Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Benjamins: Jewish Whiskey Men in the Deep South

 
The “Deep South” does not get any deeper than Natchez, Mississippi, but any expected intolerance toward non-Christians and those involved in the liquor trade did not extend to the Benjamins,  father and son Jewish liquor dealers, both of whom rose to prominence in their Mississippi River town.  

As Prof. Marni Davis indicates in her book “Jews and Booze,”  Natchez appears to have been particularly appreciative of Jewish merchants in the business of selling alcohol.   She notes that liquor dealer and wholesale grocer Isaac Lowenberg was elected mayor of Natchez and Jewish saloonkeeper Cassius Tillman once served as sheriff.

The first Benjamin to enter this environment was Samuel Lewis (known as S.L.) Benjamin.  His welcome may well have been facilitated by his having served as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War.  S.L. was born in 1838 in Alsace-Loraine, then part of Germany, the son of Abraham and Sara (Ullman) Benjamin.  At 17 he left home on a sailing vessel that landed at New Orleans.  Almost immediately he headed to Natchez where his mother’s brother, Jacob Ullman, and family lived.  In the 1855 census, Jacob is listed as “merchant” and S.L. likely went to work for him.  Upon arrival in Natchez,  S. L. soon sent for and married his first cousin, Bettie Netter, the daughter of his mother’s sister.  
It was not long before S.L. became convinced with the rightness of the Southern Cause.  In 1862, leaving his bride,  he joined the Confederate Army and sent was up the Mississippi to help garrison a site called Grand Gulf, just downriver from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and a potential landing place for Grant’s Army marching on that key location.   Although a Union attack by sea on Grand Gulf, shown above, largely failed, S.L. Benjamin is recorded as having been captured during the battle and sent to a prison camp.  Although part of a prisoner exchange before the war was over, he apparently went back to Natchez and did not resume fighting. 

Upon returning home, S.L. and wife, Bettie, immediately set about having a family.  The first born was Phillip Ullman (known as P.U.) Benjamin in 1864, to be following rapid succession by Jesse, Beulah, Lillie, Leon, Helen, Flora and Hortence.  During this same period S. L. was establishing himself as as a wholesale dealer in liquor and cigars located in a store on Main Street in Natchez, shown here as it looked in the late 1800s.  In time the company would move to its own building on South Commerce Street.

In his 1983 history, “Jews in Early Mississippi,”  Author Leo Turitz extolls “the spirit and mind” of S.L. Benjamin, noting his keen interest in Jewish literature, his ability to draw and paint, and his historical interest in keeping careful records of Jewish congregational meetings and of gravesites in the “Old Jewish Cemetery.”   

Turitz also recounts a story that despite S.L. having fought for the Confederacy his treatment of blacks diverged from his Natchez fellow residents:“…S. L. and a local physician were walking together…A black man came toward them and stepped off the sidewalk and tipped his hat, saying ‘How do, Doctor; how do, Mr. Benjamin. In response Mr. Benjamin tipped his hat saying, ‘How do, George.’  The doctor turned to S. L. saying sharply, ‘ Mr. Benjamin, I do declare!  I never did see a white man tip his hat to a neg-rah!  Never saw such a thing in my life!’  To which S.L. replied blandly, ‘I just wanted to show I have as good manners as he has.’”

About the same time that S.L. relocated to Commerce Street,  his eldest son, P. U. Benjamin joined the business.  Their company had become the local agents for national brands such James E. Pepper and Harper whiskeys and Pabst Milwaukee beer.  Benjamin ads indicated that in addition to selling liquor, the company also dealt in “corks, playing cards and bar fixtures.” 
In time the father largely retired from the liquor trade.  His eldest son seems to have take over its management in the late 1800s and eventually changed the name to P.U. Benjamin & Co.  The direction of the firm also changed, from selling largely to local saloons it turned to advertising vigorously for mail order sales from those Mississippi counties that had become “dry” under local option laws.  As one Benjamin ad openly stated:  “”Special attention given to orders from Prohibition Places.”  Mississippi, perhaps because of the overwhelming presence of Southern Baptists, was prohibition “central.”  Under local option laws, countries across the state one by one had gone “dry.”  But liquor from “wet” counties could still be imported by railroad express. So brisk and lucrative was the trade that the Benjamins would prepay express charges on all liquor orders of more than $3.00. 
Their ads also suggested that the Benjamins in their larger space on Commerce Street were “rectifying,” that is, blending and compounding their own whiskey on premises.  These they sold in jugs of varying sizes, advertising “P. U. Benjamin, Liquor Dealer, Natchez, Miss.” in letters not to be missed. The ceramics varied in size, from multi-gallon containers to smaller jugs with bail handles, as shown here.  Their ads indicated that they packaged their whiskeys in bottles of various sizes “to 
suit the demand.”  As shown here, if you wanted quart flasks (left) you got them; pints (right) too were available.

As the Benjamin whiskey dealership was growing, so was the reputation of P.U. Benjamin in Natchez.  By 1905 he had risen to the position of chairman of the Natchez Fire Committee, responsible for an annual expenditure of $6,000 and in at least nominal charge of five paid part-time firefighters and 291 volunteers.  He was also making a name for himself in the political arena.  A Democrat as were most pro-Confederacy southerners, he was an active participant in local politics.  His acumen was rewarded when he was elected secretary of the Natchez Party Committee, responsible for overseeing Mississippi laws in the validating of all candidates for local offices.   When William Howard Taft visited Natchez in 1909, despite being a Democrat,  P. U. Benjamin was made an official of the huge civic welcome given the President of the United States.

By the time of Taft’s visit, Mississippi in 1908 had voted to go completely “dry,”  virtually in lock step with Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.   Those states all were widely accused of the hypocrisy of  “voting dry and drinking wet.”  One Mississippi politician reportedly said that his state would remain dry “as long as its citizens can stagger to the polls to vote.”   Indeed, Mississippi was the last to embrace repeal of the Constitutional Amendment that inaugurated National Prohibition and it ended total state prohibition only in 1966.  

The 1910 Census found the Benjamins in Ward 3 of Natchez. The family truly was an “extended” one.  S.L. and his wife, Bettie, were living with an unmarried daughter, Lily, and a married daughter, Helen, her husband, Moritz Kleisdorff, and their two children.  Household ages ranged from 71 to 4 years.  P.U., still a bachelor at 46, rounded out the clan.  With their liquor business terminated, father and son both listed their occupations as “merchants- tobacco.”  

Samuel died in 1918 at the age of 79 and was buried in the same cemetery where he had so scrupulously recorded the gravestones.  Bettie lies next to him with a scroll-like monument to mark the spot.  Phillip would follow his father to the grave only four years later, at 58 years, and was given a more more contemporary headstone featuring a deer’s head.   

One reviewer of Turitz's book who commented on early Jews in Mississippi might have been referencing the Benjamins of Natchez: “These Jews left a heritage of major business concerns….Their interest in religion, education, and the arts enriched towns and communities with schools, temples, and opera houses….The lasting influence of these men and women remains indelibly in the towns where they lived and worked.”     






















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