Thursday, May 5, 2016

The “Pariah” Whitlocks: Southern Sympathies in NYC


The Whitlock brothers, Benjamin M. and Edmund A., were grocers in New York City who launched several popular whiskey brands and also were widely known for Southern sympathies and pro-slavery views during the 1850s and early 1860s.  The Civil War cost them their once flourishing business and the traumas may have sent both to early graves.  Even after their deaths, for many people the Whitlocks remained pariahs.

Legend has it that the Whitlocks were among five brothers who came to America from Dumphries, Scotland, about 1840, and that two went to New York while three other brothers settled in Virginia.  That story fails to square with U.S. Census data and other historical data that has both Benjamin, in 1815, and Edmund, in 1819, born in New York City.  They were offspring of an old Empire State family with an ancestor who had fought in the Revolutionary War.  Their parents were Thaddeus and Mary M. (White) Whitlock.  Thaddeus was a school teacher and land owner on whose property the first public school in New York was constructed.
The boys lost their father to an early death and continued to live with their mother at 9 East Sixteen Street on Manhattan’s lower East Side.  After learning the merchant trade, at the age of 27 in 1842 Benjamin struck out on his own as a grocer and met with significant success.   A contemporary publication commented that Whitlock was “…A gentleman esteemed for his many agreeable qualities, to which circumstance, united with active and energetic business qualifications, the house is mainly indebted for its highly prosperous career.”  In time Benjamin took a partner and the firm became Whitlock, Nichols & Co.  With the subsequent departure of Nichols,  brother Edmund became a partner.   Shown above is an illustration of their 13 Beekman Place establishment.  The building featured bronze doors bearing an elegant coat of arms. 

As he progressed in business and wealth, Benjamin found a bride.   In May 1851 at the age of 36 he married Amelia Mott Wilson, whose father, James, was a prominent New York City merchant.   Records suggest that the couple had three children, Mary A., born 1952;  Adeline,1854;  and Benjamin Jr., birth date unknown.

Advertising themselves as “importers of brandies, wines, segars and Virginia tobacco,” the Whitlocks also featured a line of whiskeys.  Their proprietary brands were “Ambrosial,”  “Old Saddle Bag,” “Old Mill,” and “Whitlock Malt.”  They packaged these liquors in a variety of glass bottles that today fetch high prices from collectors.
Shown here is two flattened “chestnut-shaped” Ambrosial bottles, one darker amber than the other.  Both feature a applied “slab” seal with embossing of the name and “B.M.& E.W. Whitlock & Co.”   The other side was not embossed, allowing space for a paper label.  A portion of a label is shown here with stalks of wheat as decoration.
A second rare Whitlock bottle was a figural barrel that featured aqua glass with four sets of dual rings, indicating the barrel strapping.  The container had an inverted, tapered lip that flared toward the opening.  The front was embossed with the Whitlock name and “New York.”  Just under eight inches tall, these containers would have held whiskey.  The brothers also had a line of alcoholic bitters, marketed in attractive squared green bottles, seen below.
The chronicle noted above cited the Whitlock organization as“one the largest and important in its line in the country.  Its influence upon many other branches of trade in New York is generally acknowledged.”  The article went on to note, the Southern emphasis of the firm.  “Here, during the busy season, merchants from the South resort in great numbers, know  that whatever information they may require affecting their interest may be readily obtained.”  In many circles the Whitlocks’ establishment was known as “Southern Headquarters.”

Visitors from Dixie may have been discussing national politics with the Whitlocks along with the price of peaches. In the years running up to the Civil War,  Benjamin was taking an active interest in supporting Southern causes, including retaining slavery.   The papers of Kentuckian Andrew Johnson, later to be Lincoln’s vice president, contain an 1860 letter urging his run for the Presidency as an anti-war candidate.  The author had written B. E. Whitlock to ask him to find Johnson a New York platform for “a national address.”
That same year, Benjamin went further.  As the Nation trembled on the brink of war, he invited to New York members of the “Savannah Republican Blues,” a Southern militia unit, ostensibly to promote reconciliation.  The unit is shown in a newspaper illustration of the time.  The officers and men were welcomed at the Whitlock’ s Beekman Place establishment, fed lunch, and that afternoon transported by boat to Benjamin’s brownstone mansion on the Hudson River, about three miles from Harlem.

That edifice, shown here in a later time, is said to have cost the equivalent of $10 million today and featured about a hundred rooms.  The interior decorations had been imported from France.  Gold knobs were used on the doors and the woodwork was carved cherry and mahogany.  The entrance to the grounds was a drawbridge and a high iron gateway.  When a carriage approached, it was said, the horses hoofs would trigger a hidden spring, the bridge would drop in place and “magically” the gates would fly open.  Whitlock called it “Hommock Manor.”

