Saturday, September 19, 2020

Peoria’s Lehmanns Came Late to the Party

Boasting more than 73 distilleries, Peoria, Illinois, was known in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the “Whiskey Capital of the World.”  At peak production the Peoria tax collection district supplied nearly one-half of the federal government’s entire revenues. The “boom” years for Peoria’s liquor industry were the 1860s and 1870s when the number and capacity of distilleries nearly doubled. The Lehmann brothers, Arthur and Edwin, were still children.  By the time they arrived in Peoria to make and sell whiskey, alas, the party was just about over.

Sons of German immigrants Joseph and Barbara Lehmann,Sons of German immigrants Joseph and Barbara Lehmann, the brothers were born in Burlington, Iowa, Edwin in 1868 and Arthur in 1873.  Of their early lives, details are scant.  The assumption is they received the education offered by the local school system.  Arthur, had some training in accounting. His earliest reference in Peoria city directories was in 1895, age 22, as a “bookkeeper,” likely in one of Peoria’s many liquor houses.  Shown here in maturity, Arthur Lehmann by 1901 had stepped up to owning and operating his own Peoria whiskey dealership. 











Edwin earlier had left their parents’ home in Burlington and moved to Chicago where he worked for several years as an insurance salesman.  By 1903 he had relocated to Peoria where he joined Arthur in the liquor business.  Edwin’s first occupation listed in city directories was “compounder” — someone who blended whiskeys to achieve specific color, taste and smoothness.  The Lehmann’s “May Bloom” label, for example, was a blended whiskey.  By 1904 Edward had been advanced to manager of the liquor house and by 1907 to “general manager.”


Meanwhile the brothers each found a wife.  In 1898, Arthur married a Peoria woman named Laura Schradski, daughter of immigrants Abraham and Bertha (Sharps) Schradski.  The couple would have two children, Alvin, born in 1905 and Dorothy, 1910.  Edwin married Minetta “Min” Watson, daughter of John Quincy and Lucy Watson in Peoria in January 1906.  Although this couple does not seem to have had children, records indicate they never lacked for other family members, young and old, living with them.


Under Arthur and Edwin’s leadership, the liquor business flourished to the point that they were able to buy out one of Peoria’s oldest and strongest liquor firms.  Founded by Mathew Henebery in 1851, it was accounted “one of the most prosperous, best known and did the largest business of any whiskey house” in Illinois.  After Henebery died his estate ran the business until the heirs sold out in 1907.  With this accession the Lehmanns’ business more than doubled in size;  Arthur became president of the combined companies and Edwin secretary-treasurer.


By that time, however, the noose was tightening on the liquor industry in Illinois.. The state's first local option law, passed in 1839, stipulated that a majority of voters in any county, justice's district, incorporated town, or city ward could petition local authorities to stop granting liquor licenses.  Although that law was repealed, the subsequent Towns and Villages Act of 1892 gave city councils the power to license, regulate, and prohibit the selling or distribution of intoxicating liquors.  Many jurisdictions took the opportunity to go “dry.”


While recognizing the potential loss of markets, the Lehmanns redoubled their efforts to sell their whiskey.  “Jersey Pure Rye Whiskey” became the flagship brand.  Advertised as “richer than cream,” the brothers trademarked the brand in July 1910.  They sold it at retail in glass bottles with a colorful label that features a Jersey cow on the label.  The whiskey came in a range of sizes from half-pint to full quart.



The Lehmanns were particularly notable for advertising items gifted to the saloons, restaurants and hotels featuring Jersey Pure Rye and their other house brands, and to individual good customers. Lehmann molded glass back-of-the-bar bottles were particularly notable.  Made to resemble cut glass carafes, these would have been kept on a prominent shelf behind a bar and employed by bartenders to pour out individual shots of the company whiskeys. These decanters added a touch of elegance.  Lehmann brands were also marketed on giveaway shot glasses. 




