Sunday, December 10, 2017

R. F. Rakes: Legit in the “Moonshine Capital of the World."

Once home to almost ninety licensed distilleries and many saloons, by 1911 Virginia’s Franklin County, in the heart of Appalachia, had been reduced to a single liquor business operated by Richard Flemming Rakes.  After Rakes was forced to close in 1916 by the forces of prohibition, the county swiftly gained a reputation as “The Moonshine Capital of the World,” a name in which it glorifies today. 

During the Civil War, the federal government was not around in most parts of the South, including Southwestern Virginia, to collect excise taxes on whiskey.  Moreover, Confederate governments were not strict on taxing liquor.  As a result wildcat stills proliferated in remote mountain areas of the Commonwealth.  During Reconstruction, at the direction of President Ulysses S. Grant, the Commissioner of Revenue sent raiders into Virginia with orders to wipe out illegal stills and force  distilleries to register and be licensed so that governments could regulate and tax them.

Although the move fostered intense resentment in Franklin County and other parts of rural Virginia, it succeeded.  By 1893 some eighty-seven county distilleries had registered and bought state licenses.  Most of these were small farm-based operations, making brandy from fruit and whiskey from grain.   At same time, however, prohibitionary forces in Virginia were actively seeking to shut down these same facilities.

A member of the large Rakes clan spread over Southwest Virginia, Richard was born in Patrick County, about 85 miles south of Rocky Mount, in July 1874.  His parents were Alexander, a farmer, and Annie Turner Rakes, who died when he was eleven.  Little of Rake’s early life has made the public record.  The 1880 census found him in Patrick County at age five, living with his parents and three brothers and two sisters.  By 1900 he had relocated to Rocky Mount and was living in a boarding house while working as a storekeeper.  One account has him married to a Debra Turner;  if accurate, it apparently was a short-lived arrangement.  By February 1902, according to more complete records, he was married to Rochelle Arminda (called “Minnie” all her life) Wood.  The couple would have four children. 

Rakes early on had determined that making and selling whiskey was a lucrative occupation.  He established a distillery outside of Rocky Mount on the banks of Shooting Creek.  Shown here, it was a craggy, winding waterway that ran several miles from a spring at the top of a mountain down to a rocky and muddy road below.  It provided pristine mountain water to Rakes’ still through a homemade pipeline extending from the creek to a flat space where he built his facility.  His plant may have looked something like the Franklin County still shown below.

A licensed and tax-paying distiller, Rake specialized in making sweet mash corn whiskey.  Likely it was bottled just as it came out of the still, a clear liquid rated at 100 proof, that is, 50 percent alcohol.  He likely bottled it for sale in a back room of his Rocky Mount saloon.  In 1903 he had purchased this drinking establishment, known as the Opera House Saloon, from B. B. Dillard who ran a liquor store in nearby Roanoke. [See my post on Dillard, March 6, 2015.]

Unlike many other Franklin County distillers who used ceramic jugs for their whiskey,  Rakes fancied glass for his whiskey.  Shown below are several photos of his jugs.  Note that they came in gallon containers of a least two designs.  One had a single handle, another featured two.  As shown left, some bottles apparently also came with a cradle that allowed a purchaser to fill a glass with less chance of spilling.

One constant on Rakes’ bottles was their embossed labels. Clearly aimed at a mail order trade, they advertised his sweet mash corn whiskey at the price of $2.00 per gallon.  Because embossing cost somewhat more than a paper label, distillers were careful to order only as many as they knew they could sell.  As a result, today R.F. Rakes jugs are considered relatively rare and recently have sold at auction from $600 to $900 each.

During the first decade of the 20th Century, “dry” forces gradually were eradicating all legal whiskey production in Franklin County.  While still officially “wet” as a state, Virginia had passed “local option” laws that allowed government units as small as villages and townships to outlaw the making and selling of liquor within their boundaries.  As a result, by 1911 Rakes in Rocky Mount was had the only working distillery and his drinking establishment, as one author has expressed it, was “literally the last chance saloon.”

As he grew wealthy over ensuing years, Rakes bought up a large amount of farm land in Franklin County.  He also built a spacious Colonial Revival-style house on the outskirts of Rocky Mount, situated on acreage that included one of the county’s most cherished historical sites, a crumbling blockhouse named for Robert Hill, an early settler.  Dating from the 1740s, the fort was built to protect settlers from Indian raids.  The house, shown here still standing, became a home for Rakes, wife Minnie and their children.

