How the Boneyfiddle Got Its Name

Historic Preservation and Economic Redevelopment in a “Land of Good Faith”

In the spring of 1993, Portsmouth Murals Inc, launched plans for their first mural, a birds-eye-view of Portsmouth in 1903. Imogene Howland chaired the Art Committee, which included Carl Ackerman, whose collection of historic photographs would provide the basis for many of Robert Dafford’s murals. In his history of the murals, Robert L. Morton noted that the Art Committee “looked at hundreds of photographs of the area before deciding on the 1903 panoramic view.” And he quoted Howland, who explained: “We are especially grateful to Carl Ackerman for his valuable assistance in allowing the Committee to brows his photographic collection.”

Robert Dafford’s mural was dedicated on 27 May 1993, “with a large gathering of over 150 people. Robert Morton served as the master of ceremonies and announced plans for a total of 50 murals, which would be completed over the next “4 to 6 years.” Robert Dafford spoke, praising “the community’s interest and cooperation. He commented on the project being made possible through donations from citizens.” County Commissioners Skip Riffe, William Ogg, Sr., and John Knauff, along with Mayor Franklin Gerlach, and Dr. Louis Chaboudy, also spoke, lending their support to a project that promoted the economic redevelopment of Portsmouth’s historic Boneyfiddle District.

From the first mural forward, the photographic collection of Carl Ackerman, which has since been preserved and digitized by the Southern Ohio Museum, would serve as the primary source of images in the Dafford murals. Within the Ackerman Collection are found hundreds of images that originated in the work of Henry A. Lorberg, a city booster, journalist, and publisher, who specialized in colorized post cards and other souvenir books about his beloved Portsmouth.

It is to Ackerman and Lorberg -- and ultimately Dafford -- that we owe much of our current visualization of late-nineteenth century Portsmouth and its historic Boneyfiddle District (the oldest section of town, located west of Chillicothe Street). The full title of the first mural reads: “A View of Portsmouth from the Kentucky Side on its 100th Anniversary, Painted from Turn-of-the-Century Photographs in the Carl Ackerman Collection.” Dafford's mural is centered on Market Street, much like life and business in Portsmouth at the start of the twentieth century. It captures the Boneyfiddle District at the height of its prosperity before any flood wall had been constructed, which could hold back an enraged and overflowing Ohio river, but one that also would block riverfront views and the free flow of people and commerce.

As Portsmouth grew in the 1800s, "older buildings were renovated and new buildings built to form the blocks of Italianate commercial buildings which rose in the mid 19th Century, spurred by the wealth and trade of that era. After the shift of the business center of Portsmouth to the northeast, beginning in 1892 (with the building of a new post office at 6th and Chillicothe Streets) the architectural character of the Boneyfiddle District remained largely undisturbed to the present day." The survival of the district's architectural bones -- its historic residences, commercial, and industrial sites -- is what ensured the district’s successful listing in the National Register of Historic Places in June of 1979. That milestone in local historic preservation capped off nearly a decade of efforts, dating back to the time of the first Boneyfiddle Fair of 1972.

The Fair, which was centered on Market Street, celebrated the history and cultural heritage of city's oldest neighborhood and helped generate a renewed interest in its distinctive nickname. Everette Parker, a popular columnist for the Daily Times, who participated in the festivities, noted that some attendees speculated the phrase was derived from “Bow ’n the Fiddle,” which they defined as a “a place for good entertainment.” While others suggested the name came from “Bona Fide,” meaning “good and true."

Portsmouth lore is full of stories and explanations of the name's meaning and origins. Some say it came from the French, "Bonte Fidele" or perhaps from "the name of the French explorer Beinville, who in 1749 camped four days at the mouth of the Scioto River, claiming the region for France." Others say the name somehow derives from the German phrase for a "bean garden” or “bean patch." It is even whispered that the name originated with German canal workers in the 1830s, whose rough humor referenced the thinness of Portsmouth's prostitutes. Meanwhile, those looking for ghost story origins, true or not, can explore the historical fiction of Nick Sherman, who tells the story of "How the Boneyfiddler Got Its Bones,” where we learn that the namesake character is thought to be "a bad spirit that tirelessly seeks the flesh of men, ... a greedy cannibal that will never stop feeding so long as there are people to feed on."

