Students in a graduate course at NKU are tracing the history behind artifacts that were thrown away in outhouses to use in exhibits on urban archeology.
Dr. Brian Hackett and 15 students in his public history course are preparing three exhibits that will feature items found at excavation sites in Cincinnati and Covington where outhouses, also known as privies, were once located in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Privies in the 19th century weren’t just bathrooms, they were also trash pits,” Dr. Hackett said. “So you find things that people didn’t intend to leave behind and it gives you a secret sort of look into their past and what life was really like.”
The public history class is working in full partnership with the NKU Anthropology program and Bob Genheimer, curator of archeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center. He’s the one who actually uncovered the artifacts at the excavation sites.
By researching the history behind the artifacts, NKU students learned about medical practices and child labor that they will share in two of the exhibits. They also uncovered the story of a private security officer whose life seemed to go in a downward spiral following the death of his father.
I’ve pretty much become a master of research,” said Jeremy Shea, one of the students in the class. “You have to have a lot of persistence. If you hit a dead end, you have to try to get through it and keep going until you find the answers.”
Medicine bottles will be the featured items in one of the exhibits. By tracing the history behind them, students found out how people
dealt with illness and pain in the days before organized health care.
“Back in the 19th century, if you had diseases of the kidneys or the spine or you had cancer, you were pretty much on your own,” Dr.
Hackett said. “People would actually self-medicate, so we find quite a bit of these (medicine bottles) in privies. It gives you an idea
about medicine back then and how people tried to make their lives a little better.”
Another exhibit will show children’s toys that where uncovered at the former site of the Hemingray Glass Company in Covington.
When students set out to find why dolls, marbles and other toys were found in the privy at a large factory, they learned how
prevalent child labor was in those days.
“We found it was common in the 19th century for children to be hired to work in factories,” Dr. Hackett said. “Generally, it was very
low income, perhaps African American, children. And, in fact, it was quite a common practice for people to go to local orphanages
and check children out for a time and have them work in the factories.”
The third exhibit is based on the discovery of a private security officer’s uniform, badge and a loaded pistol at the site of what was
once the outhouse for a private residence in Cincinnati.
Shea has devoted countless hours to finding out more about the man who once owned those items. He knows the man’s full name,
but he refers to him as Charles to protect his anonymity.
Charles ended up dying from a heart attack in 1933 while he was a patient at a mental institution. His troubled years began shortly
after the death of his father, who was a highly regarded defense lawyer and a veteran of the Civil War.
“I’ve spent hours and hours trying to find out what happened to this guy,” Shea said. “You just become infatuated with this regular
person who had some very unfortunate things happen to him.”
Shea found newspaper articles about Charles being arrested in 1900 for shooting the Cincinnati’s mayor’s coachman in the leg during
a scuffle. He was then demoted from security officer to watchman, which may explain why his uniform and gun ended up in the privy.
Charles was arrested once more in 1901 following another scuffle with a police officer. He was sentenced to serve 18 months in the
Cincinnati Workhouse. While he was there, however, a judge ordered him to be committed to the Longview Insane Asylum.
“As to why (he was committed) we will never know,” Shea notes. “I think the mystery and the perplexing nature of it will make this
exhibit even more tantalizing to the public.”
The urban archeology class exhibits are scheduled to open in March at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Shea and his classmates are
in the process of selecting and labeling artifacts and writing text about the historical insights they gained through their research.
“It’s been a learning experience, and bringing it to the public is a challenge in itself,” Shea said.