1 Bowery bar 1899

Mount Vernon's nightlife district was known as “The Bowery” around 1912, after New York City's notorious red light district.

MOUNT VERNON -- If you've been following History Knox this long, you've probably detected one of my themes: There weren't really any good old days.

Nostalgia focuses on a rosy selection of good memories while obliterating all the evidence that life has always been a jumble of troubles and confusions. This week we rack up another example of life “in simpler times” that is as messy and convoluted as anything in today's headlines.

Saturday, Nov. 9, 1912, must have been a hot time in the old town of Mount Vernon. Later news reports describe the partying as taking place in the “Bowery” section of town, a nickname no doubt borrowed from the rough neighborhood of Manhattan's Lower East Side in New York City, which was infamous in the late 1800s and early 1900s for its collection of bars, brothels, and crime.

Fun fact: the name comes from the Dutch word “bouwerij,” which means “farm lands.”

But that name didn't stick in Mount Vernon.

When I contacted Knox County Historical Society Director James K. Gibson about the nickname, he said he had not encountered that term before. He did point out, though, that some of the bars on the east side of South Main Street, in the 300-400 blocks, had considerable reputations before 1970. In all likelihood, this is the neighborhood that was hit by the late night police raid in 1912.

Our own Grant Pepper reported last fall that these blocks where some of the bars were long ago located were recently being turned into public parking areas -- not quite as wild as the good old days!

In the wee hours of Sunday, Nov. 10, 1912, the Mount Vernon police made a coordinated sweep through the district and arrested nine people, loading up the police van and taking them to the jail on High Street. Joe James, Clarence Carpenter, Herman Dial, Rose Lewis, Grover Low, and Frank Allen were charged with fornication; Nannie Taugher, Cora Milner, and Lulu Jolly were charged with adultery. As an aside, I can't resist pointing out that Lulu Jolly is definitely the best name to have if you're going to get arrested for misbehavior.

“Fornication” is the old-fashioned term for unmarried people who were having sex. The ones committing adultery were those of married status. There's an interesting math story problem to ponder here as well: Five men were arrested, but only four women. I'll leave it to readers to graph that one out.

The one who quickly stands out from the crowd is Rose Lewis. An accompanying article states that Lewis had secreted in her clothes a small bottle containing about a tablespoon of carbolic acid. Sunday afternoon, Lewis asked her jailers for a tin cup of water. Once that was provided, Lewis poured the acid into the cup and swallowed the poisonous concoction. She soon collapsed to the jail cell floor.

The other women screamed for help as Lewis went into convulsions. Sherriff P. J. Parker rushed to the cell and acted to secure and position Lewis to prevent her from harming herself. He had a doctor sent for who gave Lewis an antidote, stabilizing her condition and saving her life.

SIDEBAR: Carbolic acid, also known as phenol, is a derivative of coal tar that had been discovered in the early 1800s. It was used by Dr. Joseph Lister as the first antiseptic in operating rooms because of its ability to kill germs. Taken in a concentrated dose, it can all kill a human being. It would appear that the fast action of Knox County Sherriff Peter J. Parker saved Rose Lewis' life. The recommended antidote for carbolic acid taken internally was to force the patient to swallow milk, raw egg white, or corn starch paste, followed by a spoonful of powdered mustard seed mixed in a glass of warm water to make the patient vomit up the poison.

So, who was this Rose Lewis? That's an easy question to ask, but not so easy a question to answer because of the rather common nature of the name. A quick search of genealogical sources shows that a number of Rose Lewises lived in Ohio around the turn of the previous century. Once you factor in the name-changing involved with marriages, the question gets more complicated. But there is a leading candidate.

The newspaper article says that Lewis identified herself as being from Mansfield, though it was noted that she had been living in Mount Vernon for the previous few months. Sure enough, perusal of Mansfield resources turns up a police report of a Rose Lewis being arrested just two months after the Mount Vernon incident for public drunkness at the Richland County Fairgrounds, after she and some friends had been out partying for the New Year.

The Mansfield News Journal was amused that court was held up at the start of its morning session because Lewis and her friend Jessie Sams took so long on their makeup and hair before being brought up before the mayor in court. Their co-defendant, 17-year-old John Baughman made no such effort, the reporter noting that Baughman's shoes “still carried a large amount of real estate they had accumulated Wednesday night.”

The article noted that the girls had been neglected as children and that “their surroundings have not been the best.” The mayor noted that this wasn't Rose's first time in trouble, either, having previously been caught with a revolver concealed on her person.

“I don't know where I was nor how I got there last night,” Rose said to the mayor.

“Do you have any relatives?” he asked.

“I have some sisters, but I don't speak to them,” the girl replied. She added that her parents were separated and that her mother was currently keeping house for a rag picker.

“You are not a bad-looking girl,” the mayor said, “Why do you want to throw yourself away? Why don't you go to work?”

Rose Lewis hung her head in shame and didn't answer.