Here on his estate, Benjamin continued to lavish hospitality on his Southern guests.  According to the New York Times, the militiamen were photographed in front of the mansion, reviewed his sixty thoroughbred horses, and examined his carriage house.  Then they were given drinks while strolling the grounds to view the statuary.  A supper was set forth on the lawn for 300, including the Georgians and their New York welcomers.  Likely among the latter was a well-known Southern sympathizer named William L. McDonald, who had married the Whitlocks’ sister, Josephine.  Benjamin was close to his brother-in-law, becoming partners with him in a carriage business.  McDonald later would be identified as a Confederate spy and forced to flee to Canada.

Reconciliation being impossible at that point in American history, the Savannah Republican Blues returned to home to become an element of the First Georgia Volunteer Infantry and saw hot combat in the Civil War.  Meanwhile increasing attention was being focussed on Whitlock.  In run-up to the war, Benjamin had participated in a scheme to annex Cuba as a slave state and strongly supported a proposal allowing slavery for Kansas.  After John Brown’s October 1860 raid at Harper’s Ferry, Whitlock was a featured speaker at pro-slavery rallies condemning Brown. A major force in New York society and politics, he obtained considerable publicity.  One pro-slavery publication urged readers to “express sympathy for the slave owners of the South…to buy…Ben Whitlock’s brandy.”

With the outbreak of the Civil War, many merchants doing big business in the South faced a choice of bankruptcy or moving into the Confederate States.  The Charleston Mercury of March 21, 1861 reported that, “…The extensive grocery house of B.A. & E.A. Whitlock”  had completed negotiations and would relocate in Savannah, Georgia.  But it was too late. The chaos caused by military activity on land and Southern privateering on the seas doomed open trade with the South and made a Whitlock move impossible.

According to a New York Times report, the result was that the Whitlocks “lost overwhelmingly.”  Their Southern customers either ignored their debts to the New Yorker or were unable to make the necessary financial transfers because of wartime disruption.

Owed the equivalent of millions today, the Whitlocks were unable to collect.  In addition, the conflict had sharply polarized opinion in the North.  Benjamin, who had made no secret of his pro-slavery and pro-South sympathies, faced boycotts of his establishment by former customers.  His relationship to William McDonald, now identified by authorities as a Confederate agent, also was a lively subject for gossip.  

B.M. & E. A. Whitlock & Co. faced financial ruin.  Benjamin was forced to sell his horses, his stock, his stables and his mansion, now known as “Whitlock’s Folly,” “in order honorably to meet  his sudden embarrassment,”  wrote the Times.  In March 1862, the company he had founded twenty years earlier and guided to fabulous success, went out of business.  By that time three other sorrow filled events had occurred.  In 1859, Benjamin’s wife, Amelia, had died, followed in October 1860 by his six-year-old daughter, Adeline.  Exactly a year later his mother, Mary Whitcock, died.

The totality of his troubles took a toll on Benjamin’s mental and physical health and he died in 1863, at the very young age of 46.  Close to other family members, he was interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, plot 3673.   In his obituary,  the Times, while citing his business setbacks in some detail, failed to mention his pro-slavery views but praised him “…as a man of finest business capacity, and of noble, generous impulses.”  
In death, however, Benjamin was linked to the South and “a vast and fiendish plot.”  Friends, including his brother-in-law William McDonald, were outraged by the burning of Atlanta and Lee’s surrender.  To those indignities they added the perceived wrongs suffered by Whitlock and pledged revenge, writing: “These Yankees…will learn what…it is to incur the enmity of a proud and chivalric people.”  Aided by McDonald and his brother, on November 25, 1865, the conspirators set out to burn down portions of central Manhattan.  They succeeded in torching an empty room in the prestigious Astor House, a few rooms in nearby hotels, and the Barnum Museum, here shown on fire, escaping to Canada just as authorities closed in. Although the fires were soon extinguished and no one injured, the event sparked immediate outrage that innocent women and children might have perished.

Amid the outcry over the Confederate “terrorist” raid, an event that could be tied by inference to the Whitlock family, Edward became ill and died in May, 1865.  Like his brother Benjamin, he was just 46 and may have been crushed under the weight of Yankee scorn and the burden of selling off family possessions to pay off the company debt.  Apparently never having married, Edward was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, sharing a monument with his mother.
Even in their graves, the Whitlocks remained pariahs.  A late 1800s genealogy that featured a family of that name included a note from the author to assure readers that those Whitlocks were not related in any way to the pro-slavery New York Whitlocks.  Recognition that harsh judgments might continue to be made of Benjamin Whitlock may have occasioned the self-vindicating Biblical lines on his tomb, shown here.  They come from 2nd Timothy and are preceded by a verse that describes the prophet as having suffered deeply for a cause — but he is not ashamed:  “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day.”

Note:  After deciding that the Whitlocks would be good subjects for a vignette on this website, I discovered that Ferdinand Meyer, president of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, on his Peachridge Glass.com site already had done a piece on the brothers.  After more research I decided a story was there to be told in greater detail.  Ferd was kind enough to allow me to use the images of the barrel and bitters bottles shown here.  















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