Never before have I opened a profile of a whiskey man on an event that occurred a year after his death. In the case of James J. Duffy of Troy, New York, however, it is appropriate because of the dedication of an imposing brass and marble pulpit in a New York church, given by Duffy’s family in 1909 as a lasting memorial to a man whose life was devoted to selling liquor. It is shown here in a fuzzy 1900s photo.
Not only was the gift noted in the local press, the national Jesuit magazine, America, featured a note on the pulpit, calling it “magnificent” and noting it had been made by the Gorham Company. It was a New York City firm renowned as gold and silversmiths whose production included pulpits. Compare the one pictured in its catalog to the one above. The church in which it had been installed was St. Henry in Averill Park, a town about 12 miles from Troy. The photo below shows the newly constructed house of worship next to the original church that eventually would be torn down.
Born in Troy on Christmas Day in 1855, the son of James and Ellen McEnrow Duffy, James Duffy was educated in the Catholic schools, including the Christian Brothers Academy. Except for four years living in St. Louis, 1872-1876, Duffy spent his entire life in Troy. For four years he was the local agent for Coleman Bros. brewers and malt producers in Albany New York, proprietors of the Chestnut Street Brewery. This experience not only educated him in the alcohol beverage trade, it gave him the opportunity to save sufficient funds to open his own liquor house in Troy about 1880.
The young Duffy had made a good decision. Through much of the 19th and into the early 20th century, Troy was not only one of the most prosperous cities in New York State, but one of the most prosperous in the entire country. Strong in iron and steel manufactures, as well as other industrial facilities, its work force not only was thirsty but also had disposable income to spend on liquor. Saloons proliferated. Duffy prospered.
Moreover, his headquarters was well located at 485 River Street, a major commercial avenue that paralleled the Hudson River, a location he advertised widely. Not only was Duffy’s liquor house on a main street car line, it was located between two highly frequented hotels, the Rensselaer and the Northern. The former was among Troy’s premier hostelries. It is shown here at right. My guess is that the three story building at the left was Duffy’s establishment.
The structure was large enough to allow the proprietor to import barrels of whiskey by rail or water directly from distilleries in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Kentucky and to decant them into jugs of a gallon or more capacity that would be retailed to saloons in Troy and the surrounding region.
The source of his containers likely was Fort Edwards, New York, a town only fifty miles away. That town, boasting a ready supply of ceramic clay, was a major producer of pottery, recognized worldwide for the quality of its stoneware, known as “Fort Edwards Crock.” A Duffy jug shown above carries the mark of the Ottoman Bros. & Co. Others shown here carry no mark but likely also were obtained at Fort Edwards.
Meanwhile, James was having a personal life. He had married in the late 1870s at about the age of twenty-five. His bride was Mary, a local woman born in New York State of Irish immigrant parents. They do not appear to have had children and within just a few years of their marriage, Mary died in 1885. After several years Duffy married a second time. Five years younger than James, Jennie was a native of Brooklyn from Irish immigrant parents. The couple would have five children, according to census records, four of whom lived to maturity.
Duffy also had his own brand of whiskey that he called “Club House Whiskey.” Shown here is a shot glass advertising it. It was well named by Duffy who was notable for joining multliple Troy men’s clubs, including the Pilsner Club, the W. S. Earl Boat Club and the Olympic Club. He also was active in Irish-American activities as a member of both the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Emerald Society, an organization dedicated to assisting new immigrants from Ireland. Little wonder that the 1889 publication “Young Irish Americans of Troy, N. Y.” featured an illustration, shown above, and a short biography of Duffy.
Duffy had little time to enjoy his prosperity and his children, dying at the age of 52. The liquor house he had run so successfully for almost three decades, however, never faltered. His widow, Jennie, took over its management becoming president and treasurer of the company. Her business savvy must have approached that of her late husband because she ran James J. Duffy Co. for the next ten years until shut down by the coming of National Prohibition.
Jennie Duffy’s devotion to her late husband demonstrated itself in several ways. Not only was she the instigator and driving force behind the gift of the pulpit to St. Henry’s, she also arranged for a large Duffy monument to be raised in Troy’s St. Peter’s Cemetery where James is buried A granite plinth holds a statue of what appears to be the young Christ as a carpenter. Unusually, Jennie also arranged for her husband to have not just one but two headstones, each marker linked to one of his two wives. Jennie would join him at St. Peters in 1933 at the age of 70.
Today the pulpit given in James Duffy’s memory is no longer present in the sacristy of St. Henry’s. Its fate apparently is unknown. Wherever it may be, it likely still bears the plaque that memorializes the New York whiskey man. And abides no sermons of a prohibitionary content.
Note: Thanks go to St. Henry’s and Kerin Banker of its staff for sending me photos of the church interior that show the pulpit standing in the early 20th Century but gone by 1977. From the first photo it was possible to isolate the Duffy pulpit and present it above, fuzzy but recognizable.
Addendum: This is to alert both followers of this blog and others that I have a new website involving whiskey. It is a compilation of more than thirty vignettes about Old West saloons and saloonkeepers. Outlaws, gunslingers, and shootings abound. This new blog can be accessed at wet enterprise: select saloons of the old email@example.com. If this new website proves popular, other compilations under the “wet enterprise” heading may be forthcoming.