Thursday, November 30, 2017

Whiskey “Bad Boys” and Women

Foreword:  Continuing the series of posts that assemble whiskey men into groups that have had similar characteristics or experiences in their lives, it seems appropriate in this current climate of “Me Too!” to describe whiskey men who during their careers have had relationships with women that thrust them into the public eye, often with unexpected outcomes.

We begin with WilliamBillie” Bott.  Bott, shown left, and his brother, Joseph, were well known in Columbus, Ohio, as proprietors of the city's most prosperous saloon and liquor dealership, as well as the city’s largest and most elegant billiard parlor, the interior shown below.  Then Billie found himself “behind the eight ball” at the center of a well publicized sex scandal. 

A recognized socialite and lady’s man, Bott, when in his late ‘30s, had struck up an affair with a young woman named Mary Sells, married to a rich older man who was frequently absent from their mansion home. Restless, Mary accepted male visitors when her husband was away, of whom Billie was accounted the first.

In January of 1900 the cuckolded Mr. Sells filed suit against Bott, alleging he had “alienated his wife’s affections” and sought damages. A private detective hired by the husband to watch the house during his absence testified that he had seen Bott ride up on a bicycle and leave it in an archway when he entered the Sells mansion.  The detective stole the bike that night — apparently leaving Billie to walk home after his assignation — and stowed it in his attic as evidence.  When the detective wheeled the incriminating cycle into the courtroom, the sight is said to have been met “with considerable excitement” among spectators.  To many it seemed that Billie Bott, the Columbus billiard baron and pool “shark” now was firmly “behind the eight ball.” 

The trial lasted five titillating weeks with headlines most days in the Columbus press. Testimony that Mary Sells had entertained multiple lovers put the spotlight on her, however, and not her suitors.  The court found Mary guilty of “gross neglect of duty” to her husband.  This verdict absolved Bott of blame for alienation.  He walked away without paying a cent.  The aggrieved  husband, by contrast, had spent $12,000 on the trial. He was granted a divorce decree in which alimony for Mary was involved.  Although the amount of the settlement was kept secret by the court, the local press reported it at $30,000 (equivalent to $750,000 today).  Mary soon left Columbus for parts unknown. 

Meanwhile Billie Bott apparently emerged from the trial relative unscathed. His business and personal life went on as if nothing had happened.  The blame widely fell on Mary Sell.  One newspaper summed up the verdict by opining: "When a woman is a devil, she is the whole thing.”   Before very long, Billie married, his wife a prim and proper Irish widow.  

Alfred F. “Alf” Reed called his drinking establishment “The Bachelor” saloon.”  If the name suggested to the townsfolk of Portland, Oregon, a somewhat disreputable and rowdy lifestyle, the proprietor likely didn’t object.  A bachelor himself while running this drinking establishment, Reed, shown left, lived large “on the wild side.”

That is the conclusion to be drawn from a suit filed against Reed in Portland’s Circuit Court in March 1890 by a man named George Hanlon.  A local bartender, Hanlon sought a judgment of $10,000 against the saloonkeeper — equivalent to $250,000 today — for “alienation of affections.”  Hanlon charged that Reed had plied his wife, Eva Hanlon, with strong drink at the Bachelor Saloon, promised her “costly dresses and other articles of finery,” and she had transferred her affections to the saloonkeeper.

In court documents, Hanlon described his life with Eva in glowing terms.  They had been married in Vancouver, Washington, in October 1901.  His wife had made his home “a little heaven” for seven years, he contended, until November 1908 when she had fallen under the spell of Alfred Reed and had gone to live with him at his Portland home  According to an account of the charges in the Daily Oregonian“The willful seduction which is charged against Reed has caused Hanlon great disgrace and distress of body and mind, he says, which he thinks is worth $10,000.”  George apparently preferred cash to getting Eva back.

