It was “market night” in downtown Cincinnati. Around 8:30 p.m., July 23, 1881, Sophia McHugh was standing on the southwest corner of Sixth and Plum streets when a man emerged from the crowd, roughly pushing several women aside. He put one hand on the woman’s shoulder, spun her around and plunged a large butcher knife between her second and third ribs, three and a half inches deep.
A group of bystanders picked the woman up and carried her to a nearby drug store at Longworth and Plum. Someone summoned a doctor, but by the time he arrived, Sophie was dead, lying in a pool of blood, with more streaming from her mouth. She was “a remarkably handsome woman,” the newspaper said, with a fair complexion. Her long, thick mane of blonde hair was matted with gore. The knife had sliced through the pulmonary artery.
When police arrived, several witnesses identified the assailant as the woman’s husband, William “Red” McHugh. Officers fanned out to search and around 9 p.m., found McHugh — extremely drunk or pretending to be –staggering along Central Avenue. As they escorted him to the jail, McHugh berated the onlookers, asking them if they thought they were looking at a puppet show. When they placed him in a cell, McHugh went directly to a cot, threw a blanket up over his head, and went to sleep, or pretended to. When the coroner came in to talk to him around midnight, McHugh pretended to be in a drunken sleep, but the coroner began asking questions anyway. One of the inquiries got his attention, and he sat up to respond, soberly and clearly, proving that his drunken behavior was a ruse.
The tragic marriage was either doomed from the beginning or had squandered the opportunity for a fairy tale narrative. Two years earlier, the couple had been among the more than 5,000 single people who paid 25 cents each to attend Colonel Robert M. Moore’s “marriage picnic” at Cincinnati’s Inwood Park on behalf of the National Association for the Promotion of Marriage (NAPM).
Colonel Moore, a Civil War hero and a popular Cincinnati mayor, was an upright and generous philanthropist. On behalf of the N.A.P.M. he offered a bounty of $25, some furniture and solid gold rings to any man and woman who met at the picnic and decided to get married at a ceremony at the end of the night.
There was much eating and the beer flowed “liberally but not profusely,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Some said the 5,000 people were mostly there to drink and jeer. At the end of the evening, only three couples took the Colonel up on the offer, including McHugh and Sophia Sorella. Red McHugh was a tall, thin, rough-looking man of 26, and as the nickname might suggest, sported a wild shock of bright red hair and a florid complexion. Sophia was around 30 years old, and about the same height as McHugh, but the bride, the paper reported, would have been “capable of turning the scales at a higher figure than he.” Sophia was the daughter of a cooper who died when she was 13 years old, and she soon turned to life in the streets and the brothels. She first met Red McHugh in 1871 and took a fancy to him although he was several years younger than she. She told him she would leave the brothel if he would be with her. He balked at the responsibility, but eventually relented and they took an apartment together on McFarland Street. She soon fell back into her old ways, however, and they separated when she gave him syphilis. He moved in with his mother and Sophia went back to the brothel at the corner of George Street and Central Avenue. At the Marriage Picnic, both were well in their cups and needed little coaxing to renew their romance. McHugh would later say that they told him the marriage was not binding, but just for fun.
It was not, as one might imagine, a marriage made in heaven. Although he gave his profession as a painter, “Red” McHugh was a seasoned career criminal and well-known to the police, having done several stints in the Cincinnati Workhouse. Sophia was a well-known courtesan who plied her trade under the professional name Belle Walker.
The couple moved to Fifteenth and Race streets in the German section of Cincinnati known as Over the Rhine but spent most of their time in the saloons on Sixth Street. Neighbors reported that the McHughs were constantly battling. Mrs. Aidleman, who lived on the floor below them, said that on July 5 she heard screams coming from above. When she went to investigate, she saw Sophia bounding down the stairs with a hail of plates and dishes raining down from above, hurled by an irate and probably drunk Red. Sophia ran all the way to the police station for protection. She did not file charges or even send an officer to see her husband. Sophia’s mother, Mrs. Zueller, was living with them at the time. She said that earlier the same day, July 5, she had offered to make Red some lunch, which she did, but he was quarrelsome and knocked her down. She moved to Anderson Ferry the week before the murder.
About two weeks before the fatal event, Officer Young was sent to their house for a domestic disturbance and arrived in time to find Sophia running out of the house. She said that her husband had been abusing her, but she did not want him arrested. Young went inside the house, found broken dishes strewn about and Red McHugh lying in his bed. “If you want me,” he told the officer, “you can have me.”
