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 10, 1867; “Final Report of the Grand Jury—Indictments,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 11, 1873; “Board of Public Works,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 27, 1876; “Police Court Docket,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 18, 1886, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

[v] “Calendar for To-Day,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 23, 1881, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County; “Police Court Docket,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 7, 1887, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.