Sunday, August 18, 2013

Eugene N. Belt: “Shame and Scandal in the Family”

Yes, Eugene Belt was a Baltimore liquor dealer, but his “blue ribbon” background makes him seem like an unlikely centerpiece in an 1880’s scandal that commanded newspaper headlines from coast to coast for two years and involved beautiful women, two U.S. Congressmen, a messy divorce, perjured testimony, and dramatic acts by a former Confederate general.  You can’t make up stuff like this.

Belt was born in 1828 or 1830, depending on the census you read.  His parents were Thomas Walter Belt and Louisa Ann (Steeper) Belt.  His father was of English and his mother of German descent.   According to a contemporary biography, on both sides his ancestors were among early settlers of America.  His father’s people settled in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 1647. The town of Beltsville took its name from the family.  Belt’s father was born in Baltimore and had a career as a merchant and banker and was accounted among the most prominent businessmen of his day.  He died in 1840 while Eugene was still a young boy.

The son was educated by private tutors in Baltimore and at an institute in Louisville, Kentucky, even then a hub of the whiskey industry.  After finishing his education he went to New Orleans to work in a mercantile house but returned to Baltimore after several years.  Belt tried his hand in the insurance and banking businesses in his home town but clearly was looking for something more lucrative.  In 1859 he joined with a Baltimore local named P.C. Martin to found a liquor business they called Martin, Belt & Co.  For reasons not fully explained, this enterprise was forced into liquidation two years later, reputedly because of the outbreak of the Civil War.  Like many Marylanders,  Belt may have been a Southern sympathizer.

The war years are a blank in Belt’s biography but in its aftermath, in 1868, he again entered the liquor business.  This time his partner was Bernard Cahn of Baltimore, a German Jewish immigrant who had come to the U.S. as a boy of 15 and had found considerable business success.   Like Belt, he had invested in the wine and spirits trade before the war and lost all his capital, perhaps as part of Martin, Belt & Co.  Both men were willing to try once more and created one of the most successful Baltimore liquor businesses called Cahn, Belt & Co.  From 1870 until 1904 their establishment was located at several addresses on Lombard Street.

Cahn, Belt featured number of brand names, including "Belt,” "C B & C", "Cartwrig,” "City of Baltimore Pure Rye,” "Crown of Baltimore,”, "Jim Hackler" “Little Straight,” "M C,”  "Original Martin,”  and "Roadster."  Another label was “Emery Grove.”  One speculation is that the name was an attempt to annoy the abstemious Methodists for whom Emory Grove was a camp-meeting site.  The company flagship label was “Maryland Club.” It was advertised widely with the slogan, “It tastes old because it is old.”  The partners also made it a feature of their giveaway items to favored saloon customers,  particularly with attractive back-of-the-bar bottles, garnished with a shamrock.  Probably to insure a steady supply of whiskey for their blends,  they purchased Baltimore’s Monticello Distillery and its “Monticello Rye” brand.  Cahn became president of the distillery.

Both the 1860 and 1870 censuses found Eugene living with his widowed mother, Louisa Ann, and his three unmarried sisters, Louisa, 35 years of age; Georgiana (“Nannie”), 32, and Emily, 27. Still a bachelor himself at age 42,  he was surrounded by women, including a female servant.  Increasingly wealthy from his liquor business,  Belt seems to have found his social outlet in joining and being active in a plethora of organizations, including the Maryland Historical Society, in which he was an officer, the Archeological Society,  Merchants’ Club, the Maryland Club and the Elk Ridge Fox Hunting Club.  He was a pillar of the Episcopal Church, attending Baltimore’s St. Luke’s.

Enter the “shame and scandal.” In 1884, now 54 years old and quite rich,  Belt was vacationing at a seaside resort when he encountered a considerably younger and very attractive blonde widow.  Her name was Mrs. Mary Alice Godfrey.   Later Belt told the press that he had met her “among people of character and respectability and never imagined that she was other than a pure and virtuous woman.”  Moreover,  he probably was impressed that she was the sister of Mrs. Benjamin Willis of New York City, the wife of a prominent U.S. congressmen.  Both sisters were beauties.  One commentator claimed that they had become the “rage” of the Washington society.   Belt fell in love with Mary Alice, quickly proposed marriage and they were wed in October, 1884, in Morristown, Pennsylvania.  They may have chosen a remote location because of apparent opposition to the nuptials from Eugene’s sisters and other female friends.

