Foreword: It is likely that the world would never have heard of Joseph J. Mersman if Dr. Linda A. Fisher, a public health physician, had not been doing research for a lecture on the 1849 St. Louis cholera epidemic and came across Mersman’s diary account in the Missouri Historical Society where it had laid “undiscovered” for years. She found the whiskey merchant’s story intriguing and eventually edited it with annotations and put it into book form, published in 2007 by the Ohio University Press. As a result, the day to day activities and thoughts of the German-born St. Louis rectifier and liquor house owner have enjoyed a wider audience.
In July 1824 Joseph, shown right, was born in Borringhausen, a small town in the German Duchy of Oldenburg, the son of Friedrich and Catharina Maria (Polhschneider) Messmann. When he was eight an older sister and brother emigrated to the United States. The next year his mother died and Friedrich packed up Joseph and three other children and sailed from Bremen to Baltimore. They settled in a German settlement in Northwestern Ohio today called Minster. What little education Mersman received in the U.S. he achieved there, but by by the age of 13 had his first job, working as a water boy on the Miami and Ohio Canal.
About that time the family had moved to a much larger Germanic town, Cincinnati. There Joseph at age 15 was introduced to the liquor trade, working as an apprentice with Edmund Dexter, a wholesaler who taught him how to rectify whiskey and other elements of the business. Dexter is shown left. [See my post on Dexter, November 2015.] About this time the family began using “Mersman” as their surname.
In November 1847 when he was about 23 years old Joseph Mersman began his diary, documenting his work in the whiskey house and other aspects of his daily life. Shown below is a sample of his handwriting and a transcription. He often described the day to day fluctuations in the amount of Dexter’s liquor trade. On November 19th, for example, Mersman noted that while business was slow in the store he had “plenty to do” because Dexter was conducting a vigorous mail order business and shipping extensively. Several weeks later he reported: “Business very good, our Commercial transactions cannot but prove to be very satisfactory to Mr. Dexter.”
In January 1849 Mersman completed his apprenticeship with Edmund Dexter. From his elder he had become practiced in keeping records, so important to keeping federal inspectors happy, as well as managing inventory, salesmanship, and supervising employees. So comfortable was Dexter with the young German immigrant that the owner had trusted him to run the business while he took a seven week vacation on the East Coast. Mersman knew full well the profits that could be made in the liquor trade..
Now free to strike out on his own, Mersman had saved his money for just such an opportunity. He soon moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and at 25 years of age established a whiskey and tobacco business with John C. Nulsen. Nulsen, shown right in middle age, was the younger brother of the partner of Mersman’s older brother in a Cincinnati tobacco firm. This suggests that family money may have helped the younger siblings get established as “Nulsen & Mersman Co.”
Mersman’s arrival in the Missouri city could hardly have come at a worse time. Shown above from a Mississippi levee view, St. Louis was racked with community-wide cholera outbreaks in 1849 and again in 1853. Rather than flee the city as many did, Joseph stayed and recorded the terrible effects of the epidemic. A map of downtown St. Louis locates Nulsen & Mersman (E) amidst landmarks and the cholera hospitals.
Despite these trials, the company did well. St. Louis boasted hundreds of saloons and other establishments selling alcohol that a wholesale house could supply. A continuing concern for Mersman was low water in the Mississippi River that made it difficult to receive shipments of whiskey. Believing that a substantial rain event had raised the river, he risked a major purchase: “…So I bot 146 Bbls whiskey 17 1/4 (cents). There cannot be a loss at this figure.” Assuming 40 gallons in each barrel, he spent about $6.90 per barrel or a total of $1,036. Shortly thereafter he became discouraged when the price of raw whiskey fell slightly. Given his ability to sell a quart bottle of rectified whiskey for as much as 80 cents, however, he likely still made money.
In 1850, Mersman found a wife in the person of Claudine Creuzbauer, a sister of John Nulsen’s wife. An immigrant from Baden, Germany, she was 21 when they married in 1851; Joseph was 26. Their first child, a boy they named Joseph, was born 13 months later. A touching photograph of mother and son is shown here. The couple would go on to have eight children. In his diary Mersman recorded his enjoyment of his growing family, noting that he was becoming “quite domesticated.” He ensconced his them in a large home on Chouteau Avenue, St. Louis, shown below.
In March 1855, Mersman abandoned his diary only to take it up again in 1862 after the outbreak of the Civil War. Despite Missouri being a hotbed of Confederate sentiment and conflict, Nulsen & Mersman thrived. Having signed loyalty oaths to the Union, the partners were able to obtain lucrative contracts with the Union Army to provide whiskey for the troops. In 1863, according to Dr. Fisher, each partner netted $20,000, the equivalent today of about a half million dollars. An 1863 ad touted three Nulsen and Mersman brands, “Copper Distilled” “Superior Double Rectified,” and “Celebrated Congress Whiskey.”
Merman’s sentiments lay with the North and for a time he served as quartermaster of a “home guard” unit stationed in St. Louis. The war years also brought sorrow. Joseph penned two entries in 1864 — one on the death in Cincinnati of his father, Friedrich, where he rued his inability to travel to the funeral, and a second just five months later when his sixth child, a boy, died shortly after birth. That was Mersman’s last diary entry.
As time had worn on, Mersman was moving away from the liquor trade and into other pursuits. In February 1864 with a group of other, mostly German, businessmen he helped form the Fourth National Bank of St. Louis, capitalized at $160,000 — equivalent to $4 million today. Indicating the place he had now achieved in the city’s business circles, Mersman was elected the first president of the bank. The next year he became a naturalized citizen.
Even as his long climb up the economic ladder was reaching the real prosperity, Mersman began to develop eye problems, possibly a secondary symptom of the syphilis he had contracted as a youth. He resigned from the presidency of the Fourth National Bank and gradually reduced his involvement in Nulsen & Mersman. In 1867 after 28 years in the liquor trade he and his partner dissolved their company. In 1868 and 1869, city directories have Peper, Rassfield & Co. at the same location running a wholesale liquor business. By 1872 Nulsen was back on the scene, initially with Rassfield, and after 1876 as a sole proprietor.
Meanwhile, Mersman was being characterized as a “capitalist,” that is, an investor in enterprises. A major investment was with Nulsen’s son-in-law who used the funds to expand his St. Louis-based grain businesses. As a result Joseph became a partner in the firm Orthwein & Mersman. He retired from that company in 1880. By that time, according to the federal census that year, Mersman eyesight had declined to the point that he was recorded as blind. He lived another 12 years, dying in St. Louis in March of 1892, of “paralysis.” Dr. Fisher believes it may have been another indication of advanced syphilis. Mersman was buried at the Hillcrest Abbey Crematory and Mausoleum in the columbarium shown above.
Dr. Fisher sees Mersman’s diary as “a record of a man transforming himself from an impoverished, unschooled newcomer into a successful, skilled merchant…a path many took in the mid-nineteenth century.” All that is true but seen from a slightly different perspective, his story also demonstrates how the liquor trade in particular hastened the economic and social rise of immigrants who understood — as Joseph Mersman clearly did — the riches to be made.
Note: Dr. Fisher’s 378-page book provides considerably more material than simply the Mersman diary entries. She has done an impressive amount of research designed to put this whiskey man into the perspective of his times and provides biographical detail and insights not found in the pages of the diary.
This post contains data and illustrations obtained from her book, shown right.