Monday, January 26, 2015

J. T. Doores of Kentucky Led a Life in Four Acts

In the short space available here, it seems prudent to recreate the life of  J. T.  Doores, a whiskey man of Bowling Green, Kentucky, as a drama in four acts.  Such were the vicissitudes  of his lifetime that his years might easily be staged as a play:  Act One:  A Pledge;  Act Two:  Whiskey;  Act Three: Politics;  Act Four:  Bootlegging.
Taking the Pledge:  Born on a Logan County farm in 1870 to native Kentuckians, Doores — known to friends and family as “Tom,” — spent his early years learning the carpenter’s trade, eventually going to work for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.  In 1893, age 23 and still unmarried, he joined fellow railroad workers in Bowling Green to hear a spellbinding preacher named Samuel Porter Jones, shown left, rail against the consumption of alcohol.  The entire city was said to be aroused to a fever pitch of “temperance” to such an extent that authorities closed every  barroom on the day of Jones’ sermon.  

So compelling was the revivalist’s message that Doores joined 125 of his L&N colleagues to sign a formal pledge never again, under any circumstances, to enter the barroom of any restaurant or hotel in town.  Moreover a violation would require the backslider to give each of the other pledgers his name card that would confess: “…Let it be known and said of us that we have sworn falsely and are not worthy of confidence in any business or social relations or transaction.”  Tough language, indeed.
Selling Whiskey:  Whatever motivations the young Tom Doores may have had in 1893, as he aged he seemingly forgot about his solemn pledge.  By the time of the 1900 U.S. Census seven years later, he had abandon carpentry for a much more lucrative occupation, recorded as a “liquor dealer.”  Calling his  business “J. T. Doores & Co., Distillers and Wholesale Liquor Dealers,” he located it on Bowling Green’s Main Street, shown above about 1900.  Doores featured several of his own whiskey brands, including “Old J.T.D. Doubled Fire Copper South Mash Whiskey,” and “Belle of Warren.”  He packaged his whiskey in ceramic jugs of many variations, as shown throughout this post.  At one point he commissioned the well known Uhl pottery company of Evansville, Indiana, to fashion a jug for him, shown right.  Doores also featured giveaway shot glasses and other items to favored customers.

His sales efforts were aimed directly at the numerous counties in Kentucky that through local option laws had gone “dry.”  The young man frequently would travel to those counties and tell residents that he could sell them liquor and instruct them how to obtain it within the law.  They could write or phone him and send the money in advance.  C.O.D. purchases from “wet” counties into “dry” had been banned by the Kentucky legislature in 1903.  Despite his precautions in 1905 Doores found himself hauled into the the Circuit Court of dry Barren County and convicted of violating the liquor laws.  When he appealed to a higher Kentucky court, Doores found no less than the state’s attorney general, N.B. Hayes, arguing the case against him.  

Hayes, later known for his stern enforcement of anti-black Jim Crow laws in Kentucky, was vitriolic in his attacks on Doores, dramaticly calling him a “walking blind tiger” (illegal saloon).  Hayes and a supporting cast of characters were worthy of scripting.  A local blacksmith named Emmett Williams testified that Tom Doores, whom he considered a friend, had come to his shop about a year earlier and may have dropped hints about selling him whiskey but, really, no deal had been struck. (But, oh yes, he did get some whiskey.)  The Barren County express agent, Brent Dickinson, noted that for two years Doores had been shipping whiskey though his office, “from 1 to 5, and sometimes 50 packages a day, some one-half gallon jugs and some five gallon packages.“   Yes, Dickinson had seen Doores around town, but no, he had no idea what he might have been doing there. When Appeals Court reversed the lower court judgment and supported Doores, only sour words came from of the disappointed Hayes about the whiskey dealer’s acquittal:  “Through the facile agency of the telephone and express company  [he] was not guilty of the offense charged.”

Doores recognized, however, that further trouble would come and took steps to avoid it.  He opened a branch office in Nashville, Tennessee, to be able to ship whiskey into Kentucky through interstate commerce.  That strategy was challenged in the courts in 1908 when a citizen of dry Cumberland County sent a check to Doores at Nashville, ordering a gallon of whiskey.  When the product was received at Burksville, Kentucky, it was seized and Doores was charged with an offense under the local option statute.  This time Doores v. Commonwealth went all the way to the Kentucky Supreme Court.  It ruled that Doores had a right to sell whiskey in Nashville and under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution was completely free to ship to his customer in Cumberland County.  The decision frequently was cited by the defense in similar cases around the U.S. 