The Rake family was soon to be riven by sorrow with the death of Minnie in October 1915, leaving Richard with four small children to raise, one of them — son Richard Flemming Rakes Jr. — just over one year old.  By 1918 Richard married again, this time to Ethel Pluepott.  They would have one daughter, Dixie, who died in 1920 when she was two years old.

Meanwhile, Virginia in 1916 passed a statewide ban on the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic beverages.  Rakes was forced to shut down his Shooting Creek distillery and the Opera House Saloon.  By this time one of the richest men in Franklin County, he turned his attention to farming his extensive lands and other pursuits.  Ever the entrepreneur, he bought a site along the Pigg River and created a recreational area known as the Rakes Picnic Pavilion.  He also captured a spring on the property and built a small structure over the water source that became known locally as Cement Spring.  The area is shown here as it looks today. He also bought an automobile dealership, selling Chevrolets from a building in Rocky Mount still known as the Rakes Building.

While Richard Rakes was pursuing legitimate enterprises, however, hundreds of Franklin County residents, including some of his cousins, were taking advantage of the demand for illegal liquor to take up bootlegging on a major basis — earning the county the title “Moonshine Capital of the World.”  Moonshine meant cash for impoverished area farmers despite the fact that powerful political figures and urban gangsters exploited them for the lion’s share of the illegal profits.

During Prohibition, federal revenue agents in Franklin County destroyed 3,909 stills, made 1,669 arrests, and seized 130,717 gallons of booze.  The conflict over moonshine led to a major conspiracy trial in 1935.  Eighty illicit distillers, government officials, a sheriff, police officers and others were indicted for evading $5.5 million in excise taxes —equivalent to about $95 million today.  During the trial, two hundred locals testified.  One key witness was gunned down on a country road; a Rakes was among the suspected killers but no one was ever charged.  In the end 31 people were convicted, but none of the kingpins.  Jail sentences were laughably short and fines light.  Bootlegging in Franklin County continued almost undeterred.

From his vantage as a legitimate businessman, Rakes must have looked at Franklin  County moonshining with mixed emotions.  Although he had made his corn whiskey in the sunshine of a license and paid his taxes, some of his relatives were neck deep in bootlegging.  Many of the illicit stills employed the fresh spring water of Shooting Creek just as he had done.  Rakes died on March 13, 1941, the cause given as a cerebral hemorrhage.  He was 67 years old.  He lies buried in the Alexander Ingram Cemetery, shown here, in the Franklin County village of Ferrum.   

Richard Rakes lived long enough to witness the end of National Prohibition in 1934 and the brief rebirth of a scattering of legitimate local distilleries, rapidly driven from business by competition from national liquor producers.  Rakes died too early, however, to know that Franklin County would capitalize on its bootlegging notoriety as way to attract tourists, proudly labeling itself today as “The Moonshine Capital of the World.”

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Grossmans & “The Oldest Whiskey House in the South” ?

Whether or not the Grossmans, father and sons, of New Orleans operated the oldest whiskey house and the largest mail order liquor business in the South, as they claimed, their run of almost 37 years was impressive not just for longevity but for some of the artifacts they left behind, that today are avidly collected.  

Shown left, the father, Jacob Grossman, was born in May 1848 in Lautenberg, West Prussia (now Poland).  By the early 1960s he had immigrated to the United States, originally living and working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the retail grocery business.  There he met Lena Saloman, who had immigrated from France, and they married in 1864.  The 1870 census found the Grossmans in Baton Rouge with three children, Louis, 5; Adolph, 3, and Isadore, 1.  The 1880 census found them still living there, now with an additional daughter, Cecilia.

In the early 1880s, Jacob moved his family to New Orleans and went into business with Simon Herrmann, a well-known local businessman who about 1876 had founded and operated two liquor houses, at 11-13 Peters and 9 - 11 South Front Streets. In 1883 the company became Herrmann & Grossman.  Shown below is an embossed bottle that contains both their names.

In February 1886, everything changed.  The headline read“Simon Herrmann, Liquor Merchant, Commits Suicide With a Revolver.”  The reason why Herrmann took his life was laid to his being afflicted with insomnia and severe headaches.  After waiting a discrete period, Jacob Grossman closed the Front Street store and changed the name of the Peters Street establishment to his own.  Shown right is a mini bottle bearing an embossed “J. Grossman.”