For a time these vigorous merchandising efforts seemed to work.  As shown on the letterhead below, Arthur Lehmann & Co. opened a branch office in Detroit, Michigan in 1910,located initially at 56 Jefferson Street, moving in 1916 to 227 Jefferson.  The brothers also began referring to their enterprise as “distillers,”  claiming ownership of the Richland Distillery in Carrollton County, Kentucky.  They issued a brand of whiskey under the “Richland” name.


While the firm might have been buying a large proportion of the output of this facility (in federal parlance, RD#5, 6th District) the Richland distillery in fact was the property of the Jett family who had built it in 1881 and had incorporated as Jett Bros. Distilling Co.  The Lehmanns continued as whiskey blenders.  One of the Jett brothers moved to Peoria and presumably was collaborating closely with Arthur and Edwin employing Richland  his family’s whiskey for their brands.


The Lehmanns could see Prohibition closing in. Temperance advocates, aided by Henry Ford, had targeted Michigan in the industrial Midwest.  When Michigan voted to go “dry” in May 1917 and the Lehmann’s Detroit outlet was forced to shut down, the brothers seemingly envisioned a bleak future for their trade.  Although Illinois would stay officially “wet” until National Prohibition in 1920, markets were shrinking as states and counties increasing voted to ban sales of alcohol.  The Lehmanns exited the liquor trade.


When they sold their business the brothers were still relatively young — Arthur 44 and Edwin 49.  Edwin apparently tried to start his own wholesale liquor house, but apparently was forced to close it after a short time by National Prohibition. Then he made seemingly unsuccessful attempts to become an automobile dealer.  Along the line Edwin dabbled in insurance, non-alcoholic beverages, paving contracting and a knitting mill. With Repeal in 1934 he made another try at the liquor trade, founding Lehmann Distilling Co. in 1934.  The business apparently lasted only a year.


Arthur may have fared better.  He apparently had been investing in Peoria real estate over the years.  In 1916 he had been the principal financial backer for the construction of a twelve story building shown here in downtown Peoria at 415 Main Street.  At the time considered the city’s finest, the structure was known as the Arthur Lehmann Building.  Arthur kept his office there, looking after his real estate and other investments.  Among them was a large stake in the Civic Center Plaza Building downtown that subsequently sold for $7.8 million.  He also engaged in philanthropic work, serving as state chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.


Arthur died in May 1954 at the age of 81 in Peoria and was interred in the family mausoleum, shown below, beside his wife, Laura, who had preceded him in death by seven years.  Edwin also died earlier, in March 1941 and was buried in Peoria. 


 


If the Lehmann brothers had arrived in Peoria a generation earlier they might be remembered among the liquor barons who helped make that city “The Whiskey Capital of the World.”  Arriving after the start of the 20th Century, however, the brothers faced diminishing prospects for liquor sales.  Nevertheless, young Arthur and Edwin in the short 14 years of their enterprise nevertheless managed to make a mark before National Prohibition doomed their enterprise.


Note:  This post was drawn from a range of sources.  Particular thanks goes to Terry Riegel for the material from his online article “Edwin Lehmann” on his website  https://reigelridge.com/mom.shtml. Edwin was Mr. Riegel’s great-uncle by marriage.

































Monday, September 14, 2020

John Horting and His “$5,000 Surprise”

Foreword:  This is just to announce that since my last post this blog has achieved more than 1,000,000 hits.  My thanks to all who made this possible.

   
Trying to make a living for himself and his family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, around the turn of the 20th Century,  John C. Horting,  liquor dealer and distiller, concocted a highly alcoholic remedy, he called “Ash Tonic Bitters,” claimed to cure a wide range of diseases and complaints.  He market it in a green bottle with a distinctive label. There was nothing to predict, however, that in 2020 the bottle would sell for $5,000 plus a 21% auctioneer premium. Hortings’ “surprise” had one bitters bottle collector exclaiming “Hoochie Mama!”

