Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sam Thompson: Winning at Cards, Losing in Marriage

Whoever coined the phrase, “lucky at cards, unlucky at love,” might have had in mind Samuel J. Thompson of West Brownsville, Pennsylvania.   Sam won a distillery in a game of chance one night and became well known for making a premier whiskey.  As he was rising  in wealth and prestige, however,  three of his wives died within five years of his marrying them, one of them leaving him with three small boys.

Sam’s story begins when his father, John, as a young man moved from New Jersey to Washington County, Pennsylvania, and went to work as a farmer.  There he married a local girl named Ruth Lewis and together they had nine children.  Among them was Sam, born in 1820.  Although John prospered as a farmer and trader, eventually owning 400 acres of land,  Sam had limited education in “subscription schools,”  in which teachers were paid on annual contracts from parents. 

At the age of 23, he married for the first time in 1843.  The bride was named Martha Cooper.  After five years but no children, she died in
1848, leaving a grieving husband behind.  He threw himself into his work and two years later had saved enough money to buy his own farm.  The same year,  Lady Luck was with Thompson in a gambling game with a man who in 1844 had built a distillery along the Monongahela River in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania.  According to family legend, Sam was deeded the property.  Although the distillery was the only way of collecting the debt,  he knew nothing about making whiskey and competition from other regional distillers was stiff.   An old friend gave him advice:  “Make better whiskey than the others.”

So he did.  He began with a small distillery with the meager capacity of eight bushels a days but in time he enlarged it into the facility shown in a postcard view.  Incorporated into the complex was an old stone building that had been a roadside tavern.  It was turned into offices and a small warehouse.   During the next several decades, the name Sam Thompson Pure Rye became synonymous with quality whiskey.

In 1857 Sam moved to a large house on the other side of the Monongahela River in the town of Bridgeport.  Two years later at the age of 39 he married a second time.  She was Esther Wilson of Washington County.  Over the next five years Esther bore him three sons,  Robert W., George D. and Thomas H.  Then in 1864, this second wife died, leaving Sam with three small children, one of them a baby.   A single father, he raised his boys without a female partner for the next six years.   Then in 1872, at age 52, he married Elizabeth Crawford.  But the Thompson “five year curse” struck again.  Elizabeth died in 1877.

Meanwhile Sam’s ability as a businessman was being recognized.  His distillery was the major industry in Brownsville.  In the mid-1870s he became a director of the First National Bank of Brownsville and a founding director of the National Deposit Bank of Brownsvillle.  He owned stock in the Citizens' Bank of Washington, Pennsylvania, and was a stockholder of the Bridgeport Natural Gas Company.  He also married again.  This time in 1882, to Bridget Dawson, a local widow.  Sam was 62.

Increasingly he had been moving away from direct management of the distillery.  Instead, he hired a seasoned whiskey man named Algernon B. Doheny as supervisor.  Doheny was described by a contemporary as someone “who not only understands the business in all its details, but who has the confidence of the company and of the wide and growing circle of patrons.”  The relationship between the two men seems to have been close.  Doheny named a son Sam Thompson Doheny.

With Doheny looking after the distillery,  Sam moved into the coal business.  By 1898 he owned the Champion, Caledonian and Wood's Run Coal Works that had a combined output of ten thousand bushels of coal per day.  Those three works were situated closetogether in Washington County and produced, according to a contemporary account, “ a desirable article of coal which is in great demand in the Western and Southern markets.” Thompson also owned seventeen farms, aggregating three thousand acres of good farming land.  Twelve of these farms were in Pennsylvania, two in Iowa and three in Kansas.  All were underlain with coal.  Sam’s three sons, now grown, were employed in managing his land holdings.

In 1889, Sam sold his distillery to A.J. Sunstein, a Pittsburgh resident steeped in the liquor trade.   The facility Sunstein bought was a far cry from one Thompson acquired as a gambling debt.  The plant now consisted of three large brick warehouses,  one of them eight stories high, the distillery itself, and many out buildings.  It had the capacity to produce 50 barrels a day.  The warehouses, ventilated and heated by steam, held 36,000 barrels for aging.  An adjacent storage house held 50,000 bushels of grain.  Sunstein subsequently added a drying house where the spent mash could be prepared for animal feed.

Although Sunstein kept Doheny as distillery supervisor, he gave a shot in the arm to the whiskey merchandising,  creating a national and even international clientele for Sam Thompson Pure Rye Whiskey.  He created a series of giveaway items for his product, including shot glasses,  paperweights, and mini-jug samples.  One of the more interesting merchandising efforts was a pack of playing cards that carried the Sam Thompson messages.

Sunstein also was a major spokesman for the rectifiers (blenders) in the whiskey business.  He is recorded as regularly leading delegations to Washington D.C.  to lobby the Congress and Executive Branch on behalf of the industry.  He alienated the beer people by being outspoken that the whiskey industry could avoid total Prohibition by reducing the number of licenses -- that is, closing down the majority of brewery-owned saloons.  Sunstein produced Sam Thompson Monongahela Rye Whiskey until shut down by the Volstead Act.  The brand continued to be sold for medicinal purposes until Repeal and later was acquired and produced elsewhere by Schenley.

As to what happened to Sam Thompson himself after the distillery sale, I have not been able to locate any records after 1889.   By that time his fourth wife,  Bridget, had outlived the Thompson 5-year curse by three years and was still living with him.  After 1920 the distillery he built was, as shown below, destined to be shut forever and left to molder for decades along the banks of the Monongahela.


  1. I have found 4 barrels stamped with this companies creds and serial number. Really wish there was a date to know when the Barrels were made. 1844-1920.
    If anyone has any Information please contact me

  2. Dear Joshua: You have the dates right for the distillery. But if no date is stamped on the barrels, the timing could be over a wide number of years. Perhaps some of those who follow this blob can be of more help. Jack

  3. To Ed M: Somehow your inquiry made it to my computer but not to this site. Your question was about finding a Sam Thompson sign in a Boston building. Response: I am not surprised. Thompson's rye whiskey was sold nationwide. It is entirely possible that a Boston outfit featured his brand -- and advertised so with a sign.

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