Playing Politics:  Perhaps tiring of courtroom appearances or sensing an increase of
prohibitionary pressure in his own Warren County, Doores apparently disposed of his liquor dealership and by 1910 was listing his occupation as “real estate agent.”  In the interim he also had married.  She was Mary L., a woman 11 years Tom’s junior.  The 1910 census found them living at 725 State Street in Bowling Green with four children, two boys and two girls, and Tom’s 69-year-old mother.  Doores already had taken steps toward political prominence.  In 1904 he was elected as a Kentucky delegate to the 1904 Republican convention held in Chicago, one that nominated Teddy Roosevelt.  In 1908 he was an alternate to the convention that selected William Howard Taft.

By 1812, however, the Grand Old Party had been riven by a split between Roosevelt and Taft. By now Tom Doores not only was the Warren County Republican chairman, he also had been appointed by the Taft Administration as the postmaster of Bowling Green, a highly sought politically appointment, one involving steadier pay than selling real estate.  After the 1912 GOP nominating convention in Chicago, the “muckrakers” of Colliers Magazine charged that a group of 23 Kentucky postmasters and assistant postmasters who also were county chairmen, Doores among them, had stolen the state’s nominating votes from Roosevelt.  The periodical named them and quoted their salaries.  At $2,700 a year, Doores was the highest paid.  Ultimately the split cost the GOP the White House as  Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected.  Doores lost his postal job.  He made a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916 but inexplicably pulled out just before the election.

Arrested for Bootlegging:  Old habits die hard or perhaps Tom Doores had not ever completely divorced himself from the whiskey trade.  But now his Warren County like other localities in Kentucky had gone dry. In a crack down on what local law enforcement called “bootlegging,” police attention was drawn to Doores in December 1917.  He was arrested and hauled into court for having carried from Louisville to Bowling Green several gallon jugs and some pint flasks of whiskey, concealing them in four suitcases.  The authorities charged that the whiskey in his possession was to be sold.  His arrest made headlines throughout the American Midlands. The Cincinnati Enquirer opined:  “Doores probably is the most prominent man who yet has been arrested in Kentucky on a charge of peddling liquor into a dry burg.”

I have been unable to find the disposition of the charges against Doores.  In those days individuals with considerably less political clout, even if found guilty, often were left off with a slap on the wrist and a small fine.  We can assume that was the worst that might have befallen him.  Five years later, Doores — still a relatively young 52 years — died and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Bowling Green.  As shown on his family gravestone here, his wife, Mary, lived another 44 years, being preceded in death by their two sons.
In his short life span Tom Doores had packed the occupations of carpenter, liquor dealer, real estate salesman, political activist, postmaster, Congressional candidate, and — some would say — bootlegger.  He also had occasioned precedent-setting court cases, helped forge a path nationwide for interstate sales of whiskey into dry counties, and assisted in deciding a pivotal Presidential nomination.  Those achievements alone should make him eligible for an “Academy Award,”  even if the full drama of his life has yet to be written.

Addendum:  The Old J.T.D shot glass is a late addition to this post.  The image was sent to me by Vaughn Viramontez of Wichita, Kansas who recently had acquired it and I am delighted to add it to the various Doores artifacts shown here.


  1. I tried to post a comment earlier this morning and am not sure if it posted, as I've never tried to post before.
    I'm the great granddaughter of J. Tom Doores and found your article so interesting, my mother , my cousin and I all thoroughly enjoyed reading it!
    How do I know if the comment posted?

    1. Dear Mary: Don't worry, your comment was posted and I am delighted that you and family members found it interesting. Do any of you have an idea of what happened to Tom over his bootlegging arrest? I was just guessing that he got off fairly easily. All the best. Jack

  2. I know!
    I am lucky to have known my great grandmother ( Granny Doores). I remember her very well, she was a real character, as was, it sounds like, her husband J. Tom!
    Thank you so much for your gift of knowledge, I'm embarrassed to say I know so little about my family history. I wish I had paid more attention to my grandmother Nellie and her sister Lottie's old stories about growing up in Bowling Green.
    J. Tom Doores had a very interesting and varied life ! ( I love the political information, now I understand where I came from! )
    Thank you again! I have shared this with my mother , my children and my cousin! We are all grateful for your article !

  3. Thanks for your response, Mary. If you get a clue about the bootlegging charge, let me know. Jack

  4. Dear Jack: I was hoping that my mother might have remembered something about the bootlegging charge but she hadn't . He died before my mother was born and my guess is that her mother probably wasn't anxious to share that legacy!
    My cousin said she remembered her grandmother talking about having entertained President Taft in their home. It sounds like he was pretty well connected...that, money and I imagine his colorful charm were the reasons he must have " gotten off fairly easily" !
    Thank you again! This has been great fun for us!

  5. Found this jug and wondered how old this might be I have a picture but can't attach it

  6. Unknown. Send photo via my email.