Monday, April 19, 2021

William Brachman’s War, Whiskey and Politics

Brought to this country from Germany as a toddler, William E. Brachman amply earned his credentials as a citizen of the United States by his gallant service in the Union Army during the Civil War, his dedication to selling domestic liquor, and his apparent close interest in American political life.  The last was made manifest by ceramic whiskeys, including the little brown jug seen here.

Born in October 1837 in Frankfort-on-Oder, Brachman (alternatively “Brachmann)  arrived with his family in 1840, settling in Cincinnati.  His father, a farmer in Germany, after several years in the city went back to agriculture.  The Brachmans moved to Highland County, Ohio, a hilly jurisdiction north and west of “The Queen City.”  There the boy completed his education while assisting on the farm.

Just 21 years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, Brachman was quick to enlist in the Union Army in June 1861.  He was mustered into the 47th Volunteer Ohio Infantry Regiment as a corporal, indicating he had some amount of secondary education.  As the tattered battle flag of the 47th suggests the regiment was thrown repeated into major battles.  Meanwhile Brachman was rising steadily through the ranks.  In December of 1862 he was promoted to second lieutenant.  In that role he was wounded at the Siege of Vicksburg, shown below.  Brachman recovered sufficiently to rejoin the 47th Ohio where in July 1964, age 24, he was raised to first lieutenant and assigned to command Company H. 

 During General Sherman’s siege of Atlanta, shown below, Brachman distinguished himself as a military leader.  In an after-action report by the regimental commander, Major Taylor,  the German immigrant was singled out for praise for having “rendered efficient aid in various assaults.”  In one instance Taylor described Brachman and Company H “pouring a continuous and deadly fire into the enemy, driving them from the works, and retaking a section of artillery which the enemy had turned on us.”

After the war the decorated soldier came back to Cincinnati where thereafter he was called “Captain” Brachman.  It is unclear if he had been raised to that rank before being mustered out or if it was an honorific.  Brachman also returned to marry Georgia Ann Robb from Highland County in May 1872.  The young woman may have been a childhood sweetheart.  Over the next six years they would have four children, daughters Jessie, born in 1873; Willa, 1874; Sarah, 1879, and son Fredrick, 1877.

Following his return Brachman formed a business partnership with Charles J. Glossner, a Cincinnati local of similar age who may have learned the liquor trade working in his father’s store.  The partners’ first address was 168 Elm Street.  They soon outgrew those premises, moving to 125-127 Walnut Street.  Within several years, however, the partnership was severed for reasons unknown.  Glossner carried on at the Walnut Street address while Brachman moved along and in 1869 found a new partner.  

He was John Peter Massard, a considerably older local tradesman.  Earlier, Massard’s career had taken many turns, working as a baker, saddle maker, druggist and steamboat operator before joining Brachman in a wholesale and retail liquor business, located at 79-81 West Third Road.  That would be the address of Brachman & Massard Wines & Liquors for the next two decades. The partners likely were “rectifiers,” blending raw whiskeys they obtained from neighboring Kentucky distilleries to sell.  They advertised in 1890 that they were mixing “whiskey, gin, and brandy cocktails…prepared for use by the bottle or gallon.” In soliciting the cocktail trade they were ahead of their time.

The partnership also was marked by the creativity of the partners in their choice of containers for their whiskey.  The jugs seen here are all the creation of the Kirkpatrick brothers of Anna, Illinois, a pottery firm 350 miles west of Cincinnati.  The Kirkpatrick’s produced a series of ceramic bottles that incorporated a variety of snakes, lizards and other animals.  Some observers have concluded that the jugs were meant to illustrate the evils of strong drink: “The ghastly images evoked in these jugs are brutal and meant to be a warning to those tempted by liquor.

Wait a minute!  Several of those jugs carry labels indicating that they came from Brachman and Massard.  The jug above, shown from three angles, features a snake that wraps around the neck of the jug and then loops out to form the handle. The incised letters in the Albany slip on the front identifies the item as a “Little Brown Jug” from the Cincinnati liquor dealers and bears the date 1876.  Brachman and his partner though their mini-jug were making an anti-Prohibition statement.  The snake, if it meant anything, was menacing the “dries.”

