Caught cheating the government of revenues on his whiskey, St. Louis distiller Louis Teuscher in 1875 pled guilty and began assisting the prosecution. Asked under oath how he ran his distillery, Teuscher, a German immigrant, replied “Vell sometimes straight but most times crooked.” His candid remark provided a brief moment of levity in a high-profile trial of the infamous Whisky Ring.
Teuscher’s distillery was one of ten seizures made simultaneously in the St. Louis area in May 1875 by special agents assigned by Secretary of the Treasury H. B. Bristow. Teuscher was absent at the time of the raid, according to Federal records, and did not return for several hours. By that time Internal Revenue authorities had shut down the plant and confiscated his whiskey.
Arrested and indicted, Teuscher formally was accused of removing 10,000 gallons of whiskey from his distillery: “…On which said spirits the internal revenue tax of 70 cent…imposed by law upon each and every proof gallon…had not been first paid.” By so doing he had defrauded the government to the tune of $7,000, equivalent to about $154,000 today. His illegal whiskey was being hidden in a building on the distillery premises, previously unknown to federal inspectors. There fraudulent tax stamps were applied.
Teuscher pleaded guilty and turned state’s evidence. The distiller testified for the prosecution in the trial of the kingpin of the Whiskey Ring, Orville P. Babcock, Civil War general and personal secretary and confidant of President Ulysses S. Grant. He is shown right with the President. According to the memoirs of former Ring prosecutor David Patterson Dyer, the government treated cooperative distillers like Teuscher as “victims of rapacious officials, or at worst, as having the lesser guilt….” Dyer pointed out, however, that Teuscher and others had participated willingly with the Ring, not forced at the point of a gun, and any one of them could have “blown the whistle” on corrupt officials at any time.
The German-born distiller and other whiskey men arrested did not go unpunished. Federal agents confiscated their distilleries and whiskey stocks and took all or part of a $50,000 surety bond provided to the Internal Revenue Service that allowed them to make whiskey. Originally indicted on felony charges, those were dropped for Teuscher when he agreed to cooperate. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to one day in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Although he spent the designated day in jail, Teuscher apparently balked at paying the $1,000 fine, likely on the grounds that he already had suffered sufficient financial losses for his folly in joining the Ring. As the U.S. Circuit Court declared: “Promises of payment were made, but never attended to….” A writ for Teuscher’s arrest subsequently was issued which he countered with his own suit. In the end the presiding judge blamed himself for reasons of health and a busy schedule for earlier mistakes in sentencing the distiller and discharged him without requiring he pay the fine.
Information is scant on how Teuscher got to this point. According to census data he was born in Germany in 1839. He apparently received the thoroughgoing education provided in the country’s public schools. His early employment likely involved distilling. Louis immigrated to the United States in 1875 when he was 36 years old and settled in St. Louis, a city with a large German-speaking population.
There he apparently met his wife, Caroline Arketh, of similar age who had been brought to the this country by members of her family when she was ten years old. The couple was married in 1867. In ensuing years Caroline would bear 10 children, six of whom lived to maturity. They included two sons, Henry and Ernst, who upon reaching maturity would be taken into their father’s liquor business.
Assuming census records are accurate, Teuscher had only been in business two years when the Ring was uncovered. He seems never to have returned to distilling whiskey after the scandal broke. In the 1878 St. Louis business directory Teuscher listed himself as a “distiller’s agent” at a location of 2808-2816 North Second Street. An agent was someone who represented the products of specific distillers to liquor wholesalers and retailers. By 1880 he was listed as a wholesale liquor dealer, located at Nos. 7 and 9 North Third Street.
During the early 1900s Teuscher claimed again to operate a distillery. My assessment is that he was a “rectifier,” that is, a blender of whiskeys received from outside distilleries. Teuscher’s flagship label was “Good Times Bourbon,” bearing a label of three men celebrating over a bottle. The picture was included in a company advertising envelope that assured that the whisky was “Good at all Times.”
Another brand he sold was “Silver Dollar Rye,” the embossed flask shown below left. The company also was the St. Louis outlet for the nationally marketed “Old Overholt Rye,” reputedly bottled by Teuscher & Co. “direct from the barrel at the distillery.” Teuscher may acted as Overholt’s agent for St. Louis and vicinity.
By this time his two sons, Henry and Ernest, were working in Teuscher’s liquor trade. An 1893 business directory lists them employed as clerks. Both men remained bachelors and were living with their parents, according to the 1920 census. The senior Teuscher, now age 80, was still recorded as actively running his wholesale liquor dealership. The family home was at 4426 Blair Avenue. The house is shown here as it looks today, apparently abandoned.
With the onset of National Prohibition in 1920, the Teuschers were forced to shut down their liquor business and it can be assumed Louis retired. He died in 1923 at the age of 83 and was buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery of St. Louis, Block 33, lot 2370. Caroline would join him there in 1929. The family plot is entered from a stairway that bears the Teuscher name.
Louis Teuscher’s story of disgrace as part of the Whiskey Ring and a redemption that allowed him to continue in the whiskey trade for 43 more years is truly remarkable. Many who were caught and charged were never able to recoup. Some left St. Louis to avoid the shame. Others stayed but went into other occupations. I am left with the thought that Teuscher’s candor on the witness stand that he operated “sometimes straight but most times crooked” was in a “saving grace.” Telling the truth may have allowed him to survive and even prosper in St. Louis.
Note: As cited above, the “Autobiography and Reminiscences” of Richard Patterson Dyer, 1922, were a key reference for this post, as were the transcripts of the several trials involving Teuscher and the Whiskey Ring. Court documents allow a close look at the details of how the roll-up of the fraud affected this one St. Louis whiskey man.