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 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. In 1858 Gordon II 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 moved to Indiana and apparently with family money, 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. 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.” 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.
Having a mind for invention, Bingham in February 1872 patented a metal tank for holding whiskey that, he said, would “prevent fraud on the revenue.” Shown here, his tank or “high wine cistern” was aimed at preventing a fraudulent removal of spirits that otherwise could go undetected by the U.S. revenue gauger. Bingham’s invention, he claimed, provided the 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 Gordon allowed to return home, 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.”
Disgraced and seemingly beset on all sides, Bingham within a matter of days was dead, passing on January 10, 1876, at the age of 49. He was buried in Patoka Cemetery, his gravestone shown here. Was his death the result of natural causes brought on by the stress of his legal problems? Did he die by his own hand? Is there another reason for his untimely demise? I can find no death certificate or obituary. The Indianapolis News commented the following day that: “The death of Gordon Byron Bingham will not be bad news for the Whiskey Ring.” No longer would he 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.