The label of Ash Tonic Bitters, shown here in detail, has a Grecian motif.  A half-nude muscular young man wearing laurel wreath and carrying a staff contemplates bowl of liquid while a comely girl in a long robe offers a refill from a pitcher in her right hand.  There is little in this picture to suggest the claims Horting made on the rear label: “…Sure cure for Dysepsia, Liver Complaint, Kidney Disorders….An infallible remedy against Fever…Colic, Cholera Morbus…Costiveness [constipation].  Ash Tonic Bitters further claimed to “…Enliven the spirits of invalids of either sex….”  The label, in both English and German, recommended that a full wine glass of the tonic be taken three times a day before meals.  Highly alcoholic, Ash Tonic might have had patients “buzzed” all day long.

The reason for this bottle fetching so outlandish a price is its rarity.  In the world of bitters collectors Ash Tonic is a previously unrecorded, possibly one-of-a-kind bottle.  The reason well may be because Hortling did not emboss the glass of his bottles with any identification.  His containers were less expensive that way, of course, but when the paper label was washed away or the bottle disposed in an outhouse, no way exist of identifying contents or manufacturer. 



Who was John Horting?  Information about his early life and education are scanty.  He was born in February 1861 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of John Cornelius and Josephine Houghey Hortling, who were respectively 21 and 19 at his birth.  He had one sister.   According to the 1870 federal census, his father was a clerk in a Lancaster store.  Perhaps as early as 1871, however, John Sr. opened a wine and liquor store at 246 North Queen St., the major Lancaster commercial thoroughfare shown above.  

It would appear that as John Jr. reached maturity, he went to work in his father’s liquor store.  After John Sr.’s death in 1888, young Horting took over the liquor house, partnering for a time with John W. Keller in a partnership called Keller & Horting.  A  bottle-shaped corkscrew bears that company name.  By 1899 Keller had departed, leaving Horting the sole proprietor of the liquor house.  Meanwhile, John had taken a bride, a native-born Pennsylvanian woman named Mary Alice. They would have one child, John M., born in 1888.

Although Horting continued to operate the liquor business he had inherited with success, he did not hit his stride until 1904 when he bought the Rome Distillery, located near Lilitz, Pennsylvania, about 14 miles northwest of Lancaster.  This distillery dated its founding to 1815 and had had multiple owners.  One of them, possibly the owner who sold, was D.D. Burkholder who advertised in 1883 “double distilled rye whiskey” and a willingness to exchange his whiskey for good rye grain.

Although one account claims that Horting proceeded to tear down the original distillery and installed all new equipment, the new owner claimed in the ad shown above only to have “entirely renovated and remodeled” the facility.  His distillery, shown here, included a four story warehouse with the stillhouse adjacent.  Horting and his small family moved to Lilitz, likely living at the distillery.  Meanwhile he maintained a separate store and salesroom at 142 North Queen Street in Lancaster.

Owning a distillery allowed Hortling an assured supply of whiskey and enabled him to move into high gear.  He issued a series of proprietary brands.  They included labels that bore his name, as the two bottles shown here.  So far as can be determined, while his containers might be clear or amber, none were embossed, with only their paper labels to identify them.

Hortling trademarked only one label.  In March 1890 he filed an application with the federal government for the exclusive use of the brand, “Colonial.”  He attested that the name had been in his use since August 1896.  He bottled the whiskey in amber quarts and flasks as “pure rye.”  The quart bore the portrait of man in a tricorn headgear, presumably a colonist.  Hortling also featured “Ridge Rye."

Still another brand referenced his location, called “Lilitz Springs Straight Rye Whiskey.”  Hortling was supplying this and other brands at wholesale to saloons, restaurants and hotels in the vicinity of Lancaster.  Like other successful wholesalers he also was giving away advertising shot glasses and fancy back-of-the-bar bottles to his customers. 









Still another label was an evident knock-off of Warner’s “Safe” Cure nostrum, a whiskey he called “Hortling Safe.”  Judging from the crate in which he shipped it, Horting’s Safe” came in quart and half pint sizes.  While not impossible, because the owner apparently used bottles without embossing, it is highly unlikely Pennsylvania diggers will unearth any identifiable Hortling bottles.  The Ash Tonic Bitters bottle is likely to remain a rarity.

