Cincinnati History and the Legal Profession

Cincinnati history, Hamilton County Courthouse

Cincinnati History and the Legal Profession

When you think about the industries that shaped Cincinnati history, you probably think of beer and pork. The city still celebrates both regularly. But just as integral to the Queen City’s identity is the legal profession. Lawyers shaped Cincinnati almost since its founding. You probably recognize some of the key names like Taft, Longworth, Corbett, Burnet, and Groesbeck. Take a stroll through with us through Cincinnati’s legal history.


Early Cincinnatians

You can’t hear about early Cincinnati history without knowing the name Longworth. The first of the Longworth family to settle in Cincinnati was Nicholas, a banker and winemaker. He established Mt. Adams, recognizing it as suited to grow wine grapes. However, law brought him to these shores in the first place. He studied under Jacob Burnet.

Jacob Burnet settled in Cincinnati in 1796, the same year he was admitted to the bar. He is called the “father of the Ohio Constitution” for his role in drafting that document. He served as an associate justice on the Ohio Supreme Court from 1821 until he was elected to Congress in 1828.

You may know the name Salmon P. Chase from Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law. Chase moved to Loveland in 1830 after studying at Cincinnati College (University of Cincinnati). He devoted himself to ending slavery and defended runaway slaves escaping across the Ohio River. NKU named its law school in honor of his commitment to equality. They say on their website, “Chase developed many of the legal and social justice principles that would later be championed by President Lincoln en route to emancipation.”


Presidential Attorneys

Following the Civil War, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson. Cincinnati native William S. Groesbeck donated his services to the president’s defense team before the Senate. Groesbeck had graduated from Miami University and worked as a law clerk in the office of Salmon P. Chase. He married into another prominent legal family when he wed Jacob Burnet’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Alphonso Taft served as a judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati from 1866 to 1872 and the first president of the Cincinnati Bar Association. He became a congressman, then served as President Grant’s Attorney General and Secretary of War. You might say he paved the way for his son, William, who we’ll get to in a moment.

Rutherford B. Hayes, best known as the 19th U.S. President, moved to Cincinnati in 1850 and opened a law office with John W. Herron. He became city solicitor from 1858 to 1861. He rose to prominence in Cincinnati and defended escaped slaves.

Nicholas Longworth III, the grandson to the winemaker, began a law practice in Cincinnati in 1894. He went on to a political career and a complicated relationship with presidential politics. After becoming a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he married Alice Roosevelt, daughter of then-president Teddy Roosevelt. In 1912, Roosevelt left the Republican party to run again as the nominee for a new party. However, Longworth sided with William Howard Taft, the Republican nominee and also a man with strong Cincinnati ties. The disagreement reportedly damaged Longworth’s marriage irreparably.

Returning to William Howard Taft, the Cincinnati native served as assistant prosecutor for Hamilton County from 1880 to 1882. Of course, he later became President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court–still the only person to ever do both.


Literary Inspiration

George Remus earned the nickname “King of the Bootleggers” during Prohibition. The criminal defense attorney saw his clients getting rich by running illegal alcohol. He drew upon his background in both law and pharmacy to set up a bootleg operation in Cincinnati, where demand was high. The Cincinnati Enquirer estimates that he made $900 million in today’s dollars in just three years. He threw opulent parties at his Price Hill mansion, inspiring the character of Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. The law eventually caught up to Remus. Charles Phelps Taft II, son of William Howard Taft, led the prosecution.


High Profile Trials

Ralph J. Corbett is better remembered as a businessman and philanthropist. However, he first planned to become a lawyer. Just out of law school, Corbett worked as a law secretary in the famous Scopes “monkey” trial. The trial represented the first high-profile legal debate over teaching evolution in the classroom.

Noted Cincinnati criminal lawyer William “Foss” Hopkins said even he didn’t believe his client’s innocence when he defended Edythe Klumpp. She was accused, in 1959, of murdering her boyfriend’s estranged wife, Louise Bergen. The jury found her guilty and sentenced her to death. Hamilton County Prosecutor C. Watson Hover defended the verdict to the press.

Hamilton County prosecutor Simon Leis is remembered for his involvement in two trials that unfolded in the national spotlight. Leis first prosecuted Hustler magazine publisher and strip club owner Larry Flynt in 1972, when Flynt fired a gun inside the club.  In 1977 he finally convicted Flynt, on obscenity charges, something he had long sought to do. The case was immortalized in the movie The People Vs. Larry Flynt. In 1990, Leis again took on obscenity, attempting to shut down the Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit at the Contemporary Art Center. Attorney H. Louis Sirkin defended the museum and won.


These famous trials and attorneys show only a slice of Cincinnati’s rich legal history. Lawyers have played a major role in shaping the city into what it is today. We at Brandabur & Bowling are proud to call this region home and to continue this proud tradition.


PHOTO: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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