A peculiar political meeting engaged the citizens of Cincinnati in December 1822. The next presidential election two years distant, but 50 or 60 of Cincinnati’s DeWitt Clinton supporters gathered to promote his unannounced candidacy. The meeting was a futile exercise; Clinton, just then concluding his first go-round as governor of New York, did not even enter the 1824 race.
But all of that is neither here nor there. The important question is: “How did those citizens hear about the meeting?” The Cincinnati Gazette of 31 December 1822, describes the publicity measures employed by the Clintonites:
“As some little noise has been made in our city, particularly by newspaper notices and the bell of the town crier, on the subject of making De Witt Clinton President of the United States, it may not be amiss to relate concisely the history of the affair . . . “
No surprise that the organizers of a political meeting would place notices in the local newspapers, but a town crier? With a bell? Didn’t town criers disappear with buckle shoes, tri-corner hats and powdered wigs? Not at all. There were town criers ringing bells and shouting “Oyez” in Cincinnati almost until the dawn of the 20th century. It must have been a fairly profitable occupation because, at one time, Cincinnati boasted five criers and several men, fully employed in other occupations, took on the role of town crier as a side hustle.
For example, Charles Hales, having lost election as Cincinnati coroner in 1843, placed advertisements announcing his new career as city crier. In 1854, the newspapers reported that City Crier Hales was once again a candidate for his old position as coroner.
In 1841, the Cincinnati Republican newspaper carried an advertisement by John Armor proclaiming the new Washington Horse Market and Sales Stable on Sixth Street between Main and Sycamore. The horse dealers, according to the announcement, would also serve as city criers. It was apparently fairly common for salespeople, especially auctioneers who had developed stentorian voices to attract sales among noisy crowds, to put their talents to work for other types of proclamations.
While the fading image of a town crier has remained somewhat in the nation’s memory, the content of the crier’s cries has been mostly lost. In other words, after “Oyez,” or “Hear ye,” what did the crier cry?
Believe it or not, the most common duty for town criers was finding and returning lost children. In 1883, John Hewson, who was first recorded as town crier in 1831, returned to Cincinnati for a visit as recorded in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [3 August 1883]:
“All old timers will remember old Uncle John Hewson, who was the bell ringer for auctioneers in ante-bellum days, and also city crier for lost children, and who likewise was the doorkeeper for many years for the late John Bates, at the National Theater.”
What sort of spiel did the town crier recite on being hired to announce a lost child? A fair transcript appeared in the Cincinnati Gazette [29 June 1843]:
“The clock of the second church struck eight, and people in Fourth Street having counted the strokes, were just about to talk again, when the bell of the public crier stopped all tongues: — ‘A child found,’ shouted that functionary, ‘five years old; blue eyes, one black and blue; red hair; very dirty; had on, when found, calico clothes of no great value.’ Ding-ding.”
While disoriented ragamuffins were a constant in the city crier business, criers also invited attendance at public meetings, reported lost property and spread other miscellaneous chatter. Unlike the official town criers of colonial times, Cincinnati’s criers did not report the news unless someone paid them to do so. Cincinnati’s town criers did not hold official positions and anyone could become a town crier simply by advertising for business. There was one official function for which city criers were drafted into service. According to the Enquirer [23 July 1895]:
“John Hewson will be remembered by the older citizens of Cincinnati as the ‘Fire Crier,’ his duty being to ride over the city on the occasion of a fire and ring a bell to give the alarm.”
Otherwise, crying was a business. If you wanted the crier to announce something, you paid him—and it wasn’t cheap. An 1839 news item records the town crier’s fee at $1, which would be more than $25 in today’s currency.
The gig must have paid pretty well. An 1847 report notes that Thomas Ryland, city crier, owned a horse—a not inconsequential expense at the time. Ryland was a city crier for more than a decade. John Hewson rang his bell off and on for two decades. The city directory for 1850 lists four: Hewson and Ryland and also Henry Rider and Joseph Morrow. Hewson earned enough to buy a substantial farm in Indiana.
Over the course of the 19th century, the term “crier” covered a variety of professions. In addition to auctioneers, street vendors of oysters, hot tamales, vegetables and other items were known as criers. The courts had criers in the role now filled by bailiffs.
By 1900, Cincinnati’s city criers had all retired or adopted other titles. The tradition is still maintained in suburban Mariemont, where a town crier is an official and elected village position, complete with a bell and the habiliments of an 18th-century squire.