Today a bustling city of some 71,000 inhabitants Frederick, Maryland, in the 1880s was quiet village of 8,500 souls. On Independence Day, 1881, Frederick Columbus Knott, a liquor dealer and grocer, had “a front row seat” for what became known as “The Shootout at the Square Corner,” among the most exciting incidents in Frederick’s generally tranquil history.
Knott, shown right, was born in June 1847 in Frederick County, the son of Francis A., a farmer, and Ruth (Slagle) Knott. One of twelve children and reared on the family farm, Knott received a public school education and at age 16 left home for work as a clerk in a Frederick grocery store. After five years in that employ F. Columbus, as he was known, moved to a grocery owned by M. N. Rohrback. After nine years working there, in 1877, with a partner named William T. Besant, Knott struck out on his own, opening a store on East Patrick Street that specialized in “fine groceries” and above all, liquor and wine.
Besant & Knott sold their own brand of whiskey, buying stock from area distillers by the barrel and decanting it into their own bottles and jugs. Shown here is a quart bottle with the firm’s embossing. Embossing was a sign that the firm was selling sufficient quantities to warrant the additional expense over plain bottles. For wholesale and other customers, the firm provided half-gallon and gallon ceramic jugs of whiskey, as shown below.
Knott’s partner had a brother, Harry Besant, clerking for them in the store, a young man with a reputation as a rake and scoundrel. One of his victims was Mary Need, a girl he impregnated and whose baby, sent temporarily to a orphanage, died. Harry broke off with her and was courting other women. Mary, already considered “high strung,” became violent, was adjudged insane, and sent to an asylum. Her uncle, a Baltimore dentist named Joseph A. Webb, took strong exception to Harry’s treatment of Mary and arrived in Frederick on July 4, pistol in hand.
What happened next was related by an eyewitness: “I was sitting in front of my cigar store around 6 o’clock when Messrs. Besant and Debring came along….When the two had crossed the street at the crossing, Dr. Webb arose and began walking toward them. He drew his pistol at the same time and began firing at Besant when he was about at the middle of the street. The first shot went through the glass window. The second cut the brim off Mr. DeBring’s hat, the third shot hit Besant, and as he stooped over and partly turned about, a fourth ball passed over him. A great many fire-crackers were being exploded at the time, and the shooting attracted little notice until it had become known that Mr. Besant had been shot. The excitement spread quickly, and the details of the old scandal were revived.”
“The Shoot Out at the Square Corner” made headlines in newspapers from coast to coast as the story was told in its entirety. At his store F. Columbus was certain to have heard the shots and likely rushed to the scene to find Harry lying in a pool of blood on the street. Shot in the groin, the clerk eventually would make a full recovery and returned to work at Besant & Knott. Considered justified in his attack by most Frederick residents and even by Harry’s brother, Dr. Webb, after an initial arrest, returned to Baltimore without any charges filed.
Life in the grocery/liquor house returned to normal until 1896 when William Besant died and F. Columbus took over the business in his own name. An embossed glass bottle with a label signals the change. Knott continued to package his own whiskey and sell it in ceramic jugs as well as in glass. The firm prospered under his management, earning this tribute from a local observer: “Mr. Knott has directed the affairs of the establishment with an ability and sagacity that stamp him as a man of high executive capacity and rare merchantile acumen.”
Among Knott’s business practices was advertising vigorously in area newpapers, including illustrated ads like the one shown here with a cigar-smoking Western gunslinger-type. “We promise to send you home as satisfied as our friend in the sketch,” it declared. Married with two daughters, F. Columbus also ventured into the financial world as a director of the Frederick Town Savings institution, said to be one of the leading financial firms of Frederick County.
Knott continued to run his company with considerable success into his seventies when forced in 1920 to cease selling alcohol by the onset of National Prohibition. Unlike many whiskey men, Knott could fall back on his grocery trade once his liquor business had come to a screeching halt. A photo from that period shows him with a visit from his sister, Laura, one of only three siblings then still living. F. Columbus himself would pass in December of 1924 at the age of 77. He was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick. His gravestone is shown here.
Although the Shootout at Square Corner must have been a highly memorable moment in the life of F. Columbus Knott, I can find no public statement from him on the event. As a final statement on this whiskey man, a 1910 history of Frederick County described him as: “Honorable in all his dealings and a merchant of the old school whose business methods are characterized by the highest principles….”
Note: The biographical material on F. Columbus Knott largely is taken from “History of Frederick County, Maryland, Volume II (From the Beginning of the Year 1861 Down to the Present Time)” by Folger McKinney, 1910. Details and illustrations related to the Shootout are from a website, “Stories in Stone,” by Chris Haugh, described as an award-winning researcher, writer, documentarian and presenter of Frederick County, Maryland, history.