The true historical origin of the term remains contested, as any good origin story should, with two competing stories, both of which appear in the pages of the Portsmouth Daily Times. In November 1902, the Times reported a version of the "bean patch" theory, when they credited Dan Ragan, a local resident with having first told the story of an "old French lady," whom he had overheard one day, talking about her "fine garden.”

According to Ragan’s telling, she referred to her garden as “'buena fraillie,' pronouncing 'buena' as 'bona,' of course." "Fraillie" was understood to mean a “frailty” or vice. In other words, the old French lady called her garden a “good vice.” Having "referred to her garden as 'bonafiddle,' and thinking it very funny," Ragan shared the story with his friend, Joseph W. Mitchell, a Portsmouth newspaper reporter who was "always quick to catch on to anything ridiculous [and] thereafter and forever," it was claimed that Mitchell would "allude to the First ward in The Blade as 'Bonafiddle.'"

At first glance this may appear definitive, but ten years later, in November 1912, the Daily Times would publish an account that claimed a completely different origin, one in which Joseph W. Mitchell played a key part but had more to do with the waste products of beer brewing than any old bean patch. The Daily Times endeavored to settle the historical debate, with an interview of Joseph W. Mitchell himself, noting that the paper is "frequently asked how the term 'Bonafiddle' came to be applied to all that portion of the city lying west of Market Street."

The Times noted that "Joe Mitchell has always been credited with having invented the name and fitting it on to the ‘Point’ locality, so that gentleman was sought by the reporter and made to give an account of the transaction.” To the disappointment of the bean patch and other theorists, Mitchell would explain how a court proceeding in the 1880s led to the creation of the neighborhood's famous nickname.

Joseph Walter Mitchell is perhaps the most forgotten and unappreciated historian of Portsmouth and Scioto County, whose research and data collection are one of the reasons we know so much about the city and county’s nineteenth century history. Joe, as he was known by friends, was a native of Zanesville, Ohio. At the age of four, in 1862, he relocated to Portsmouth with his parents and attended the city's public schools. Although he went on to graduate from the Cincinnati College of Law in 1878, Mitchell "never practiced law extensively.” Instead, he became a journalist, newspaper editor, and publisher of city directories. He worked as a traveling correspondent for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and a reporter for the Circleville Advertiser, and the West Union New Era, before his career with the Tribune and Blade in Portsmouth. 

In Mitchell's obituary, published on 21 October 1931, the Times noted that he "was a conspicuous figure in local journalistic circles as he wielded a trenchant pen. .... After laying aside his pen he became an abstracter and historian and probably no man in Scioto County knew as much of the county as Mr. Mitchell. .... When the late Capt. N. W. Evans published a History of Scioto County it was Mr. Mitchell, who compiled most of the data. His services along this line were invaluable. He worked for many months on the book and when it was published, he often remarked that his life's work was done." In short, a strong argument can be made that Joe Mitchell's account of the origins of the Boneyfiddle name ought to carry great authority.

The exact dates of the court proceeding that gave birth to the neighborhood’s nickname have yet to be determined, but we do know from Mitchell’s interview that "it happened in the days when the late Conrad Gerlach operated the brewery in the West End," which according to other records places the date between 1886 and 1889. "At the time the town wasn't as well sewered as it is now and as a result considerable waste matter escaped into an alley, to the scandal of the West End citizens and the board of health. A petition was gotten up and presented to the board, asking that a nuisance be abated." Gerlach was said to be "a scrapper from any angle in which you happened to meet him." Thus, instead of accepting the Board's decision and remedying the situation, Gerlach challenged the complaint in the Mayor's Court, where he was represented by H. W. Farnham.

The suit became "a celebrated case in the city's legal annals and was 'played up' in the local papers of the day and copied in outside journals as far away as Piketon and McArthur." During the proceedings, the Board of Health was represented by Jed Wolfe, who "was fond of airing not only his knowledge of the law, but also his taste for polite literature; hence it is easy to imagine the fun the sarcastic Farnham had with him." On Gerlach's behalf, Farnham "brought up the question of the genuineness of the petition submitted to the board," telling the court that he "doubted if it was a 'bona fide' document." And that's when the fun began.

