Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Whiskey Men Fleeing Anti-Semitism

 

Foreword:  Kept ever aware of the Holocaust, it is easy to forget that it did not take shape simply because of Nazi Germany.  Anti-Jewish discrimination existed in Europe for centuries earlier.  Here are the stories of three Jewish liquor dealers who immigrated to the United States in the 19th Century because of anti-Semitic laws or other troubling situations and found acceptance and success on America’s shores. 


 

The picture above is of the German town called Bingen on the Rhine.  Aaron Blade, shown here in maturity, was born in Bingen of German Jewish parents in December 1828 and was educated in the local schools. For all the beauty of its setting and the Germanic romanticism connected with Bingen, over the years the town had proved inhospitable to Jews.  During the 13th Century religious officials there are said to have regularly extorted sums from Jewish moneylenders.  Jews were expelled from Bingen in 1507 and did not return until the second half of the 16th Century, still subject to discriminatory laws.  Seeking freedom, at the age of 20 in 1848 Blade left for America, settling in Miwaukee. 



The Wisconsin city in which he settled bore some resemblance to his homeland.  Milwaukee, shown above was a German town.  The population at that time was predominantly of German ancestry.  German commonly was spoken on the street and in homes.  There were German schools, German churches, German newspapers German social and sports clubs and a predominance of German lager beers. Blade went work to in a liquor house, eventually founded his own business and was highly successful.


As a purveyor of whiskeys, the man from Bingen was credited with helping change tastes.  A book called “Milwaukee - A Half Century,” published in 1896  suggested that in the past whiskey sold in Milwaukee had fallen short of being “harmless and healthful.” The author indicated Aaron Blade was altering attitudes with his flagship label, called “Old Dave Jones,” asserting:  “This is a matchless brand of whiskey which has achieved a popularity second to none in the market, and whether for social indulgence or medicinal use it has few equals and no superiors.”  


What Aaron Blade found in Milwaukee was real opportunity to make a success through intelligence and hard work.   In Bingen it was a different story for the Jewish population.  When Hitler came to power in Germany in the early 1930s,  the number of Jews in the town was 465.  By 1939 as the result of flight and emigration only about half remained.  Those who were left became victims of the Holocaust.  After the war only four Jews returned.  They found that their synagogue had been destroyed in 1945.


Anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire, including conquered Poland, were large-scale, targeted, and repeated, beginning in the 19th century. Certain territories were designated "the Pale of Settlement" by the Imperial Russian government, within which Jews reluctantly were permitted to live, and it was within them that the pogroms largely took place. Jews were forbidden from moving to other parts of European Russia unless they converted.


Said by descendants to have been escaping religious persecution as a Jew in Russian-dominated Poland, in October 1867 at Hamburg Germany Max (Mox) Idelman boarded the Steamer Tripoli not knowing what he might discover in America.   A sense of adventure eventually took him West where Idelman found prosperity and acclaim in Cheyenne, Wyoming, all the while selling whiskey.


In 1875, after some eight years serving as a clerk in a St. Joseph, Missouri, liquor emporium, Idelman headed west to Evanston, Wyoming, a town that had its origins when the first Continental Railroad arrived in November 1868 and made Evanston, its headquarters.  Idelman saw opportunity there at one of the western-most points in Wyoming and opened a liquor store.



Apparently Evanston failed to meet his expectations because two years later in 1877 Idelman moved to Cheyenne, a town that was growing rapidly and had become known as “The Magic City of the Plains.”  It also was the state capital.  There Idelman was joined by his younger half-brother, Abraham. Together they founded a company they called the Yellowstone Tobacco and Liquor Distributorship and later Adelman Bros. Liquor and Cigars.   The business was a success.


Together the brothers built the Idelman Building at the corner of Ferguson (later Carey) and 16th Streets, shown here.  Still standing, at the time it was it was considered the finest commercial structure in Cheyenne, incorporating a hotel,  saloon and the Idelmans’ liquor house. Max’s success did not go unnoticed in Cheyenne.  Considered among the leading businessmen of the town, he was urged to run for local office, agreed, and was elected to a term on the Cheyenne City Council. In his obituary, the Cheyenne Daily Leader wrote:  “Mr. Idelman gave liberally to all public benefactions and took an active part in all movements to uphold the city.”