Although the prior firm had initiated a bitters medicine along with the whiskey line, Grossman promoted it into popularity.  It was called “Old Hickory Stomach Bitters,” named after former president Andrew Jackson.  One side of the label carried an illustration of Jackson’s equestrian statue that sits in Jackson Square, an historic park in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  The other side had an illustration of Grossman, a message, and his signature.  Shown here are two embossed bottles of the elixir.

Grossman, like other liquor dealers, provided advertising signs to saloons, hotels and restaurants carrying his products.  A favorite of mine is a sign showing a Confederate soldier about to ride off to the war, kissing the hand of his distraught sweetheart, entitled “Parting Brings Sorrow.”  It advertised Old Hickory Stomach Bitters.  Note that by now the name of the firm was J. Grossman & Sons.  Both Adoph and Isadore had gone to work early for their father in his business and as they reached maturity he made them partners.  The company also moved to larger quarters at 205 South Peters Street.

The Grossmans’ liquor house issued a number of proprietary brands, some of them blended and bottled in their back room.  They included "Farmer's Choice,” "Good Luck,” ”Old Favorite,” "Old Jim,” "Royal Buck Gin.” and "Southern Belle.”  The only label the family trademarked, however, was “Harmony Club” in 1902, the place where Jacob was said to have held his wedding party years earlier.

Unfortunately, Jacob Grossman was not destined for a long life, dying in 1899 at the age of 51.  He was buried in the Hebrew Rest Cemetery in New Orleans.  His granite monument is shown here.  By this time his sons, Adolph at 33 and Isadore at 30, not only were mature but well steeped in the whiskey trade.  After an appropriate period, they changed the company name to J. Grossman’s Sons, the name shown on their three story headquarters above.  Below is a photo of their bottling operation employing a bevy of young women.

For the next 15 years, the Grossman sons guided their liquor business along the productive lines begun by their father.  Along the way, they were prone to make claims, perhaps exaggerated.  Their slogan, embossed on their whiskey bottles was “Get the Best.” More to the point,  note the two-gallon ceramic jug shown here, one likely sold to a saloon or restaurant rather than to retail customers.  It stated that J. Grossman’s Sons is the “largest mail order house in the South.” My research has indicated any number of liquor businesses that made that claim, one that cannot be easily verified or discounted.

The sons further claimed to be “the oldest Whiskey House in the South,” as shown on a shot glass.  That boast also was open to question, although their company certainly had operated for many years.  My assumption is that the sons dated its origins back to the founding of the Herrmann liquor business in 1876, taken over by their father after Herrmann’s suicide.   Adolph and Isadore issued a number of shot glasses, including to selected customers selling their brands.

The last entry for J. Grossman Sons in New Orleans business directories was 1915.  The reasons for shutting down likely were several.  First, mail order sales for whiskey had virtually disappeared throughout the South and, indeed, all of the U.S. by the passage of the Webb-Kenyon Act that made it illegal to ship whiskey interstate to “dry” states or localities.  Second, although liquor sales remained legal in Louisiana, under “local option” many parishes (counties) and towns had enacted bans on the sale of alcohol.  Finally, although New Orleans remained one of the “wettest” cities in America, the competition among local wholesalers — all facing declining markets — was intense.  Under several company names, the Grossmans had been successful in the Big Easy for a very long time — until economic and political realities caught up with them.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Turner-Looker Co. and Whiskey Border Wars

While keeping the same name during a run of at least 38 years in the Cincinnati liquor business, the Turner-Looker Company operated under several managements, none of which were adverse to fraudulent claims.  Their chicanery became a important part of what I call the U.S.- Canada whiskey border wars.

The company name referred to two men, William S. Turner and Charles S. Looker, who joined forces sometime before 1880 to create a new Cincinnati liquor house.  The date is somewhat uncertain because the first business directory listing was not until 1887.  Looker had been an employee of Maddux Bros. in Cincinnati, a firm described as “Importers and Jobbers of Tobacco, Coffee, Tea, Cigars, Etc.”  That “etc.” included whiskey.   Turner’s background is less clear but he was identified as a merchant.

The pair saw an opportunity to cash in on the popularity of a brand called Canadian Club that was finding favor with the American public, a whiskey made by Hiram Walker at his giant distillery at Walkerville, Canada, near Windsor, Ontario.  They created a copy-cat brand they called “Windsor Club Whiskey,”  and claimed it was made in Walkerville, distilled and bottled under the supervision of the Canadian government — all patently untrue.

Ferocious in protecting his trademarks, Walker, shown right, was furious.  He gained the support of the Canadian Commissioner of Inland Revenue who abjured publicly any notion that his office was supervising Turner-Looker’s Windsor Club Whiskey.  Forced by the publicity to back off that claim, as noted in the label change shown here, the Cincinnati firm subsequently went on the attack against Walker and Canadian Club.

