“Oh, you learn tomorrow, 'Bout a month ago, You'll learn tomorrow night, 'Bout a month ago, Couple bottles of mo' gin, Mama, Lordy, an’ I had to go.” — Excerpt from a blues song
In March 1905 a white teenager named Margaret Lear was on her way home from school in Shreveport, Louisiana. As she passed through an African-American neighborhood she was brutally attacked and murdered. Her accused assailant, a black man named Coleman, allegedly was drunk on “cheap gin” he had bought at a local saloon. Lee Levy, left, running a liquor house 560 miles north in St. Louis, later would be held in Collier’s National Weekly to be equally responsible for the crime.
After his arrest Coleman was nearly killed by a white lynch mob and the Louisiana militia had to be called out to protect him. Nine days after the crime, according to newspaper reports, the African-American was tried in a Shreveport court, found guilty, and executed. It was reported that the Governor of Louisiana was expected to be in attendance at the hanging. As implied by the national magazine, did Levy deserve the same fate?
What had Levy done to merit so harsh a judgment? Throughout the South in saloons catering to blacks he was supplying fifty cent bottles of a gin whose brand name left little to the imagination. Levy called it “Black Cock Vigor Gin.” A verse on the back of a trade card told the story:
Black Cock Vigor Gin, always all right,
Loads you with courage daytime or night,
A drink that makes men feel good all through,
Cures kidney weakness, other things too,
Kind of puts life in the old and new.
Considered by all great in its line,
Oysters can’ equal this stimulant fine,
Cures laziness, makes your limbs grow,
Keeps muscles hard from head to toe.
Vigor and vim it imparts and maintains,
Gets up the steam in the sinews and veins,
It gives you the courage to go in and win,
Nothing can equal Black Cock Vigor Gin
The murder and its aftermath garnered national headlines. Months later a prominent muckraking American journalist, Will Irwin, writing in Collier’s of May 16, 1908, used the incident to indict the saloon trade and in particular inexpensive gin being produced in the North and peddled in the South. Irwin, shown here, also blamed the names and advertising of brands of gin for suggesting that they possessed the properties of aphrodisiacs. “The gin was cheap, its labels bore lascivious suggestions and were decorated with highly indecent portraiture of white women,” he opined. His explicit conclusion was that this liquor was responsible for sexual aggression in Coleman and other blacks.
While acknowledging that Levy was not the only purveyor of cheap gin, Irwin singled out the St. Louis liquor dealer as “probably the worst” because of his “popular and widely sold brand.” Irwin would not name the gin, however: “If I should give its name here, or attempt to describe its label, this publication could not go through the mails.” Because Coleman allegedly had been drinking Levy’s gin before committing the murder, Irwin asserted that the real murderer of Margaret Coleman had gone unpunished. “What if he wears a white face instead of black,” he asked his readers, “Would you grease a rope for him?”
Irwin objected to the tone of Levy’s advertising cards, claiming the pictures were lewd. Shown above is an example. It appears to depict a man holding a nude woman at a bedstead on which has been transposed a quart of Black Cock Vigor Gin. It was a “mechanical” card when opened revealed a scantily clad woman holding a bottle and offering a glass to a male caller. While obviously suggestive, it was far from the most scandalous whiskey advertising.
More of an issue might have been made of Levy’s trade card above, showing the backs of four black men in various modes of dress urinating agains a wooden fence as a black rooster looks on. The text is an ambiguous “We’ve got them all skinned,” reputedly because the participants drink Black Cock and the gin is “good for the kidneys.”
The Colliers article had almost immediate repercussions for Levy and his company. Within weeks a Federal grand jury issued indictments for violation of postal laws against Levy and his company for sending alleged obscene materials through the mail. Some bottles were alleged to bear a label with a naked woman it. Levy was arrested along with Adolph S. Asher, a German immigrant who was a partner in the firm. Meanwhile in Memphis, Tennessee, Samuel Greenwald, an sales agent for Levy, was arrested and charged with having circulated “improper pictures” in the city. All were found guilty and subjected to heavy fines.