Lazard Coblentz probably knew that when he fled Europe to avoid being forced into the Prussian Army he would head for America and the State of California, there to join the Gold Rush.  But he cannot have known that he ultimately would find his mother load following a “North Star,” selling whiskey in Portland, Oregon.



Coblentz was born in 1852 in the sleepy village of Lixheim in the Lorraine region of Northeastern France, near the German border.  Lazard’s extended family of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage had originated in the German city of Koblentz, situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers.  Decades earlier they had migrated into France.  When France and Prussia went to war in 1870,  Prussia captured Lixheim and conscripted into its army male residents of eligible age.  As a result, according to a family history, twenty one Coblentz men, a mixture of brothers and cousins,  headed for the New World, scattering out across South, Central and North America.



Lazard headed to California where he initially opened a liquor store in Gold Rush minng town.  As gold finds dwindled in 1888 Coblentz, with his family and brother-in-law Ike Levy in tow, pulled up stakes and followed his star north to Portland, Oregon, shown above, a city that was experiencing an economic surge.  There, under the company name, Coblentz & Levy, the pair opened a liquor wholesale business at 166 Second Street.  For the following 27 years the enterprise was  highly successful, its flagship brand “North Star Bourbon.”


In 1915, however, Oregon residents voted the state “dry.”  The Coblentz liquor store closed its doors.  The 1920 Census found Coblentz and his wife living in a comfortable home on 22nd St. in Portland.  Lazard, age 68 and with his whiskey business five years gone,  gave his occupation to the census taker as “macaroni salesman.”  I detect more than a modicum of sarcasm in his response,  appropriate for someone who had ventured in life as far as he had.


Note:  More complete stories of each of these three whiskey men can be found on this site:  Aaron Blade, June 28, 2014;  Max Idelman, June 21, 2018; and Lazard Coblentz; January 18, 2013.








 

















Saturday, October 24, 2020

Sig Spitzer & Jersey’s Big Bootlegging Bust

On September 20, 1920, Harry Sands, a federal agent in charge of enforcing National Prohibition laws, announced that a raid on a Perth Amboy, New Jersey, warehouse had yielded the largest stash of bootleg liquor ever seized by authorities anywhere in America.  Among those arrested was a 46-year-old local liquor dealer, accused of overseeing transport and sale of the illicit booze.  Shown here, he was Sigmund “Sig” Spitzer.

Spitzer was born in Austria in March 1874, received an elementary education there, and emigrated to the United States about 1888 when he was only about 14 years old, apparently traveling by himself.  He settled in with Spitzer relatives in Perth Amboy, just outside New York City.  In his 1899 naturalization hearing Sig indicated that his education had continued in night school where he had learned to speak and write in English.


Details about his activities over the next decade are sketchy.  My guess is that he was engaged in a relative-owned company where he learned the liquor trade and demonstrated distinct ability at merchandising.  In 1898, Sigmund married. His bride was Rose Scheffler, also an immigrant from Austria, the daughter of Abram and Frieda Scheffler.  Sig was 24;  Rose was 20.  The 1900 census found the newlyweds domiciled in Perth Amboy with the luxury of a live-in servant girl.  Before long the Spitzers would have five children, four boys and a girl.



This growing family may have impelled Spitzer to strike out on his own.  By 1902 he was running regular advertisements for “Spitzer’s Hotel Central,”  a cafe/saloon located next door to his wine and liquor store, at the major intersection of State and Smith Streets in downtown Perth Amboy.  The area is shown above on a postcard. 


From the outset Spitzer’s advertising was aggressive, emphasizing that he had no connection to any other liquor store and calling out the competition.  A 1904  ad stated:  “A drop of demonstration is worth a pound of argument.  Our imitators argue lenghly, but as they say in Missouri ‘You have to show me.’…Our imitators will please say nothing but imitate….Beware of imitators.”


