No doubt about it. John L. Casper was a smooth operator, described as “a neatly dressed, slender man with sharp black eyes and a great talker.” With those attributes he built a mail order whiskey business worth millions, only to find himself chased from state to state by the forces of Prohibition.
The Casper story begins in North Carolina when his grandfather set up a still on his farm outside Winston-Salem about 1861. He produced whiskey largely for family use. In 1865 his son, John C., returned from four years in the Confederate Army. The two expanded the distillery and sold their product locally for several decades, during which the son assumed management of the distillery.
The third generation of whiskey-making Caspers was our John L., seen here in a much enlarged photo wearing a bowler hat. After serving an apprenticeship with his father, during which his merchandising genius began to be evident, this Casper eventually took over the operation in the late 1890s.
In a promotional brochure he wrote to attract investors, John Casper described his key concept: Sell liquor directly to consumers by mail order. He wrote: “I started without the aid of capital -- worked night and day -- kept the customers gained, and month after month added new names to my list. After plodding this way from year to year I found myself worth several thousand dollars and calculated I could never expect to amass much unless I resorted to the businesslike mode of advertising.”
Casper’s pitch to potential stockholders worked. With the help of friends and his own resources, he capitalized and incorporated a business he called “The Casper Company” and named himself president and chief operating officer. From his family and through purchases Casper reportedly started with about a dozen stills. More importantly he was able to negotiate successfully with 21 other distillers in Yadkin and Davie County to take their entire production.
At the same time he began an advertising blitz in newspapers and magazines across America, with a claim to be the lowest-price whiskey distributor and largest mail order concern in the South. His ads boasted: “All the North Carolina whiskey we sell is good -- there’s no bad. People here wouldn’t adulterate if they knew how - they are too honest! Most whiskey sellers are noted for mixing, blending and watering. We sell more genuine old whiskey and less water than any known competitor.”
By 1905 the Casper Company is recorded with a net worth in
excess of $250,000. With the profits John L. built a huge structure, one he claimed to be “the largest building in the world devoted to the mail order whiskey trade, shown here. It covered a full city block in Winston-Salem and true to Casper’s pitchman nature, proclaimed the firm as “Distillers, Rectifiers, and Wholesalers” and the local outlet for Milwaukee’s Pabst Beer. Revenue records indicate Casper also maintained a bonded warehouse near Gold Hill, North Carolina.
Casper’s merchandising skills extended to the containers he used for his
whiskey. Of particular note were attractive fluted-top cobalt bottles. Other bottles and jugs add, New York, Chicago and St. Louis locations, but there is scant evidence of Casper facilities in any of those cities. His cobalt bottles originally bore an elaborate paper label picturing a man tasting whiskey flowing from a giant still. Finding a Casper bottle with label intact is rare indeed. Here it is replicated on a match box.
Casper’s ceramic jugs came in a number of sizes and shapes. Many, like the one shown here featured a bail handle. His jugs were salt glazed stoneware and likely were made by a number of local North Carolina potteries. These containers bear a wide variety of labels. Among my favorites are those celebrating the “honest North Carolina people” who presumably made or mixed Casper whiskey.
John Casper also had a flair for giveaway items, among them back of the bar bottles and decanters. Made of clear glass with acid etched labels, they could be given to saloon keepers and as premiums for large customer purchases. He also gave away shot glasses carrying his logo, some with the slogan: “Mild, Mellow and Enchanting.”
Ironically, part of Casper’s success was due to the onset of Prohibition. All across America localities and then whole states were going “dry.” In the early 1900’s no restrictions existed on mail order whiskey sales to customers living areas where alcohol was proscribed. On request, the Casper Company would send its price list in a plain envelope. After a mail-in purchase, the postman would bring the booze in an unmarked brown box.
John Casper’s desire to be America’s largest mail-order liquor dealer was doomed to disappointment. The problem resided with those same honest North Carolinians he boasted about . It turned out that many of those folks were strongly anti-alcohol. Little by little laws were put on the books that ultimately would drive out Casper and other distillers out of the state. The process began in 1901 when North Carolina legislated that distilleries could operate only in incorporated towns and ended in 1906 when the state voted to go completely dry.
As a result, Casper folded up lock, stock and whiskey barrel in
Winston-Salem and moved his business to Roanoke, Virginia, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before making his move, however, he re-capitalized his firm. He published a new prospectus, promoting his ability to provide 12 percent return on investment and asking for the public to buy $250,000 in stock at $10 a share. “I am not,” the pitchman avowed, “selling wild cat’ or fake mining stock.” He was selling whiskey.
Once again, Fortune seemed to smile on Casper. The money rolled in and he was able to move to self-described “magnificent buildings” in Roanoke, as illustrated in a contemporary newspaper advertisement, shown here. The facility, which boasted being on 14 acres, appears rather odd, with a mountain rising out of the center of a campus-like setting as shown here.
After only several years, however, fortunes turned for John Casper in Virginia. Whether overextended financially or for other reasons, years before the state went dry, he left Roanoke for other locations. In 1911 he was listed as an officer of the Atlantic Coast Distillery Company of Jacksonville, Florida. Casper, as might be expected, apparently was in charge of sales. The firm boasted that it did annual business in excess of half a million dollars and broke all prior sales records under his leadership.
The same year, however, finds Casper also was recorded more than a thousand miles away as the “proprietor” of the Uncle Sam Distilling Co. in Fort Smith, Arkansas. An ad for this firm indicates he took brands like Gold Band and Golden Rose Whiskey with him. Interestingly, Casper apparently never bothered to register any of his brands with the Federal Government for trademark protection.
By 1913 the entire mail order whiskey business was finished. Over a Presidential veto Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act that forbid the transportation of alcoholic beverages into Dry Areas. The postman no longer could bring the booze. Although National Prohibition did not follow until seven years later, John Casper’s high-flying career went into a tail spin.
Seemingly rootless and now without purpose, Casper traveled from place to place over ensuing years. There is no evidence of his having a family or even marrying. He apparently lived out of hotel rooms for much of his working life. After leaving Jacksonville, he was reported to have resided in Kansas for a time. In the end, as published in the Winston-Salem Journal, his hometown newspaper, John Casper died in obscurity in Mexico. There, of course, Prohibition could not touch him.
Regardless of Casper’s fate, a century later the rise and fall of this dapper whiskey pitchman continues to draw our interest. We also remember him for the many interesting -- and now often valuable -- artifacts he left behind.