Turner-Looker’s ads acknowledged that Windsor Club was bottled in Cincinnati under its own supervision, but insisted that it was made in Canada “by an old distiller.”  The partners also swung back hard at Walker asserting that:  “This brand must not be confused with the low, common, trashy goods bottled in bond in Canada.”  The company issued a second brand with a Canadian flavor, calling it “Toronto Club.”

In 1898 Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd escalated the conflict, taking full page ads in a friendly U.S. journal called the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record.”
The ads claimed as fraudulent the idea that Turner-Look’s whiskey was made by The Windsor Club Distilling Co., Walkerville, Canada — “there being no such concern.”  Nor was Toronto Club made by the “Toronto Distilling Co.” in the Ontario city, another fraud: “We are good for heavy damages if Turner-Look Co. can show that this is a libel; and we will test the matter in their own courts if they ask us to.”

The Cincinnati firm knew that if the Walkers had their day in court, they might very well win.  A year earlier, detectives hired by Hiram and his boys had triggered an investigation of whiskey fraud in Chicago that led to several arrests and an abject public apology from a key perpetrator, Charles Klyman. [See my post on Klyman, April 16, 2016.]  Smartly, Turner-Looker never initiated a case.

Nonetheless, Turner-Looker Co. mounted a vigorous, some even might say vicious, attack against the Walkers.  It struck back aggressively with ads in its own compliant U.S.publication, The Pharmaceutical Journal.  There it questioned anew the quality of Walker’s Canadian Club, citing a finding by one Alex Mattison, said to be a U.S. whiskey tester in Georgia, that his investigation found Hiram’s liquor at 97.6 proof, rather the advertised 100 proof.  “Any dealer in the State of Ohio found guilty of selling whiskey under 100 proof is subject to a fine of $100.00 and imprisonment in the County Jail for 30 days,” the American firm piously noted.

Turner-Look also accused the Walkers of issuing Canadian Club in short measure bottles, a practice not uncommon in the whiskey industry.  It asserted that the laws of the United States were more strict than those of Canada and implied that the distiller was being allowed by Canadian authorities to provide an ounce or two less in its bottles than the amount claimed on the label.  As symbolized by its giveaway poster of heavyweight champ, James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, the Cincinnati firm did not back off from a slugfest.

Meanwhile, the founding partners had sold out their interest to Edward Pattison, an entrepreneur who was prominent in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky commercial circles.  Beginning in the 1860s, Pattison was primarily in the business of making and selling whiskey.  He was instrumental in a number of liquor ventures, most important as president and treasurer of the Miami Distillery located in Hamilton, Ohio.   After buying the Turner-Looker Company, Edward turned it over to a new management team that included his son, Harry S. Pattison, who eventually became its president.

Under the Pattisons, Turner-Look issued a blizzard of whisky brands.  In addition to Windsor and Toronto Club they included “Beechmont,” "Bunker Hill,’ ”Clovertop,” "Coon Club,” "Deerford Rye,” "Earth's Best,” "Fallbrook Rye,” "Fremont Rye,””Fresco Rye,” "Green Ridge Rye,” "Heron's Pure Malt,” "Jim Town,” "Kentucky Jewel, "Margrave Penn. Rye,” "Martha Hill Rye,” "Miles Standish,” "Old 101,”, "Old Anderson County,” "Old Bradlee Rye,” "Old Cooper,” "Old Larabie Rye,” "Old Licking Club,” "Old Orchard Rye,” "Old Tom Jarrett Rye,” ”Our Pet Bourbon Old 66,” and "Owl Grove.”  Of these, the company trademarked only Beechmont — and not until in 1914.  Shown here are shot glasses issued for several of the brands.

Having sold their company and their names to the Pattisons, the founders did not exit the Cincinnati liquor scene.  As indicated by the 1892 letterhead shown here, the partners collaborated on a new company called the Charles S. Looker Co.  Calling themselves “Distillers and Wholesale Liquor Dealers,” their establishment was located at 67 West Pearl Street.  Turner was president; Looker, secretary and treasurer.  In addition, local business directories in the mid-1890s listed Turner as president of the Wm. J. Turner Distilling Co., from about 1893 until 1910.