Spitzer does not appear to have been a “rectifier,” someone compounding whiskeys on premises and making proprietary brands the main focus of sales.  His ads emphasized nationally known “name” brands of whiskey. He also marketed liquor in ceramic jugs and flasks that bear his embossed name and address. These probably were sold at wholesale to the saloons that proliferated in the city. 



For approximately twenty years Spitzer prospered in the liquor business.  He was able to move his family out of an apartment over the saloon and liquor store and into a spacious three-story home at 197 High St., shown elow.  The 1920 census found the family there, served by a live-in cook and maid.  In that year, however, National Prohibition had shut down Spitzer’s saloon and liquor business.  He was more than a little annoyed at losing his substantial income.



At his naturalization hearing two decades earlier, the judge had asked a witness asked if Sigmund was “disposed to the good order and happiness” of the United States and the witness answered in the affirmative.  The response seems ironic in the light of future events.  Spitzer decided if he could not sell liquor legally he would attempt bootlegging.



With a co-conspirator named Frank Gold, Spitzer formed a warehousing firm owning a large storage facility on Brunswick Avenue in Perth Amboy.  Working by night with employees they filled it with cases and barrels of whiskey and other alcohol.  If anyone got too inquisitive they were told the stash was for “medicinal purposes,” since liquor could still be sold with a prescription in drug stores.


Connecting with bootleggers in Trenton, New Jersey, Spitzer and Gold hatched an elaborate scheme to bribe key Prohibition agents to overlook liquor supplies identified by a card “of a certain type” that would be pasted on barrels and cases.  The Feds were on to the game, however, and watching the warehouse closely, one step ahead of the bootleggers.


On September 20, 1920, Spitzer, overseeing activities in Gold’s warehouse, supervised as 250 cases and 25 barrels of whiskey were loaded on a truck and dispatched to Trenton. Confederates were waiting there to take the liquor to a shadowy purchaser in Philadelphia, a man known only as Mr. Bond.  Bond, as it was soon discovered, was Harry Sands, the top Prohibition enforcement agent on the East Coast.  In Philadelphia the Trenton bootleggers were promptly arrested.



At the same time federal agents swooped down on the Perth Amboy warehouse where they confiscated an additional 962 cases and 118 barrels, amounting to 10,756 gallons of whiskey worth an estimated $162,150, equivalent to more than$2 million today.  It was the biggest bust of a bootlegging scheme in the country, according to Sands.  Spitzer, identified as secretary-treasurer of the warehouse company, was arrested with Gold and others and held on $5,000 bond.


Before Spitzer could be brought to trial, in a surprise move a United States Commissioner ordered that the liquor seized in the raid at the Gold warehouse would have to be returned on the grounds that the search warrant that authorized the seizure had not been properly drawn.  Indictment of the co-conspirators proceeded nonetheless and a trial set for late February.  Gold pleaded guilty but Spitzer maintained his innocence and a separate trial date was set.


Although I have not been able to find the results of that proceeding, it does not appear that Spitzer spent any jail time.  In fact he seems to have rebounded in a remarkable way.   Within very few months he re-emerged in the commercial life of New Jersey as vice-president and cashier of the First National Bank of Perth Amboy, a major local financial institution with offices in the building shown here.


Spitzer, however, was a “whiskey man” through and through.  No sooner had  Repeal been achieved in 1934 when he opened a liquor store at or near his original location at State and Smith Streets.  Recognizing his advancing years, Sig added two of his children to the management team.  Son Robert, later a senior partner in the New York Stock Exchange firm of Spitzer & Co., was listed as vice president, and daughter Mrs. Frances Jampol was secretary. 


The last entry for S. Spitzer, Inc., Liquors, was 1949 when Sig would have been 75.  That same year his wife, Rose, 71, died.  He lived on another 19 years in retirement, dying in 1968 at the advanced age of 94.  During more than a half century Sig Spitzer had been involved in the liquor trade, both licitly and “not so.”  It is a record few individuals have equaled.


Note:  I was initially drawn to research Sigmund Spitzer by the look of his whiskey jugs but was not sure there much of a story until coming across a reference in the New York Times of his arrest in 1920.  Thus much of the article has been fashioned from stories at that time in the Times and New Jersey dailies.




























Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Henry Corbin & the Westerville Whiskey War

 

                 

Early on the morning of July 3, 1875, two explosions rocked Westerville, Ohio. They must have awakened everyone in town, including Henry Harrison Corbin. In that fiercely prohibitionist town he had open the saloon shown above.  Corbin understood the noise. The Westerville Whiskey War had begun in earnest.


Henry was born in May 1834 into a Virginia farming family, the son of William and Barbara Corbin.  His father appears to have been a renter, moving to new land with some frequency.  The 1850 census found the Corbins living in Licking County in Central Ohio.  Sixteen-year old Henry was working as a farm laborer. 


By the 1860 census the Corbins had moved again to a farm in nearby Delaware County.  The 1860 census found Henry still living at home, farming, but he was recorded with assets equivalent to $36,000 today.  He also had married in June 1858, an Ohio-born woman named Phloxena “Polly” Walker.  Henry was 24; Polly was 18. She is shown here in middle age.


The arrival of children in the Corbin household may have prompted Henry to decide to abandon the plow, move into nearby Westerville, and open a hardware store.  It was a good choice.  By the 1870s, Westerville was developing into a modern community. Streetcars ran along the major streets, and a railroad connected Westerville to Columbus,15 miles to the south. As population grew, residents needed hardware.  Corbin’s store was a success and allowed him to purchase real estate around town.



In 1875, Corbin decided to open a saloon in a building he rented at the corner of Knox and West Main Street, shown above.  He did so in full knowledge that it would prove controversial. As early as the late 1850s, Westerville residents had earned a reputation for opposing the sale and consumption of alcohol.  Otterbein College (now “University”), affiliated with the conservative Church of the Brethren, dominated the local culture. Town voters passed a law that banned the sale of "fermented spirits," becoming one of the first communities in Ohio to do so. 


Recognizing that the local ordinance, in fact, could not be enforced, Corbin opened his saloon in June, 1975.   A retrospective news article recalled the scene:  “Westerville residents awoke one morning to find a “LAGER BEER” sign flaunting in their faces….Business during the day was good, but that same night certain unappreciative members of the populace entered the place and emptied the contents of Corbin’s casks and bottles on the floor.”   Undaunted the owner replenished his whiskey and beer and continued in business.


A few days later, on July 1, 1875, at 9 A.M. a crowd estimated at some 1,000 met to protest the saloon. They then marched to 36 West Main and demanded that Corbin close his doors.  He refused.  Many residents wanted him to stay, he contended.  Expecting trouble, Corbin had armed himself with two pistols. The protesters on that occasion limited activities to speeches, prayers and hymns.  The orisons did not move the proprietor.  


The protesters, facing defeat, met again that night in the Presbyterian church where they raised $5,000, equivalent to almost $120,000 today.  The money was to be used as incentive to persuade Corbin to quit.  But hotter heads were not to be denied.  The next night, the saloon was pelted with stones for half an hour, breaking windows.  Nonetheless, Corbin reopened the next day.


Enboldened, the perpetrators struck again the following night, this time using dynamite in the blast heard all around town.  Corbin’s saloon was bombed, tearing down two walls and blowing off the roof.  Only one room remained intact.


A newspaper photo captured the damage.  The crowd that gathered at the wreckage the next morning noticed that the “GER” had been blown out of Corbin’s large “LAGER” sign, leaving only the “LA.”  Newspapers nationwide dubbed the conflict the “Westerville Whiskey War.”


Despite this setback, Corbin repaired his drinking establishment and tried to stay in business, but ultimately gave up.  Reasons differ for his capitulation.  Some say it was discouragement at being forced into costly court battles; others contend it was a second explosion at his Main Street saloon.  He and his family were reported to have moved at least temporarily to Columbus.


Corbin was a hard man to discourage.  Some said “a slow learner.” Four years after his Main Street saloon had been blown up, he was back in Westerville, having bought and renovated the Clymer Hotel, a small hostelry on North State Street, shown here.  Expecting that a hotel setting would discourage an explosive response, he opened a saloon in the basement. 