Soon enough Belt came to regret his decision and, by his own admission, left his wife the following January.  Mary Alice filed for divorce in May 1885.  In his answer to her suit, he said he had found out to his horror that she had been connected with a well-known Washington, D.C., scandal known as the Congressman Acklen Affair.  Belt told the press, he had discovered additionally that she had lived “a life of infamy” and that he had been a victim of an abandoned woman.   Newspapers from coast to coast had a field day.  The New York Times made it front page.  A California paper headlined:  “Victim of a Wily Woman...A Prominent Merchant Insnared by a Sea-Side Demi-Monde.” (A demi-monde was a woman of dubious virtue.)
Welcker's Hotel

But the truth may have been otherwise.  Joseph Hayes Acklen, a wealthy sugar plantation owner and a congressman from Louisiana,  had taken Washington society by storm.  Shown here, the young bachelor was rich, eccentric and, perhaps signaled by his waxed mustache, a notorious womanizer.  He had courted Mrs. Godfrey, who was living in Arlington with her sister and congressman husband.  One evening at Washington’s highly prestigious Welcker’s hotel, Acklen reputedly forced himself on her.  The cries of Mary Alice were heard in the next room by a former highly decorated Confederate cavalry general named
Joseph Acklen
Thomas Rosser.  Rosser rushed to the damsel’s rescue but when the story got out, the local and national press had a field day of speculation.  Acklen later apologized to Mrs. Godfrey and proposed marriage.  She declined.

As for Belt’s other allegations that his wife had been a “loose woman” even before this incident, charges he made part of divorce proceedings, it subsequently was revealed that those giving damaging testimony had perjured themselves.  Who was behind these lies,  Belt himself, family
Gen. Thomas Rosser
members or others? That was never revealed.  Once more General Rosser came to the rescue, proving in criminal court of the District  of Columbia that one Benjamin Golly had falsely testified in the divorce suit brought by Belt.  Golly was convicted and Mary Alice was exonerated.   Throughout the entire affair Eugene Belt’s name was bruited nationwide by the press.

When the dust cleared,  Belt went back to his usual pursuits,  running the liquor business and attending the meetings of his many memberships.   The 1900 census found him at age 70 and still listed as a “liquor merchant.”   His mother having died in 1881, he was living with two of his spinster sisters,  Louisa and Georgiana, in a large Baltimore house with four live-in servants.   I wonder if Belt ever thought about those weeks of marriage to the beautiful Mary Alice -- and regretted what he had done.

In 1901 Eugene Belt died.  In his will, probated in 1902, he left $1,000 to St. Luke’s Church. The Cahn, Belt Co. continued on another 18 years.  The firm moved to South Street about 1905 where it located until 1919.  Bernard Cahn died in 1906,  mourned by his wife and five children. He was hailed in the press as a highly successful businessman and philanthropist to Jewish and other charitable causes.  No breath of scandal there.  Members of the Cahn family managed the firm until its forced demise by National Prohibition.

Note:  The two ads for Maryland Club Rye are from a website maintained by the Ohio State University.  It is a good source of vintage advertising images.  

1 comment:

  1. Patrick Charles Martin, the Baltimore distiller and wine merchant! Now there's a star-crossed and tantalizing life story. The son of a Baltimore fruit and confectionery dealer, he became a successful merchant and ship owner by his early 20s. After an 1842 criminal prosecution in which he was convicted of inciting a mutiny aboard his own ship, he moved first to Pittsburgh, where his fruit dealership was burned in the great fire of 1845, then back to Baltimore, where he grew wealthy as an importer and distiller. You can find his advertisements appearing regularly in the Baltimore papers of the 1850s. He and family narrowly escaped death in a much-publicized train crash at Old Bridge, NJ, while traveling to New York in 1853. Martin, a staunch Catholic and pro-Confederate, moved his family and business to Montreal in 1861, where he also served as go-between for Confederate financial interests in Liverpool and the South. Martin disappeared in late 1864 when he and a ship's crew abandoned the schooner "Marie Victoria" in the lower St. Lawrence River. No survivors or bodies ever turned up. However, along with a supply of coal oil, the schooner's hold carried John Wilkes Booth's trunk of theatrical costumes, later salvaged and sold at auction. Martin was the nexus between Booth and Maryland members of the Lincoln Conspiracy. (He gave Booth a letter of introduction to a Dr. Queen, who then introduced Booth to Dr. Mudd.) No one is known to have traced Martin or his family afterwards, although his wife was listed as his widow for about five years in the Montreal city directory. Afterwards the family simply disappears off the map.