Served: 6 years
January 1, 1911 to July 24, 1916
Anna was born September 2, 1870 to John and Mary (McGinnis) Hart. Her mother and father died during 1902 and 1909, respectively, and she and her two sisters, Katherine and Theresa Hart, and Nephew, Thomas McCormick, were living at 349 Wood Street in 1910.
On January 1, 1911, newly elected Hamilton County Sheriff Charles C. Cooper (1911-1915) named Miss Hart as his Jail Matron, but the transition was rocky. Outgoing Matron Sara P. W. Falconer considered her appointment by Sheriff Salmon Jones (1903-1907) in 1906 and reappointment by Sheriff Henry W. Hamann (1907-1911) to be permanent and dissolvable only based on charges being brought against her and sustained in Probate Court. She put the issue to Probate Court and Judge Lueders ruled against her citing a law that prevents an elected officer from appointing anyone to a post for a period longer that the elected official hold his post. She appealed to the Common Pleas court and Judge Gorman ruled against her. Matron Hart’s career began and she was reappointed by Sheriff George F. Schott (1915-1919).
On July 24, 1916, prisoners of the Hamilton County Jail were temporarily housed at the Cincinnati Workhouse (3206 Colerain Avenue) due to construction of the Hamilton County Court House. Matron Hart was off duty at 4 p.m. and was walking through the fifth tier shortly after 5 p.m. In order to take her keys and escape, Reuben Ellis (26) ambushed her, struck her three times with a 20” iron rod wrapped in a bed sheet, and fractured her skull. She was found ten minutes later and taken to Cincinnati General. Matron Hart died at 11:30 p.m., becoming the third female law enforcement officer in the United States to die in the line of duty.
Matron Hart was survived by five siblings; Ellen Hart Callahan, Katherine Jane Hart, Margaret Hart McKiernan, Theresa Hart, and William Hart. Father Luke Callahan (a nephew of Anna Hart), Father James M. Kelly, and Father John F. Hickey concelebrated a Requiem High Mass at the Church of the Annunciation on July 26. Her burial followed in St. Joseph’s New Cemetery. Matron Hart was so popular among the prisoners that even they took up a collection and sent a floral arrangement to her mother’s home prior to the funeral. Hundreds of friends paid a final tribute to Matron Anna Hart inside the church. A throng outside the church included several women whom she had helped to better lives during the six years she was matron at the jail.
The ensuing investigation was led by Sheriff George F. Schott, long distance from Chicago. Chief Deputy John Wenner and Cincinnati Detective Chief Nimmo, Lieutenant Love, and Detectives Bell and Schaefer interviewed nine prisoners. The investigation quickly focused on one inmate, Reuben Ellis, who was being held on a charge of burglarizing a home on West Sixth Street. An inmate told investigators that Ellis had confided to him that he was going to attack the matron, snatch her keys, and escape. Another inmate said that he saw Ellis run into the men’s quarters and throw a bunch of keys into a barrel of sawdust. Officials found that the murder weapon had been torn from Ellis’ bed.
Ellis soon confessed. He explained that he and two other prisoners – Arthur Brown, under a sentence to Mansfield Reformatory for Cutting to Kill, and Walter Level, under indictment for Burglary – had discussed the escape attempt and had cut cards to determine which of them would kill Matron Hart. No evidence was ever found to prosecute Brown and/or Level.
Chief Deputy Wenner charged Ellis with Murder of the 1st Degree. Assistant Prosecutor Simon Ross put the matter before the Grand Jury on July 27, 1916, which returned an indictment for 1st Degree Murder.
During mid-August, a leather satchel containing all the casework was stolen from Ross’s car. Cincinnati Detectives Albert Wegener and Sweeney found the satchel in a second-hand shop and traced it back to James Ford (22) of Massachusetts. He denied stealing it, stating instead that he bought it from a stranger and hid the papers near the Ohio River. When taken there, however, he was unable to find them.
Ellis’s trial began on August 24, 1916 with the empaneling of a jury, Ross prosecuting, and Raymond Ratliff defending Ellis. Jury selection continued until Monday, August 28, but ended in a hung jury. The jury agreed he was guilty of the offense, but eleven wanted no mercy, which included execution, and one wanted mercy and life imprisonment.
A second trial began six weeks later October 4, 1916. It ended on October 10, 1916. This jury took less than 40 minutes to recommend a death sentence.
Four days later, Ellis’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial; which was denied. The Ohio Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence on November 27, 1916. On December 4, 1916, Ratliff appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court contending that the judge, while telling the jury that they had the right to consider mercy, should have told them that they had the duty to do so. On December 13, the Court refused to review the case. The case was then appealed to Governor James M. Cox who refused to commute his sentence.
On February 6, 1917, about midnight, Ellis walked calmly to the execution chamber singing He Will Guide Till the Day is Done. In a five-minute final statement, he admitted his guilt, repudiated his contention that Brown and Level had acted as accessories, and accepted his recent religious conversion. Two strong electrical currents of 1950 and 2600 volts coursed through Ellis. Ohio Penitentiary physician, Dr. O. M. Kramer pronounced him dead at 12:14 a.m. Ellis’s mother, Mrs. Melissa Taylor, claimed his body and took it back to Cincinnati for burial.
After 118 years of law enforcement in the region, Matron Hart was the 68th law enforcement officer to die in that service and the 48th to have been killed violently. Before Ellis, no person had been executed for killing a Hamilton County law enforcement officer.
On May 10, 1999, 83 years after her death, Matron Hart was added to the National Memorial in Washington, DC.
If you have information, artifacts, archives, or images regarding this officer or incident, please contact the Greater Cincinnati Police Museum at Director@Police-Museum.org.
© This narrative was revised slightly on June 17, 2017 by Cincinnati Police Lieutenant Stephen R. Kramer (Retired), Greater Cincinnati Police Museum Director. It was initially and extensively researched by Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Colonel Ramon Hoffbauer (Retired) and FBI Special Agent Stephen Barnett (Retired). All rights are reserved to them, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, and the Greater Cincinnati Police Museum.