Horting personally ran the Rome Distillery for a dozen years, before turning it over to other management and moving back to Lancaster, where he apparently for a time operated a brewery.  With the coming of National Prohibition, all his activities halted.  The 1920 census found John and wife Mary living at 18 East James Street in Lancaster.  His occupation was given as “none.”  In August 1924, Hortling died at the age of 64.  The cause given was an unspecific “complication of disease.”  His funeral was conducted from his home with burial at Lancaster’s Greenwood Cemetery.  An unusual monument marks his grave.

John Horting’s “surprise” undoubtedly would be astonishing to the whiskey man himself if he returned.  He had sold Ash Tonic for a dollar or so. The bottle and label were there just to convey the contents.  Soon everyone would know that his cure-all was complete nonsense and, in fact, illegally labeled.  Nevertheless, his bitters bottle had fetched more than $5,000 at a 2020 auction. In 1890 that was almost four times the average annual family income.  Might Horting conclude that the 21st Century was proving just as gullible as the 19th? 

Notes:  This post was drawn from a variety of sources.  After seeing other Hortling bottles on the Internet, I read Ferd Meyer’s Peach Ridge post where he discussed the astonishing sale of the Ash Tonic Bitters and exclaimed “Hoochie Mama.”  That led me to Lowell Wenger director of the Lititz Historical Foundation (LHF) who in turn referred me to Cory Van Brookhoven, president of LHF and an authority on Lancaster area distilling.  Both were helpful in documenting Horting’s Rome Distillery period, including providing a photo of the facility before it was torn down.  Unfortunately, no photo of Hortling himself has come to light.
                                            *****
Subsequently both Cory and Lowell have noted corrections that needed to be made in the text. Again thanks to them.

































Thursday, September 10, 2020

Whiskey Men & Their Famous Figurals



Foreword:  Figural bottles, particularly in glass have always held a certain fascination for the general public and collectors alike.  Some whiskey men today are remembered specifically for the shape of the containers they employed to hold their liquor.  Three of the most notable among them are featured here.

Like many others, I have been fascinated by the wide array of colors, shades and shapes of bottles that bear the name A.M. Bininger,  as well as the elaborate and multi-colored labels employed by this liquor firm for their whiskeys and other alcoholic products.  The Bininger family company had a long history, beginning with the patriarch, Abraham Bininger who in 1778 opened a small grocery store in New York City.  

After Adam’s death in 1836 his family carried on the business under his name, expanding its trade to include liquors and wines.  The names under which their whiskey and gin were sold included “Day Dream,”  “Regulator,”  “Peep O’Day,” “Night Cap,” “Traveler’s Guide,” and “Knickerbocker,”  They were selling alcohol at a time when glass-manufacturing technology had made individualized private molds within practicality.

This made it possible for the Biningers to issue a wide variety of bottle shapes including barrels, urns, cannons, and clocks,  all embossed with their 19 Broad St. address.  Bininger labels also were unusual.  Colorfully printed with advanced chromo lithographic techniques, the paper labels gave the public cherubs, soldiers, buckskinned pioneers, fruit baskets,  pastoral scenes and frolicking children.

As Don Denzin has written: “Happily for collectors of American glass, the legacy left by A. M. Bininger & Co. is a special one.  The bottles, unrivaled at the time for imaginative form, set a standard for later package design which has seldom been matched.  Collectors can only imagine what “Night Cap,” or “Day Dreams,”  “Old Times Family Rye,” or ”Knickerbocker” must have tasted like. They can, however, still appreciate the company’s bottles and appreciate fully the creativity and craftsmanship which make Bininger glass unique.”

Edmund G. Booz was a Philadelphia distiller of the mid-19th Century, who conceived and issued distinctive log cabin bottles and thereby etched his name in whiskey history and into the hearts of fervent bottle collectors.  Booz sold his whiskey from a storefront at 120 Walnut Street to liquor merchants and tavern owners throughout the Delaware Valley.  

