Saturday, February 22, 2014

John Wedderburn Peddled False Hopes and Whiskey

In the District of Columbia during the pre-Prohibition era John Wedderburn, a self-ordained patent attorney and liquor dealer, peddled dreams of wealth to would-be inventors nationwide and booze to Washingtonians.  His legal work got him disbarred; his whiskey made him rich. This is the Wedderburn file.

The Wedderburns are an old and distinguished family with roots in Scotland and England.  The heritage includes a bountiful list of lords, knights and clan chiefs.  The family motto is an unusual one in its negative tone.  In Latin it reads “Non Degenor,” meaning “Not Degenerate.”   It remains to be seen if John Wedderburn lived up to this less-than-lofty standard.

He was born in Washington, D.C., to George Chase and Virginia Mary Lawrence Wedderburn in 1869, not long after the Civil War.   Of his early life and education, little is known other than by some means he obtained a license to practice law.  When about  23 years old he married Beulah Fox,  a woman only 17 at the time of their marriage who had been born in Missouri. They had one daughter, Virginia, born about 1891.

Wedderburn first emerged in the public record during the mid-1880s when barely out of his teens.  Obviously a very canny lawyer and one looking “to make a fast buck,” he established the John Wedderburn Company with the apparent intent of using the Patent Office as his personal cash drawer.  By virtue of conning newspapers all across the country into running his ads at discount prices in exchange for “stock” in John Wedderburn & Co., he was able to tout his services, as shown in the ad above, to a nationwide audience.

The 1800s were the age of American invention and thousands of would-be Thomas Edisons responded to Wedderburn’s promise of wealth and the possibility of winning a $1,800 prize,  one later revealed as never having been awarded.  Wedderburn later contended that “an $1,800 prize offer would not be understood to be an offer of an $1,800 prize.”  Federal authorities did not buy that.   They contended that far from helping his clients become wealthy he was milking them for all he could get.  For an initial $5 he said he would see if the invention had already been recorded.  Inevitably he would find it had not and advise:  “There is no doubt that your invention is a  very valuable one and that good money could be made out of the same if properly handled.”  Handled, that is, by Wedderburn.  He suggested the figure of $5,000 to the inventor on direct sale of the patent.

After collecting an additional $20 to process the patent application, which in the vast majority of cases he never obtained, if the client seemed to be “a vein easily mined,” Wedderburn sent a letter informing the inventor as follows:  “We take pleasure in informing you that the Board of Awards has selected your invention for special merit and our name will appear on our Roll of Honor for last month for the Wedderburn prize.”  The letter was accompanied by a medal, shown here,  a pitch for more money, and the assurance that the invention “promises to be exceedingly profitable to you.”

It did not take long for Federal Patent Office authorities to react to Wedderburn’s scheme. In an exhaustive report, their investigator was unsparing in his opinion of this “Honor Roll” Letter:  “There probably could not be a more unblushing fraud perpetrated by the use of the same number of words  than crops out of this communication.”  Found guilty of “gross misconduct” by the Commissioner of Patents in 1897,  Wedderburn was disbarred from  doing business with the Patent Office.

But the patent business was not the only gambit that Wedderburn had going from his offices at 618 F Street NW in the District.  In 1891, the San Francisco Examiner newspaper announced it was establishing in Washington an “Examiner Bureau of Claims.”  The owner of the Examiner was William Randolph Hearst, one of America’s most powerful publishers.  He promised that the Bureau would handle claims before the U.S. Court of Claims for a standard modest fee instead the 50 percent of awards charged by many claims agents.  To head this seemingly philanthropic effort Hearst chose none other than John Wedderburn, hailed as a man who had ferreted out “gigantic contract frauds” at a California Naval Yard for the Secretary of the Navy.

