Saturday, April 15, 2017

G. B. Bingham: Destroyed with the Whiskey Ring

   
In 1872 Gordon Byron Bingham of Patoka, Indiana, patented an upright tank for holding liquor that he claimed was aimed at preventing “fraud on the revenue.”  Just three years later, as a distiller, Bingham, shown right, was implicated and convicted as a participant in the “Whiskey Ring,” whose sole purpose was to defraud the revenue.  As a result, Bingham ruined himself and the town of Patoka was thrown “on the downgrade of the stream of time….”

It may have been love that brought Bingham to Indiana.  He was born in Baltimore in 1826 to Candace (Jeauld) and Gordon Bingham, a well-to-do Maryland businessman. At an early age his family moved to Indiana, where he was educated.  At the age of 23 in 1849, with friends, he joined the California gold rush without notable success and returned to Indiana, settling in Pakota.

There he established a trading store that proved successful enough for him to wed.   In 1858 Byron, as he was called, married an Indiana woman from Gibson County named Minerva Stockwell.   Eight years younger than her husband and 21 when they wed, she was from a prominent local family.  

Soon after their nuptials, Bingham engaged in a number of commercial ventures in Patoka and nearby Evansville.  These included a general store, flour mill, packing house and, most significant, a distillery, one he called "The Little Gray Eagle." In the 1870 census, Bingham’s occupation was given as “distiller and miller.”  His net worth was given at $77,000, the equivalent of almost $2 million today.  Observed one resident about Patoka:  “Whiskey has ever been one of the staples of this town.”

According to business directories, Bingham appears to have had two major liquor interests:  G. B. Bingham & Co., advertised as “Distillers, Rectifiers and Wholesale Dealers in Domestic Liquors,” and “Bingham Bros. Distillers.” The latter encompassed a distillery he built in nearby Evansville, known as Cresent City Distillery.   In both companies Gordon’s younger brother, John, was listed as a partner.  The two also owned a distillery in St. Louis, located at 1313 Papin Street.


Now with a wife and family, Bingham built them a home in Pakota, shown above.  One writer described it in lavish terms as:  "A fine house, embossed amidst a fine estate....Graceful scrubbery and evergreens embower the house and indeed it was a picture of Arcadian peace and beauty."

Having a mind for invention, Bingham in February 1872 patented a metal tank for holding which that, he claimed, would "prevent fraud on the revenue."  Shown here his "high wine cistern" was aimed at preventing the fraudulent removal of spirits that otherwise could go undetected by the U.S. revenue gauger.  Bingham's invention, he said, provided federal officers with "...an easy means of determining at all times, the exact proof and quantity of the spirits within the tank."

Ironically, it was was not long after obtaining his patent that Bingham and his brother became entangled in the massive fraud against the U.S. government’s collection of taxes on spirits that became known as “The Whiskey Ring.”  By massive payoffs to top revenue officials and the “watchdog” gaugers,  distillers and “rectifiers” (whiskey blenders) in the Ring were able to get away with paying only a fraction of the taxes they owed.  

When the sudden drop in liquor revenues caught the attention of Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow, shown left, he created a secret investigatory task force that gather extensive evidence of the conspiracy within his own department.  In May 1875 he signed the order to roll up the Whiskey Ring.  Hundreds of distillers, rectifiers, wholesale dealers and internal revenue officials, including gaugers, were arrested.  Although the chief Ring centers were St. Louis and Chicago, as one observer put it:  “Fraudulent packages [were] seized in every important city from Boston to Galveston and from points in Central Texas to Milwaukee….”  Patoka, Indiana, was among them. 

Indictments were handed down in both Indiana and Missouri against Gordon Bingham and his brother;  they were among the first to be hauled into court.  Federal Judge Walter Q. Gresham,  presided over their trial in Evansville.   Although public opinion nationally was squarely behind Bristow and the raids, the local press sided with the defendants.  The Evansville Courier complained that the judge had allowed no loophole for the Binghams to escape the charge that they had run their distillery at Patoka without a federally required storekeeper.  Although conviction carried only a $1,000 fine, a verdict of guilty would be a significant blow to the Ring.  Accordingly the Binghams brought in top legal talent to fight the case.

During the raid, Bristow’s men had seized the Binghams' distillery, stocks of whiskey and other tangible property.  The defendants' first move was to demand their return as illegally confiscated.  The District Attorney prosecuting the case respond by obtaining an order from Judge Gresham, shown right, to open the Patoka distillery safe.  When it was found empty, the court ordered the brothers to produce their books and journals.  Those were found to be so incomplete as to be useless — a further federal violation.  The Binghams were in danger of being imprisoned for contempt of court.

At this point the brothers caved in.  They withdrew their claim to their distillery and the whiskey, and pled guilty to all government charges.  More important Gordon became the first and chief witness for the government against other Ring participants.  Under custody he was taken to Indianapolis where he testified that at the St. George Hotel in Evansville, he had given bribes totaling $1,000 to a close associate of Gen. James C. Veatch, the local collector of internal revenue shown here. Despite Bingham’s revelation, the intermediary was acquitted and Byron was allowed to return home to await sentencing, likely vilified by former Whiskey Ring associates.