In early September, a mysterious theft of two 26 pound kegs of gunpowder from a Westerville hardware store occurred.  On September 15, 1879, at 2 a.m, another explosion shook the town “with earthquake violence,” said a local newspaper: “The noise was heard seven or eight miles away; some accounts said it was heard in Columbus.”  The explosion threw Henry Corbin out of bed and knocked out two of his teeth.  The hotel-saloon, as shown here was made uninhabitable, an adjacent house sustained damage and nearby stores had windows blown out.  Hopes gone, the Corbins moved permanently to Columbus.


The Town Council offered a reward of $300 for information leading the arrest of those responsible, paltry beside the $5,000 raised to run Corbin out of town.  In 1923 an anonymous article appeared in a United Brethren publication in which an individual confessed to the bombing.  He claimed he did to protect a friend studying for the ministry who like to drink there, presumably to keep him on the straight path to “taking the cloth.”


In any war, there are losers and winners.  The clear winner was Westerville, now nationally known as “Dry Capital of the World.” Describing its residents as "socially clean and morally upright," the Anti-Saloon League in 1909 moved its headquarter there from wicked Washington, D.C.  Westerville became the publishing center for the Leagues’ anti-alcohol pamphlets, books and posters, including one entitled “Death, Defects, Dwarfings in the Young of Alcoholized Guinea Pigs.”  Women were key employees in the printing processes.


After abandoning Westerville, Corbin apparently lived the rest of his life in Columbus with wife Polly and his family. In neither the 1900 nor 1910 Federal census does he appear to have had an occupation.  Henry died in October 1910 at the relatively young age of 52, after a two-year siege of heart disease. He was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery, Columbus.  His and Polly’s grave monument is shown here.


Until recently, Westerville remained “dry” well after the repeal of National Prohibition and into the 21st Century.  Today the town celebrates its heyday by sponsoring an Anti-Saloon League Museum.  Moreover, a large sculpture in front of City Hall appears to show a liquor barrel that appears to have been blown to pieces, suggesting techniques similar to those that destroyed Corbin’s saloons during the Westerville Whiskey War.


Note: This vignette was drawn from a rich trove of material abut the Westerville Whiskey War. Two principal sources were an undated story from the Westerville Monitor headlined “Townspeople Dynamite Saloon and Drive Wets Out of Westerville for Good,” and an October 8,1987, article from “The Public Opinion” publication of the Westerville Library written by Harold Hancock of Otterbein College. Renovated as shown below, Henry Corbin’s first (bombed) saloon building still stands in Westerville.  In recent times plans have been announced to use it as a drinking establishment.


























 

 


















Friday, October 16, 2020

Rudolph Raphael: Heady Rise & Fateful Fall


Born into a Jewish immigrant family of modest means, given only an elementary education and forced to go to work as a teen, Rudolph Raphael quickly distinguished himself in Pittsburgh as a farsighted, creative leader in the liquor trade.  At an age when Raphael could enjoy his prosperity, a mansion home and the comfort of his family, fate took a cruel twist.


Raphael was born in New York City in 1854, the son of Jeanett Victorious and Lippman Raphael, his father a merchant tailor and immigrant from Germany.  The boy’s education was basic but he proved to be a bright lad.  The 1870 census of the Raphael family recorded him clerking in a store by the age of 16 in Meadeville, Pennsylvania. By 1884 Raphael had moved to Pittsburgh, listed in local directories that year as a bookkeeper with the M. H. Danziger Company, a liquor house.  



Raphael was a quick study in the whiskey trade and by 1886 had struck out on his own with a wholesale liquor dealership at 204-206 Wood Avenue in Pittsburgh.  Throughout most of his business career, Raphael had a partner.  His first was a Pittsburgh local named Dreifus, as shown on the letterhead above.  According to business directories, Dreifus was gone after about a year and Raphael was running the company under his own name.