Before long, however, Hearst would regret his decision.  In 1894 he went to court asking that the Examiner Bureau of Claims be declared bankrupt and asking that Wedderburn be restrained from further “intermeddling with its affairs.”  In his bill of particulars against the Washingtonian,  Hearst claimed that Wedderburn had mismanaged claims, created a large indebtedness, improperly used money for his personal expenses, and -- most egregious -- bilked Hearst’s own mother out of $8,000.
The 1900 census found Wedderburn living at 2208 Ruskin Avenue in Baltimore, with his  his wife, Beulah, and their daughter.  No occupation was recorded for John, now 33 years old and apparently out of work.   That would change within the next several years as Wedderburn, despite being disbarred and disgraced, decided to enter the DC liquor business, setting up John Wedderburn’s Pure Wines & Liquors at his old F Street address.

Shown here are two Wedderburn whiskey bottles, a clear pint and an amber quart.  He made no pretense that they were straight bourbons, merchandising them as “a modern improved whiskey” made from “pure grain distillates.”  It is clear he was operating as a “rectifier,”  that is, compounding and blending raw whiskeys with grain alcohol to achieve more mellow flavor. The labels indicate that over time he raised his prices from $2.00 a gallon to $2.25.  In addition to his “Wedderburn” brands of whiskey and rye, he also featured other proprietary labels, including “Hallmark,” “Karlan Club,”  “Over - Wood,” “The J. W.,” and “Three 3 Points.”  As a patent attorney (disbarred) he saw the benefit of  trademarks,  registering Wedderburn in 1904 and the others about a decade later.

Wedderburn also made use of ceramic jugs for his products, chiefly for wholesale.  As many other D.C. liquor dealers did, he gave away pottery mini-jugs to favored customers, each holding several swallows of his whiskey.  He also furnished saloon carrying his brands with thin-walled etched shot glasses.   On many of his ads and giveaways,  Wedderburn emphasized the word “pure.”  His, he claimed, was the “Pure Food Liquor House.”  His wines and liquors were “...ALL guaranteed under the Pure Food & Drugs Act of June 30, 1906.”   In matter of fact, they were nothing of the sort.  Unlike proprietary drugs, the Act exempted most wines and liquors.  State purity laws obtained for them but because the District of Columbia was a federal city, there were none.  What Wedderburn was putting into his products is anybody’s guess.

For all his notoriety Wedderburn apparently knew how to job the political system in the Nation’s Capitol.  Probably because of his largesse he was said to have many friends and acquaintances among congressmen and senators.   They may have been a principal source of demand for his alcoholic products,  easily shipped from F Street up to Capital Hill.  Political connections may also be the reason that in 1915 Wedderburn’s ability to practice patent law was restored.

Showing up in D.C. business directories as a liquor dealer first in 1906, Wedderburn apparently had just a little over a decade to operate and flourish before Congress in 1917 declared D.C. “dry.”  During that period, however, he marketed a number of brands and left behind hundreds of bottles, jugs and giveaway items.  The coming of Prohibition seems to have ended Wedderburn’s entrepreneurship.  The 1920 census found him living in the District of Columbia at 810 North Carolina Avenue.  Although still only 51 years old, no occupation was listed for him.

Wedderburn does not show up in the 1930 Census. He died on March 15, 1932,  at the age of 64.  He was laid to rest in Plot B of Washington’s historic Rock Creek Cemetery.  There  he shares a gravestone with his wife, Beulah, and their daughter Virginia, while other Wedderburn relatives are buried nearby. 

Wedderburn probably did live up to his family motto.  No “degenerate” was he.  He may have more than earned other negative words heaped on him during his lifetime, however, such as “fraud” and “charlatan” (Commissioner of Patents) or “a man lacking in integrity and honesty” (Hearst).  It is unfortunate that he did not leave a memoir.  My hunch is that John Wedderburn had many more tales to tell.

Note:  The case for disbarment against Wedderburn was made in a lengthy 1897 document from the Commissioner of Patents that included a detailed report by an investigator of how Wedderburn operated to extract patent-related money from gullible inventors.  The photographs of bottles and jugs shown here were provided by Dr. Richard Lilienthal, a leading collector of DC bottles.












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