Monday, July 16, 2018

Elliott & Burke on the Prohibition Merry-Go-Round

When Thomas G. Elliott and the Burke brothers, Leonard and Ed, teamed up to sell “fine whiskey” in Aberdeen, Mississippi, they likely were unaware that they had taken their places on a circular ride dictated by the prohibition movement that would take them from Aberdeen to Memphis, Tennessee, and eventually back again to Aberdeen. 

Born in Aberdeen in 1841 of parents both from Georgia, Elliott was considerably older than his partners.  He had left home in May 1861 to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War, joining Company B (the Hamilton Guards) of the 20th Mississippi Infantry as a private. He served the entire course of the war until the surrender at Appomattox, seeing considerable hot combat over that period.

The 20th had the distinction of being the first Mississippi regiment to serve in the field under Gen. Robert E. Lee, initially campaigning in the West Virginia mountains.  After Lee’s transfer elsewhere, Elliott’s unit was sent to counter Gen. Grant’s combined naval and army advance up the Cumberland River.  From there the 20th was engaged in battles and skirmishes throughout the South.  In  1865 the unit was sent to central Mississippi where its final major combat was the “Battle of Raymond,” depicted above.

Discharged in April 1865, apparently never seriously wounded, Elliott found his way back to Aberdeen, a busy port  during much of the 19th Century and at one time the second largest city in Mississippi.  Twenty-four years old when the war ended, his early post-war employment has gone unrecorded.  By 1871, however, he had opened a saloon at the southeastern corner of  Commerce Street, a major business avenue, and Meridian Street. 

After running that establishment as a single proprietor for eight years, in 1879 Elliott formed a partnership with Helio E. Stoddard, who likely was related to Thomas’ stepfather, Cassius Stoddard.  They did business together for three years until a fire in their saloon in March 1882 put them out of business and ended their partnership.   Elliott went back to his single proprietorship for a short time before taking the Burkes as his partners.

The Burke boys also were Aberdeen locals, Leonard born in 1856 and Edward in 1863, the sons of James L. and Mary E. Burke.  Their father apparently had died at an early age. The 1870 census found the brothers as children living with their mother, a widow, and three siblings, a girl and two boys.  All of them were under 15 years. 

The situation suggests that the brothers must have gone to work at an early age to help support the family and that their industriousness had come to the attention of Elliott, now in his early 40s, partnering with them despite Leonard being only about 26 and Edward barely 20.  Known as Elliott & Burke, the trio seems quickly to have found success in selling liquor, both over the bar and as a retail outlet.  After selling one saloon in 1889 they soon opened another located at 76 Commerce Street, the building shown here as it looks today.
The partners were buying whiskey by the barrel from a range of sources and decanting it into a variety of ceramic jugs.  As seen here, these ranged in size from quarts (right),  gallons (left) and two gallons (left below).  Of indeterminate size is the jug (right below) with a Bristol glaze body and Albany slip brown top.  Each carries the name of the partners, the motto “fine whiskey” and the name of their home town.

Aberdeen, however, was poised to disappoint and dispossess them.  Mississippi had been edging toward prohibition of alcoholic sales for some years, initially adopting “local option” laws that allow individual cities and counties to go “dry” by forbidding the making or selling of liquor within their boundaries.  In March 1902, Richmond County that included Aberdeen took that step and put Elliott & Burke out of business.

The partners wasted no time in moving their operation.  Although many Mississippi whiskey men facing a liquor ban moved to neighboring Louisiana, a state that stayed reliably “wet” until National Prohibition, Elliott & Burke chose to relocate 145 miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, a problematic choice.  The state legislature there in 1887 had passed a law that prohibited selling intoxicating liquors within four miles of any country school, virtually banning the whiskey trade in rural Tennessee.

Because cities were still “wet” Elliott and the Burkes were counting on Memphis to buck the trend toward prohibition.  Almost immediately they began newspaper advertising in Mississippi towns that had gone dry.  Among them was Okolona, a village about 20 miles from Aberdeen.  They advertised “all the best grades of Kentucky and Tennessee whiskies” as well as gin, brandy and wine.  Orders would be filled and shipped by railroad express from their Memphis store at 459 Main Street.

Although Elliott does not seem ever to have married and spent much of his life in rented quarters, the Burke brothers both had families that they uprooted for the move to Memphis.  In 1883, Leonard had married Sarah Rush, Mississippi-born of parents from Alabama.  That couple appears to have had no children.  In 1889, Edward had married Eva, a Mississippi native with parents from Virginia.  This marriage resulted in at least one son, Robert, whose middle name was Elliott, perhaps indicating Ed Burke’s respect for his older partner.

The Memphis iteration of Elliott & Burke appears to have been as successful as their Aberdeen saloon and liquor house.  As shown here, once again they were filling a variety of ceramic containers that advertised “fine whiskey.”  Both their Aberdeen and Memphis jugs are avidly sought with the Aberdeen examples seemingly commanding higher prices from collectors.

With each passing year, Tennessee became increasingly prohibitionist.  The Four Mile rule was extended to cities in 1909, but had little effect in the four largest, including Memphis where saloons continued to operate openly.  One liquor trade publication claimed that more whiskey was being sold in Tennessee than before the law.  In 1917, however, a “bone-dry bill” advocated by the governor passed and completed the prohibitionist campaign in Tennessee. The legislation made illegal the receipt or possession of liquor and banned the transportation of liquor into or out of the state.

After a run of 15 years in Memphis, Elliott & Burke were forced to close down for a second time.  Sensing the impending end, Ed Burke in 1916 purchased a stock of goods and fixtures from a bankrupt drugstore and moved back to Aberdeen to open a pharmacy where “medicinal” whiskey could still be made available.  Thomas Elliott and Leonard Burke appear to have returned as well.  By this time, both men were advanced in age,  Thomas at 76; Leonard 61.  Both today lie buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Aberdeen.  I have been unable to find Ed Burke’s burial information.

Amid the travails of the anti-alcohol forces, the partners had been able to maintain their business for a quarter century by riding the merry-go-round that took them from their home town of Aberdeen, Mississippi, to Memphis,Tennessee and back again.  In the process Elliott & Burke left behind a wealth of whiskey jugs to help remind us of their persistence in the face of public pressure and restrictive laws.

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