Semmes was born in 1823 in Georgetown, by then part of the District of Columbia, the son of Raphael and Matilda Semmes. One relative had been the proprietor of the City Club Tavern in Georgetown and later Rhodes Tavern in Washington proper. Four years before Benedict’s birth Semmes family members had begun making whiskey on a commercial basis. In 1894 he told a U.S. Senate committee investigating the Whiskey Trust: “We began business in 1819 in Washington, D.C., and built the first brick storehouse on south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Capitol and the Treasury Department, and built the Yannissee Distillery in 1823 on Yannissee Creek, Maryland, within sight of the dome of the Capitol.” The Semmes clan called their whiskey “Yannissee.”
Bendedict’s youth apparently was unremarkable, growing up in a reasonably affluent D.C. family and educated in local schools. He may well have worked in the Semmes liquor business from an early age. At the age of 24, he met Jorantha Jordan, a New Yorker, when she accompanied her father Lawrence Pallette Jordan, a congressman, to a session of the House of Representatives. Jorantha was 19. With frequent letters between Washington and New York, their courtship lasted 18 months, complicated because of her initial reluctance to convert to his Catholicism. During this period he came to appreciate her business skills, writing her: “…You have an enquiring mind—speak precisely—act readily, and are not Dull at figures.”
In late 1849 or early 1850 they were married and Jorantha settled into the role of housewife and eventually mother. The fuzzy photo shown here likely is that of the young couple. Their first child, Julia, was born in late 1850, followed by two boys, Joseph Malcolm in 1852 and Raphael Eustice in 1855. Semmes supported the family by working in a District of Columbia store, recorded as a “wholesale merchant.”
By 1859, however, he had seen brighter horizons westward and decided that Memphis, Tennessee, a fast growing community on the Mississippi river, held opportunities that the Nation’s Capital did not. After a friend secured a $3,000 line of credit for him, Semmes traveled there by himself and opened a dry goods store. Reputedly after having the building blessed by a local priest, he called for Jorantha and the children to join him.
Semmes' venture into dry goods may have been short lived. His letters to Jorantha had noted that business was slow. By 1860, business directory listings indicate that the B. J. Semmes Company primarily was selling liquor. Before the store could reap significant profits, however, the Civil War erupted. ln March 1862, Benedict enlisted as a sergeant in Company L, 154th Tennessee Regiment, leaving the store management to Jorantha. Wounded only a month later at the Battle of Shiloh, Benedict went home to recuperate and helped his wife sell off the stock. Upon returning to action, he was commissioned as a captain in the Army of Tennessee and later assigned as chief of the army's commissary.
While he was away, Jorantha — now caring for six children — was showing considerable business initiative. In 1863 she reported to her absent husband that she had earned a profit of $150 by bottling and selling whiskey and brandy to supplement the Semmes family income. The older boys had helped her. By the end of the war, however, she was forced by the fighting in Tennessee to remove the family to Corinth, Mississippi. Promoted briefly to major, Semmes surrendered with the Confederate Army in April 1865. Author Frank Byrne says: “In a matter of weeks Semmes returned to Memphis where Benedict reopened Semmes & Company, a wine and liquor firm….The early success of Semmes & Company rested in part upon the wartime activities of Semmes family, particularly the labor of his wife.”
This post-war period was one of bitterness in Southern towns like Memphis. In his testimony to the Senate, Benedict maintained that he could not produce financial records from 1883 to 1866, as requested by the committee, as “Gen. Sherman burned our books on his ‘March to the Sea” so that we only have complete records since 1866” — likely a stretch since Sherman is recorded as having started that march from Atlanta, not Memphis. Semmes also complained that: “Our distillery was burned, without insurance, during the war.” He did not make the location of that facility explicit.
Whatever damage had been done, with the support of Jorantha, Benedict recouped quickly. After spending three years at an address at 234 Second Street, he moved to larger quarters at 297 Main Street. As a whiskey blender and compounder, Semmes featured a number of proprietary brands. They included “Jo Blackburn,” and “Tennessee Club.” Most important, he had carried the “Yannissee" name with him from Washington DC to Memphis and made it his flagship whiskey label. He advertised it as shown right with a strange set of letters that have been widely misunderstood. They are in the Coptic script and spell out “Memph,” the name of the ancient Egyptian town from which Memphis was derived. Semmes trademarked the Coptic symbols and gave some of his ads Egyptian themes.