While Levy appears to have dropped his provocative brand of gin, the episode did not discourage him from continuing in the liquor trade. He had come too far to quit. Born in New York City in April 1856 or 1857 (records differ), Lee was the son of Meyer and Caroline Levy. Early in life one or both of his parents apparently died and Levy was sent to live at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, a forbidding looking building at Amsterdam Avenue and 186th St., shown above.
Levy’s early employment has gone unrecorded but it is likely he was involved in some aspect of the liquor trade. Apparently looking for new opportunities in 1881 he moved 1,560 miles west to Gainesville, Texas. Although this relatively small town stood in strong contrast to New York City, it was undergoing a growth spurt from 2,000 residents in 1880 to more than 6,000 in 1890, the result of opening direct railroad access to Chicago and major Texas cities. Levy traveled the state working for a local liquor wholesaler.
In 1886 at the age of 30 in Philadelphia he married Zetta Sproesser, a woman who was only 18 at the time of their nuptials, likely the daughter of Albert Sproesser, a handbag manufacturer. All three of the couple’s children — Milton, Irene and Bebe — were born in Texas. Perhaps the incentive of a growing family prompted Levy to open his own liquor store in Gainesville. Five years later he made a further move to St. Louis, establishing a liquor house called Lee Levy Company at 200 Market Street.
There he established as his trademark brand “John Hart Whiskey.” The label carried a facsimile signature and a man’s picture, presumably of Hart, inclosed in a heart-shaped figure with scrolls at the side. He filed with the Federal government for a trademark in June 1905, one granted the following January. The brand was featured on a company shot glass, one that was given as advertising to saloons and restaurants carrying his whiskeys.
At the time St. Louis was crowded with wholesale wine and liquor dealers and Levy may not have been satisfied with business growth. Looking around he saw that other liquor houses were benefiting from gin sales to blacks, particularly Dreyfus, Weil & Co. of Paducah, Kentucky. Its “Devil’s Island Endurance Gin” used trade cards, like the one shown here, and posters throughout the South. Considered more restrained in their advertising by Will Irwin, the writer still condemned Dreyfus, Weil for selling its gin “in all the low dives of the black belt from the Carolinas to Louisiana and Mississippi….”
Levy’s retreat from that market after his conviction does not seem to have caused severe economic losses to his company. He continued to operate profitably, moving with some frequency. By 1912, his store was listed in business directories at 6 North Main Street. Three years later he was at 222 Market and in 1917 at 103 North Main. With the coming of National Prohibition, however, Levy was forced to shut down his business.
Soon after, Lee and Zetta moved to Houston, Texas, possibly to be close to a son and daughter and their families. Levy became a partner with his son-in-law, Ben Wolfman, in owning and operating a series of clothing stores, including the Fashion and Palais Royal in Houston, Leeland’s in Dallas, and the Fashion in Shreveport, Louisiana. He and his wife lived in a mansion home at 4118 Montrose Blvd, shown here.
Throughout these latter years, Levy was plagued with heart problems and died March 8, 1924, at the age of 67. The diagnosis was acute myocardial degeneration. His obituary called him “a prominent merchant of Houston.”
He had asked to be buried in Missouri and his body was taken there by train. With his family gathered around Lee Levy was buried in the New Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Afton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Fourteen years later Zetta joined him there. Their grave sites are shown here.
If Levy went to his grave with lingering regrets about his foray into gin sales to blacks, it may have been the backlash against Jews involved with alcohol sales nationwide. While Irwin’s articles had fingered the St. Louis whiskey man specifically, the writer also emphasized the fact that Jews owned most of the saloons and dives catering to African-Americans. The Collier’s article sparked a series of sensationalist, anti-Semitic articles in racist and other publications that continued over time to be troublesome to many American Jews.
Note: The material for this post has been gathered from a wide array of sources. A key source on Levy’s early life was “The Book of St. Louisans: A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men of the City of St. Louis.”, edited by John W. Leonard, 1906.