I can find no indication of how this suit was settled, but it must have been an irritant to Reed who had opened the Bachelor Saloon only the prior year.  Dealing with the “alienation of affections” suit over the wayward Eva Hanlon was only one of Reed’s problems.  Much more concerning to him was a November 1, 1909, police gambling raid on The Bachelor, an event that once more put Reed in the headlines.  

Although heavily fined, Reed continued to operate the The Bachelor Saloon for the next several years.  Eva seems to have exited the scene.  Alf, however, was about to give up his bachelor’s life.  Circa 1911, he married a woman named Marie and she moved into his Portland home. It may have been Marie’s influence that caused Reed the following year, after about 24 years in business, to shut down The Bachelor Saloon.

Yes, Eugene Belt was a Baltimore liquor dealer, but his “blue ribbon” background makes him seem like an unlikely centerpiece in an 1880’s scandal that commanded newspaper headlines from coast to coast for two years and involved beautiful women, two U.S. Congressmen, a messy divorce, perjured testimony, and dramatic acts by a former Confederate general.  You can’t make up stuff like this. Enter the “shame and scandal.” In 1884, now 54 years old and quite rich,  Belt was vacationing at a seaside resort when he encountered a considerably younger and very attractive blonde widow.  Her name was Mrs. Mary Alice Godfrey.   Later Belt told the press that he had met her “among people of character and respectability and never imagined that she was other than a pure and virtuous woman.” 

Moreover,  he probably was impressed that she was the sister of Mrs. Benjamin Willis of New York City, the wife of a prominent U.S. congressmen.  Both sisters were beauties.  One commentator claimed that they had become the “rage” of the Washington society.   Belt fell in love with Mary Alice, quickly proposed marriage and they were wed in October, 1884, in Morristown, Pennsylvania.  They may have chosen a remote location because of apparent opposition to the nuptials from Eugene’s sisters and other female friends. 

Soon enough Belt came to regret his decision and, by his own admission, left his wife the following January.  Mary Alice filed for divorce in May 1885.  Belt told the press that he had discovered that she had lived “a life of infamy” and that he had been a victim of an abandoned woman.   He had found out to his horror that Mary Alice had been connected with a famous Washington, D.C., scandal known as the Congressman Acklen Affair.  Newspapers from coast to coast had a field day.  

Joseph Hayes Acklen, a wealthy sugar plantation owner and a congressman from Louisiana, had courted Mrs. Godfrey, who was living in Arlington with her sister and congressman husband.  One evening at Washington’s prestigious Welcker’s hotel, Acklen, shown left, reputedly forced himself on her.  The cries of Mary Alice were heard in the next room by a former highly decorated Confederate cavalry general named Thomas Rosser.  Rosser rushed to the damsel’s rescue but when the story got out, the D.C. and national press had a field day of speculation.  Acklen later apologized to Mrs. Godfrey and proposed marriage.  She declined. 

As for Belt’s other allegations that his wife had been a “loose woman” even before this incident, charges he made part of divorce proceedings, it subsequently was revealed that those giving damaging testimony had perjured themselves.  Who was behind these lies, Belt himself, family members or others? That was never revealed.  Once more General Rosser, shown right, came to the rescue, proving in criminal court of the District  of Columbia that a witness had perjured himself in the divorce suit brought by Belt.  The witness was convicted and Mary Alice exonerated.   Throughout the entire affair Eugene Belt’s name was bruited nationwide by the press.

When the dust cleared, a divorced Belt went back to his usual pursuits, running the Baltimore whiskey business.  The 1900 census found him at age 70, unmarried, and identified as a “liquor merchant.”   He was living with two of his spinster sisters in a large Baltimore house with four live-in servants.   I wonder if Belt ever thought about those weeks of marriage to the beautiful Mary Alice -- and regretted what he had done.

Note:  For a fuller biography of these three “bad boys,” on this website, see Bott, Oct 23, 2014;  Reed, January 19, 2016; Belt, August 18, 2013.


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