The dispute between the Pattisons' Turner-Looker Co. and Hiram Walker & Sons apparently dragged on for years to no conclusion.  Both Windsor Club and Canadian Club gained American sales.  The Walkers could not sue for trademark infringement since none had occurred.  Turner-Looker’s ploy in claiming to be of Canadian origin was not illegal — just part of the accepted chicanery that was common in the whiskey trade.

Stymied, Hiram and his sons turned to other battles.  A number of U.S. distillers and rectifiers, recognizing the growing popularity of whiskey from North of the border, were selling imitation Canadian whiskey, made in the United States, in bulk to saloonkeepers for the purpose of refilling original bottles in substitution of the genuine Canadian Club.  In 1914, the Walkers sued 13 liquor outfits, alleging their engagement in that practice. The defendants included some of America’s best known wholesaler/rectifiers, among them E. Eising, Cook & Bernheimer, and Joseph Beck. Interestingly, Turner-Looker was not among the companies sued.

In a case called Hiram Walker & Sons v. Grubman, extensive testimony was heard in the Federal District Court of New York in March, 1915, the famous Judge Learned Hand presiding.  His verdict was that selling non-trademarked whiskey in bottles indicating a trademarked liquor was an infringement of the patent-holders rights and illegal.  Damages were assessed against the American firms.

With the coming of National Prohibition in 1920, ultimate victory also went to the Canadians.  During the “dry” 14 years, all liquor wholesalers and rectifiers like Turner-Looker Co. went out of business.   Just a handful of U.S. distilleries were allowed to operate for “medicinal” whiskey.  Meanwhile, with no Prohibition north of the border, Canadian distilleries like Hiram Walker’s flourished, supplying whiskey for much of the bootlegging trade.  Americans got accustomed to drinking Canadian whiskey — and liking it.  Moreover, Canadian distillers used their new-found wealth to buy up a number of idled U.S. plants.  When Repeal came, the Canadians were in an immediate position to begin production in the 48.  And did.  But that is another story.

Note:  Among the 13 firms sued by the Walkers in 1914, I have profiled three in previous posts:  E. Eising, January 19, 2012;  Joseph Beck & Sons, September, 2015; and Cook & Bernheimer, November 7, 2016.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Whiskey “Bad Boys” and Women

Foreword:  Continuing the series of posts that assemble whiskey men into groups that have had similar characteristics or experiences in their lives, it seems appropriate in this current climate of “Me Too!” to describe whiskey men who during their careers have had relationships with women that thrust them into the public eye, often with unexpected outcomes.

We begin with WilliamBillie” Bott.  Bott, shown left, and his brother, Joseph, were well known in Columbus, Ohio, as proprietors of the city's most prosperous saloon and liquor dealership, as well as the city’s largest and most elegant billiard parlor, the interior shown below.  Then Billie found himself “behind the eight ball” at the center of a well publicized sex scandal. 

A recognized socialite and lady’s man, Bott, when in his late ‘30s, had struck up an affair with a young woman named Mary Sells, married to a rich older man who was frequently absent from their mansion home. Restless, Mary accepted male visitors when her husband was away, of whom Billie was accounted the first.

In January of 1900 the cuckolded Mr. Sells filed suit against Bott, alleging he had “alienated his wife’s affections” and sought damages. A private detective hired by the husband to watch the house during his absence testified that he had seen Bott ride up on a bicycle and leave it in an archway when he entered the Sells mansion.  The detective stole the bike that night — apparently leaving Billie to walk home after his assignation — and stowed it in his attic as evidence.  When the detective wheeled the incriminating cycle into the courtroom, the sight is said to have been met “with considerable excitement” among spectators.  To many it seemed that Billie Bott, the Columbus billiard baron and pool “shark” now was firmly “behind the eight ball.” 

The trial lasted five titillating weeks with headlines most days in the Columbus press. Testimony that Mary Sells had entertained multiple lovers put the spotlight on her, however, and not her suitors.  The court found Mary guilty of “gross neglect of duty” to her husband.  This verdict absolved Bott of blame for alienation.  He walked away without paying a cent.  The aggrieved  husband, by contrast, had spent $12,000 on the trial. He was granted a divorce decree in which alimony for Mary was involved.  Although the amount of the settlement was kept secret by the court, the local press reported it at $30,000 (equivalent to $750,000 today).  Mary soon left Columbus for parts unknown. 

Meanwhile Billie Bott apparently emerged from the trial relative unscathed. His business and personal life went on as if nothing had happened.  The blame widely fell on Mary Sell.  One newspaper summed up the verdict by opining: "When a woman is a devil, she is the whole thing.”   Before very long, Billie married, his wife a prim and proper Irish widow.  

