Saturday, March 21, 2020

William S. Norman — Spokane’s Millionaire Bootlegger

The headline in the Seattle Times of August 3, 1916, told the people of Washington that one of the state’s richest men — owner of three major hotels and other enterprises — had been convicted on charges of bootlegging, fined, and sentenced to two months in jail.  He was William Shepperd Norman, a man said to have “figured prominently in the industrial growth of Spokane city…and with limitless opportunities for accomplishment yet before him.”  To understand what brought Norman to this criminal conviction, it is necessary to begin at the beginning.

Unlike many of the impoverished immigrants to the U.S. who engaged in the liquor trade, Norman, born in 1859, was the scion of a wealthy family of Cheltenham, England that owned and operated two newspapers as well as a large printing and lithographing business.  Shown here, William was given a good education and working as a reporter became adept at stenography.  He arrived in Spokane in 1884 in the company of F. Lewis Clark, a wealthy industrialist, and attempted to forge a career in real estate.

When that failed, Norman fell back on being a court stenographer for major state legal cases. That led to his being hired to manage a contract to provide supplies to the Canadian Pacific Railroad during construction of a line across the Columbia River.  Catching the eye of major West Coast investors, Norman then was tapped to supervise building a steamboat to ply the Columbia.  In time his reputation for business acuity led to his becoming the CEO of Spokane companies that provided telephone, telegraph, electric and street railway services. 

Hailed for his “ability, power of organization and initiative spirit,” Norman’s next foray was into hotels.  When the Spokane Hotel, shown right, went into bankruptcy in 1893, he saw an opportunity, bought and remodeled it into what was termed “the finest hotel in the ‘Island Empire.’”   From there Norman went on to purchase the posh Tacoma Hotel, below right, and the North Yakima Hotel, left.  Aided by his brother, Benjamin, before long William was operating a string of hotels in the West under the name of Norman Hotels, Ltd.  A biographer said of him in 1912:  “In a summary of his life, Mr. Norman can be accorded a prominent place among the empire builders of Eastern Washington.”

Meanwhile, William was having a personal life.  In April 1889, he married Aimee I. Sherlock, a daughter of a prominent Portland, Oregon, family whose father, Richard, was a prosperous merchant.  Aime was 13 years younger than her husband and would die six years before he did.  The Normans would have three children, Kathleen, Marjorie and Sherlock.  

Being an hotelier took Norman into the liquor business. About 1900, he commissioned architect and designer Kirtland Cutter to make a magnificent restaurant at the Spokane Hotel, named “Ye Old Silver Grill”, or just the “Silver Grill”. The restaurant was styled in an impressive “English country look” that proved very popular with the hotel’s guests. The restaurant is said to have served some of the finest cuisine in Spokane.  Locals also would frequent it for dinner, fine wine and alcoholic drinks.   Eventually there were “Silver Grills” in all three Norman hotels..

Each hotel also contained a liquor store that Norman called “Silver Grill Cellars.” Norman claimed not to be a rectifier but said he was bottling and selling only straight goods in ceramic jugs of half-gallon (below left) and gallon size. In his book on Washington State bottles, John Thomas includes a drawing of a glass flask from Silver Grill Cellars, notable since it came with its own metal shot glass.

Norman’s flagship label was “Viking,” a name he never bothered to trademark.  As shown vividly on a shot glass, Viking came in scotch, rye and bourbon forms.  His ads claimed that all three were: “Old in Age. Pure in Make. Strong in Spirits.”  Viking brands were relatively expensive for the times:  The scotch sold for $1.50 a quart and the rye and bourbon for $1.00.  Another Norman brand was “Let ‘Er Buck Whiskey.”