In Patoka, however, Bingham got a hero’s welcome at the railroad depot, shown here. Townspeople, according to press reports, fired cannons, lit bonfires and made welcoming speeches in his honor.  An alcohol-fueled party ensued.  The Indianapolis News of November 22 was caustic in its reaction, calling Bingham “Earl of Patoka and Grand Chamberlain of the Illustrious Still Worm” and hectored “his feudal dependents” for publicly respecting a man who had committed “…the meanest, most rascally and most mischievous swindling ever practiced in this State.”

That was not how the townsfolk saw him, according to his obituary in the Evansville Journal:  "In Patoka his name was mentioned with love and respect. Every street teems with evidences of his enterprise and public spirit. Hundreds of stores and dwellings were built by him, and the present owners of them got them on easy terms. With all of them he had business transactions, and yet they loved him."

Disgraced, headed for jail, and seemingly beset on all sides,  Bingham within a matter of days was dead, passing on January 10, 1876, at the age of 49.  His obituary suggested that, faced with the prospect of the penitentiary, he developed "a form of mania" that rapidly undermined his health. He was found in bed and unresponsive by his wife, who summoned doctors.  They diagnosed "apoplexy," i.e. a heart attack, and tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him.  At six that evening Gordon Byron Bingham died.  He was buried in Patoka Cemetery, his gravestone shown here. 

Bingham's obituary in the Evansville newspaper, while minimizing his guilt in the Whiskey Ring, opined that "...The death that ensued was probably...the kindest ending of his troubles that could come to him."  On a more cynical note, the Indianapolis News commented:  “The death of Gordon Byron Bingham will not be bad news for the Whiskey Ring.”  No longer would he be available to testify against other Ring members.

The effects of Bingham’s fall would continue to be felt.  He left behind a widow, Minerva, with five youngsters, the oldest fifteen, the youngest nine.  In addition, the government sued the family for $30,000, representing the amount believed to have been fraudulently withheld.  Others residents of Patoka subsequently were reported disgraced and bankrupted over the scandal although few if any went to jail.  

With its distilleries gone, Patoka — an Indian name meaning “log on the bottom” — went into serious decline.  In the early 1880s the following was written about the town:  “Distilleries first made her prosperous, then crooked whiskey sheared her golden locks, nipped her pristine vigor, made her prematurely gray and hurled her on the downgrade of the stream of time from which she is not likely soon to recover….

Today Patoka has a population under 800.  The per capita income for the town in 2010 was $16,000.  About 11 percent of the population live below the poverty line.  Above is a contemporary picture of the town's main street.  Few residents, if any, are likely recall the name Gordon Byron Bingham, the factiously dubbed “Earl of Patoka,” as the man who once was responsible for the town’s prosperity — and then helped destroy it.

Note:  A 1919 biography of Judge Gresham by his wife Matilda, entitled “The Life of Walter Quintan Gresham, provided the blow-by-blow description of the trial of the Binghams in Evansville.  Another useful resource was a “History of Gibson County” by Gil Stormont, 1914.

Addendum:  Following the initial posting of this vignette, a descendant, Amy Bingham, was in touch with me and offered to provide photos and an obituary.  The pictures here of both Bingham and the Patoka home are the result.  The obituary  was helpful in filling in several blanks in the earlier piece, particularly the cause of death.  I am very grateful to Ms. Bingham for her help.

















2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this write up on G.B. Bingham!! He is my 2nd great grandfather! We are always Googling Bingham Bros to see what will turn up....and the patent on the metal tank is new to us! Awesome!!! We do have a copy of his obituary that reads like a novel! We have seen several things about their businesses in Evansville business directories and have found a name of their most popular brand of whiskey listed as "Good Bye John"!
    My parents still live in a house that is now the third one on the same property that Gordon would have originally built just down the road from where the distillery was located. There is even a beam in the old barn with the stamp from "G.B. Bingham Distillers, Ind. Dist. 1". A couple of years ago we finally opened an old safe that we secretly hoped would have papers from the distillery in it! No such luck, but it did contain the purchase agreement of Gordon and Minerva to buy the distillery property from another man! And many other papers (a few dated in the 1850's) we have yet to sift thru!
    We believe they were involved in several business ventures, one of them also being wharf boats in Evansville. Which may have taken brother John to New Orleans to start up a distillery with another man. John eventually married that man's daughter Victoria.
    So many fun things to still stumble across I'm sure! The cherry on top would be a whiskey bottle!
    If you would be interested in any info we may have or if you come across anything else...please feel free to email me at amebing@yahoo.com

    Again, thank you!!!
    Amy Bingham

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  2. Dear Ms. Bingham: Thank to you for your kind comments about my vignette on G B Bingham. He was an interesting individual who may have been forced by economic circumstances into joining the Whiskey Ring. Certainly he suffered much from having done so. I would be interested information you may have and will email shortly. Thanks.

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