Raphael’s next partner was his brother-in-law, Louis Zeugschmidt, the husband of his sister Miriam.  According to directories Zeugschmidt joined forces with Raphael about 1892 when the liquor house moved  to 320 Fifth Avenue, later renumbered to 1028 Fifth.  There the company blossomed, becoming well-recognized for its proprietary brands of whiskey, “rectified” (blended) on their premises from whiskey stocks shipped from Pennsylvania distilleries.  After preparing the desired blend to insure color, smoothness and flavor, the partners bottled it, slapped on labels and sold at wholesale.


The company used the brand names “Melrose,” "Mount Union,” "P. P. R.,” "Popular "Popular Price Rye,” “Old Raphael” and “Tioga."  After Congress tightened the trademark laws, Mount Union. PPR and Tioga Rye were registered with the government. Tioga was Raphael & Zeugschmidt flagship brand, advertised widely throughout the Pittsburgh Metro area and beyond.  The name appears to have  been taken from Tioga County located near the north central border of Pennsylvania. 


Among the company’s advertising efforts was a trade card that collectors call a “mechanical,”  in that it requires the viewer to open it. Often these cards had risque' themes and Raphael did not disappoint.  Shown here is a card that before opening depicts a demure lass, loosening her hair,  When opened it has the woman displaying her bloomers to an elderly gent who has been drinking Tioga Rye and is now toasting her lingerie.



Tioga Rye was also advertised on items Raphael & Zeugschmidt gave away to saloons, restaurants and hotels featuring their products.  Among them were shot glasses  that prominently emphasized their name while offering up toasts like “Here’s to you” and “Something Doin’.”  Perhaps the most unusual and expensive giveaway from the wholesale house was a  two-handled “loving cup” beer stein with the picture of William McKinley on one side and William JennIngs Bryan on the other.  Since the two men ran against each other for president twice, McKinley winning both times, the ceramic dates from either 1896 or 1900.



Meanwhile Raphael was having a personal life.  At age 45 apparently tiring of being bachelor, in 1899 he married.  His bride was Anne E. Isaacs Woolner, 36, who may have been a widow.  “Annie,” as she was known, was originally from Philadelphia. They would have two children, Ralph Isaac, born in 1900, and Irma Gladys, 1902. 


This was a period of continued growth for Raphael’s liquor interests.  A continuing problem for wholesalers, particularly in an era of “Whiskey Trusts” was securing a constant supply of product for blending into their proprietary brands.  Either by contract or investment Raphael found a steady supply by buying into a distillery founded in 1870 in Buffalo Township not far from Freeport, Pennsylvania.  Called The Montrose Distillery (RD#8, 23rd District), it was owned by A. Guckenheimer Bros. of Pittsburgh [See my post on Guckenheimer, April 15, 2012.]



Shown above in a survey drawing, the Montrose employed 12 men in the production of whiskey. The still was made of wood with a capacity of 125 gallons, heated by steam. It supplied two bonded warehouses that had been built in 1876, and 1881, with a combined capacity of around 20,000 barrels.



This acquisition likely led to Raphael expanding into a second liquor business with a new partner, Jacob Adolph, a firm called Raphael-Adolph Company, located at 927 Liberty Avenue (1901-1905) and subsequently at 436 Seventh Avenue (1906-1910).  This company billed itself as “Distillers and Jobbers of Fine Whiskey,” indicating steps beyond the rectifying practices of a wholesale liquor house.  This enterprise had its own set of proprietary brands, including “Blosburg,” "Blosburg Club","Sam Ewart", "Sam Henderson.” and "Pittsburgh Press Club.”  As shown below, this last whiskey may have been the flagship.



With National Prohibition still a long way off, Pennsylvania a reliably “wet” state known for distilling, and Pittsburgh a national center of the liquor trade, Rudolph 

with his prospering businesses was at a point where he could relax and enjoy the family life he had put off for so long. He moved Annie, Ralph and Irma into a three story mansion home at 332 Stratford Avenue in the Friendship District, a prosperous neighborhood of large Victorian houses in the East End of Pittsburgh.


