Thursday, October 23, 2014

Billie Bott Escaped from Behind the Eight Ball

 William “Billie” Bott and his brother, Joseph, were well known in Columbus, Ohio, as proprietors of the city's most prosperous saloon and liquor dealership, as well as the largest and most elegant billiard parlor.  Then Billie found himself “behind the eight ball” at the center of a well publicized sex scandal.  It was a soap opera with twist that supplied a fortunate ending for the Botts.
Billie, pictured right, and Joseph, left, were born in Zanesville, Ohio, the sons of Caspar and Magdalena Huff Bott.  Caspar, a shoemaker, had emigrated from Bavaria, Germany, and settled in Zanesville in 1840.   Ending his formal education at the age of 13 and seeking larger opportunities, Joseph came to Columbus in 1871 and found work in a variety of retail establishments.  Within a few years, he happened on his true love:  billiards.  Working in a local pool parlor, he became an expert pool and billiards player.

Billie, who had been nine when Joseph left, arrived in Columbus a few years later.  The brothers soon opened a billiard parlor in downtown Columbus immediately across from the State House, guaranteeing a lively traffic from lawmakers and gaining the reputation as the “third house” of the legislature, a place where “a meeting” was always going on.   Later the Botts would move to larger and more elaborate quarters, advertising 40 tables.   They were also branching out into other enterprises.  Their pool halls had always featured a bar;  in 1886 they opened a full-fledged saloon, a part of its interior shown here.  The long and ornate front bar had been purchased from a Chicago saloon erected at the 1893 World’s Fair.  The Botts featured an animated electric bulb sign outside that outlined a pool table where a pool cue descended and balls scattered.  Columbus had never seen its like; customers flocked to the place. 

The following year Joseph and Billie organized the Bott Brothers Manufacturing Company, an enterprise that sold pool and billiard tables and supplies, bar fixtures, refrigerators, playing cards, and even bathroom fixtures.  In short, the Botts handled everything needed to set up, in the minds of many, “dens of iniquity.”  Joseph Bott headed this operation which had a traveling sales force and did business coast to coast.
In 1888, obviously seeing the money to be made in whiskey, the brothers, with a third partner,  founded the Bott & Cannon Company, a liquor dealership, whose principal address was 269 High Street, the main commercial avenue of Columbus. They advertised themselves as “wholesale whiskey and winemerchants, straight and blended whiskies.”  Billie Bott was the president.  Although the company ads sometimes claimed them to be distillers, they were in reality “rectifiers,” blending and compounding whiskey and selling the results under their own brand names.   Those labels included “Old Botts,” “Columbus,” “Edgewater, “Cannon,” and “Old Cannon.  The latter was the flagship brand, advertised most heavily and featuring a Civil War gun on the label.  Bott & Cannon packaged their whiskey largely in embossed glass containers of various sizes, including quart and gallons with bail handles. 
During this period, the Bott brothers also were having personal lives.  Joseph married a woman named Annie Schimpf, a Philadelphia native who was eight years his junior.  I can find no record of children.  Living in the Chittenden Hotel, a recognized socialite and lady’s man, Billie Bott, now his late 30s, had taken a different path.  That path led to the mansion home of a woman named Mary Sells, a woman 18 years of age when she had married a rich man in his mid-30s who subsequently was much absent.  Restless, Mary accepted male visitors when her husband was away,  of whom Billie was accounted the first.

In January of 1900 Mr. Sells filed suit against Bott, alleging he had “alienated his wife’s affections” and seeking damages.  He also wanted a divorce from Mary.  Here is a description of what ensued:  “The trial opened on Monday, November 12, 1900, to a packed courtroom…Columbisites were  fascinated with the proceedings and each day jammed into the courtroom in record numbers.” Local newspapers kept their customers rushing for the latest editions to read about the frequently steamy testimony of the participants.  The most incriminating evidence against Billie was supplied by private detectives hired by the husband to watch the house during his absence.  One of them testified that he had seen Bott ride up on a bicycle and leave it in an archway when he entered the Sells mansion.  The detective stole the bike that night — apparently leaving Billie to walk home after his assignation — and stowed it in his attic as evidence.  When the detective wheeled the incriminating cycle into the courtroom, the sight is said to have been met “with considerable excitement.”  To many it seemed that Billie Bott, the Columbus billiard baron now was “behind the eight ball.”   

The trial lasted five titillating weeks with headlines most days in the Columbus press. Testimony that Mary Sells had entertained multiple lovers put the spotlight on her, however, and not her suitors.  The court found Mary guilty of “gross neglect of duty” to her husband.  This verdict absolved Bott of blame for alienation.  He walked away without paying a cent.  The aggrieved  husband, by contrast, had spent $12,000 on the trial. He was granted a divorce decree in which alimony for Mary was involved.  Although the amount of the settlement was kept secret by the court, the local press reported it at $30,000 (equivalent to $750,000 today).  Mary was forced to vacate the mansion her now estranged husband had built for her.  She soon left Columbus for parts unknown. 

Meanwhile Billie Bott apparently emerged from the trial relative unscathed. His business and personal life apparently went on as if nothing had happened.  The blame widely fell on Mary Sell.  One newspaper summed up the verdict by opining: "When a woman is a devil, she is the whole thing.”   Before very long, Billie married.  His bride was Frances C. O’Conner Farley,  who although nine years his junior was a widow.    She had been born in Columbus in 1870, the daughter of Irish immigrants,  Patrick T. and Mary Farrell O’Conner.  In 1915 Bott purchased a 6.5 acre estate on the outskirts of Columbus and built three homes, including a mansion for Frances and himself at 1070 Broadview, a house that still stands, shown here.  Although the home was spacious, the couple had no children.
Throughout the early part of the 20th Century Bott & Cannon continued to thrive in their liquors sales both retail and wholesale.  As other Columbus whiskey dealers did, they supplied etched shot glasses bearing their advertising to favored customers like saloonkeepers and bartenders.  All that ended for the Bott brothers in 1916 when Ohio voted to go “dry.”  Joseph Bott had already expanded into real estates as president of the Sun Realty Company.  Billie Bott was a partner in that firm as well as secretary of the Crystal Ice Mfg. & Cold Storage Co.  A later addition to their business ventures was the Bott Soda Water Company.  Both men had become  figures of affluence and influence in the Ohio capital.  They were acknowledged as such when the Bott Brothers photos were featured in the program for the 100th Anniversary of the founding of Columbus.
William “Billie” Bott died in 1930, at the age of 69.  His obituary gave the cause of death “apoplexy,” a term that covered several conditions including heart attack and stroke.  His funeral was held at Our Lady of Victory Church in Columbus.  Among the mourners was his widow, Frances, and three sisters.  He was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery.  Frances would join him two years later, as shown here on their joint gravestone.  Joseph Bott died in 1940 and is buried nearby. 

From modest beginnings and only a little formal education, the Bott brothers had turned a passion for billiards — coupled with their business genius — into a fortune and local fame.  Capping this success, Billie Bott, as I have never been able to do, figured a way out when seemingly stuck “behind the eight ball.”

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