Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Was Boston’s Reuben Ring a Bad Actor?

Born into a well-known family of actors, Reuben Ring chose to sell whiskey for a living rather than perform on a stage.  Perhaps he had talent but lacked the necessary passion for the limelight. On the other hand, there were government authorities from Maine to Minnesota who strongly might contend that Ring’s business practices proved that he was, in truth, a bad actor.

Born in Boston in 1840 Ring sprang from a long line of ancestors famed in the British Isles as Shakespearean players.  His great grandfather, Charles Fisher, shown here playing Falstaff, came to the United States before the Civil War and journeyed with theatrical caravans as far west as the Mississippi River.  Fisher was married to Josephine Bowen, a noted American actress.  When he died in 1911 the New York Times headlines read: DEATH OF CHARLES FISHER; HIS RECORD IS A LONG CHAPTER IN OUR STAGE HISTORY. HE DIED IN THIS CITY YESTERDAY IN THE SEVENTY-FIFTH YEAR OF HIS AGE -- HIS HONORABLE THEATRICAL CAREER -- PARTS HE PLAYED.

Reuben’s father was James H. Ring.  While not boasting so distinguished a career as Fisher, his mother’s father, James H. was a well-known comedian and actor who played for years with the Boston Museum acting company, so called because its performances were held in the first quarters, later abandoned, of the Boston Museum.  Shown above is a photo of a performance.  As the troupe’s leading comedian that may be James at far left.
The acting “bug” apparently never bit Reuben.  Although, as we shall see, the tradition carried on with later generations, this Ring sought other career paths.  When he registered for the Civil War draft in 1863, he gave his occupation as “clerk.” The 1870 census found him still living at home with his parents, a 30-year-old bachelor.  His occupation then was given as “gas pipe salesman.”  

At some subsequent point Ring went to work for a liquor firm that had been established on Elm Street in Boston before the Civil War.  The founder was Seth E. Pecker who featured a brand he called “Custom House Gin,”  a reference to the Boston landmark.  He is remembered for having sold his liquor in cobalt decorated jugs that today fetch fancy prices.  One is shown here.

By 1862 Pecker had moved to larger quarters at 39 and 41 Commercial Street.  There he hired as a manager, Frank O. Dame, turning the liquor house over to him by 1869.  Dame changed the business name to his own.  While staying at the Commercial Street address, he continued to sell Custom House Gin, and added proprietary whiskey brands “Club Old Bourbon”  and “Club A.A.” bourbon and rye.  

At some point, Dame hired Reuben Ring who by 1890 was spokesman for the firm.  Ring was quoted in Bonfort’s, a whiskey trade paper, commenting on the year just past at Dame’s liquor store and saying: “…In some respects it was the best year the house ever had.”  This prosperity was reflected in the larger Boston economic scene, the city shown here as it looked in 1890.  By now almost 50 years old and still a bachelor, Reuben married in 1891.  His bride was Annie C., a woman about his age who had a married son, Harry Delano.  The 1900 census found the Delanos living with the Rings.
By 1896, Frank Dame had exited the scene and Ring became the sole proprietor of the Commercial Street liquor house.  Reuben Ring and Co. continued to feature the two proprietary brands, as indicated by illustrations from the company letterhead. He also was pursuing aggressive business methods that were not always appreciated by local authorities.  Maine officially had gone “dry”  not long after the Civil War but individuals could order booze from out of state for personal consumption, but re-sale was illegal.  Despite that, many liquor retailers continued to operate there “sub rosa”.
In 1906 Reuben Ring & Company sent a shipment of liquor to Lewiston, Maine, via the Boston & Maine Railroad, the principal carrier of alcohol from New England suppliers into Maine.  The consignee was one “John Cram,” a fictitious name designed to trick authorities as to its true destination.  Somehow the train car in which the whiskey sat was moved from track to track, making retrieval difficult for the mysterious “Mr. Cram.”  After a little more than an hour had passed, local authorities, who had been tipped off, moved in and confiscated the liquor.  In a case entitled “State v. Intoxicating Liquors,”  the Supreme Court of Maine subsequently ruled that the seizure was illegal and returned the shipment to Ring.  Despite the railing of Maine newspapers against “Boston rum-sellers,”  Ring continued sending booze into the state.

