Friday, March 10, 2017

Louis Sambucetti Blended Whiskey and Memphis Politics

Working as a youthful bartender in his mother’s working class saloon, Louis Sambucetti may have fantasized about becoming a wealthy and important figure in Memphis, Tennessee.  He would find that path to fortune and recognition in the liquor trade and by cultivating powerful political friends.

Louis’ parents were John and Mary (Maria) Dasso Sambucetti, immigrants from Italy who came to the United States as a young married couple in the late 1840s.  Louis was born in Louisiana in 1850.  By the time of the Civil War, the family had moved to St. Louis where Mary, the Sambucetti entrepreneur, reputedly became wealthy by selling food to soldiers, possible as a sutler going from encampment  to encampment.  After the war her earnings apparently made it possible for the Sambucettis to move to Memphis where she opened a saloon in a working class neighborhood.

The 1870 census found the family living in the Greenlaw Section, the most ethnically and racially mixed area of the city.  Mary was listed as a saloon keeper with a net worth equivalent to $125,000.  Her husband had no occupation.  Louis, an only son and twenty years old, was working as a “bar keeper,” almost certainly for his mother.  By the 1880 census, John had died and Mary had retired to keep the household.  At 29 Louis was still living in her house and running the saloon.  

In 1877 he had married, his bride 18-year-old Amelia, the Tennessee-born daughter of John and Ann Grace Lagorio.  The first of their four children, Angelina, was recorded by the 1880 census, only seven months old.  Lorena would be born in 1883,  Joseph in 1885 and Mary in 1887.

Perhaps impelled by the needs of his growing family, sometime during these years Sambucetti shifted from selling whiskey over the bar to becoming a wholesaler.  By about 1900, he had founded a liquor house at 233 Main Street in Memphis, taking the somewhat younger Frederick Bianchi as his partner.  Two jugs shown above advertised the firm of Sambucetti & Bianchi.  The partnership appears to have been short-lived with Bianchi departing by about 1904.
This same decade was to see Sambucetti’s fast ascendancy in Memphis. He had become strong friends in Greenlaw with John T. Walsh and his brother Anthony.  After building their fortunes as owners of a large Memphis grocery and as cotton brokers, the brothers had opened a bank that became the financial center for North Memphis.  At the same time, John T. had become a powerful political figure, one known for being able to deliver the Irish vote.  Seeing Sambucetti as a leader of a growing Italian population,  the Walshes brought him into their fold.

In 1906, when James H. Malone was elected mayor and John Walsh vice mayor and Fire and Police Commissioner,  Sambucetti was selected to serve as one of several Supervisors of Public Works for Memphis.  Serving in the same capacity was E. H. Crump, whose rise would be meteoric.  In Malone’s second term in 1908, Louis had the same position, but Crump, shown right,  had been raised to Fire and Police Commissioner.  In 1911, Crump obtained a state law to establish a small commission to manage Memphis, a government he dominated as “Boss” Crump for the next fifty years.

Sambucetti never held public office again.  Initially his allies the Walsh brothers sided with Mayor Malone against Crump likely dooming any chances Louis might have had to stay in office.  Seeing the machine politician’s hold on the city, John T. eventually capitulated and threw in with him.  Considered a machine politician by some and a reformer by others, Walsh supported the Crump organization thereafter.  Louis stuck to business.

Now called Sambucetti & Company, the firm was expanding its reach throughout Tennessee and into Mississippi.  Although the latter had banned statewide sales of alcohol in 1908, it was still possible to order liquor for delivery from other states.  This mail order trade proved lucrative.  As a “rectifier,” that is, someone blending whiskeys to achieve a desired taste, color, body and alcoholic content, he featured a number of propriety labels.  

Sanbucetti's brands included "Ehleton", "Ellendale", "Golden Oak,” "Lincoln Springs,” "Pride of Tennessee,” “Samanco,” ”Stillmore,” "Wee Nippy,” and "Yazoo Special.”  Of these he only saw fit to trademark Stillmore in 1908.  As seen above, for customers like saloons he packaged his whiskey in ceramic jugs.  He also used glass bottles in both flask and quart sizes, as shown here.

Sambucetti was also engaged in building projects.  In 1906 he received a permit to build a two story retail and office building at the northeast corner of Grand and Lindell Streets.  At the same time he was overseeing the final touches of a new mansion home for Amelia and their children at 700 North Seventh Street, still located in the Greenlaw Section where he gotten his start. Shown below, it was a brick and stone house that subsequently became a convent.

At the same time this Italian-American liquor dealer was not neglecting larger community activities.  In 1906 he was chosen as the chair of the Wines and Liquor Trade Committee of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.  During the same period he was active as an incorporator of an interurban electric street railway between Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi, a distance of about 76 miles and linking towns in between.  Although routes were laid out and stock sold to the public, no evidence exists that the line actually was built.  In 1912 a stockholder and creditor sued, claiming that the company was bankrupt. Perhaps the cause was a surfeit of trolleys, as indicated by the postcard below.

As proof of his continued leadership role among the Italian population of Memphis, Sambucetti was chosen, along with P. M. Canale, another whiskey man [see my post November 2011] to head an committee to design and erect a statue of Christopher Columbus in a local park.  A local paper noted that: “In the mercantile, professional and financial life of Memphis the Italian citizen has been prominent for a good many years.” It predicted that the monument would be unveiled the following Columbus Day.  Shown here, a Columbus statue does stand in Memphis.  It was erected, however, only many years later.

As Louis aged, he brought his son, Joseph, into the business, teaching him the wholesale liquor trade from the bottom up.  After a stint as a bookkeeper for the firm, the young man became part of management by 1912, serving as the company secretary and treasurer.  Meanwhile, the forces of Prohibition were growing stronger and stronger in Tennessee.  Increasingly towns and counties were voting “dry” under local option laws.  In 1913, the U.S. Congress effectively shut off mail order sales across state borders and business in Mississippi ended.

The last directory entry for Sambucetti & Company, re-located at 86-88 North Front Street, was in 1915.   Louis, now 65 years old, retired to his Seventh Street home.  Joseph subsequently established a wholesale and retail cigar and tobacco business he called J. L. Sambucetti & Company.  His wholesale store was at 79 Jefferson with retail outlets at the Claridge Hotel and the Exchange Building.

Sambucetti lived another 24 years, seeing National Prohibition imposed in 1920 and repealed in 1934.  He died in March 1939 at the age of 89 and was buried in the Catholic Calvary Cemetery near Memphis.  Wife Amelia had preceded him there six months earlier.  Shown here is his gravestone.  

When the Greenlaw Addition was proposed as an historic district, Louis Sambucetti was singled out in National Park Service documents as one of several “important residents.”  By dint of selling whiskey — and friendships — this Italian-American in his time had reached the top rungs of the Memphis business and political community. 


  1. My mother is the great grand daughter of Louis Sambucetti and grew up in Memphis. Our family toured the Sambucetti convent a couple a years ago... Still amazing. We researched him but you have some info we were not aware of. I will be passing this along. Thanks for your research and your well written biography. Elaine W.

  2. Unknown: Delighted to hear from you. Louis is one of my favorite whiskey men for his intelligence and leadership skills. Someday when I go to Memphis I will try to see his (now convent) home.