Thursday, October 20, 2016

Henry W. Gillett: First to Rectify, First to Court — First to Jail?

Henry Wheeler Gillett is recorded as a Kansas man of “firsts” in several accounts.  According to the Leavenworth Daily Commercial of Dec. 31, 1871:  “Mr. Gillett rectified the first barrel of whiskey ever taken through that process in Kansas….”  Later he was reported to be the first liquor merchant in the state to be hauled into court in 1875 as a result of Prohibition pressures.   Finally, in 1891 Gillett may have been the first man sent to jail in what the Topeka Weekly Capital termed a “crusade against liquor dealers.”

Henry began life more than 1,000 miles from Kansas. The youngest of five children, he was born in 1832 in Clarksville, New York, the son of Anson W. and Olive Brown Gillett.  By the age of 19, he had left New York for Ohio, settling in Lucas County not far from Toledo.  There in 1851 he found a bride in Rebecca Rose Peters, an 18-year-old who had been born in Pennsylvania.  When they wed, she was living with a farm family near Waterville, Ohio, likely a nanny for a two-year-old.  Henry and Rebecca’s first child, Helen, would be born in Waterville in 1855.  Although I have been unable to find a record of his Ohio employment, my guess is that Gillett was engaged in mercantile pursuits, likely involving whiskey.                                                                                                                       
By 1859 Gillett and his family were recorded living in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he had opened a small wholesale liquor house.  After the passage by Congress of the Kansas-Nebraska Act people began to stream into the newly-formed territory looking for farmland and other venues of opportunity.  Many of them were from Ohio and other Midwest states.  The territory soon would be known as “bleeding Kansas” because of clashes between pro- and anti-slavery forces that roiled the population before and during the Civil War.  Leavenworth, just  few miles north of Kansas City, Missouri, was a particular hotbed of confrontation.

Despite the tumult, Gillett apparently found a ready market for whiskey.  Shown here is an 1865 ad for H. W. Gillett & Co., located at 54 Main Street, between Delware and Shawnee Streets in Leavenworth.  He billed his company as “Wholesale Dealers in Native and Imported Wines, Liquors, Cigars, etc, of the Very Best Quality.”  The illustration advertised fancy 1800 French brandy.  The Civil War proved to be a boon to Gillett’s sales.  According to a newspaper account:   “At some time during the war his annual sales amounted to considerable more than a quarter of a million dollars.”   That would be equivalent to more than $6 million today.
Initially Gillett took a local partner,  A. C. Wilder, a Union Army veteran who later represented Kansas in the U.S. Congress.   When Wilder departed from the firm, Gillett carried on successfully as a single proprietor and needing more space for his expanding operations moved in 1868 to 209 Delaware Avenue.  Shown here as it looks today, the building was said to be in one of the finest blocks in the city.   The structure offered plenty of room for Gillett to engage in the “recifying” his own whiskey,  that is, buying it in barrels, mixing and blending it for taste and color, and bottling it as his own proprietary labels.  Reputed to be the first ever in Kansas to undertake the process, Gillett remained a rectifier throughout his career in the liquor trade.  Said the Leavenworth newspaper:  “He has been very prosperous, deservedly so…”

This prosperity found itself demonstrated in the mansion Henry built at 519 North Broadway for his wife and family in 1867.  Known as the Gillett House, now on the National Register of Historic Places, the two story Italianate style home was the first of several in Leavenworth to feature cast iron decoration. Those features included ornate bracketed cornices with elaborate cast iron lintels.  The windows were embellished by fleur-de-lis crests.  Henry lived there with wife Rebecca Rose, their one daughter, and servants.

Even then the storm clouds of Prohibition were gathering over the Kansas.  Shown here is one of hundreds of “dry” town meetings, in a territory that rapidly became a national center of activity for the Temperance Movement.  Gillett was an early target of “dry” forces.  In 1875 after a Topeka resident named Haug placed an order for whiskey with him in Leavenworth, Henry was arrested under a law that forbid anyone from selling liquor “without taking out and having a license as grocer, dram shopkeeper, or tavern keeper.”  Gillett had no license in Topeka.  The Kansas Supreme Court reasoned, however, that the sale had taken place in Leavenworth and Gillett had a license there, ruling in his favor.  It was said to be the first instance of the Court intruding into Kansas liquor affairs.  Many such intrusions would follow.

Although Gillett won his case, the experience may have suggested to him the wisdom of an occupational change.  By 1877, he had taken on two new partners, Robert Armstrong and E. F. Kellogg. They changed the company name to “Gillett, Armstrong & Kellogg.”  By the following year his name was erased from the firm entirely, as he sold out to the pair.  Two letterheads shown here reflect this transition.  By that time Henry was involved in a range of other pursuits.  Among them he was an investor and director of the Kansas Central Railroad Co.  Its objective was to build a railroad and telegraph line to the Kansas-Colorado border, more than 400 miles west.  He also was a director of the State Penitentiary in Leavenworth and had an interest in a corporation known as the Kansas Manufacturing Company.

Meanwhile the firm Gillett had founded and sold would prove to have a short remaining life span.  By 1880 Kansas voters had approved an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting all manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors” throughout the state.  The liquor house was forced to shut down.   Whiskey continued to flow in Kansas, however, as the courts made it virtually impossible to punish offenders.  Called “jointists,” saloonkeepers and liquor dealers operated openly.  To be convicted a specific defendant had to be named, with proof of at least two sales documented with the time, place and witnesses.  But evidence was inadmissible from anyone, called a ”spotter,” who engaged in a sale just to obtain an arrest.  

Here the record on Henry Gillett becomes hazy.  Some accounts suggest that he might have lost much of his wealth during the 1880s.  The Kansas Central Railroad stumbled financially and went bankrupt.  Gillett sold his mansion home in 1890. Was he obliged to by economic necessity?  Did he then re-engage in the liquor trade?  Some evidence exists that he did.  Annual cash sales for the average Kansas jointist were estimated at $885,600 (equiv. to $21 million today).  Proceeds like that would have been tempting.   Moreover, liquor supplies were easily accessible from neighboring “wet” Missouri.

In July 1891 the Topeka Weekly Capital ran an article datelined Atchison, Kansas, headlined “Harrassing the Jointists.”  It described a crusade by local officials against liquor dealers.  One jointist had eluded the sheriff and headed for Nebraska.  Another had stolen all the papers involved in the case and fled to parts unknown.  Not so fortunate was a liquor dealer named Henry Gillett who had been fined  $200 and sent to jail for two months.  Was this our Henry Gillett?  I can find no other in Kansas who fits the name and profile. Was he the first to be jailed for selling booze?  Given the loose application of the “dry” laws, another “first” for Henry seems possible.  

A year later, in April 1892, Gillett died.  He was 60 years old.  The cause given at the time was “dropsy,” the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water, often a sign of congestive heart failure.  He was interred at Mount Muncie Cemetery in Leavenworth County, shown here, a burial grounds for which he once had served as a director. 

During his lifetime, Gillett was credited with at least two whiskey “firsts” in Kansas — rectifying and court appearance.
Was he also the first to go to jail because of liquor?   I would rather remember Gillett as he was characterized in a Leavenworth newspaper article: “…He is one of our most popular and estimable citizens.”

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