McHugh would testify that he and Sophia got along better than people made out, that their rows were just a matter of having some fun, that they were constant companions except when was working. On the 19th of July, a few days before the murder, he came home from looking for work and found the door locked and his clothes in a bundle with a note from Sophia saying: “William, these are your clothes. Leave.”
That was OK by him, he said. Just the day before, he had given her the money he earned for a job and she went on a spree without him. He was tired of “this kind of business,” so he picked up the bundle and headed out. As he was leaving, she came in and they talked in the stairwell.
“I think we can get along better if we separate,” she told him.
He said that he agreed with her, telling her, “We met in friendship, let us part in friendship.” They kissed each other goodbye. He said he went on a bender after that and did not remember the next few days, nor the horrible event at the corner of Sixth and Plum. He was pretty sure he was in Gilligan’s saloon at Central Avenue and Fifth Street at the time.
The day before the assault, Sophia had complained to a Sixth Street barkeeper that her husband was abusing her and that they could not get along. She told other patrons that she had filed for a divorce. McHugh had been abusing her because she had returned to her own line of work. And why shouldn’t she, she asked her fellow drinkers, since he never gave her anything.
McHugh spent most of the day of the murder drinking with his brother John and another fellow. They had a few drinks in a bar at 10 a.m., then went out on a job laying bricks, where they drank several more pitchers of beer. John testified that Red was quite drunk when they quit working at 3:30 p.m. They then went to another bar after they picked up their pay. Yet another bar later, around 6 p.m., John went to the bathroom. When he came back, his brother was gone.
McHugh went into a dry goods store on Central Avenue and purchased a butcher knife with a six-inch blade. The clerk started to wrap it up, but McHugh stopped him. “I shall want to use it before long,” he said.
The prosecutor called the crime “devilish in its conception and brutal in its execution.”
McHugh’s defense would be that he was drunk and not in control of his faculties because he was suffering from the mental effects of syphilis.
Apart from the defendant’s own testimony, the most poignant moment of the trial came when his widowed mother took the stand. Mother McHugh said she came to Cincinnati 35 years ago, and her youngest son William was born three months after his father died. William had always lived with her except when he was living with Sophia, whom she called “Belle,” and he always supported her ever since he got out of school, even if it meant shoveling coal. He also worked as a bootblack and was taken in as a painter’s apprentice at 15. She was under the impression that William and Belle had an affectionate relationship, and said she and her daughter-in-law got along quite well. Just a week before her death, Belle had come to visit her, and they parted friends.
On the night of the murder, Mother McHugh was taking a clean shirt to her son John. She was to meet him on the corner of Sixth and Plum, but he did not show, so she went inside Harding’s saloon to leave the shirt for him there. She was in the saloon when she heard the ruckus and a cry that a woman had been killed.
“I ran to where the killing was done because everybody else was,” she said. “I did not know who it was that was murdered. I crowded between a man’s legs and got near enough to see.”
When she saw that it was her daughter-in-law, she cried out, “Oh! It is my Belle.”
“I put my face down to her face and fainted,” she said.
Red McHugh was three times found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang, with three different teams of lawyers. The first two verdicts were overturned by the Ohio Supreme court for procedural errors, but the third one stood.
The night before his execution, Red McHugh gave an impassioned speech to his fellow prisoners:
“Three years ago I was a light-hearted boy without a care, only to have enough to eat and have a good time. I was cursed with a desire for drink, and to that I owe my present position. I am doomed to die in the morning, and I am ready to meet my fate… Please take this advice from a dying man and when you get out, try and live an honest life. Keep away from bad women, for they will lead to many worse things.”
At the gallows, when asked for his last words, he gave the crowd of 200 a nice, long gaze and said in a sorrowful voice, “Goodbye, friends.” When they replied with a chorus of “Goodbye, Red,” and “Goodbye, Billy,” he smiled for an instant before the deputy put the black hood over his head.
The fall did not break his neck, and William McHugh died of strangulation, May 2, 1884.
Sources: Cincinnati Enquirer: Marriage Picnic: Five Thousand People at Inwood Park Yesterday, August 11, 1879; A Horrible Crime: James McHugh Stabs His Wife to the Heart, July 21, 1881; “Red” M’Hugh, the Man Accused of Wife-murder, July 25, 1881; M’Hugh Inquest, July 26, 1881; His Lease on Life, December 17, 1881; Black Friday: William McHughs Last Day on Earth, May 2, 1884; Strangled: McHugh Drops into Eternity, May 3, 1884.