Monday, June 4, 2012

Thomas Lynch and a Big Bang in Chicago

On December 11,1888, at 6:15 a.m., according to press accounts, a tremendous explosion rocked Chicago’s Shufeldt distillery, smashing windows for blocks around and creating panic in the neighborhood.  Someone had thrown two packages of dynamite, containing seven sticks each of them seven inches long, onto the roof of the distillery storeroom.  There were no other clues.  But Thomas Lynch knew the culprits all too well.

Lynch had been born in Ireland in 1826, leaving during a period of unrest when explosions aimed at the British occupiers were common.  He arrived in Chicago at the age of 19 and appears to have entered the whiskey trade early in his career.   According to a Chicago business history, he worked for George L. Crosby who was listed in city directories as a “rectifer,”  that is an outfit that bought whiskey, refined and blended it, and sold it in bulk to saloons and in jugs and bottles to the public.

In time Lynch came to own the Crosby firm, changing its name to Thomas Lynch & Co, with offices at 128 LaSalle.  He later moved to a facility at Larabee Street at the corner of Hawthorn Avenue, probably for rectifying and bottling liquor.  Not far away was H.H. Shufeldt & Co. at 54 South Water Street.  That firm ran one of Chicago’s oldest distilleries on South Water Street, established in 1857.  It also advertised alcohol for lamps, kerosene and coal.  An envelope ad from the 1860s shows the small distillery.   According to the Chicago Tribune, both Lynch and Shufeldt fell victim to the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871.  It destroyed both of their establishments.  Packed with flammable substances, those liquor establishments must have added substantially to the conflagration.

My surmise is that in the wake of the the fire, Lynch and Shufeldt joined forces in a distilling operation.   The company kept the name Henry H. Shufeldt & Company, as shown on a letterhead, but Thomas Lynch was running the operation.  The company built a new facility near the Chicago Av. bridge, not far from the original Lynch operation and established an office and recitifying house at the corner of Kinzie and Cass Street.  An illustration of the distillery claimed a capacity of 800,000 gallons.  Promotional materials also indicate the firm had offices in Philadelphia and St. Louis.

The company used the liquor brand names "Double Stamp", "Hamilton", "Royal Arms" "Imperial Gin", ,  and "Oconomowoc.”  The last name apparently reflected Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, famous for its summer homes for the rich, among them the Shufeldt family.  The distillery bottled  whiskey in a variety of containers, including square amber quarts with Shufeldt’s name embossed.  At the Paris Exhibition of 1878 the distillery was awarded a gold medal for its whiskey.

Meanwhile, Thomas Lynch had a personal life.  Early in the 1850s he married a woman of  similar Irish heritage,  Ann Flanagan.  They had four children, one daughter and three sons.  Two of the sons,  John A. and James D. would join their father in the distillery operation as they grew to maturity.  In addition Lynch was prominent in the affairs of the Democratic Party in Chicago and in 1881 was a candidate (unsuccessful) for Cook County Treasurer.  He also was a prominent Catholic and known for his generosity to church causes.

The 1880s were about to be a testing ground for Lynch.  During that decade, taking a lead from industries such as oil and sugar,  a number of Midwest whiskey men determined to establish a Whiskey Trust in attempt to control liquor prices.   Lynch adamantly refused to join the Trust and became one of its most vociferous opponents, even in the face of knowledge that the organization routinely used violence and sabotage to get their way.

Lynch was outspoken:  “How such an organization as the ‘Trust’ is allowed to exist, I cannot understand.  It has issued $35,000,000 of certificates and I can prove that it is not in possession of more than $4,000.000 worth of property,” he said.  A lawyer for the Trust complained that Lynch’s company was making money while the Trust was losing it by paying big salaries to former owners, carrying closed down plants in its capital accounts and shouldering other expenses.   He suggested:  “The Trust might easily put up the price of spirits but it cannot do so as long as Shufeldt holds out and it would be a mighty good thing for the Trust if Shufeldt is out of the way.”

Accordingly, in 1888 the Trust decided on concerted action against Lynch and Shufeldt & Co.  In April of that year the company discovered that one of its employees was a spy for the monopoly.  He confessed and pointed his finger at Trust officials.  In September a valve on a vat was found to have been tampered with to an extent that it could have caused an explosion.  Only by luck was an worker able to spot the sabotage. The real explosion occurred, as noted earlier, three months later.  Only one package of dynamite actually detonated, blowing a hole in the roof.  The other failed to explode and was recovered inside the vat room by Chicago police.

The Trust denied all knowledge of the incident.  Fourteen months later, however, its secretary, a man named Gibson, was arrested and indicted by Federal authorities for attempting to sabotage the Shufeldt plant.  A Chicago judge curiously quashed all charges, stating that bribing a U.S. official to undertake sabotage was not a crime covered under federal law.  Gibson resigned from the Trust and with a $290,000  “gift” from the cabal fled to Cuba and later died there.

The “big bang” worked a change of attitude on Lynch.  By this time his sons were both involved in the firm and owned shares. Perhaps for his safety and their own they prevailed on him to sell out to the Trust. The sale is reported to have brought the Lynches $1.75 million.   Thomas Lynch, however, could not admit that he was capitulating.  According to his write-up in Chicago and Cook County Biographies: “Mr. Lynch insisted to the last that he was not aware he was selling out to the Trust and that the ostensible purchaser was Lyman J. Gage of the First National Bank of Chicago.”  Gage was a respected Chicago banker and later Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.
Nevertheless, it was the Trust that ran H.H. Shufeldt Co. from 1891 on. They closed down the Chicago distilling and rectifying operation and moved equipment to Pekin, Illinois.  When the Trust got into deep financial trouble in 1895,  a new combine known as the American Spirits Distilling Company bought Shufeldt and 10 other Midwest distilleries.  An office for the firm continued to be listed in Chicago business directories until 1917.

Thomas Lynch died in September 1893 at the age of 67, leaving an estate of more than $1 million.  His sons became prominent Chicago businessmen, John as president of Chicago’s National Bank of the Republic and James as an investor and officer in the Globe Automatic Telephone Co. and the Buena Vista Plantation Co.  In their father’s obituary the Chicago Tribune commented:  “Until time laid its restraining finger on him, Thomas Lynch was one of the most prominent Irish-American citizens and businessmen in Chicago.

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