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.