Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Riddle of Patrick Sullivan — Knoxville Saloonkeeper

By reading the the plaque that the City of Knoxville has affixed to Patrick Sullivan’s pre-Prohibition saloon, the impression is left of a progressive Irish gentleman who built the first brick structure in a shanty town, served blacks during the Jim Crow era, and gave women the equal right to enter his establishment.  Yet there also are stories of Sullivan’s saloon as a place where a fight broke out over Buffalo Bill’s Indians, a notorious bandit shot and killed two deputies, and a bordello operated on an upper floor.  Separating fact from fiction about this whiskey man is not easy.

Patrick Sullivan was born in August 1841 in County Kerry, Ireland, the son of Daniel and Mary Martin Sullivan.  A child during the Great Famine in his homeland, Patrick as a youngster immigrated with his family to the United States in the early 1850s.  The advent of the railroad brought Irish immigrants to Knoxville in droves, many of whom worked on the railroad and settled down in a shanty town, known as the “Bowery,” northeast of Knoxville’s main commercial area.  Patrick’s family were among them.

The Sullivans are remember in Knoxville for being one of the founding families of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, shown here.  While still in his teens, Patrick was a volunteers who helped build the church structure in 1855.  When the Civil War broke out the immigrant boy left Tennessee for Kentucky where he volunteered for the Union Army.  He is said to have seen combat and risen to the rank of captain during the war, although I can find no information about his combat service.

Sullivan returned to Knoxville immediately after the war and the same year was married.  His bride was Eileen F. Kavanaugh, born in Massachusetts of Irish immigrant parents.  She was only 15 or 16 when they wed, nine years younger than Patrick.  The couple would go on to have four children, two boys and two girls. 

The marriage may have spurred Sullivan into opening his first saloon and store, located in the Bowery.  The area was considered “seedy” by many Knoxvillians, known for its proliferation of saloons, brothels and wild nightlife.  The local Journal and Times newspaper commented that:  “In this district is congregated probably nine-tenths of the criminal element of the city (where) from 10 o’clock to midnight, of the entire section swarm with humanity.”  Yet many hardworking Irish also lived there and Sullivan accommodated them in his shanty-like frame drinking establishment adjacent to the Southern Railway depot.  He and his growing family lived upstairs. 

In addition to pouring liquor at the bar, Sullivan was decanting barrels, likely received by railroad, into smaller ceramic jugs.  He would have provided those to the public and to other saloons in the vicinity.   The labels of these containers identified those them as from “Dan and Pat’s Saloon.”  Dan Dewine was a fellow Irishman, born in Tennessee of immigrant parents and Pat’s close friend.

By 1888, Sullivan had accrued sufficient wealth to commission a three-story red brick Victorian building on the corner of Jackson and Central as his saloon.  Situated to face the corner, said one observer, the saloon was “attention grabbing.”  

Today the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, considered one of the best examples of a Nineteenth Century Southern drinking establishment.  Except for the chairs, the interior today is said to look much as it did in Sullivan’s day.  The saloon also acted as a magnet for erecting other permanent buildings in the Bowery — now known as the “Old City.”  

At his new corner saloon, Sullivan continued selling whiskey by the jugful.  Shown here is a half-gallon ceramic that features the new address — 100 North Central Street — and names his manager, R. H. Jones.  This jug recently sold at auction.  Although expected to fetch $600, it actually sold for $1,700, a whopping  price for a ceramic whiskey.

Despite the statement on the plaque above, I can find no other evidence that Sullivan served blacks in his saloon in defiance of Tennessee’s Jim Crow restrictions on racial mixing.  After 1872 the State had enacted 20 such laws including two that required segregation of public accommodations.   Adjacent to the Bowery, however, was a black area of Knoxville whose residents, according to historians, were welcomed in Bowery stores and reputedly in Sullivan’s saloon.   As for women, although saloons generally were “men only” some of the more elegant establishments like Patrick’s offered hospitality to “respectable” women.  No evidence exists of a bordello operating on an upper floor during Sullivan’s ownership of the building.

Sullivan’s tenure, however, apparently was not without incident.  The story is told that in October 1897, Buffalo Bill Cody and members of his troupe who had been performing in Knoxville, dropped in for a drink.  The group included several Sioux Indian performers who felt insulted by a “paleface” customer. A brawl ensued that ended only when Cody fired his six guns into the ceiling. Some believe although the showman is known to have visited the saloon, the incident may apocryphal. 

In 1902, under suspicion for a recent train robbery in which $40,000 was taken, the notorious outlaw Harvey Logan, aka “Kid Curry” from Butch Cassidy’s gang, was hiding out in Knoxville under the name “William Wilson.”  The story is told that Curry had stopped for a drink one night at Sullivan’s when a fight broke out.  Summon to the saloon were two deputy sheriffs — William Dinwiddle and Robert Saylor.   Hating lawmen and quick to the trigger, Kid Curry, shown above, shot and killed them both.  He soon was captured and taken off to jail.  According to press accounts the charming and handsome Curry, shown here, had a steady stream of visitors in jail to hear his stories and get autographs.  A few months later the outlaw escaped, allegedly riding away on the sheriff’s horse.  While the incident has been verified, some sources identify the shootings happening elsewhere than Sullivan’s saloon.

In 1907, after a visit to the city from the famous hatchet-swinging prohibitionist, Carry Nation, Knoxville outlawed saloons.  Along with other publicans, Sullivan was forced to close his establishment by November 1.  His saloon hosted a massive party the night before, drinking up his stocks until the clock struck midnight.  The premises later became an ice cream shop.  In the 1910 census, Sullivan, giving his occupation as “farmer,” was found living in Knoxville with two adult sons and a sister.  Wife Eileen had died more than a decade earlier.  By the 1920 census, Patrick, now retired, had married again.  Her name was Margaret, a woman Tennessee born and 18 years younger than he. 

At the age of 84, Sullivan suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died on September 5, 1925.  After a large Catholic funeral in the church he had helped  build years earlier, Patrick was interred in Knoxville’s Calvary Cemetery next to Eileen.  After a time the beautiful Queen Anne building Sullivan had fostered became vacant and lapsed into disrepair.  In 1986, however, a local businessman refurbished and reopened the structure as Patrick Sullivan’s Steakhouse and Saloon.  Thus has the Irish saloonkeeper continued to be remembered in Knoxville.

Note:  Although we bear the same surname, Patrick Sullivan is not a known relative.


  1. All Sullivan's are related. It's just a matter of time!

  2. Bruce: Sullivan is the third most common Irish name, behind only Kelly and Murphy.