Is this the same Rose Lewis, born in Mount Vernon, who just three months later marries Cecil Byers of Coshocton, and moves to Akron? The wedding license gives Mount Vernon as her birthplace and says that her parents were Charles W. Lewis and her mother's maiden name was Mary E. Litt. Her occupation was listed as waitress. If that is our Rose, trying to turn her life around, the outcome was not positive. Rose Lewis Byers dies just eight months later, aged only 19.

And what a story it is.

It appears that the Byers were both 18 at the time of marriage in March of 1913, and things got off to a rocky start, with Byers' father filing an affadavit against a saloon keeper on East Exchange Street in Akron for selling intoxicating beverages to his still underage son.

It quickly got much rockier, with both parties alleging physical abuse by the other. By July, the pair are brought up in front of the police court in Mansfield. It seems that on Thursday, July 10, 1913, they were in Mansfield, when Cecil left his wife in Central Park while he hit a nearby saloon for a tall drink.

Growing bored, Rose decided to commandeer a horse and buggy and go joy-riding.

According to her testimony in court, she was driving the livery rig, “headed for the elephants” (was there a circus in town?), when her husband Cecil and his friend Tom Walker stepped out of the saloon and saw her. They quickly jumped on the wagon (not metaphorically, obviously) and tried to take over the reins. Rose decided that she didn't need any man to drive and refused to turn over the reins. Cecil punched his wife in the face, at which point she stopped the buggy, grabbed a policeman, and had her husband arrested.

When Mayor O'Donnell questioned Rose in court about her husband's violence, she snapped back her answer quickly.

“He has knocked me down several times,” Rose said.

“She has knocked me down several times,” Cecil quickly shot back at her.

“It seems to me you two have not been living very happily together,” the mayor said.

“I've been having a good time,” Cecil said.

Rose decided the comment wasn't worthy of a response. The mayor gathered his thoughts, stared down the husband and spoke harshly.

“Your father should have broken you in two instead of getting you a marriage license,” Mayor O'Donnell said.

Byers agreed, but claimed that he had only accidentally struck his wife. The mayor refused to believe him and found him guilty, fining him $25. Cecil broke down sobbing as Rose swept out of the courtroom, coldly triumphant.

But it appears that they got back together, as co-dependents all too often do. On Friday, Nov. 21, 1913, Cecil Byers came running out of his house on Torrey Street in Akron, shouting for help. He said his wife had swallowed a bottle of carbolic acid. Before a physician could arrive, Rose was dead. Her funeral was held in Mansfield, where her mother lived by that time, and she was buried in the Mansfield Cemetery.

The following Friday, Cecil Byers attempted suicide by drinking a bottle of laudanum. He raved, “Rosa, Rosa, Rosa” in the ambulance as they rushed him to the hospital. Newspaper reports examing his background found out that Byers had a history of instability since the age of five, when he had suffered a massive head injury after falling off a wagon. He had attempted to self-medicate his volatility with excessive drug and alcohol use.

The Akron Beacon Journal said that at age 20, Byers was “a nervous, mental, physical wreck.” He repeatedly begged hospital attendants to let him die so he could again be with Rose. He was adjudged insane and sent to the Massillon State Hospital to recover. He was later released, but his later life was equally unstable, with a string of marriages, more suicide attempts, and more visits to the asylum. His life ended at age 36 in Oklahoma, where he was living under the name “Charles Brown.” Late one night, he was struck by a car. One wonders if it was an accident, or rather his final attempt to get back to Rose.

None of this absolutely proves that this was the same Rose Lewis arrested in Mount Vernon in 1912, though the detail of suicide by carbolic acid seems a strong connection. Oddly enough, though, just a few years later, there was another Rose Lewis in Ohio who committed suicide with carbolic acid. This Rose was a stage performer, and she seems to be the amazing talent described in newspapers performing in and around Mansfield as part of a touring company in 1912. In one show, she was a breathtaking trapeze artist, and in another tour she was described as “the wonder of the accordion.”

Where this Rose Lewis came from is uncertain, but her stage career ended around the same time our Rose Lewis began getting in trouble. This Rose Lewis ends up being institutionalised in a northern Ohio state hospital for insanity. She was apparently released for an extended visit to family for a few weeks in 1920, but when her sister attempted to return her to the asylum, this Rose Lewis also swallowed carbolic acid and died.

Little information floats up about Rose's fellow detainees from the police raid. It would appear that most of them left Mount Vernon after their jail sentences were over. That's how it was done in those days: Got in trouble? Then you would relocate to some place where you didn't have a reputation.

Today, with the relentless connections of social media, it's hard to do that.

In that sense, maybe those were the good old days. Because it looks like the rest of the lot, unlike Rose Lewis, quieted down and had rather uneventful lives the rest of their days. Only poor Rose was prepared to escape in a more final way, with a bottle of poison in her pocket should the going get too rough.

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