Tuesday, August 22, 2017

How James Hanley Landed in Rhode Island's “Hall of Fame”

Brought to America as a toddler aboard an Irish famine ship, by dint of personal exertion, not family name or inherited wealth, James Hanley in 2007 was judged worthy of inclusion in the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.  Beginning in the liquor trade, expanding to brewing and other enterprises, Hanley carved out a brilliant career as an entrepreneur and horseman — including owning the fastest thoroughbred pacer in America, one he allegedly fed whiskey to induce speed.

James was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, to Patrick and Brigid (Farnell) Hanley on September 7, 1841.  When he was five years old, at the peak of the Great Famine, the family, including his two brothers, took a ship across the Atlantic, settling in Providence, Rhode Island. While his father worked as a laborer, Hanley grew up, according to testimony, knowing “the hardships of toil and little of the school, but he had the gift of clear thinking and an ambition to know….”

At the beginning of the Civil War, at age 20, Hanley took his first step into commerce.  Transforming the family home at 131 Main Street into a saloon and retail store, he imported and sold a variety of whiskeys, other liquors, foreign and domestic wines, ales obtained from New York and Philadelphia, and cigars.  He employed a brother, Thomas, as a clerk.  A crudely made ceramic whiskey jug shown here has that address impressed in the clay.

The following year, on May 9, James married Martha Josephine Cummings, born in Rhode Island of English immigrant parents.  He was 21, she was 20.  The couple would go on to have nine children, including two sons, Walter and George, who would join their father’s enterprises as they matured.  With his increasing prosperity, Hanley commissioned the construction of a large Victorian style home for his family in Providence. The house, shown here, still stands at 159 Prospect Avenue. 

In 1866, outgrowing the 131 Main Street location, Hanley relocated his business to 139 North Main, where he sold a variety of bourbon, rye and wheat whiskeys, as well as wines and liquors.  As the Providence agent, he also offered Burton’s India Pale and XXX Ales.  With the steady growth of business, Hanley moved to open several locations in town, eventually having the space to advertise sales of ale in “hogsheads, barrels, and half hogsheads”  and gravitate to wholesaling.  While continuing to assist James, his brother Thomas opened his own liquor store.

In 1870 the Hanley brothers created a formal partnership and with it a new company they called James Hanley & Bro, locating it at 341 High Street. They eventually moved to 32 Exchange Place, an address that later became 50 Exchange Place. In 1883, Thomas died and James erased the “& Bro.” from the firm name.  A Hanley cobalt labeled jug from that period 

Two years later, obviously seeing the need for a partner in his liquor house, Hanley took F. P. Hoye as a partner.  Of Irish heritage like James, Hoye earlier had been with the wholesale liquor house of Green & Company.  Hanley, Hoye & Co. vigorously advertised their ability to provide all of the most popular brands of Eastern ryes and Kentucky bourbon whiskeys. The partners featured Woodford Club Pure Rye as their flagship label, trademarking the whiskey in 1900 and featuring it on a pocket mirror.

In the meantime Hanley was building his reputation in Providence.  One memorial put it this way:  “…As he grew in years, knowledge of men and things and books came, and with it broadness of character and a business ability of wide and successful range.”   This range became evident in 1876 when, with a fellow Irishman named James P. Cooney, a local liquor dealer, Hanley began a career in making beer.  Fast friends, the two James agreed to branch out from wholesaling whiskey and enter the brewing trade.   They found a existing property in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island called the Merchants Brewing Company.  It became the Cooney & Hanley Brewery.
Three years later at the early age of 41, Cooney unexpectedly died.  Ownership of the brewery, one that eventually was relocated to Providence, became Hanley’s alone.

Extant are a number of artifacts for James Hanley & Co.  Among them is a serving tray advertising his “Peerless Ale” as “The Best Yet” and an early automobile as a 1901 calendar.   I am particularly fond of a saloon sign that advertises Hanley’s India Pale and Cream Ales.  It shows a frog on a lily pad lifting a glass of beer to a bulldog on the shore.  

Hanley seems to have had a natural affinity for making beer.  With two partners in May 1883 he also incorporated the Rhode Island Brewing Co. with initial capital stock of $500,000.  He served as its president and treasurer.  He also was identified with the Providence Brewing. Company.

Hanley, like many Irish, was passionate about horse racing and was nationally known as the owner and trainer of successful thoroughbreds.  One of them, a pacer named Prince Alert, held the world record for running the half mile in 1.57 minutes.   He issued a paperweight with a photo of the horse to mark the occasion.  

Not everyone was as impressed as Hanley.  While calling Prince Alert “a handsome bay gelding of more than ordinary interest,” a Chicago Tribune racing scribe went on to describe the pacer as a “hop horse,” one that did his best when he was under the influence of stimulants.  “…Horsemen are well aware that some of his best miles…have been paced with a jorum of coffee and whiskey taken just before the start.”  In those days apparently it was legal to administer that kind of toddy.

Horses also became the symbols for Hanley’s beer.  Before the Budweiser Clydesdales were even a thought for August Busch, Hanley had developed prize teams of horses.  His most famous team was “the Big Nine,” shown here on a postcard, a synchronized team of three by three by three roan Belgian horses, ranging in height from 17 to 19 hands.  The entire team weighed in at over ten tons and pulled a Hanley beer wagon.