"The contest," according to Mitchell's telling, "waxed hot over this point and the word 'bona fide' was bandied back and forth and tossed up and down till the mayor, S.P. Nickels [sic], told the lawyers they would have to conduct the case in English or take it to some other court. The result of the suit was a compromise, satisfactory to all parties. Mr. Mitchell says he reported the case for the Blade and made it as loud as possible. Joe says his [hand] writing wasn't very good and the temper of some of the printers was even worse, and not being able to make out his writing of the word 'bona fide,' to get even with him, [the printers] set it up [as] 'Bona-fiddle.' Joe says the word made a hit and the West Enders took it up and have alluded to their section as 'Bonafiddle' ever since and will continue to do so till the end of time." Mitchell concluded his account, by noting that "in English, ‘bona fide’ means ‘good faith,’ and all true blooded Bonafiddlers are happy in the fact that they live in the ‘land of good faith.'”

In retrospect, its original spelling -- bonafiddle -- did not hold. By the early 1970s, when the first Boneyfiddle Fairs were held, the current spelling was in the process of being cemented into the popular imagination and ultimately in the National Register of Historic Places. In December of 1971, the Daily Times asked its readers, "Was it Bonafiddle, Bonyfiddle or Bonifiddle?” With further research into the pages of the Portsmouth Blade, it is hoped that a definitive answer can be given once Joe Mitchell’s original report on Conrad Gerlach’s lawsuit is located. Only then will we know how the printers at the Blade spelled “Boneyfiddle.” Whatever the case, in 1972, the organizers of the Fair would incorporate what has become the current standard spelling of the name – Boneyfiddle – into their promotional and souvenir materials.

By switching out the 'a' in bona for an 'ey' in boney, the new spelling made a more explicit reference to bones and allowed for the emergence of the legendary skeletal figure, who is now widely known as the Boney-fiddler. The original design of the iconic Boney-fiddler - a skeleton dancing, with a fiddle in one hand - has been claimed by various artists in the area, with the original rights belonging to Margie Russell who had the design applied as a decal to the windows of her place of business, 535 Second Street. In 2014, as Robert and Julia Black were establishing their nonprofit organization -- the Boneyfiddle Project -- Robert acquired rights to the image from Margie Russell in exchange for two music CDs, which Robert had produced -- Welcome to P’town and Welcome Back P’town. The compilation spotlighted local singers and songwriters, and included Robert's own “Boneyfiddle, Boneyfiddle,” which featured a walking tour of the district.

After acquiring the Boneyfiddler's image rights, Black notes that "I copyrighted the image and began the process of having it vectored by local graphic designer Michael Vermillion. The image would become the logo for our nonprofit and was the centerpiece of our efforts to promote Boneyfiddle. In 2019 I had the image re-vectored by Dot Flanagan and she positioned the fingers on the left hand to look as though they were actually fretting the fiddle. Prior to that the hand was actually cradling the fiddle. It takes a discerning eye to catch the difference, but it made the image look more realistic."

The Boneyfiddle Project today, with its Final Friday monthly concert series, builds upon the efforts of area residents who have worked since the early 1970s on the preservation of the district's historic structures and since the 1990s on commemorating the community's past in its flood wall murals. The long-term success of the mural project in helping drive tourism, civic pride, and the economic redevelopment of the neighborhood was ultimately built upon the historic character of the district's architecture, which was recognized and its preservation encouraged by the Boneyfiddle Commercial District‘s listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.


Evans, Nelson W. A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902).

"A good many people have wondered how the First ward of Portsmouth came by its nickname of 'Bonafiddle,'" Portsmouth Times (29 November 1902): 7.

"Bona Fiddle --- Origin of Name," Portsmouth Daily Times (19 November 1912): 8.

"Heart Attack Proves Fatal for Mitchell," Portsmouth Times (21 October 1931): 24.

Everette E. Parker, “Boneyfiddle,” Portsmouth Daily Times (15 May 1972).

"Boneyfiddle Commercial District," National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form, National Park Service (1978).

"Boneyfiddle Multiple Resource Area," National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form, National Park Service (1987).

Robert L. Morton, “Portsmouth Murals - A Tourist Attraction - How It All Began - Part One,” AAA Today Vol. 11, No. 4 (Winter 1996): 4-7.

Robert L. Morton, “The Floodwall Murals: How it All Began - Part Two,” AAA Today Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 4-7.