Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Martin Casey: An Irish Whiskey Man in the Wild West

Being in the whiskey trade in Forth Worth, Texas, could be dangerous business in the late 1800s.  It was a rowdy town attracting cowboys, gunmen, highway robbers, card sharps,  con men, and shady ladies.   Martin Casey, an Irish immigrant who supplied the saloons with liquor but apparently largely stayed out of them, survived and prospered.

Casey was born in the Emerald Isle in about 1853.  I have not been able to establish his immigration date but he showed up in Forth Worth in the 1880 census,  age 27, when the town looked just about the same as the map shown here.  Today it is the 16th largest city in the United States with a population in excess of 700,000.  In those days a critic claimed that was such a drowsy place that he saw a panther asleep next to the courthouse -- the largest building shown on the map here.  When the railroad reached Fort Worth a year later,  a boom was created that ushered in several decades of growth and attendant violence.  The citizenry adopted the name “Panther City” for their wild and woolly town.
Fort Worth in 1876
Recognizing the large and growing thirsty Fort Worth clientele, Casey appears to have engaged in the liquor trade beginning in the late 1870s.  The 1880 census listed him as “wholesale dealer - whiskey.”  His business partner was a transplanted New Englander named Charles J. Swasey.  Swasey was five years Casey’s elder, a man who had arrived in town after serving on a ship hunting whales in the Pacific Ocean off California.   Sharing living quarters in downtown Fort Worth for a time, the pair called their company Casey & Swasey.  They sold both liquor and cigars.
Old Kentucky Club quart

The partners initially located on Houston Street where they featured a number of whiskey brands that they were blending and compounding on the premises using stocks drawn from distilleries in
Kentucky and elsewhere.   Taking a brand name from Fort Worth’s designation as “Panther City,” the firm featured “Panther Club Whiskey” and  “Panther Club Gin,” as well as “Top of the Morning,” and “Casco” whiskeys.  They also billed themselves as sole proprietors of “Kentucky Comfort Whiskey.”

Among their clients undoubtedly was the White Elephant Saloon on Fort Worth’s Main Street.  Famous in its time for the opportunities it provided for drinking, dining and gambling, it was the scene of Forth Worth’s most notorious shoot out.  In February 1887, Luke Short, the manager of the saloon, gunned down on Main Street in front of the White Elephant a drunken ex-marshal who had come looking to kill him.  It could be dangerous being a whiskey man in Forth Worth.
Main Street, Fort Worth, 1880s

After some years in business together,  Casey and Swasey apparently sold out to a Jewish immigrant named Sam Levy, who had come to the United States with his parents about 1872 and early settled in Forth Worth.   The new owner kept the name Casey-Swasey and put an emphasis on wholesaling cigars throughout Texas and the Southwest.  Charles Swasey stayed on with Levy as a vice president of the firm.  Meanwhile Martin Casey about 1896 struck out on his own,  locating his liquor dealership on Houston Street at the corner of West Fifth, the first of three locations his business occupied on that avenue.  He called his enterprise Martin Casey & Co.

Casey christened his flagship whiskey brand, “Martin’s Best”  and advertised it heavily.  Shown here is an ad that appeared prominently on the back cover of a 1901-1902 Fort Worth City Directory.  He also advertised in local publications like the Texas Mining & Trade Journal and other area weeklies.   Like many successful whiskey men, Casey also provided advertising giveaway items to favored customers,  especially saloon owners and barkeeper stocking his products. Among the gifts was an attractive match safe.  Although safes were commonly bestowed by liquor wholesalers,  Casey’s was unusual by being shaped like a hip flask.

Panther Club flask
Martin Casey apparently never married.  The 1900 census found him living alone in a room over 208 West 6th Street.   His relationship with the other firm that bore his name is unclear.  They appeared one after the other in Forth Worth city directories.  Martin Casey & Co was listed as selling wholesale liquor and cigars.   Casey-Swasey was recorded as wholesaling liquor, wines and cigars and as agents for Schlitz beer.   Were they competing for the same customer base or working compatibly?  The answer is not clear.