Ensuing years. however, would bring repeated tragedies to the Raphael family.  In February 1909 Annie died after a two week siege of pneumonia, only 46 years old. During her decade in Pittsburgh she had earned a a reputation for her philanthropic work on behalf of Jewish and other charitable causes.  After a funeral at the family home, she was buried in Philadelphia at Mount Sinai Cemetery.  She and Rudolph had been married only ten years.


Annie’s death left her widower husband with two small children to raise — Ralph was nine; Irma only seven.  As Raphael struggled with his own loss and obligations to his youngsters, his mother Jeanette, living with his sister in Pittsburgh, died the following year.  Whether it was the blows of these losses or some other cause, Raphael’s health faltered and in July 1911, he died at the age of 57, leaving his two minor children orphaned.  After a family funeral Raphael was interred next to Annie in Mount Sinai Cemetery. 


The liquor business Raphael had worked a lifetime to build partially survived.  Whether sold by Raphael himself or his survivors, the Raphael-Adolph Company changed ownership. Continued to be managed by family members, Raphael & Zeugschmidt remained in business until 1918 and the approach of National Prohibition.










































 












 












Monday, October 12, 2020

Whiskey Men in Dangerous Towns

Foreword:   Many saloonkeeper in towns in the “Old West” were accustomed to the sounds of gunfighting.  Often those shots were fired in drunken altercations that may have begun in other saloons and tumbled into theirs.  Most proprietors were able to keep safely out of the way, as with the three publicans briefly profiled here, living in Kansas, Colorado and Texas towns where lawlessness often made for exciting times. 

Known as among the wildest of Wild West communities, Dodge City, Kansas, had a reputation for frequent murders and casual justice.  Neither seemed to deter Henry Sturm, a immigrant saloon keeper and liquor dealer, who faced off in Dodge against formidable opponents —  a gun-toting gang led by Bat Masterson.


A Kansas newspaper in the 1870s reported: “Kansas has but one Dodge City, with broad expanse of territory sufficiently vast for an empire; we have only room for one Dodge City; Dodge, a synonym for all that is wild, reckless, and violent; Hell on the Plains.” 


Despite these challenges, Sturm prospered.  A year after his arrival he bought the Occidental Saloon, shown below as reconstructed as part of the “Old Dodge” exhibit.  Sturm advertised…”A pint, a keg, or barrel of the very best, old Irish, hot Scotch, six year old hand made sour mash Kentucky copper distilled bourbon or old Holland gin.” 


  

Accustomed to the usual level of Dodge City violence, Sturm’s sternest test came during what was known as “The Saloon War of 1883.”  The conflict began when authorities arrested three women singers at Luke Short’s Long Branch Saloon. When things escalated, Short was banished from Dodge.   Quick with a gun himself, Short was backed by gunslingers like Bat Masterson, shown here, described at the time as “one of the most dangerous men in the West.”  Repairing to Topeka, Kansas, Short and Masterson assembled a gang of gunslingers with the purpose of returning to Dodge and getting revenge.


Sturm put himself on the line, signing an anti-gang telegram on May 13, 1883, to a reluctant Kansas governor, George Washington Glick, asking for state troops.  The saloonkeeper also signed an anti-gang article sent to the Topeka Daily Capital newspaper.  When Masterson and Short threatened to bring their rowdies to Dodge by train, the local sheriff enlisted local guns, including Sturm’s.  High tension gripped the town for days.  In the end, the issues were negotiated and no shots fired. The stalwartness of Sturm and his companions had paid off.


If it is true that every bottle has a story behind it, then the details behind the liquor jug shown left suggests enough material for a novel.   It would document an epic struggle between miners and mine owners in Colorado that involved armed intimidation, “stalag” conditions, shootings, and even murder.  Saloonkeeper Charles Niccoli was in the thick of it all.


Niccoli was born in 1858 in Poings, Italy.  Christened “Pasquale,” he became Charles (or “Charley”) upon arrival about 1884 in the United States, moving eventually to the coal fields of Colorado where he ran a saloon at Hastings. Most Colorado miners lived in these company towns, renting company houses, buying food and supplies in company stories and drinking at saloons controlled by the company.  