The English immigrant entrepreneur found himself plagued by the prohibitionary initiatives that were multiplying rapidly in Washington.  In 1899, for example, Spokane’s City Council enacted a ban on selling liquor after midnight.  The Normans simply ignored it and continued to sell drinks into the morning hours, acting they said on the advice of their attorneys. Neither William or Ben were arrested.  Working with Spokane’s saloonkeepers, the brothers quickly were effective in repealing the ordinance.  Then the prohibitionist Governor of Washington proposed that liquor should only be sold across a bar from sunrise to sunset.  The dark hours would be dry.  The effort clearly was aimed at working men whose drinking time usually was at night.

Ever aggressive, Norman became regarded as a principal anti-prohibition spokesman.  At a convention of the Washington State Hotel Men’s Assn., convening in the Normans’ Tacoma Hotel, he was the principal speaker on what he termed “Freak Legislation.”  He took “a few stabs” at the governor’s proposal and legislation to prohibit “treating” patrons with drinks or sell alcohol on Sundays.  A newspaper opined:  “Norman is regarded as the best griddle artist on ‘Freak Legislation’ that we have.”

Regardless of his sarcasm, statewide prohibitionary legislation was enacted in Washington in 1916. Perhaps remembering his success at flouting the local law, Norman continued to sell liquor from the Spokane Hotel.  Tipped off, local police raided the place and found a “sophisticated and busy” liquor business being run from a hotel room.  Norman and others involved were arrested.

At Norman’s trial a hotel porter testified the operation got its liquor by rail from a wholesaler in Butte, Montana, a state that was still “wet.” “We wire orders to Butte every noon and afternoon,”  the porter told the court.  Another employee testified:  “I asked Mr. Norman on one occasion about the legality of the (liquor) permit business as it was carried on in room 101, and he assured me the hotel was within the law. … Most of the time I asked no questions, because I thought it was none of my business what was going on in that room.”

Norman’s lawyers put up a spirited defense in Superior Court.  They argued that the “place of sale” was Butte, Montana, and protected under the Interstate Commerce Act.  The judge would hear none of it.  As the headline that opens this post indicates, Norman ultimately was found guilty on charges of bootlegging, of permitting the illegal sale of liquor in his hotel, and of soliciting orders for liquor.  My assumption is that the judgment was appealed but I have been unable to find out whether Norman actually served time.

Shown here as he advanced in age, Norman continued to be active in business, looking after his other investments that now included mining and real estate.  The millionaire utilities executive, hotelier and whiskey man lived to see prohibition repealed in 1934, remaining active into his nineties.  

At 96 after a serious illness of two months, Norman died in the same house he had lived in since 1889.  He was survived by two of his daughters, six grandchildren and fourteen great grandchildren.  He was buried in Spokane’s Greenwood Memorial Terrace Cemetery.  Norman’s newspaper obituary called him:  “A man whose life equaled the most colorful fiction.” 

Note:  The material for this vignette has been drawn from multiple sources, including three volumes containing biographies of Norman of varying length.  They are:  "History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County, Washington," no author cited, from the S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., Spokane, 1912;  "An Illustrated History of Spokane County, State of Washington," by Rev. Jonathan Edwards, H.B. Lever, Publisher, 1900; "Sketches of Washingtonians," A Reference Volume, no author or publisher given, 1907


  1. I recently emailed Jack Sullivan (maybe an old email, but all I could find) about an interesting item that I found in an old barn in SC. I hope to hear from someone with knowledge on it. It is a wooden 'fob' (for want of a better word. Round, dowel shaped and approx 2 1/4 inches in length. 1/2 in diameter. Has a metal round piece on top.. Stamped on it are these words "H.L Sprinkle Distilling Company Jacksonville, FLA. Two Full Gallon Bottles Ridgeway Straight Corn 100% Proof $4.00 Express Prepaid" I can find no mention of these in any of the articles that I have read concerning the Sprinkle family. It had to be used for just what it says..pre-paid orders to be picked up at a later date. Any info would be helpful. My email is Thank you!

  2. Crazybirdlady: Never got your email. Try again at jack.sullivan9@verizon.ner