But the Irishman’s reputation was built on more than liquor and beer.  Credited with “a business ability of a wide and successful range,” he also was a successful investor in real estate and other Rhode Island enterprises:  “…Although frequently importuned to accept positions in financial institutions, persistently refused until he became a member of the reorganization committee of the Union Trust Company, and later when that company sold to the National Exchange Bank, he became a director in the latter institution.”  

Hanley also became known for his generous treatment of his employees.  In 1907 when his brewery employed some 90 workers, state inspectors rated conditions in his factory highly.  He also became known as a benefactor of numerous charitable causes, including those connected with Irish-American welfare and the Catholic faith to which he adhered.

On August 22, 1912,  at the age of 71,  James Hanley died unexpectedly.  He had been a hands-on manager of his liquor and beer interests until the end.  With his children,grandchildren, other relatives, friends and business associates gathered by his graveside, Hanley was laid to rest at St. Francis Cemetery in Pawtucket.  His family erected a large granite plinth to his memory and that of his wife, Martha, who had passed two years earlier.  According to business directories, the breweries and wholesale liquor house were carried forward into the 1920s by sons Walter and George Hanley.

During his 66 years in Providence, Hanley had risen from poverty to prominence in Rhode Island and done it as the state’s leading purveyor of spiritous beverages.  Said one memorial:  “The secret of his success was a combination of industry, clear business judgment and fairness toward those with whom he dealt.”  Those qualities, blended with the wealth from alcohol, ultimately earned James Hanley a place in the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

Note:  Unless otherwise indicated, the direct quotes here are from a memorial tribute to James Hanley adopted by the Irish American Historical Society on the occasion of his August 1912 death.

Additional Note:  Below in comments, Greg takes me to task for having quoted his material and used images in this article without asking permission or giving credit to him.  After researching his concerns, I find that he is indeed correct that in this instance I failed on both counts and for that I profoundly apologize to him and his father.  Such definitely is not my practice and I am at a loss to explain how it happen in this instance. But that is not an excuse. The material and images in question came from a book by Edward J. and Gregory Theberge entitled "The History of the Brewing Industry in Rhode Island," a truly impressive volume -- well written and elegant typographically. It is available online at: https://www.scribd.com/document/196011962/Rhode-Island-Brewery-History


  1. I find it very disturbing that you did not credit any of your information and took and used photographs directly off my internet document without asking for my consent. A good majority of the photographs you use are mine, as is most of the research. You could have asked to use them, and if you didn't you certainly should have credited the source you took them from. BAD FORM.

    1. GST: I am completely unaware of having used your research and illustrations on the Hanley article. I crafted that article from a variety of sources. If you will direct to me to the material you allege I plagiarized, I will look at it and apologize to you and publicly should it be necessary.

    2. Jack, here is the document I have had online for at least 5 or 6 years now. I update it when new information comes in. Scrolling down to the section of the brewery at the corner of Jackson and Fountain street, and going into the portion of Jas. Hanley you can see a pretty exact similarity of paragagraphs to your blog. Some words and sentences have been changed here and there but it is basically the same format. Also note that most of the photographs you show are taken directly off this document!!!! About 80% of the pieces you show in your blog belong to my father and I. I had changed the photo of the Hanley stoneware jug that you show to a better one when we obtained the jug pictured with it now, but the one that you show was originally the one there. That's my front porch with the gray clapboards and brick patio in the photo you show of the jug and the little jug first shown is our's that I took in one of our mulch beds!!! You even have the same background wallpaper on some of the photos you present!!! I find it incredibly hard to believe that you got everything in your blog post, other than the small section you have on the horses, from sources other than this document of mine. If you did, I would be curious to know where you got them from. Needless to say, I was pretty amazed to run into your blog post. Look, I'm not trying to make a huge deal out of this, but you need to quote your sources. I would have been perfectly fine with seeing this if gave reference to the original work and the owner of the items you show. It's only fitting and proper Greg


    3. Greg: Thank you for your detailed reply. If I use great deal of material from another online source I always ask permission. In this case I may have failed. In the next day or so I will be comparing your evidence against my text and photos. Assuming that you are correct, I will amend my post with a new and separate note at the end, apologizing and giving you due credit.

    4. Jack, have you had a moment to read my online document? It shouldn't take more than 30 seconds to recognize the photographs and more than a few minutes to read the dialogue. Thank you.

  2. Greg: I did, recognize that you deserve acknowledgement, have apologized, and hope that puts the matter to rest.

  3. This is an excellent article, and much appreciation to all of you for bringing it together. As the direct decendant of James, I am so pleased to share it with my two sons..and please do reach out if you would like to discuss or share stories / knowledge. I am assembling a family history for the boys and this is exceptional. All the best, James Hanley

  4. Unknown: While I most appreciate your kind comments about my article on James Hanley, what you see in the article is pretty much the extent of my knowledge. Greg Theberge, referenced above, may be a better source and you may want to be in touch with him. By the way, your ancestor Hanley was a outstanding personage. Congratulations.