Monday, September 8, 2014

Magnus: A Father’s Death and a Son’s Redemption

It is likely that Joseph A. Magnus shown here
did not remember his father.   Saul Magnus marched away to fight for the Confederate cause when the boy was only three years old.  As the eldest of four young and fatherless children, Joseph struggled through his early life to restore the family fortunes.  He succeeded by prospering in the whiskey trade.

The 1860 U.S. census found the Magnus family at home in Rome, Georgia.  Saul Magnus was recorded as a 30-year-old merchant, even at that young age affluent for the times.  He had come from Germany to join an extended Jewish family headed by Ralph Moses, a plantation owner who  had pioneered the growing of peaches in Georgia and grown wealthy in the process.  When Moses joined the Confederate rebellion in 1861 as chief supply officer for General  Longstreet’s Army, many of his male relatives joined the South’s cause. Saul was among them. Leaving his wife, children and business, he marched away as a private to fight with other Georgians as part of Maxmillian Van Den Corput’s “Cherokee Battery” of Confederate artillery.
Saul Magnus survived a number of battles until the morning of May 14, 1864, when his unit was commanded to take up positions 20 yards in front of Confederate lines at Resaca, Georgia.  When the Yankees attacked, supporting troops fled, leaving Rebel gunners exposed. The Yankee rushed in with bayonets.  Many Confederates were killed, including Saul.  The illustration above is from a Northern publication recording the Southern defeat.  His wife, Rebecca, was left a widow with four small children.  Joseph was six.

The Magnus family’s financial struggles after Saul’s death are not recorded.  As a widow with young children in an economically devastated South, Rebecca must have toiled relentlessly to feed, clothe and house her children.  At some point the family moved to Atlanta, possibly because of better employment possibilities.   As the eldest, Joseph appears to have become the principal breadwinner as soon as he was able.  At an early age he was hired as a traveling salesman, likely for a liquor firm. The 1880 Census found him living and working in Atlanta with Rebecca, a brother and two sisters, all three siblings in their teen years.  

Joseph Magnus appears to have been successful from the beginning.  By the age of 26 he was financially secure enough to marry.  His bride was Helena Eleanor, five years his junior, who was born in South Carolina into an established family there.  Subsequently the couple moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.  The1900 census found them living there with four children.  The eldest, 13, was named Saul after his deceased grandfather.  The others were Kate, 10; Herman, 6; and Julian, 3.  The family was wealthy enough to had three live-in servants.  Magnus’s occupation was given as “wholesale liquors.”
Magnus had struck out on his own about 1894, creating a liquor dealership that grew rapidly requiring that he change quarters frequently for the first few years, locating initially at three addresses on Cincinnati’s Main Street.  In 1903 Jos. A. Magnus Co. moved to its permanent location at 121-125 East Eighth Street.  Magnus packaged much of his whiskey in glass bottles ranging in size from half pint to quart in both amber and clear shades.  The amethyst flasks below likely were "purpled."  They all carried fancy embossing that was his trademark.  It depicted a lion wearing a crown and carrying a flower on the end of a sword while looking back at six stacked arrows.  Was this a “make love not war theme,” perhaps a memory of what had befallen his father?  The Magnus name appeared twice on each bottle.
Almost 20 different brands, several showing a sense of whimsy, graced those containers.  The labels included:  "Apollo Club Rye,” "Asa Holt,” "Bob Taylor,” "Bonnie Brook", "Golden Rule,” "Lover's Delight,” "Magnus Horseshoe,” "Magnus Private Stock,” "Magnus XXX,” “Maximus,” "Police", "Royal Seal,” "Sand Mountain,” "Seth Wakefield,” "Tom Boone's Old Randolph,” "Uncle Bob,” “Vigilant,” and "Ye Olde Tavern Fine Rye.” Magnus’ flagship was Murray Hill Club, celebrating a New York City saloon.  He trademarked the brand in 1906, along with Royal Seal and Sand Mountain.  A year earlier he had registered Asa Holt and Bonnie Brook.  For the other labels he did not bother.

The number and variety of brands Magnus featured indicates that he was “rectifying,”  that is, blending and compounding whiskeys to achieve a certain taste designed to appeal to the drinking public.  Situated just across the Ohio River from Kentucky,  Cincinnati was an ideal city for this kind of operation.  Supplies of raw liquor could be easily obtained from a proliferation of distilleries in that state.  It also meant that Magnus faced a lot of competition from other dealer/rectifiers.  As a consequence he was generous with giveaway items.  Shown here are three examples of his shot glasses, all bearing an etched representation of elaborate trademark.  One was generic for the Magnus brand.  The others advertised Murray Club and Bob Taylor whiskey.  Whiskey outfits gave away celluloid baseball scorecards as advertising.  Magnus’ example was a catcher’s mitt with a bottle of Murray Club in the pocket.
As he advanced in age, Joseph brought his son Saul into the business.  A 1914 Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce report cites him as an associate in Jos. A. Magnus & Co.  As he aged Magnus took a particular interest in his Jewish heritage.  In the mid-1800s Rabbi Isaac Wise in Cincinnati had led a movement in North America usually called “Reformed Judaism.”   He maintained that Jewish traditions should be modernized and made more compatible with participation in the surrounding culture.  Traditional Jewish law became more loosely interpreted and religious observances had a more “Protestant” look.  For many Jews the Reform Movement was a welcome way of reconnecting with their faith.  For other it was heresy and harsh conflicts arose.
Joseph Magnus appears to have come down solidly on the side of Reform and become something of its apostle.  A Reform publication noted that he had been part of a committee that made it possible for two Reform rabbis to conduct services in Oden, Michigan, where he had built a summer home overlooking Lake Michigan. The service was held at this home where money was raised for the extension of Reform synagogues and schools.  He also was active in Jewish philanthropic activities including the Educational League for the Higher Education of Orphans, located in Cleveland.  

Magnus continued to market his brands vigorously, including the South where many states had gone "dry" but mail order sales were still possible.  The Tuscaloosa, Alabama, News of January 12, 1912,  announced that he had arrived in town the night before and described him as “the proprietor of a big distillery in Cincinnati, being the manufacturer of the well known brand of whiskey, Murray Hill Club.”  

Although Ohio voted to ban sales of liquor, wine and beer in 1916 and many liquor dealers in Cincinnati and elsewhere in the state folded up, the Jos. A. Magnus Co. continued to operate for two more years, probably as a result of serving customers in states that were still “wet.”  After the advent of National Prohibition Magnus seeming disappeared from public view.  He died on May 4, 1927 and is  buried in the United Jewish Cemetery in Cincinnati.  Suffice to say, however, that in his lifetime he had experienced severe hardships and yet had risen above them to become a wealthy and respected merchant.  In so doing Joseph Magnus had redeemed the supreme sacrifice of his father.

Note:  I owe the photos of Joseph Magnus and his gravesite to a direct descendent who had found my post on his noteworthy ancestor and was in touch to correct an item or two and provide me with these additional important illustrations, for which I am very thankful.  



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  2. The bottles were not purple, of course. They were made clear and have acquired the amethyst tone from exposure of the impurities in the glass to UV light. I have a clear square quart just like the one pictured, without any hue. Otherwise a very informative article.

  3. Jim: In all likelihood you are right. Some bottles were made in a purple-like shade (amethyst) right from the get go and it is hard to tell the difference. That is why I am always loath to try to make the distinction but since you have a clear Magnus flask, it may be enough proof. I will caveat my statement. Thanks. Glad you liked the article.

  4. Just found a brown-glass half-pint bottle in Shreveport. Good article!