The Whitney Glass Works in Glassboro, New Jersey had a retail office in Philadelphia adjacent to Booz at 118 Walnut.  It was one of the largest and most accomplished glass and bottle manufacturers in America. We can imagine Edmund walking next door with an idea for a whiskey bottle and being warmly received.  Nevertheless, Booz’s log cabin must have posed challenges.  The bottle with its squared edges and embossed windows, doors, roof shingles and writing on many sides, would have required great skill from the workers.  It was difficult to blow sufficient glass into the corners and crevasses of Booz’s containers.  Examples often are found with damage because of the thinness of the glass at those points.

The key to the bottles being at all feasible was a mold hinged to open and close diagonally.   A treadle mold was used applying foot power to allowed the master blower to close the mold around the blob of glass as he was blowing into it and then allowed him to open the mold carefully as he was finished making the bottle.  Excess glass was then cracked off and the top applied.  The original bottle also had a paper label wrapper, one that depicted an early American cabin.

The Whitney Glass works appears to have produced these bottles for as many as 12 years, reputedly into the 1870s.  As a result, although reasonably rare, many versions fetch under $10,000.  Over the years Booz bottles have been reproduced by other glass houses, however, and collectors must be aware of the differences in the later versions that are valued much less highly.

Born in 1838, William “Billy” Foust at age 22 took over a distilling operation that his father had begun in 1840 at the family farm near the small town of Glen Rock in York County, Pennsylvania.  Foust rebuilt his father’s still, constructed a six-story warehouse and added other ancillary buildings. He also greatly increased production.

Foust rapidly became known for his highly imaginative way of packaging his liquor.  An estimated fifteen different figural glass and ceramic bottles were issued by the York County distillery. In addition to a realistic yellow banana, they included a salt-covered pretzel, a ceramic ear of corn, a partially peeled sweet potato and a glass billy club. Other figurals attributed to Foust are a roast turkey, cigar, ham bone, clam shells, fish, pig and horn of plenty.


By 1907 under Foust’s leadership production was up to 3,000 barrels of whiskey a year. A small brick and stone village grew up around the spring-fed hollow that was the site of the distillery. The town had housing for the employees, a railroad station, a town square with a water fountain, as well as telephone service -- rare for a rural location. The location became known as Foustown.   Eventually the distillery grew to include a bonded warehouse and a “bottled in bond” bottling facility. To facilitate the transport of his whiskey by rail Billy also maintained an office in downtown Glen Rock.

Through the years Foust’s figurals have sparked enthusiasm from collectors. Unfortunately only a few, like the oyster shown here, clearly can be identified as Billy’s whimseys.  Because of reproductions on the market buyers must take every precaution to validate authenticity.

Note:   Each of these three whiskey men have been profiled in earlier posts on this website:  A.M. Bininger, July 4, 2014;  Edmund Booz, July 27, 2015; and Billy Foust, June 9, 2011.
















Sunday, September 6, 2020

John Keenan Hit Big in Two Cities

                  
Whether it was operating drinking establishments, organizing  baseball teams, or building volunteer fire departments, John C. Keenan, Irish immigrant and former Texas Ranger, found opportunities for wealth and renown in Sacramento, California, and 600 miles north in Victoria, British Columbia.  During his short  lifespan Keenan, shown here, seemingly hit home runs wherever he was at bat. 

Details of Keenan’s early life are scant.  Born about 1831 in Ireland, at the age of 17 or so he emigrated across the Atlantic, reputedly landing in Mexico about 1848 and working his way to Texas.  There he joined the Texas Rangers, serving under the famed John Coffee “Jack” Hays, shown here, as the Rangers engaged in battles with Comanches and other Indian tribes.  

When Hays, drawn by the 1849 Gold Rush, went to California, Keenan followed  him, stopping in Sacramento.  This pioneer settlement at the confluence of two rivers has been termed “El Dorado in a Shot Glass,” referencing the wealth awaiting those engaged in “mining the miners.”  Now about 20 and married to Roseanna, an immigrant Irish woman, Keenan made Sacramento his home.


