Thursday, August 9, 2012

Christian Hanlen: Winning in War, Whiskey and Politics

 Whatever the enterprise,  Christian Hanlen of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, throughout his life exhibited an uncanny ability to be on the side of success.   As a soldier in the Yankee Army during the Civil War, as a whisky dealer, and as a delegate to the 1892 Democratic National Convention,  Christian was could pick a winner.

Born in 1843 in Marietta, Pennsylvania into, I believe, a German Lutheran family,  Christian was just 18 when the war between North and South broke out.  Over a period of three years, Confederate armies repeatedly invaded Pennsylvania even threatening Harrisburg, the State Capital.  Hanlen appears to have been in no hurry to enlist, as many young Pennsylvanians did.  He may have been completing his education, one indication being that after having enlisted he rapidly rose through the ranks to the position of sergeant major and finally became a chaplain.

Truth to tell, however, the war was just months from being over.  Hanlen’s unit, the 195th Pennsylvania Infantry never saw a battle.  The unit initially was deployed to guard duty in Maryland and West Virginia.  After being reorganized for one year in February, 1865, and following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the regiment was sent into the Shenandoah Valley and now-conquered Virginia to keep order and stand guard in towns like Berryville, Staunton and Harrisonburg.  The 195th’s final stop was Washington, D.C., where Hanlen and his comrades were mustered out in January, 1866.   Not a single man in the regiment had been lost to hostile fire.  The only casualties were 10 felled by disease.   Nonetheless,  a ballad was written commemorating the unit, with a cover for the song showing the unit moving off to a new post.

During the ensuing two decades, details about Christian’s life are scanty. Sometime in this period, he married Anne Bahn.  They would have four children, boys Irvin and Frederick; girls, Mary and Josephine. It can be assumed that Hanlen was engaged in learning the mercantile trades,  likely including the whiskey trade.  In 1882, he emerged as an owner/ manager of a wholesale liquor business called Hanlen Bros., located a 330 Market St. in Harrisburg.   The brother presumably was Walter (aka W.C.) Hanlen who is listed as working at the establishment.  Walter also appears to have operated a liquor store in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Hanlen Bros. advertised widely its rye whiskeys, brandies, gins, imported and domestic wine, ales and stouts.  You apparently could get any kind of alcoholic beverage you wanted from Hanlen Bros.  As his two sons grew to maturity, Christian took them into the business.  The entire family lived at 108 Locust Street.

Unlike many whiskey merchants and rectifiers, however, Christian concentrated his attention on only two house brands,  “Belle of Dauphin”  and “Old Put,”  neither of which labels he bothered to trademark.  The former name referred to the fact that Harrisburg is located in Dauphin County.   Christian featured a range of giveaways to saloons stocking his brands, his tip trays being particularly notable.  One tray depicted the ever-popular dogs and horses,  Another provided a detail of a famous British painting of a stag at dawn called “Monarch of the Glen.”  He also issued shot glasses for his two brands.   One of the more interesting Hanlen artifacts is a cream colored mini-jug issued at Christmas, the year unknown.

As Hanlen’s business flourished, so did his stature in the community.  Like many of the whiskey dealers and saloonkeepers of the time who saw Prohibitionist forces heading to the Republican banner,  Christian was an ardent Democrat.  His involvement in party activities came during a particularly crucial period.  Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to be elected President since before the Civil War, had been defeated for reelection in 1888 by the Republican Benjamin Harrison despite Cleveland having garnered a majority in the popular vote.   When Cleveland ran again in 1892, serious opposition to him erupted within the Democratic Party.  Hanlen, however, was cited by the New York Times as a particularly ardent Cleveland supporter.

Elected as a delegate to the Democratic Convention in Chicago,  Hanlen headed across the country by train and emerged upon a convention center nicknamed “The Wigwam.”  Shown here it was a temporary building that had been thrown up in 30 days, located on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Madison.  Whatever excitement Christian experienced as a delegate, the Wigwam provided much of it.   The first day of the convention was marred by a rainstorm when the building sprung a massive leak.  Delegates were opening  umbrellas inside.  The following day as nominations were made, the roof broke again during a rain, showering the delegates.

Presidential balloting did not begun until 3 a.m. that morning.  Cleveland received enough votes to be nominated on the first ballot.  When the convention broke up at almost 5 a.m. Hanlen presumably was tired but  jubilant.   He would celebrate again on the night of the general election when Cleveland went on to victory and a return to the Presidency.

The Hanlens apparently suffered a genetically based heart problem.  At the age of 55 and at the height of his financial and social success Christian became increasingly ill and on May 3, 1898, died.  The diagnosis was “fatty degeneration of the heart.”  Sons Frederick and Irvin took over management of the liquor business,  keeping the name, Hanlen Bros.  The brothers seem to have added a new brand of whiskey called “98,”  perhaps commemorating the year of their father’s death.  Was the bulldog on the tip tray shown here a hint at Christian’s personality?

The Hanlen heart troubles were destined to strike soon again.  In 1908, after a long illness that confined him to his home, Irvin died at the age of 34. His brother Frederick, also young, had preceded him in death by 10 weeks.  They left behind a grieving mother and their two sisters.   By the time of the brothers’ deaths they already had sold their liquor business to a Harrisburg resident who kept the Hanlen name.  He was unable to sustain the Hanlen family  business acumen, however, and the company disappeared from city directories in 1909.

Christian Hanlen throughout his life was on the winning side.  He could not, however, beat an apparent genetic flaw that prematurely took his life and later apparently the lives of his sons.  Christian is interred in Marietta Cemetery in the Pennsylvania town where he was born.  Beside him lies his wife, Anne, who died in 1923.  She had been widowed for 25 years.












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