Two Irishmen named Daniel and Michael found each other in Chicago and brought forth in Benjamin Franklin’s name a flagship rye whiskey that became a “good drinking” favorite throughout the Upper Midwest. In the process the firm of Delaney & Murphy, according to an observer, “prospered exceedingly.”
Given Franklin’s frequent statements on behalf of spirits it is a mystery why his image does not appear more often on alcoholic products. Among citations: “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.” and “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” We remember Franklin as one of the Founding Fathers, involved in the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, author of “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” and inventor of the lightning rod. We also can remember him because of his love for imbibing. Certainly Delaney & Murphy did, each traveling a long road before achieving their partnership and the emergence of “Ben Franklin Old Rye.”
Daniel Delaney was the elder, born in 1833 in the parish of Upperwoods, Queen’s (now Loais) County, Ireland, the son of a farmer. His schooling was cut short at fourteen when his father became ill and his labor was needed in the fields. When a uncle booked passage for America in 1851, Daniel decided to accompany him. Delaney’s first stop was Cincinnati where he found work with a wholesale liquor firm until March, 1864, when he relocated to Chicago, again finding employment in a liquor house. Following a short-lived business partnership in 1866, for the next 13 years Delaney worked for other Chicago Irish whiskey dealers.
In 1879 at the age of 46 at last he struck out on his own, establishing a store on Chicago’s Market Street, near Randolph, later moving to Kinzie Street. Although meeting with moderate success, it was not until 1888 when he hooked up with Michael W. Murphy that the business took off. Murphy was 11 years younger and American-born in Hartland, McHenry County, Illinois, about 68 miles northwest of Chicago.
Michael Murphy’s father was a prominent grocer and, unlike Delaney, able to give his son advanced education. Michael obtained a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s of the Lake, Chicago, and then attended the Union College of Law. Admitted to the bar in 1868, he apparently found two years toiling in a local law office tedious and went to work as a bookkeeper and cashier for M. W. Kerwin, a Chicago liquor dealer.
Murphy may have intended return to the law later but never did. Eventually he invested in the business and when Kerwin retired in 1888 took over its management, but soon linked his fortunes with Delaney. The partners called their enterprise “Delaney & Murphy” and located it at 10-12 Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Delaney was president; Murphy, treasurer. In a local directory they identified their company: “We are distillers and wholesale dealers in liquors of all kind and distribute our goods in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.”
That was when Ben Franklin Rye was born. The whiskey was a “rectified” product, blended in the partner’s facilities to achieve a particular taste, smoothness and color that proved over time to have a great appeal in the Upper Midwest. The company work force grew to twenty-five, with nine traveling salesmen covering the three states noted above, plus Indiana.
The partners went “all in” for Ben Franklin as their flagship brand, issuing trade cards, saloon signs, back of the bar bottles and shot glasses to advertise that label. Examples of those giveaways are seen throughout this post.
A unusual gifted item was a bronze colored watch fob, meant to be worn on the outside of a vest on a chain as a means to accessing a pocket watch. Wearers were walking advertisements for Ben Franklin whiskey.
Meanwhile both men were having personal lives. Delaney married Catherine “Kate” Quinn, a native of New York State, in July 1858. He was 25 at the time of their marriage; she was twenty. They would have a family of eight children, four girls and four boys, one of whom, William, would eventually go to work for the liquor house as a salesman. Daniel was known as a strong Democrat and a devout Catholic, noted in his elder years as oldest member of the Jesuit Sodality in America.
In December 1871, Murphy married Mary J. Synon, who at the time was the principal of a Chicago elementary school. Described as “…a woman of most charming personal appearance and lovable character,” she died in 1879, leaving Michael to raise their four young children, a boy and three girls. He never remarried. Like Delaney, Murphy was a Democrat and a Catholic, involved in social clubs and Catholic charitable organizations. He was an inveterate traveler, taking his motherless family with him on trips throughout the United States and spending a year with them touring Europe in 1895 and 1896, leaving business matters to Delaney.
The company continued to prosper through the 1890s and into the new century, credited with transacting its business “with attention to every detail and with due consideration to the comforts and requirements of its clients.” The company became the agents for Power’s Irish Whiskey, featuring the liquor in its Chicago ads.
While on vacation in San Antonio, Texas, in February 1906 Daniel Delaney suffered from a serious attack of gall stones. An operation failed to relieve the problem and he died the age of 73. His body was brought back by railroad to Chicago where his funeral services were held at Our Lady of Sorrows Church. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery next to Kate who had passed a year earlier.
Murphy subsequently took over total management of the liquor house, assuming the post of president while remaining treasurer. From examples of letters he wrote to suppliers, he was a stickler for quality in the whiskey and wine products he bought for bottling. Also described as a “…man who gains and retains the affection and esteem of all who know him,” Murphy was tapped for leadership positions within the whiskey trade. He served as both first vice president of the National Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association and president of the Distillers & Jobbers Assn. of Illinois.
Nothing in his leadership abilities was sufficient to fend off the effects of National Prohibition, however, and in 1919 he was forced to close the doors on Delaney & Murphy Company. At that point 75 years old, Murphy retired. He lived through much of the “dry” era, dying at his Chicago home in January 1931 at the age of 87. Murphy’s funeral was held at Holy Name Cathedral with burial at Calvary Cemetery. A 1933 biography of prominent Illinois citizens termed him “one of the true builders of the community.”
With the demise of the liquor business, the Ben Franklin Rye label disappeared and was not revived with Repeal in 1934. Despite his celebration of spirits, Franklin has not, to my knowledge, been featured since as the inspiration for a brand of liquor. With the many craft distilleries spring up all over America, surely one of them can celebrate the Founding Father who wrote: “There is not good living where there is not good drinking.”
Note: Much of the information for this vignette on Delaney & Murphy is from the 1897 volume, “Biographical History of the American Irish in Chicago,” edited by Charles Ffrench.