Running Saloons.  The energetic Keenan hit town like a tornado.  After a large fire destroyed many of the town’s saloons, the Irishman sensed opportunity. He raced to a nearby settlement where he purchased a prefabricated wooden building on the Sacramento River and had it floated to town.  Apparently with the help of Roseanna, Keenan spent the next six months fixing it up.  “A complete rejuvenation” said the local press.

When Keenan’s  Fashion Saloon opened in November 1852 at 39 J Street, the Sacramento Union hailed the proprietor as an “incomparable leader of the mode…whose taste for the outer and inner adornment of man is acknowledged to be the sine qua non of excellence.”  Under the direction of Keenan the Fashion rapidly became a popular “watering hole” for the city’s elites and working class alike. The Irish immigrant soon began to make plans for a larger and more permanent saloon.

Sacramento was still a pioneer town where violence was ever present. The Fashion was not immune.  In September of 1855 a fight broke out at Keenan’s place. After it ended, according to a press account, in prying apart two of the participants it was discovered that “the nasal appendage of one” was “being firmly held by the dental organs of the other.”

Despite this ruckus, Keenan pressed ahead and soom after opened a  larger Fashion Saloon. The new Fashion Saloon was graced with an iron facade that set it apart at 29 J Street.  Made in the Eureka Foundry the signature design featured faux Greek Corinthian pillars. The building is shown here as it looked in the 1960s before being torn down. The saloon with an adjacent billiards room occupied the ground floor and sleeping apartments were on the second floor.  Indications are that in addition to drinking and gambling the Keenans were operating a brothel upstairs.  Deserved or not, Roseanna would gain a reputation as one of California’s most notorious madams. 

By 1858 Keenan’s restless spirit was looking north to new horizons in Canada.  In May he embarked on the steamer Eclipse out of San Francisco 600 miles north to British Columbia where a gold rush was in progress.  The Sacramento Union newspaper called it “a tour of reconnaissance.”  The foray North proved to last considerably longer as Keenan stayed for the summer to lease the barroom at a Victoria, B.C., hotel owned Charles Bayley, an acquaintance who ran a shipping service between San Francisco and the Canadian city. 


My assumption is that Roseanna stayed behind, having recently been badly burned trying to refill an oil lamp.  Although by now Keenan had a male manager at  The Fashion, his wife was needed to watch things at home.  Keenan may have had a surprise for her upon returning.  He had adopted three Indian children from a reservation on Vancouver Island, shown here.  The 1860 Federal census found the Keenan family living in Sacramento. The Native American trio were James, 10;  Jennie, 10, and M.J., 9.  A fourth child, Joseph, 6, who also may have been U.S. adopted, rounded out the brood.

That same census asked about property values.  Keenan listed his at $31,000, equivalent to $680,000 today, indicative of the wealth his Fashion Saloon had brought Roseanna and himself.  He returned to Victoria in the early 1860s to open a saloon and hotel also called the Fashion on Yates Street, shown above, the main drag of Victoria.  

In July 1865, after liquidating their business interests in Sacramento, Roseanna went by sea meet him in British Columbia, reportedly carrying “a small fortune” in bills and gold. She also was said to be shepherding seven “soiled doves,” likely for duty in Keenan’s Fashion Hotel.  Their paddle steamer Brother Jonathan , shown here, stuck a submerged rock off the coast of Crescent City, California, and sank, taking at least 225 lives.  Roseanna and six of her girls were among the victims.

Promoting Baseball.  Despite his seemingly frenetic life running two establishments 600 miles apart, Keenen like many Irishmen was keen on sports with an emphasis on bringing the newly created game of baseball to the West Coast.  Growing up in Ireland, he had been exposed to cricket at an early age and apparently excelled at it.  As a result the transition to baseball seemingly came easily to him and Keenan was able to provide instruction to other players, said to have helped them develop their skills.