The following year a physician and political figure named George L. Crocket wrote a lightly fictionalized account of what he intended to be an expose of the way liquor was dealt in Maine.  One character was called “Windy Bill,”  described as a teetotaler and Democratic Party operative.  While having a role in liquor enforcement,  Windy Bill “all this time has been the soliciting agent for one of the wealthiest and largest liquor firms in Boston."  Crocket subsequently identified the firm as Reuben Ring & Company.

The Windy Bill character has deals with many illicit local liquor dealers and puts all his orders through to Ring.  Custom House Gin sold for $3.25 a gallon, Club AA for $3.50, and Club Old Bourbon for $3.50.   One character remarks that in Maine a gallon of any of that hard stuff would cost six dollars.  Bill hints that the differential is a political payoff and he is in on the boodle.  Although nothing is said about Ring getting kickbacks, the Maine monopoly obviously was lucrative enough.  

Although Minnesota was a markedly “wet” state, Ring managed to trigger an investigation there.  In 1908 the Hennepin County Attorney cross-examined officials of a local firm called Twin Cities Express Company, suspecting that it had been used as a conduit for the Boston dealer’s liquor without paying the required taxes.  As revealed in an interrogation of an employee, the express company owed a big debt to Ring.   Moreover, an agent of Ring’s named Reed had been inserted as treasurer of the firm and handled all the cash.  The County Attorney asked:  “What did your business with Ruben Ring Co. amount to?”  The reply:  “About $200 every two weeks.”  That would be equivalent today to $5,000.  It is not clear that any charges resulted from this investigation.

Was Reuben Ring a bad actor?  Lewiston enforcement officials would say so. Dr. Crockett would likely agree, as might the Minnesota county attorney.  The Boston dealer’s aggressive methods of selling his whiskey seems to have crossed the boundary of propriety in several places and at several times.  Yet in his home town, others would have demurred. In 1908, while still under investigation in Minneapolis, Reuben was appointed a Boston justice of the peace.  Earlier he had been made a director of the Fourth National Bank, a financial institution boasting $7,000,000 in deposits.

Although the Ring stage tradition seems to have skipped Reuben, his younger brother James produced a new generation of performers.  The most famous was a daughter, Blanche Ring.  Shown here, she was a singer and actress on Broadway and in Hollywood movies, active from 1887 until 1945.  She is remember for introducing such popular songs as “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,”  “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers,” and “Yip-I-Addy-I-Aye.”  

Blanche’s brother, Cyril Ring, had a career as an actor from 1921 to 1951.  By the time of his final appearance he had appeared in more than 350 films.  His most famous role was as a foil for the Marx brothers in their 1929 “Coconuts.” He is shown here in a still from that film with Harpo Marx.  Cyril also was the first husband of actress Charlotte Greenwood.

Two other nieces of Reuben Ring had theater ties.  Julie Ring, right, became a stage actress and married a British actor named Al Sutherland.  Their son, A. Edward Sutherland played in 37 films early in his career, beginning as a Keystone Cop in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), that starred Charles Chaplin.  He later turned to directing. The other niece, Frances Ring, married a popular stage and silent screen star named Thomas Meighan.  Thus was the Ring family thespian tradition carried on. 

As for Reuben Ring, the 1920 census found him living on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, a widower, with the stepson and his wife.  At 80 years old he was still listing his occupation as “liquor, wholesale.”  With National Prohibition now a fact, this was a last gasp for his enterprise.  His company and his brands disappeared forever.  But Ring, true to his nature as a “bad actor” clearly had never thrown in the towel to the “drys.”

Note:  So far I have been unable to find the time and place of Reuben Ring’s death and interment.  My hope is that some alert relative will see this post and provide me with that information.  A picture of  Reuben and a bottle of his whiskey with label or embossing would also be a welcome addition to this vignette.

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