Thursday, February 2, 2012

Henry S. Hannis: The Millionaire Goes Mad

On May 20, 1886, a New York Times news story began: “Henry S. Hannis, the well known distiller, died this afternoon at the Norristown Asylum. He was one of the largest operators in whiskey in the United States, and just after the war was rated as one of the millionaires of Philadelphia, his native city.” Behind that paragraph is the story of an extraordinary life and a sad, untimely death.

His family was well established in Philadelphia when Henry Hannis was born in 1834. The ancestral founder was Andrew Harris, an Englishman who first emigrated to Barbados, then came to America and settled in the City of Brotherly Love. There is good reason to believe that Henry was orphaned at an early age. The 1850 census found him, age 16, living with a 14-year-old sister, Sarah, in the home of a family named Ross. We may assume that Mrs. Ross was an older sister who had taken them in. In that census, Henry curiously gave his occupation as “student of medicine.”

About 1850, he went to work for John Gibson, an immigrant from Northern Ireland. Gibson ran a successful liquor business in Philadelphia and in 1856 had purchased 40 acres of land on the east side of the Monongahela River, just to the south of Pittsburgh, and erected the Gibsonton Mills distillery. Gibson whiskey commanded a national customer base. Hannis worked his way up in the firm. A 1856 directory lists him as an accountant there and living at 603 S. 5th Street.

Sometime around 1855, Hannis married an woman of English descent whose name was Poole. They had three sons, one of whom, Herbert E. Hannis, was born in 1856 when Henry was just 22 years old. Henry worked for John Gibson for more than a dozen years, with increasing responsibility. When he had accumulated sufficient funds, despite the tumult of the Civil War, he struck out on his own in 1863. For the next 15 years the growth of his firm must be considered phenomenal.

Establishing his headquarters in Philadelphia at 216-218 Front Street, he bought the Mount Vernon Distillery in Baltimore, located at the corner of Russell and West Ostend in the southwestern part of the city. It had been operated by a local partnership for about a decade when Hannis took over, enlarged and modernized it. There were three stills, one wood and two copper, all heated by steam. He built two four-story warehouses and one of a single story. The Baltimore distillery, which employed 14 workers, is shown here in a sketch drawn by an insurance surveyor.

Hannis soon changed the name to the Hannis Distilling Company, It produced Mount Vernon Rye that could be purchased by the barrel or in glass bottles. The company advertised it heavily, eventually in a distinctive square bottle, both in newspapers and through giveaway items such as signs to saloons.

In 1867, finding that the Baltimore facility could not provide sufficient whiskey for his market, Hannis ventured further afield. From John Quincy Adams Nadenboush, a former Confederate officer, he purchased a distillery near Martinsburg, West Virginia, for $25,000. It had been partially destroyed by Union soldiers during the Civil War, troops that drank all the stored whiskey. Hannis wasted no time in repairing the damage and as he had in Baltimore modernized and expanded the distillery. Calling the location “Hannisville,” he employed two stills, one copper and heated by open flame and another of wood heated by steam. He also built a new warehouse.

Hannis’ efforts soon drew recognition. At the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, a key exhibit at the Agriculture Building was a model distillery, displaying the state of the whiskey-making in world-class terms. Selected for that honor was the updated Hannis distillery in Baltimore; its design was reproduced for the display. Hannis also took a first-place award for Mount Vernon Rye at the Exposition just as his whiskey would later win prizes at world fairs at New Orleans in 1885, Australia in 1887 and Chicago in 1893.

From Hannis’ two distilleries, in addition to Mt. Vernon Rye, came nine other brands including "Acme", "Acme X", "Hannis", "Hannis Copper Distilled Pure Rye", "Hannisville", "Hannisville Pure Rye", "Pure Rye Whiskey", "Tidal Wave", and "Victor." These labels also were merchandised through giveaways to customers, including fancy back of the bar bottles.

In Philadelphia, with a reputation as a city of millionaires, Hannis became recognized as a leading businessman and one of the richest in town. As a symbol of his growing reputation, the family moved to a new residence in a better part of Philadelphia at Broad and Passyunk Streets. Even so, his residence evidently was not ostentatious, described rather as “a plain pleasant house.”

The first setback Hannis experienced occurred in 1869. He had stored thousands of barrels of whiskey, all he could “lay his hands on in the country” according to accounts, in a Philadelphia bonded warehouse owned by Col. W. Patterson, located at Front and Lombard Streets. On August 4, the entire complex went up in flames with a loss of all Hannis’ whiskey. Damaged was estimated at $2,000,000, twenty times that in today’s dollar.

Seemingly undeterred, Hannis reorganized his company and in 1871 built a warehouse with five stories and a basement at his Philadelphia headquarters on Front Street, extending the massive structure through to Dock St. He also opened a sales office in New York City. Son Herbert, after working with his father in Philadelphia, was sent to Martinsburg to supervise distilling operations there.

As the company continued to flourish, however, something seemed increasingly wrong with Henry. Perhaps, as suggested in a newspaper account, it was having his whiskey “swept away by the conflagration,” or perhaps the death of his wife. He began to have mental problems. By the early 1880’s his condition had grown so dire that he was declared mentally incompetent and confined to the Pennsylvania State Insane Asylum at Norristown. Prominent Philadelphia businessmen were brought in to manage the whiskey empire he had built.

Millionaire Henry Hannis died in that state mental institution. He was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, shown here. It is a graveyard famous for being the resting place of many of Philadelphia’s rich and famous, one that features a special section nicknamed “Millionaire’s Row.” As his three sons stood by the side of his grave Hannis was interred in Section 17, Lots 134-137. He was only 52 years old.

The Hannis Distilling Company continued in business another 31 years, until 1917 and the coming of Prohibition. Herbert Hannis would spend the rest of his life in Martinsburg, managing the distillery there, until his premature death in 1906 at age 50. The Mount Vernon brand would survive Prohibition as a medicinal whiskey released through American Medicinal Spirits. Acquired by National Distillers after Repeal, Mount Vernon became one of that company’s flagship labels into the 1950s.


  1. Enjoyed your post. My third great grandfather, Cyrus S. Moore, worked for the Hannis Distillery in some capacity, sometime in the latter 1880s.

  2. Cenantua: I am sure that if he were alive he would have some interesting tales to tell.