 In 1862 Keenan arranged for a group of cricketeers from British Columbia to come to Sacramento.  In advance he had organized a cricket and baseball club under the aegis of the Fashion Saloon.  The Fashion Base Ball Club and the Victoria Cricketeers met for a series of matches at a racetrack in which Keenan had a financial interest.  The Victoria squad won all the cricket matches while Sacramento boys prevailed at “base ball.”  

A local news story commented:  The play on both side is represented as very good.”  Look closely at the box score displayed here.  John Keenan was the pitcher for the Fashion Club’s 42 to 23 win.  After making Victoria his home, Keenan is credited with introducing the new sport to the Canadian West, with Victoria baseball teams he sponsored and coached playing games from time to time against groups of cricket players.

Organizing Fire Departments.  During the early 1850s major fires burned out substantial portions of Sacramento.  Not long before Keenan opened the Fashion Saloon in 1852, a destructive blaze had destroyed a large section of the city, including a number of saloons.  Recognizing the potential danger to his initial J Street establishment, constructed of pre-fabricated wood, Keenen put his energies behind better fire protection.

It was a canny decision for someone like Keenan who was seeking broad community recognition.  Volunteer fire brigades served several purposes in those times.  Not only did their members provide a level of trained “first responders” to battle conflagrations, but also served as fraternal organizations.  Fire halls not only contained the requisite fire fighting equipment but also large spaces for socializing.  Crew members could be found there at all hours playing cards, throwing darts or just chatting.  The chiefs of such units were elected by the members and held in high regard by townsfolk.

Keenan went to work organizing a firefighting company.  It resulted with his being elected its chief.  A photograph exists of the saloonkeeper, dressed in his uniform, standing casually against a pillar on which sits his helmet, identifying J.C. Keenan as chief of the fire unit.  Between them is a large horn, used for alerting the firemen and directing them when fighting a fire.  A downside of this honor was that the chief and other ranking members were expected to pay for equipment.  With Keenan’s evident wealth gained from the Fashion Saloon such expenditures were easily borne.  Evidence is that upon moving to Victoria, Keenan also was active there as secretary and treasurer of a volunteer firefighting company. 

The Last Days.  After Roseanna’s death, Keenan continued to live in Victoria, looking after his saloon and hotel on Yates Street.  It also appears he married a second time, perhaps just year after the sinking of the Brother Jonathan.  From census records it appears his second wife was an Irish immigrant named Mary J. and at least a decade younger than he.  They appear to have adopted a child, William, born about 1864.

Keenan subsequently sold the Victoria properties and returned to California, settling in San Francisco with Mary J. and the children.   There he opened a saloon at the corner of Merchant and Montgomery Streets.  It had been in operation only a short time when coming home in May 1869, he was felled by a heart attack or stroke on the stairway leading to his apartment.  Carried to his room by a friend and a doctor summoned, Keenan died as his wife and family gathered around him.  “…A few hours earlier [he] was seemingly the embodiment of health and muscular energy,” said his obituary in the Daily Alta.  Only 49 years old when he passed, Keenan was buried in the Exempt Fireman’s Plot in the Old Sacramento Cemetery.  His gravestone is shown here.


The following year Keenan’s widow was recorded in the federal census living in Sacramento with the two boys, George and William.  None of the Native American children were in evidence.  Mary J. had inherited her husband’s estate, now swelled to almost the current equivalent of $1,000,000.  Five years later she would be dead at 35 years old, without a will.  Years of court battles ensued pressed by claimants for Keenan’s inheritance.

Note:  A number of resources were accessed in developing this post but it would not have been possible without the ample material provided by the book, Sacramento’s Gold Rush Saloons:  El Dorado in a Shot Glass,” published from the Special Collections of the Sacramento Public Library, 2014;  principal author is Reference Librarian James Scott.  Plumbing the resources of the library, Scott and his colleagues have done a fine job of picturing how the city’s early saloon proprietors like John C. Keenan played a key role in Sacramento’s development.