Both companies, however, would have been deeply interested in the outcome of a “shootout” that was occurring in the more civilized environment of the courts over the use of the brand name,  “Kentucky Comfort.”   In 1883 Casey & Swasey had procured through the Boldrick-Callaghan distillery of Calvary, Kentucky, the right to use the words “Kentucky Comfort” in connection with the words “Casey & Swasey, Sole Proprietors.” The name was branded into fifty barrels of whiskey by the distillery and shipped to them in Fort Worth.  A photo of the Boldrick-Callaghan operation shows barrels being loaded to go to the railhead.  That may be Frank Callaghan, shown front left with the vest.

The Casey & Swasey purchase seemed to mean little to the Appeals Court of Kentucky when Rosenfield Bros. of Chicago and Louisville claimed an equal right to use “Kentucky Comfort” on their labels.  The Rosenfields alleged that they had widely advertised the brand and its value “has come in large part from the moneys expended in such advertisements.”  They also claimed to sell from three to five thousand barrels a year of “Kentucky Comfort”   In 1898 the court found for the Rosenfields.  Both companies, it ruled, could use  the brand name.

The Texas whiskey men were not prepared to settle.  They took their appeal to the Federal Commissioner of Patents.  In 1906, he reviewed the record and, in effect, dismissed utterly the decision of the Kentucky judges,  saying that the “judgment of the court was neither pleaded nor proved.”   The Commissioner thereupon dismissed the claim by the Rosenfields that they had as good a right to the trademark as Casey and Swasey.  He ruled it remained solely the property of the Fort Worth firm.

Meanwhile Martin Casey was having considerable success.  “Martin’s Best” whiskey was selling to the White Elephant and to its competitor for the “carriage trade,” Joseph J. Wheat’s fancy Stag Saloon at 702 Main Street.  The brand also had a market throughout Texas,  advertised by major liquor retailers such as L. Craddock & Co., a Dallas firm that billed itself as “the Largest
Bar at the Stag Saloon
Mail Order Whiskey House in the South.”   Unfortunately the long term trend in Texas was working against Casey.   Not only was Fort Worth becoming more civilized with diminished hard drinking, the Temperance Movement was gaining strength. Increasingly strictures were being put on saloons and drink sales all over the Lone Star State.

In the meantime Casey had branched out into another enterprise.  In 1902 he and a partner had received the franchise from City Hall to build a telephone exchange in Forth Worth.  Not surprisingly, they called it the Fort Worth Telephone Company. The company had 900 subscribers, according to the Forth Worth Historical Society.  A few years later this telephone company was purchased by Southern Bell. Casey’s other business ventures probably made it easier for him to shut down his liquor business in 1916 as Prohibition forces loomed.  Levy's Martin-Swasey Co. was terminated the same year.  Both closings were indications that, for better or worse, the “Wild West” was being tamed.

Note:  I first “met” Martin Casey through a one-line reference in a book called “Legendary Watering Holes:  The Saloons That Made Texas Famous.” by several authors and published by Texas A&M University Press in 2004.  It caused me to pursue Casey’s story and I am happy I did.  It reveal the career of whiskey man who traded Ireland for Texas at a wild time, avoided trouble and definitely made his mark.

Note #2:  In January 2018, Ken Cromer, a Texas based collector of Texas whiskeys and shot glasses, was in touch with me to say that he had in his collection several Casey & Swasey items, including the two bottles and the shot glass shown above.  He graciously has allowed me to use his photos to upgrade this post, one that earlier had no images of bottles from of the Forth Worth-based liquor house.  They add a new dimension to the story and I am grateful to Ken for his help.



  1. I have a Casey & Swasey Co. Kentucky Comfort whiskey bottle. I will pay 200.00 for a shot glass advertising this company.
    Please contact me at
    I collect any whiskey bottle or shot glass from Texas and will pay top dollar.

  2. Ken: Your Casey & Swasey bottle is a real find. I have never seen a shot glass advertising the firm but will be on the lookout from now on and let you know if I do. Send me an email address at

  3. Stone House: Somehow your original comment did not make it into the Martin Casey post but I saw it on my computer. As for a relationship between Martin Casey and the Casey Bros. of Scranton, it is possible but not likely. Casey is one of the more common Irish names and they were at opposite sides of the country.