Alfred F. “Alf” Reed called his drinking establishment “The Bachelor” saloon.”  If the name suggested to the townsfolk of Portland, Oregon, a somewhat disreputable and rowdy lifestyle, the proprietor likely didn’t object.  A bachelor himself while running this drinking establishment, Reed, shown left, lived large “on the wild side.”

That is the conclusion to be drawn from a suit filed against Reed in Portland’s Circuit Court in March 1890 by a man named George Hanlon.  A local bartender, Hanlon sought a judgment of $10,000 against the saloonkeeper — equivalent to $250,000 today — for “alienation of affections.”  Hanlon charged that Reed had plied his wife, Eva Hanlon, with strong drink at the Bachelor Saloon, promised her “costly dresses and other articles of finery,” and she had transferred her affections to the saloonkeeper.

In court documents, Hanlon described his life with Eva in glowing terms.  They had been married in Vancouver, Washington, in October 1901.  His wife had made his home “a little heaven” for seven years, he contended, until November 1908 when she had fallen under the spell of Alfred Reed and had gone to live with him at his Portland home  According to an account of the charges in the Daily Oregonian“The willful seduction which is charged against Reed has caused Hanlon great disgrace and distress of body and mind, he says, which he thinks is worth $10,000.”  George apparently preferred cash to getting Eva back.

I can find no indication of how this suit was settled, but it must have been an irritant to Reed who had opened the Bachelor Saloon only the prior year.  Dealing with the “alienation of affections” suit over the wayward Eva Hanlon was only one of Reed’s problems.  Much more concerning to him was a November 1, 1909, police gambling raid on The Bachelor, an event that once more put Reed in the headlines.  

Although heavily fined, Reed continued to operate the The Bachelor Saloon for the next several years.  Eva seems to have exited the scene.  Alf, however, was about to give up his bachelor’s life.  Circa 1911, he married a woman named Marie and she moved into his Portland home. It may have been Marie’s influence that caused Reed the following year, after about 24 years in business, to shut down The Bachelor Saloon.

Yes, Eugene Belt was a Baltimore liquor dealer, but his “blue ribbon” background makes him seem like an unlikely centerpiece in an 1880’s scandal that commanded newspaper headlines from coast to coast for two years and involved beautiful women, two U.S. Congressmen, a messy divorce, perjured testimony, and dramatic acts by a former Confederate general.  You can’t make up stuff like this. Enter the “shame and scandal.” In 1884, now 54 years old and quite rich,  Belt was vacationing at a seaside resort when he encountered a considerably younger and very attractive blonde widow.  Her name was Mrs. Mary Alice Godfrey.   Later Belt told the press that he had met her “among people of character and respectability and never imagined that she was other than a pure and virtuous woman.” 

Moreover,  he probably was impressed that she was the sister of Mrs. Benjamin Willis of New York City, the wife of a prominent U.S. congressmen.  Both sisters were beauties.  One commentator claimed that they had become the “rage” of the Washington society.   Belt fell in love with Mary Alice, quickly proposed marriage and they were wed in October, 1884, in Morristown, Pennsylvania.  They may have chosen a remote location because of apparent opposition to the nuptials from Eugene’s sisters and other female friends. 

Soon enough Belt came to regret his decision and, by his own admission, left his wife the following January.  Mary Alice filed for divorce in May 1885.  Belt told the press that he had discovered that she had lived “a life of infamy” and that he had been a victim of an abandoned woman.   He had found out to his horror that Mary Alice had been connected with a famous Washington, D.C., scandal known as the Congressman Acklen Affair.  Newspapers from coast to coast had a field day.  

Joseph Hayes Acklen, a wealthy sugar plantation owner and a congressman from Louisiana, had courted Mrs. Godfrey, who was living in Arlington with her sister and congressman husband.  One evening at Washington’s prestigious Welcker’s hotel, Acklen, shown left, reputedly forced himself on her.  The cries of Mary Alice were heard in the next room by a former highly decorated Confederate cavalry general named Thomas Rosser.  Rosser rushed to the damsel’s rescue but when the story got out, the D.C. and national press had a field day of speculation.  Acklen later apologized to Mrs. Godfrey and proposed marriage.  She declined. 

As for Belt’s other allegations that his wife had been a “loose woman” even before this incident, charges he made part of divorce proceedings, it subsequently was revealed that those giving damaging testimony had perjured themselves.  Who was behind these lies, Belt himself, family members or others? That was never revealed.  Once more General Rosser, shown right, came to the rescue, proving in criminal court of the District  of Columbia that a witness had perjured himself in the divorce suit brought by Belt.  The witness was convicted and Mary Alice exonerated.   Throughout the entire affair Eugene Belt’s name was bruited nationwide by the press.

