From many indications, Simms was born Alpha P. Simms, likely in Arkansas. For most of his early life, he seems to have avoided census-takers. By the time Simms entered the public record in the late 1800’s he was already a thriving merchant in Natchez, Mississippi, with establishments on the town’s main commercial avenue, Franklin Street, shown here as it looked in 1900. He owned the A.P Simms Furniture Store, a large retail establishment that spread from 627 to 635 on Franklin. Simms’ meat market made news in Natchez when it burned in 1907.
This energetic merchant also was a family man. From burial records and other sources, his wife was Mary Watkins, apparently known by a nickname “Cle.” She was six years Simms junior and likely also Arkansas born. Records indicate only one son, born in 1889 and given a name that indicates his father’s sly humor: Jesse James Simms.
Simms big money maker was whiskey. He ran his saloon in connection with a grocery store as attested by a drink token, selling whisky by the drink over the bar and bottled for retail customers. He appears to have been a rectifier, not a distiller, a dealer who mixed liquor up in the back room and sold it in his own containers. In Simms' case, and one of the reasons he is remembered, his whiskey was sold in a variety of stoneware jugs. He must have kept potters working in the Mississippi Delta very busy turning out his containers.
Some are primitive, with rough exteriors and his name and "fine whiskey" stenciled in cobalt across the front. Others bear more sophisticated lettering and Albany slip brown tops on Bristol glaze white bodies.
Simms did not just practice his enterprise on the Natchez side of the Mississippi River. He also ran a saloon on the west bank, at Vidalia, Louisiana. The cross river proximity of the town is shown here. That liquor outlet got him in trouble with the authorities in Vidalia. In 1900 he was sued by the town for the amount of $750, the price of a retail saloon license. Simms claimed he already had a license and did not need another. He was, he said, conducting a “Jim Crow” saloon. He was selling to whites at one bar and to African-Americans at another bar, separate from the first but in under the same roof. The saloon was so constructed that the bartender could serve whites on one side and then step immediately around the corner to the colored bar and serve customers. His lawyer likened the arrangement to the Jim Crow sections on railway and trolley cars.
When the district court dismissed this argument and ruled for the town, Simms appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. That body contended that the Jim Crow argument held no water. Louisiana law mandated, the court ruled, “that there be separate saloons, kept in separate buildings, one from the other, i.e. the white separated from the colored.” The panel ordered Simms to buy another license and pay court costs.
A more drastic blow to Simms’ liquor business was to fall eight years later. The voters of Mississippi with their strong ties to the Baptist Church in 1908 voted a complete ban on the sale of alcohol throughout the state. Natchez, despite its reputation as a rip-roaring river town, was left high and very dry. A. P. Simms was undaunted. Forced to shut down his saloon and liquor retail operation, he simply moved his business across the river to “wet” Louisiana and set up shop. A Simms jug dated 1909, shown here, helps tells the story. Not only did Simms plan to sell whiskey in Louisiana, but also to send it into an increasingly thirsty Mississippi. Several state courts had ruled that the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution made mail order sales into “dry” areas legal until such time as the U.S. Congress decreed otherwise.
Although liquor dealers often sent their products into states where liquor was banned via existing parcel companies and railway express, those conduits increasingly were being harassed by arrests and legal action from local and state authorities, despite the Interstate Commerce clause. As a result, many carriers were refusing to carry booze into dry areas. Simms, always the entrepreneur, sought to obviate that problem by establishing his own carrier in 1908. He called it the “Simms Express & Telegraph Company.” He clearly intended it to be a large operation, advertising for an electric generating plant with sufficient output to supply 250 large lights. His intent appeared to be taking telegraphed orders for whiskey and shipping it through his Louisiana operation back into Mississippi, delivering it via his own express company.
It did not take officials in the State of Mississippi long to determine that A.P. and the Simms Express and Telegraph Company were attempting to skirt Prohibition laws. In 1909 they enjoined him from selling or delivering liquors in the state. Simms, not one to buckle to the authorities, took the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court asking that the injunction be dissolved. The court not only disagreed, it made the injunction permanent. Simms was enjoined “perpetually” from doing business in Mississippi, his company was declared “ousted from the State” and he was required to pay hundreds of dollars in attorney fees, expert witnesses and all court costs.
Simms was finished as a whiskey man in Mississippi but apparently continued his Louisiana saloons, white and Jim Crow, in Vidalia, as well as maintaining a wholesale liquor trade. When Louisiana went dry with the imposition of National Prohibition in 1920, he was forced to shut those operations down and moved to New Orleans where he ran what has been described as “cheap hotel or rooming house.” When the fire marshall ordered it torn down in 1923, it elicited three lawsuits from Simms in the courts of Louisiana. As usual, he lost and was assessed all court costs.
In 1927 at the age of 62, A.P. Simms passed away. Ousted perpetually in life from Mississippi by court order he returned there in death. His monument can be found in the Zurhellen Section I of the Natchez City Cemetery where he lies next to his wife. But the true monuments to this enterprising (but not always successful) whiskey man are the many and varied stoneware jugs he left behind.