 


Charles Niccoli’s ability to rent the saloon building shown left with sign was predicated on his playing along with Victor-American Fuel Company.  This included not objecting to paying the operator each month a per capita sum that might range from 25 to 40 cents for each person whose name appeared upon the company payroll.  By paying off, Niccoli was allowed to enjoy exclusive saloon business in the camps.


Repeated violence in the Colorado coal fields in which protesting miners were murdered, led to Congressional hearings.  One witness told of being privy to a killing by strikebreakers at a Victor-American mine.  When he tried to accompany the body of the dead miner, he was told to “go home and go to sleep.”  Thoroughly frightened, he went to Niccoli’s saloon.  Niccoli was there and the miner asked him who the victim was.  The saloonkeeper scolded him:  “Nobody got shot…You can work—you go out—and you believe nobody got shot.”  Niccoli clearly was in Victor-American’s pocket.


The violence later spilled over into Niccoli’s own family.  In October 1915, seven coal miners, armed with guns and knives, stormed into his Delagua saloon.  A pitched battle ensued in which one man was killed and Charles’ brother, Frank Niccoli was stabbed with a butcher knife.  According to a newspaper account:  “His assailant after inflicting three wounds left the weapon in Niccoli’s back.”  When Charles removed it, Frank fainted but lived.


After Colorado in 1917 adopted a ban on the sale of alcohol of any kind throughout the state Niccoli was forced exit the saloon trade and seek other employment.  By that time he had accumulated considerable wealth from selling whiskey to the miners and owned substantial real estate in Colorado.  In the 1920 census Charles Niccoli. was recorded as owner/operator of a stock ranch and by 1930 as retired.


Daniel “Dan” Breen, shown here, was born in 1866 in a small Ohio town into a family of modest resources, Trained as a railroad telegrapher, Breen “followed the telegraph lines” west to San Antonio, Texas, a town still experiencing violent times.  There he was befriended by a local saloon and gambling kingpin, learned the whiskey business and opened his own saloon on Houston Avenue, a major thoroughfare.  As seen here from a postcard, Breen’s saloon was an upscale place, boasting tile floors, overhead fans in the days before air conditioning, and an ornate bar.



Breen’s very simple business card advertised “wine, liquors, and cigars.” The flip side of the card held a verse with a stanza that would prove prophetic:


“Cutoff in the prime of a useful life,”

The headlines glibly say, —

Or “snatched by the grim reaper”

He has crossed the great highway,

They bury him deep, while a few friends weep,

And the world moves on with a sigh.


San Antonio had not yet seen the end of reckless violence. It would erupt in Dan Breen’s saloon on the night of August 18, 1910.  Dennis Chapin, a wealthy Texas politician and developer who had a town named after him, held a grudge against Oscar J. Roundtree, a former Texas Ranger with a good record. When Chapin invited Roundtree over for a drink, the two had a heated argument over what the newspapers called “old troubles.”  


 


Drawing his eight-shot 45-caliber Colt, Chapin fired at Roundtree five times.  One bullet hole was found in the ceiling of Breen’s saloon, two in the walls, one in a rear screen door, and one squarely in the center of Rountree’s forehead that tore through his brain and exited back of his right ear.  Roundtree died at the San Antonio hospital the following morning.  Later examination found that he had a pistol in his back pocket but had not had an opportunity to draw it. 


Chapin was arrested but released from jail on bond.  At his trial, without any proof, Chapin claimed Roundtree had come to San Antonio to murder him and that he had shot him in self defense. Perhaps awed by his wealth, the jury believed him and after deliberating only 20 minutes voted acquittal.  Chapin. however, did not go unpunished.  His political career was at an end and his reputation plummeted.  The residents of Chapin regretted naming their town for him and officially changed it to Edinburg.


The Ohio native’s reaction to the violence committed in his saloon has gone unrecorded.  Breen operated his saloon until about 1917 when it disappeared from San Antonio directories.  It might have been the result of the tightening noose of prohibition in Texas or an effect of declining health.


Note:  Longer posts on each of these men appear on this site:  Henry Sturm, June 15, 2017;  Charles Niccoli, February 2, 2018, and Dan Breen, May 18, 2019