Semmes was packaging his whiskey both in ceramic and glass. Shown here is a gallon jug that likely was meant for his wholesale trade. It has a typical Bristol glaze off-white body and Albany slip brown top with his name stenciled on the front in large letters. His retail customers could received their Yannissee whiskey in dark amber quart bottles. Two variations are shown below, the second one broken, uncovered by digger.
In his 1894 Senate testimony, Semmes stated that he was renting Charles Nelson’s Greenbriar Distillery, shown below, 22 miles from Nashville, and running it as the Yannissee Distillery for such time as he required each year. “…We never produce each year over 2,500 barrels or less than 600 barrels.” In 1893 and 1894, however, “owing to depression in business and the recent financial panic,” Semmes had shut the distillery down and made not a single barrel. Moreover, in 1890 he had exported 500 barrels of whiskey from the U.S. to Germany to avoid taxes amounting to $20,000 ($500,000 equivalent today). In effect, he was testifying in favor of reforms that became the Bottled-in-Bonding Act of 1897.
Semmes disclosed that in addition to distilling whiskey, he was buying wine and liquor both in the United States and abroad, including other national whiskey brands, in order to meet customer demand in Memphis and its environs. Those products provided the company little benefit, he contended, because he was forced to compete on cost with dealers in other cities for the same brands. Although Semmes did not state it specifically, his mail order sales would have been particularly affected. Apparently comfortable with his trademarks, he added: “Of course our own brands of domestic goods are ours and under our control.”
The whiskey dealer took the opportunity of his Senate testimony to rail against protectionist policies that shielded the manufacturers of Northern states, Alabama, and Louisiana. He noted that the suit of clothes he was wearing while writing his testimony had cost him $65. A friend had showed him a similar suit bought in Canada that cost only $20. Semmes may have been thinking of his own brood when he complained of the expense protectionism imposed on him and others “to support and educate a large family in elegant luxury.”
Throughout the challenges their liquor business faced, Jorantha continued to be consulted by Benedict on business matters. Moreover, as his sons Joseph and Raphael reached maturity, both were taken into the firm and eventually into management positions. An 1897 letterhead from B. J. Semmes & Co. listed all three men. The letterhead also boasted that after chemical analysis Yannissee brand whiskey had been awarded a U.S. Marine Hospital contract for medicinal whiskey. The Semmes claimed to carry the largest stock of old Tennessee sour mash whiskeys in the state. The company was continuing to prosper.
In 1902, Benedict Semmes died at age 77. While his family gathered around his grave site he was interred at Calvary Cemetery in Memphis. Jorantha would join him when she died in 1925. Their attractive marble headstones are shown here. Joseph and Raphael kept the liquor business going, for a short period establishing an adjunct store in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1910 they moved their Memphis operations to 50 N. Second St. and then to 14 N. Front Street. With the onset of state prohibition in Tennessee, B. J. Semmes and Company was forced to close in 1915.
That event wrote the final chapter on this liquor dynasty and its Yannissee whiskey. Company letterheads and advertising always cited 1819 as the date of its founding. The Semmes family had kept making and selling liquor through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the financial “panic” of the late 1800s, harsh taxation, high tariffs, and the Whiskey Trust. Benedict himself summed up the Semmes history in his Senate testimony: “We have never failed or burned out during three generations of our family….”
Note: The relationship between Benedict Semmes and his wife Jorantha, particularly as it relates to business matters, was featured by Frank J. Byrne in his 2006 book, Becoming Bourgeous: Merchant Culture in the South, 1920-1865. Byrne drew his material from letters exchanged by the couple from in 1848 to 1865 included in the Benedict J. Semmes papers archived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I have drawn from Byrne’s book as well as other sources, particularly Semmes' 1894 written testimony to the Senate Finance Committee.