Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Murphys of Chillicothe — Sometimes Down But Never Out

Experiencing famine, fire, and premature deaths, the Murphys of Chillicothe, Ohio, often were beset by the kind of ill-fortune that might have doomed another family.   They stuck together to build a successful liquor house and reputations as local businessmen who had the confidence and esteem of their community.

The Murphy story began in Ireland during the depths of the “Great Hunger” — the Irish potato famine.  There Patrick and Mary (King) Murphy had married and begun a family that included three children, Frank, Mary and Lizzie.  With his family threatened with starvation, in 1846 Patrick determined to come to America to find employment.  Although many Irish immigrants crowded the cities of the Northeast,  Patrick had a half-brother, Martin O’Neil, who ran a grocery store in Chillicothe, Ohio.  A town of more than 6,000 located in southern Ohio along the Scioto River, Chillicothe had been the first state capitol.  As with other groceries, O’Neil’s sold liquor.

Patrick went to work with his kinsman, sending money back to Ireland to sustain Mary and their three children.  It took four years of toil, however, for him to accrue sufficient funds to arrange passage for his family to America.  Meanwhile Mary was left a single parent to care for her children during a time of national suffering.  Three more children — Kate, Thomas, and John — were born after the family’s 1850 arrival in Chillicothe.

The market run by O’Neil and Murphy on Water Street operated successfully until April 1, 1852 when a raging fire swept through the city.  The local news headline read:  “Terrific Conflagration!  Chillicothe in Ashes!”  Both homes and commercial buildings were destroyed and 2,000 people left homeless.  An artist’s version of the fire is shown above.  

Among the casualties was the Water Street grocery and all its stock, located in the area shown in black on the map here.  After this disaster, Patrick seems to have been disheartened about starting over as a grocer.  Afterward he worked at various jobs, most often as a common laborer.

His eldest son, Frank, sprang to the fore.  In his mid-teens, he went to work as a clerk with the firm of James Boulger & Company, a grocery and liquor store where he remained for twelve years, learning the business and developing a reputation as a bright and rising young local.  When Patrick died in 1874, Frank became the “man of the house,” living unmarried at 34 years old with his mother, Mary, and other siblings.  That same year a younger brother, John, died at 22 years, a devastating blow to the family.  Mary passed the following year, age 71.
By this time, Frank Murphy had left Boulger to strike out on his own.  He purchased the liquor business owned by Hugh Curry, calling it “Frank Murphy & Company.”  In 1882 he took as a partner his younger brother, Thomas, who had joined him at fifteen working as a clerk.  Shown here is a corkscrew bearing the company name.

With subsequent success, the Murphys eventually needed more space and bought a considerably larger building at 85 N. Paint Street, the main commercial avenue of Chillicothe.  This establishment they named Murphy Distilling Company, advertising itself as “Jobbers and Brokers in Fine Whiskeys, Wines, Cordials, Champagne, Gins, Bass Ale and London Porter.” The brothers also were acting as “rectifiers,”  that is, blending and mixing whiskeys to achieve particular taste, smoothness and color.  Their flagship brand was “Old Lafayette Club.” Shown here is a postcard of Paint Street from the early 1900s.  On the left, and in detail here, can be seen the Murphy sign.

Meanwhile Frank was having a personal life.  In 1889 he married Ella Kirby Piatt, the eldest daughter of William McCoy and Julia Ann Keagan Piatt of West Liberty, Ohio.  Her father was a noted inventor and holder of numerous patents.  Shown here, Ella, a comely young woman, was only about 20 when they wed;  Frank was 25 years older.  Their marriage would prove tragically short.  During their first year together she became ill with what was termed “winter sickness,” actually tuberculosis.  Hoping to recuperate, she went home to her parents in West Liberty, but died there in October 1890 and was buried in the Piatt family plot.  The Murphys had been married less than 13 months.  Frank must have been shattered at the death of his young wife.  He never married again.

Instead, he threw himself into conducting his liquor house.  This included his emphasis on advertising through giveaway items.  Above is an ice pick that would have been given to the restaurants and saloons carrying Murphy products.  The company provided tokens to retail customers with their purchases that could be redeemed for merchandise, including a triangular gold token and a round metallic coin.  Shown below is vintage tin advertising plate, one that could be used as a tip tray in a saloon or fastened to a wall as decoration.  The front shows a maiden carrying an urn full of flowers.  The reverse says:  “Compliments of the Liquor House You Hear About, Murphy Distilling Company.”

Frank Murphy continued to manage the company he had founded almost up to the day of his death on September 1, 1901.   By coincidence it was the same day as the assassination of President McKinley, a fellow Ohioan.  At this point Thomas took over the management of the liquor house.  

One of his early activities was to trademark the company flagship brand of whiskey, called “Old Lafayette Club.”  His ads claimed that the whiskeys used in their blend were bottled in bond, claimed as a sign of quality, and that Old Lafayette Club was “unexcelled by any whiskey on earth.”   That was emphasized in ads by two filmy clad women, one of them sitting on the moon.

Thomas Murphy was active in the civic and political life of Chillicothe.  For eight years he served as a member of the city board of elections.  He also was considered a leader among Democrats, holding several position within the party.  He also was active as a member of the Catholic Church.

Thomas also married, suffering a fate similar to his brother.  His wife was Annie Hydell, the daughter of Anton and Annie Hydell, both immigrants from Germany.  Annie gave him one child before dying about two years after their wedding.  With tragic fate, that child died a year after Annie.  Subsequently Thomas was recorded living at 250 W. Water Street with his sister, Kate. The house, shown here, is still standing.  He later married a woman named Eugenia.

By 1909 the Murphy Distilling Company had disappeared from Chillicothe business directories, possibly the result of Thomas having died.  I have been unable to find a exact date of his death or place of interment.  I hope a descendent will see this vignette and fill in details.

We remember the Murphys  of Chillicothe as whiskey men who overcame unusual hardships of famine and fire only to face devastating deaths, seemingly emerging undaunted from every trial and able to be acclaimed by a biographer as “successful business men, possessing universal confidence and the esteem of all who knew them.”  

Note:  Much of the information for this post came from the volume, “A Standard History of Ross County, Ohio”  Vol 2., ed. Lyle S. Evans, Lewis Publishing, Chicago, 1917.


  1. I found an empty bottle of Old Amsterdam Club Whiskey bottled by Murphy Distilling Co. But it was from Vincennese Indiana.

  2. Carl: Interesting find. I do not know of a Murphy Distilling Co. in Indiana. Nor did some quick research find any. Vincennes did have a lively liquor trade including distilleries. Send me a picture of the bottle and label and I will see if some clues are given there: