'A veritable mystery!' Delving into Cincinnati's quirky past and a never-solved 1846 murder

Aquilla Cook killed wife, made off into the night

CINCINNATI -- On Christmas Day 1881, a lawyer-turned-writer for the Enquirer tried to advance Cincinnati's reputation on the international stage in a rather bizarre way. The author suggested that in order to be considered a world capital, a city must produce mysterious stories that have launched legends.

"It would seem that every city has its mysteries," wrote the author. "We propose to refer to a few of the mysteries of Cincinnati in this writing … to show we also have a catalogue of them as well as other cities."

The author then proceeded to recount a few of the more peculiar stories that mystified and thrilled Cincinnatians of the 19th century.

One of those stories is the strange disappearance of the famous murderer Aquilla Cook.

Thirty-five years before that article was published, the lamps burned low at the Shires Garden on Third and Vine Street. The Enquirer advertised Shires Garden as the Peoples' Theater, a place where Cincinnatians could enjoy a show after dinner in the Burnet Mansion.

The property was owned by William Shires, who had purchased the Burnet Mansion after Judge Jacob Burnet got into financial trouble. Shires turned the mansion into a restaurant and built a theater on the adjacent land.

In her book "Memories of the Professional and Social Life of John E. Owens," Mary Owens described the theater and surrounding property:

"The garden occupied an entire block," wrote Owens. "It was planted with shade trees and beautified with flower beds. Interspersed through it were ice cream booths and places of refreshment. In the centre, stood a pretty frame theatre which was ably managed, with a good stock company supported stars during the regular season."

On July 28, 1846, Shires Garden featured the "Drama of Esmeralda and the Deformed Quasimodo" with the acclaimed Mrs. H. Lewis playing the title role of Esmeralda. Theater patrons would also be treated to a "pas seul," or solo dance, from the popular Mrs. Cook. Also known as Eliza Carnahan, she was the chief danseuse of the theater company.

A notice of reward in The Cincinnati Enquirer described Aquilla Cook as, "5 feet 5 inches in height, slim built with dark red hair inclined to curl, rather stoop shouldered, very freckled in the face and has a down look when addressed." (Photo provided, Newspapers.com)

The author of the 1881 Enquirer article described Carnahan's popularity: "Her pirouettes and ballet dancing between the play and farce were quite an attraction to the audiences that filled the parquet, dress circle, and balcony of the cozy little theater.

However, Carnahan's popularity made her husband, Aquilla Cook, quite jealous. Cook was the treasurer of the theater company and had suspicions that his beautiful wife was a little too familiar with some of the other performers.

One he suspected was a comedian and stage manager known as Jack Reeves. Reeves wasn't performing on July 28 but was tasked with prompting lines for the cast members. After the performance, Reeves confronted Carnahan because apparently the pretty danseuse had forgotten some of her lines.

An earlier Enquirer article written two days after the murder recounted the conversation between Reeves and Carnahan:

"'Why the Devil[sic] don't you study your part?'"

"…and she answering back in a rude way, the stage manager took the occasion to upbraid her sharply."

Carnahan ran to her husband to tell him about the insults. The Enquirer said Cook was enraged about Reeves' insult to his wife, but perhaps he saw his chance to not only defend her honor but rid himself of a possible romantic rival.

Armed with a butcher knife, Cook confronted Reeves on stage, just outside the dressing room door of the visiting actress, Mrs. Lewis.

The Enquirer in 1846 described the scene:

"'You have been insulting my wife again,' said Cook.

"'Don't bother me,' said Reeves. ‘I'm busy now.'

"To which Cook replied, ‘I'll learn you' and stabbed him to the heart.

"Reeves made a few steps towards the door of Mrs. Lewis' dressing room, exclaiming ‘for God's sake, let me in—I am stabbed. I am murdered!"

At that moment, Mrs. Lewis opened her dressing room door just in time to catch the dying comedian in her arms. She promptly fainted.

"Realizing what he had done," wrote the Enquirer, "the murderer went to the Treasurer's office, deliberately seized upon and pocketed all the money in the office drawer."

Cook escaped into the night, never to be seen again.

A few days later, the sheriff published a notice of reward in the Enquirer for the capture of Cook.

The murderer is described as, "5 feet 5 inches in height, slim built with dark red hair inclined to curl, rather stoop shouldered, very freckled in the face and has a down look when addressed. Chin very small, core in his throat very large and grey eyes rather full; wears his hat very much inclined over his eyes."

Despite the generous $100 reward, Cook was never captured. A letter to the editor penned by a man who was there that night appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1904, offering one popular theory about Cook's location.

"It was generally supposed that he made his way to Texas, then a resort for criminal characters," he wrote.

However, the author of the 1881 article suggested that Cook made it to New Orleans.

"There was a vague rumor that he went south and at New Orleans got upon a ship and went to sea and afterward turned pirate."

The author admitted that the rumor of piracy was never confirmed.

"What became of Cook and what has become of him is a mysterious conundrum. Where did he go and where is he? This is a Cincinnati mystery which I am afraid never will be and never can be unraveled," wrote the Enquirer. "Aquilla Cook, the murderer of Jack Reeves, escaped and has never been seen or heard of. A veritable mystery!"

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