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Cincinnati History: The Man Who Almost Stole Findlay Market



For a while, I’ve been curious about this lithograph of Cincinnati in 1802. How cool is it that there is a key of each person living or doing business in the buildings? As I came to the little building at the beginning of the row with the number "3" under it, I was excited to find that it was the dram house of Charles Vattier. A dram house was another name for a dive bar. Being a saloon gal myself, I need to know more! And, boy did I find out some crazy stuff that happened with Charles Vattier! This story also involves General James Findlay... yeah, the Findlay namesake for our beloved Findlay Market!


Our story begins with Charlie! Charles Vattier was from Normandy, France. He was described as “standing five-foot-six, round shouldered and knocked-kneed, with a cadaverous-like complexion, his mouth is wide and his eyes which were small were the eyes of the serpent." He traveled to Rhode Island as a cabin boy on a French Man of War ship in the late 1780’s. He abandoned the ship and made his way west thru Pittsburgh, eventually conning his way on to a flat boat bound for Cincinnati. Charles became a private in the Army at Fort Washington. He had very little money when he arrived, but he was somehow always coming into money. It was usual for soldiers to get paid every two to three months in those days. While Vattier was stationed at the fort, it seemed that many of the soldiers would be mysteriously robbed just after receiving their payment (Hmmmm...). There were also break-ins to the storage rooms at the fort. Apparently, Charlie was a wheeler and a dealer with flat boats coming down the river. He would off the fort's blankets and head right down the river and the money would go right in his pocket!

There is a story from a Mr. Mayo who was the keeper of the stores in the fort. One day, Mr. Mayo noticed bags of beaver pelts being tossed out of the window from the storage room above his office. He looked up to see Charles Vattier looking down. Many times, Vattier would be locked to the block for his pilfering tendencies. However, it never seemed to stop him.


After Charles Vattier was discharged from the army, he set up his dram shop in this tiny building that he leased from Mr. Jesse Hunt. It was close to the fort and convenient for the soldiers to “take their bitters." Many times, Charles had no problem buying a few drinks on the house for the soldiers. This was easy for him to do, seeing how he always had barrels of whiskey, good brandy, and madeira at his dram house. Unsurprisingly, there was never any record of him purchasing any barrels for his shop. He would pour to the point of the solders passing out and waking to find they had been robbed. Charlie would be the first to blame the "other guy," saying he had witnessed it all! There are so many other stories of his conniving ways.


Now, let’s meet James Findlay. Findlay and his wife, Jane Irwin Findlay (she was pretty neat, too), purchased serval wooded out lots north of what is now Liberty Street in Cincinnati in 1833. Plans were put in place for a local farmers' market to be built on this land, although Findlay wouldn’t live to see the market (he died in 1833). His wife, Jane, would make sure it would come to be. The market opened in 1855 and we still shop at Findlay Market today!


James Findlay was an early settler from Pennsylvania who settled in Cincinnati in 1793. Upon arriving, he setup a successful merchant business with his partner, James Smith. Not only was Findlay a merchant, but he also studied law and was the mayor of Cincinnati twice (from 1805-1807 and then again from 1810-1812). He was a Major General in the war of 1812. He set up Fort Findlay in what is now Findlay, Ohio. He also served in Congress. However, most importantly (for this story, anyway), he was also the receiver of public funds, which meant he was in charge of a great deal of money. He stored this money in locked chests in his cellar of his store. Findlay and Smith’s office and store just so happened to sit right next door to Charles Vattier. If you look at the first photo, their building is number "4."


It was in 1807 when the paymaster to the army, Captain Vance, received a large sum of public money, which he deposited to General Findlay in his cellar. Vattier and Findlay's store cellar were divided by a stone wall . One day, the general discovered a suspicious hole in the wall. When he asked Vattier about the hole, Vattier artfully waved it off saying it must had always been there. Suspicion grew.


Weeks later, General Findlay had discovered that there was a very large sum of money missing from his chests. James got a search warrant to search Charles’ trunks . What he found was astonishing!


In his trunks, they found not only large sums of money and bank notes with Findlay’s signatures on them, but a number of skeleton keys that happen to open almost every lock in town. Vattier was arrested and charged with burglary and larceny. He was locked in the jail, which was located on Main Street (near Fourth and Fifth Street) in front of the town square, by the old frog pond, which was furnished with a pillory, stocks, and occasionally, a gallows! Yes, a gallows for hanging people... in Cincinnati!

This case was fought bitterly on both sides. Charles Vattier hired Nicholas Longworth as his lawyer. General Findley was being represented by Arthur St. Clair and Jacob Burnet. Vattier pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against him. He claimed that the general must have just lost the monies or... could it be that Findlay was in cahoots with the former Vice President Aaron Burr, along with Findlay's business partner, James Smith, and maybe Findlay had secretly help fund Burr's crazy conspiracy? After all, Burr was carousing up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers trying to form a new nation and become the freakin' emperor of Mexico... absolutely not the case! James Findlay was an upstanding man and actually broke off his partnership with Smith for hanging out with Aaron Burr. It’s all in the company you keep, folks!


The prosecution brought out a very important witness. Charles Britton was a servant of General Findlay. He had witnessed Vattier in pilfering around the Findlay house. Vattier had bribed Britton with new clothes, a house in Newport, and money to keep quiet and help him execute his plan. Being a mulotto man, he pretty much had to accept being Vattier's partner. (Black people and mulotto people didn’t have same privileges as white men in the early 1800’s.) It was by Vattier’s order that he and Britton used the skeleton keys and stole the money and hid the evidence. The jury deliberated for about 20 minutes and came back to find Charles Vattier........


GUILTY! Charles Vattier was sentenced to 30 days in prison. He had to pay the court $200 and he had to pay James Findlay $92,400.04. He was also sentenced to 10 lashings (whippings on his naked back) at ten o'clock in the morning on May 23rd. You would think that Vattier would have learned his lesson by now... not exactly. The crazy thing was, Vattier didn’t mind much about the money. He seemed more worried about the whipping! The only way he knew to get out of the whipping part was to get an appeal from Thomas Kirker, the acting governor to the State of Ohio. Vattier came up with a plan. He told Findlay that he would have all the money that was owed pilfered away by the time he was released from prison if he (Findlay) and his influential friends didn’t petition the acting governor to release him from the 10 lashings. Findlay knew Vattier was evil enough to do it. Findlay also knew that if he didn’t get that money back, he would surely be bankrupt (and that would mean no Findlay Market for us). So Findlay, Burnet, St. Clair, and a number of other influential men of Cincinnati reluctantly wrote the governor to pardon Charles Vattier from being whipped. Vattier’s wife also helped convince the governor to pardon her husband .. but not with a letter..wink wink!


Kirker pardoned Charles Vattier from the lashings. The townspeople were a little more then upset when they showed up to the square and a pardon was read instead of a good old-fashion lashing! They made an effigy of Thomas and lashed it and then later that night made an effigy of Vattier, lashed that and set it on fire.


Charles Vattier went on to live to the age of 80 years old. He died in 1841. His son was a very prominent Cincinnatian. Dr. John L. Vattier was a postmaster, politician and physician. the family tried to hide Charles Vattier’s past. There was a little book published telling this whole story and they destroyed all of the books, except one book that lives at the Hamilton County Library.


You can go and visit Charles Vattier, James Findlay, Nicolas Longworth, and Jacob Burnet in Spring Grove Cemetery.

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