Monday, August 3, 2015

J.W. Cheesman Sold Spirits in “Sin City”

When I was a boy growing up in Ohio, everyone knew that Newport, Kentucky, was “Sin City,” beset with gambling, prostitution and crime.  But even earlier the town had a tawdry reputation.  One writer declared:  “At a time when Las Vegas was merely a crossroads in the Nevada desert, Newport became “Sin City” — a place if you could dream it, and pay for it, you could do it.”  That is where Joseph W. Cheesman established himself to sell whiskey.
How Newport attained its tawdry reputation has elicited various explanations.  Located on the Ohio River, it was established as a town in 1795 and grew rapidly when the Fort Washington Military Base was moved from Cincinnati to become Newport Barracks, shown above.  The troops stationed there fostered brothels whose numbers grew during the Civil War as soldiers garrisoned in southern Ohio crossed the river to make use of them.  Because Newport was populated by waves of immigrants, one writer has speculated that this “melting pot of culture” brought a love for beer, lotteries and sporting traditions that paved the way for illegal indulgences.”  Another author has cited the geographical seclusion from surrounding cities like Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort because of bad roads and hilly terrain.  As a result, he claimed, Newport became a perfect place for criminals on the run to hide out.

Whatever the combination of causes, the benign looking downtown shown above in a 1900 postcard seemingly belies the reputation.  Moreover, the circumstances responsible for pinning the “sin” label on Newport clearly held no fears for Joe Cheesman when he established himself in the whiskey trade there.  Cheesman had been born in Ohio in 1868.  His father, he told the 1930 census taker, was from New York and his mother from Ohio.  My speculation is that he learned the whiskey trade in Cincinnati, then the nation’s marketing center for liquor.  
Perhaps deciding that the field was too crowded with whiskey rectifiers, wholesalers and retailers in Cincinnati, he decided to take his enterprise across the Ohio River to Newport.  The letterhead of J.W. Cheesman Co. did not give an address but called itself “distributor of the products of the Old “76” Distilling Company,” whose Federal revenue designation was 6th District of Kentucky, Distillery No. 33.  
The Old ’76 Distillery was located not far from Newport in Campbell County, Kentucky, at a place designated “Finchtown. It had been built about 1892 by Geo. W. Robson Jr. & Co, a.k.a. Licking Bourbon Distilling.  As shown here in an illustration this was a large operation, located on a railroad spur line along Licking Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River.  The distillery itself, according to insurance records, was a brick structure with a metal or slate roof.  It featured five warehouses.  One was immediately adjacent to the still, with a companion storage area 55 feet west of it.  The third and fourth warehouses were in a single large structure, separated by a fire wall.   The fifth stood 75 feet west of the still.

In addition to providing whiskey to a host of wholesale and retail liquor companies from Cincinnati to San Francisco, the distillery featured its own proprietary brands, including “Medallion Bourbon,” Woodruff Whiskey,” Willmore Rye,” “Finchtown Whiskey,” “Lord Lytton Dry Gin,” and “Old ’76’ Brand Apricot.”   As a distributor for the Old “76” Distillery,  Cheesman would have been selling these brands, as well as his own proprietary brand, one he called “Inverness Club Whiskey.”   

He advertised Inverness Club lavishly, selling it wholesale in large white ceramic jugs with attractive cobalt blue labels to the many saloons and eateries in Newport, and at retail in quart bottles with a distinctive label.  Like many other liquor dealers of his time Cheesman’s merchandising efforts included providing advertising shot glasses to favored customers, including saloonkeepers and bartenders.   Two glasses are shown below, along with more unusual tin shot that had Cheesman’s name embossed on the bottom and Inverness Club along the rim.  His ability to give away items like his indicate his growing prosperity.

In the meantime Cheesman had taken as a partner, Clark B. Youtsey, a younger man who had been born in Kentucky, the son of native Kentuckian, Thomas and Sarah Youtsey.   The Youtsey family appears to have been deeply into the Kentucky whiskey trade.  In the 1910 census Clark’s older brother was recorded as the superintendent of a distillery, likely the Old ’76,’ and a younger brother was listed as a distillery clerk.  
With Youtsey’s help, much of Cheesman’s trade appears to have been mail orders.  Paying express charges, the company would send four quarts of Inverness Club and throw in an extra quart, all for the price of $2.85. That is the equivalent of $14.25 a bottle today, indicating that this was a relatively cheap whiskey for the times.  It also cultivated a wholesale mail order trade, able to supply 100 quarts at $42.00, the equivalent of $10.50 a bottle today. 

Cheesman’s mail order business, however, brought trouble in 1908 when this “Sin City” liquor dealer, sometimes operating as York Distilling Co., was accused of fraud.  The accuser was an attorney with the U.S. Post Office Department.  He charged that Cheesman and Youtsey “…were engaged in a scheme devised to defraud, and of obtaining money through the mails, by means of fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises, from the public generally….”  It appears, from a Cincinnati Enquirer story, that the partners were being accused of making false and fraudulent statements about the character of their mail order whiskey.  Since the alleged flimflam was being implemented through the U.S. mails, the postmaster at Newport was notified by the Postmaster General not to deliver any mail or redeem any money orders addressed to Cheesman.  His mail was held for weeks by postal authorities in Newport while the department prepared a fraud order that would have forever debarred the J.W. Cheesman Co. from using the mails in their business. 
Cheesman immediately sought a preliminary injunction in the Federal District Court to prevent the order being carried out.   When that court agreed with the liquor dealer the Newport postmaster appealed the decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.   The Post Office lost again, this time on a technicality, and the mails and money orders presumably continued to flow in.

Although Cheesman remained in business for the next several years, the growing forces of Prohibition were slowing strangling the mail order whiskey trade.  Railroads and express companies increasingly were unwilling to carry liquor shipments into “dry” areas. In 1913, passage by Congress of the Webb-Kenyon Act made that interstate traffic illegal.  As a result many dealers like Cheesman ceased operations. 

Joseph Cheesman showed up in the 1930 U.S. Census, now 62, still living in Newport.   Apparently never having married, he was rooming in a house owned by 81-year-old Sarah Youtsey. He gave his occupation as “retired.”  Also there, apparently unmarried, was Clark Youtsey, 39, his occupation given as “agent.”  Even though Cheesman was several years removed from the liquor business when National Prohibition arrived, he was present during ensuing years to observe the onset of the “bootlegging” era when illegal booze, wide open casinos, rampant prostitution, and gangster control made Newport the nation’s most notorious “Sin City”

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