When the dust cleared, a divorced Belt went back to his usual pursuits, running the Baltimore whiskey business.  The 1900 census found him at age 70, unmarried, and identified as a “liquor merchant.”   He was living with two of his spinster sisters in a large Baltimore house with four live-in servants.   I wonder if Belt ever thought about those weeks of marriage to the beautiful Mary Alice -- and regretted what he had done.

Note:  For a fuller biography of these three “bad boys,” on this website, see Bott, Oct 23, 2014;  Reed, January 19, 2016; Belt, August 18, 2013.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Wolfe Londoner Lived a Novel Life

In 1899 liquor dealer Wolfe Londoner, with the help of two Western desperadoes, won the mayoralty race in Denver by a narrow margin.  How this Manhattan-born son of Jewish immigrants got to this place and what happened afterwards is the stuff of fictional characters in novels. 

Born in 1839, Londoner was the son of a wealthy New York merchant who gave him the educational and other advantages of money.  Of a “restless an adventurous disposition,” however, Wolfe left home before reaching 15 years and boarding a California-bound steamship chanced the “round the Horn” voyage to the Pacific Coast, disembarking at San Francisco.

There Londoner found a job working in a hotel for $125 month and board—San Francisco inflation wages. Perhaps more important, soon afterward he was hired by a auctioneer to sell goods from a platform three hours every evening.  Though still a youngster his glib auction patter soon earned him another $200 a month and boosted his confidence about making it in the adult world.  Saving his money, he opened a grocery with liquor a prime commodity.  Londoner was not yet 17.

Meanwhile, back in New York, his father saw more opportunity west and moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where he opened a large store. He called Wolfe to Iowa from San Francisco to help him.  They did a prosperous business there until the Panic (Depression) of 1857-1858 shattered their fortunes and sent the father, with the remnant of their goods, scrambling to St. Louis, hoping for better times. 

Wolfe was left in charge of seven remaining family members awaiting enough money from the father to book passage for them to New Orleans and up to St. Louis.  After receiving only an insufficient $20, Wolfe became impatient and using his gift of gab convinced a steamboat captain to take his family on board for $25.  Recognizing Wolfe was a very young man, the officer was surprised when a mother and six  children boarded.  “I married a widow,” the youth fibbed.  The captain was sympathetic and let them go.

Restless in St. Louis, in 1860 Londoner decided to join a wagon train going to Denver with a cargo of goods to sell.  When he tried to claim one of the paying seats, he was ordered by the wagon master to walk behind.  As a result he walked most of the way from St. Louis to Denver —more than 800 miles.  A fertile story-teller, Londoner later related that his boots began to hurt his feet:  “The nails tortured me so I walked barefoot one hundred miles.  We met some Indians and I traded my shoes for several pairs of moccasins.”  Wearing them he walked the rest of the way. 

Upon reaching Colorado, he delivered his goods and was put in charge of a West Denver store and subsequently sent out to manage stores elsewhere in Colorado, including at a mining camp called “Calfornia Gulch” that later became Leadville.  A photo of his Leadville store is shown here.  Only about 21 when he arrived there, Londoner began his political career in Leadville.  A gifted orator and wit, he spent four years variously as the elected county clerk and recorder, county treasurer and county commissioner.  Wolfe’s political success came despite his being only five feet, three and one-half inches tall.

Having saved his money, in 1865 Londoner returned to Denver and opened his own store at 15th and Blake. Still politically active, he became a friend to many local journalists, including the Eugene Field, the noted American poet and author who then was editor of of the Denver Tribune.  This is the way Londoner told of their jokes upon the other:

“Gene Field wrote an article, saying that I would present every color voter who called at my store with a watermelon.  They came in droves, all clamoring for melons.  Fortunately, I found a wagon of Georgia melons on Market Street and I passed them out.  The next day I put an ad in the News that Gene Field wanted a watchdog, and set a time for owners to bring dogs to his office.  At the appointed time there was yelping and fighting and scrambling of dogs in Gene’s office.  He climbed on a table and screamed for help, while the owners of the dogs fought lustily with each other.”

