John Nunan was a saloonkeeper in Winchester, Kentucky, downtown shown above. He ran an drinking establishment, shown below, at the corner of Washington and Marcie Street. The photo indicates a business of some prominence and local prestige and is said to show John’s brother, Dennis, in the doorway at left. Over the next few years Nunan was to take several “stings” from Prohibition zealots — at least one of them farcical — but in the end he was forced to succumb to them. Nunan’s was one story among thousands across America at the height of the so-called Temperance Movement.
Nunan’s travails began about 1906 when Professor H.K. Taylor, principal of a Louisville training school, was named president of the Kentucky Wesleyan College at Winchester. This institution, shown below in a postcard view, had been founded in 1866 by the Methodist Church initially as a training academy for preachers. Business and liberal arts courses later were added to the curriculum and in 1890 women were admitted for the first time. Prof. Taylor was a well-known figure in church circles and an ardent foe of drinking. In 1906, for example, he gave a well-publicized speech on how to “Improve the Standard of Civic Life” — presumably by banning drinking.
Early in his presidency of Kentucky Wesleyan, Prof. Taylor became highly affronted by the saloons in Winchester, apparently feeling they were hotbeds of temptation for his male students. In 1908 Taylor plotted a “sting” he hoped would put Nunan and six other Winchester saloonkeepers either out of business or facing heavy fines and maybe jail time. Apparently not trusting his older students, Taylor drafted a freshman named Roger Green, a minor, to go into Nunan’s and six other saloons to buy a bottle of beer. The college president later said he took the step to get proof that could be used in court, including against the saloonkeepers, on selling alcohol to the underaged.
At each location, including Nunan’s, Green was successful in buying beer. Taylor immediately whistled for the law and the seven saloonkeepers were arrested and hauled into court. On the day of the trials, the crowd of onlookers was enormous. The Winchester News reported: “Nearly every attorney in the city is employed either on one side or the other, as each of the saloon men have a separate attorney.” Counsels for the defense had a field day, making mincemeat of Prof. Taylor’s scheme.
Being of a theological rather than legal turn of mind, the don had failed to mount an airtight prosecution. In the initial case brought against a saloon, young Green said he was sure the proprietor had not sold the beer to him but could not positively identify either of the bartenders. Other evidence that might have helped Prof. Taylor’s case were the bottles of beer that Green bought in each drink emporium. Taylor had marked the each of the bottles to show what saloon it came from and had saved them as evidence. The local newspaper told the rest of the story: “…But the first night of the trial Prof. Taylor brought the bottles to the police court room and the trial was postponed. Prof. Taylor left the bottles in the court room but they disappeared and therefore could not be produced.”
The judge summarily dismissed the case on the grounds that not only was there no physical evidence of purchases, Green could not identify who had sold him the beer. The decision applied to Nunan and the other saloonkeepers, who walked out of court seemingly vindicated. Prof. Taylor became a laughing stock in Winchester. Within several months, he resigned as president of Kentucky Wesleyan and his resignation was accepted, seemingly with alacrity, by the Methodist Educational Board.
John Nunan went back to living a more normal existence. He had been born in Ireland about 1865, the son of Thomas Nunan, and immigrated to the United States about 1888. His older brother, Thomas, had preceded him and was living in Kentucky. The 1900 census showed the brothers, both bachelors, living together and running a saloon in Winchester. The 1910 census found John Nunan, still living the bachelor life and recorded his occupation as the proprietor of a saloon. Nunan’s life would changed in 1917, when he married Elizabeth DeBoor, daughter of Irvin J. and Julia Shea DeBoor of Lexington, Kentucky. John was 52 at the time of their nuptials and Elizabeth was 32, an age when many in her time would have considered her a spinster. There is no record of children from this union.
Nunan’s saloon seems to have been flourishing. In addition to selling whiskey over the bar, the proprietor was decanting barrels of product into gallon and other sized ceramic containers and selling them both to wholesale and retail customers. He affected a fancy underglaze black label that involved a frame around his name and address. Examples shown here indicate that the pottery firms creating these containers had limited ability and the labels often were uneven in their application. On those shown here Nunan advertised two whiskeys, “Old Anderson” and “Blakemore,” the latter the product of J. N. Blakemore distillery of Frankfort, Kentucky.
Meanwhile, new prohibitionary stings for Nunan and saloons were building in Kentucky. This time the antagonist was a woman and a Presbyterian. Her name was Frances Estill Beauchamp, shown right. She had moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1880 and began forming chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union all across Kentucky. Mrs. Beauchamp summed up her views in a 1911 editorial published by the Prohibition National Committee: “We mean death to the distillery and the brewery, and on the ways to the end we will lend a hand to put out of commission all their retail agents.” She had John Nunan in the cross-hairs.
Through Mrs. Beauchamp's strenuous efforts, despite Kentucky being America’s major producer of whiskey, county after county through local options laws voted to ban alcohol sales. Shown here is a picture of a woman at a Kentucky anti-drink rally with a sign reading “Dry” pinned to her shoulder and accompanied by her two sons. She held a sign over the kids that said: ”Don’t let the Saloon have a chance at us.” In 1915 Clark County, of which Winchester is the county seat, an election was held under local option authority that resulted in turning the city from “wet” territory into “dry.” The result was immediately challenged and an electoral board declared the vote void, only to have that decision set aside by the Circuit Court. Then on appeal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals the entire matter initially was held in abeyance.
That did Nunan little good. While he could continue to operate for a while, his saloon license was due to run out and the Winchester City Council would not issue him or his fellow publicans another. In a case known as Nunan et al vs. City of Winchester, he took the matter to the local court. After it ruled against him, he raised the issue to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Despite its prior decision, that court refused to overrule the decision of the City Council. Nunan was out of business.
Having lost his livelihood, and perhaps angered at his treatment by the pious folks of Clark County, Nunan subsequently moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in “wet” Fayette County. Just 48 years old, he apparently found employment, likely in the liquor business. That was not to last. Mrs. Beauchamp was still on the warpath, declaring her goal to be: “…Total abstinence for the individual and total prohibition for the State.” She is credited for having a 1919 prohibition amendment adopted to the Kentucky constitution. The entire state went “dry.” She and her cohort had successfully killed the distilleries and breweries of Kentucky, as well as its remaining saloons. National Prohibition followed a year later.
Nunan died at the age of 64 in Lexington. He may have been in ill health for some time. His death certificate indicated the cause was a cerebral hemorrhage and that he was retired. He was buried in Lexington’s Calvary Cemetery on December 9, 1929. His marker shown above. His widow Elizabeth would join him in 1945.
Several recent books have emphasized the political and social importance of the saloon in the development of the United States. John Nunan was just one of hundreds of publicans all across the country whose liquor business had to cope with constant challenges -- stings -- from prohibitionary forces. Sadly, Nunan did not live long enough to witness Repeal, the return of alcohol sales to Clark County and Winchester, and a measure of vindication.
Note: Despite the end of National Prohibition 81 years ago, a majority of Kentucky counties are still totally or partially “dry.” The legacy of Frances Estill Beauchamp marches on.