Requiring larger quarters by 1887, Londoner constructed his own four-story building at 1630 Arapahoe Street, shown right.  The bottom floor held his grocery and liquor store.  Shown below in a photo, it was a large establishment with well stocked shelves and what appears to a whiskey-tasting bar at the right.  The upper floors were for storage and also allowed him to mix up his own liquor.  Using stocks received from Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Maryland, Londoner was creating his own brands of whiskey, bottling and labeling it, and selling at retail.

Collectors long have sought out his jugs and bottles as Western rarities.  Shown above are two ceramics that held Londoner’s liquor.  The one at right is a Albany slip-covered jug with his name in raised letters. It likely held a quart of whiskey.  The item at left is a mini-jug with his name scratched under the glaze.  Shown above is a rare glass quart embossed with Londoner.  Below are two decorative decanters that would have been given to saloons, hotels and restaurants carrying his liquor.  Note that one is dated 1885.

Meanwhile, Londoner was having a personal life. In 1879, he married Francis, called “Frannie,” Anthony, a women 21 years his junior.  Like him, she had been born in New York of native New Yorkers.  In time they would have five children, three girls and two boys.  One boy, Herman, brought sorrow when he died at age nine.  In time as he became wealthy, Londoner built his family a mansion that became a Denver showpiece, illustrated below.

As recorded in Vicker, “History of the City of Denver, Arapahoe Country and Colorado,” Londoner’s trade soon extended far beyond the city of Denver, encompassing all of Colorado and into Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming, amounting annually to $1 million (equivalent to $25 million today). Wrote Vickers:  “He is a hard-working man, giving his constant attention to even the smallest details of his  immense business.”

Londoner was also public spirited.  In 1883 the geographic boundaries of Arapahoe County were changed and the existing courthouse was rendered obsolete.  During ensuing years city planners, architects, mayors and struggled with where and how to build a new one — until Wolf stepped in.  In 1893, he volunteered to chair the building committee for the erection of a new courthouse and for the time it took to get the project off the ground, he gave his business over to other managers and devoted himself full-time to the task.  

Londoner was described by one author as “faithful and conscientious….He was proud that not a penny’s worth of graft occurred in the construction….”  The building, shown here, became the pride of Denver.   For the manner in which he had discharged his trust, city officials, as Londoner put it, “drew up a resolution which was good enough to put on my grave when I die.”

Throughout his years in Denver, Londoner continued to be involved in politics, being elected to local offices.  With his stock high after completion of the courthouse he decided to run for mayor.  Wolfe was a Republican in a city that tended Democrat over the free silver issue.  As friends and supporters, however, he could count on the local saloon and gambling bosses, who wielded political power in Denver.  They provided him with volunteers that included notorious Western gunslingers Bat Masterson and Soapy Smith.

Led by those “bad boys,”  Londoner’s friends stuffed ballot boxes and traded drinks for votes at local saloons on election day.  Londoner became Denver’s 20th mayor by a whopping 77 votes.  Even before he could take office, opponents were filing charges against him.  It took a while before the legal challenges could make their way through the courts and while they were, Londoner served more than a year as mayor, until forced by court orders to resign.  He was Denver’s first Jewish mayor and the only mayor ever removed from office.

Londoner seems not to have been daunted by his fall from power and devoted himself subsequently to the Denver Press Club, which had been founded years earlier at his store.  He also achieved a local reputation as a writer.  According to Vickers, his articles in local newspapers exhibited “the same happy vein of genial humor that is apparent in all his intercourse with his fellow-men.”  His Arapahoe Building featured what Londoner called his “cyclone cellar” where he was noted for entertaining local and visiting newsmen.  “It was no misnomer,” Wolfe wrote, “many met with a cyclone at home because of a visit to that cellar.”  Shown right is a photo of Wolfe and Fannie — she towers over him — in his later years.

In 1912, at the age of 70, Wolfe Londoner died, up to the endinvolved in his grocery and liquor business.  The cause of death was given as “apoplexy,” in other words, a cerebral hemorrhage.  With his family and army of friends looking on, he was buried in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery.  Londoner’s gravestone is shown here.  A half century earlier when Wolfe Londoner first came to Denver he had $1.50 in his pocket and knew not a soul.  When he took his leave he was extravagantly wealthy and known by virtually everyone.   Of such men as Wolfe Londoner are novels written.  

Notes:  A principal source for this post was the previously cited Vickers history that contained a long biography.   Other sources were “Colorado Pioneers in Picture and Story,” by Alice Polk Hill and an article in the winter 2003 issues of Bottles and Extras by John M. Eatwell.  Photos of Londoner jugs and bottles also are from Eatwell’s piece.