If the witness of this jug is not enough to dispel the notion of a Kirkpatrick temperance crusade, a second ceramic crafted for Brachman & Massard should be sufficient.  Shown here in two images, including one that opens this post, this small jug carries a label that clearly identifies the contents as coming from the Cincinnati wine and liquor dealers.  This jug also carries a political message.  Look carefully at the base below. Note the scratches.  Those slash marks, “8 to 7,” were making a partisan statement.  They were a reference to the Presidential election of 1876 in which Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, received a larger popular vote than the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, but the electoral vote essentially was a tie. To decide which one would become President a group of five congressmen, five senators and five members of the Supreme Court were selected to make the decision. By an 8 to 7 vote —widely thought to have been swayed by political promises — they determined that Hayes was the winner.

The result set off a firestorm of protest that tore the country apart to an extent not rivaled in American history until last January’s Trump-inspired insurrectionist assault on the U.S. Capitol.  Although the Kirkpatrick brothers of Anna Pottery were known to be fierce Tilden partisans,  Brachman and his partner must have been in full agreement.  They knew their customers would understand the symbolism. 

Brachman & Massard survived well beyond the Tilden-Hayes controversy until 1897, moving during the last two years from West Third Street to East Third.  In the meantime, Brachman had become wealthy from liquor sales.  He moved his family into a spacious home on Morris Place, an upscale neighborhood. He also was investing in transportation as one of five founder-owners of the Cincinnati, Georgetown & Portsmouth Railroad.  This interurban narrow-gauge train was unusual in being powered by coal burning stream engines rather than electricity.  Shown here atop the White Oak trestle, from a modest beginning the line grew to serve territory that had no other steam railroad and survived into the Twentieth Century.

Brachman lived long enough to see the dawning of the new century, but just barely.  At the age of 63, he died in January 1901.  The Civil War hero and whiskey dealer was cremated at Cincinnati’s Hillside Chapel and his ashes deposited in the adjoining colombarium.  Shown here is a room in that facility, one displaying ceramic jars containing ashes.  None, however, are valued at the thousands of dollars that Brachman & Massard’s  Anna Pottery ceramics currently fetch from collectors.

Note:   I was drawn to the story of William Brachman by the jugs that decorate this post.  Their significance is explained by Author Richard D. Mohr in his 2003 book entitled, “George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick.”  Brachman’s heroics during the attack on Atlanta are contained in a document entitled “HDQRS. FORTY-SEVENTH OHIO INFANTRY VOLUNTEERS, East Point, Ga., September 10, 1864.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

H. Scott Sons: The Means of Making It in Memphis

For years Henry Scott ran a successful wholesale liquor business in Greenville, Mississippi.  As they reached maturity, his sons — Jacob, Lewis and Isadore — joined him learning the whiskey trade.  In 1908, however, Mississippi became one of the first Deep South states to go dry.  Out of business, Henry’s sons decided to move their enterprise upriver to Memphis and begin anew. Despite innovative approaches, embodied by the illustration above, H. Scott Sons found the going difficult.

Father Henry Scott was born Henry Skotzky in 1832 in Gnesen, Prussia, now Gniezno, Poland.  He arrived in the United States at the age of 25, possibly already married to his wife Hannah, a woman six years younger than he. The couple appear to have settled initially in New York City where son Jacob was born in 1857.  He would be the first of ten children, five daughters and five sons, born over the next 21 years.  

When Scott first entered the liquor business is uncertain.  About 1862 Henry and hannah moved to Louisiana where their second child was born.  After a sojourn there of no more than three years, the family moved to Mississippi and thence to Greenville. Before the Civil War Greenville had been a prosperous cotton depot but the town had been burned to the ground by Union troops.  Scott apparently could see the potential for the rebuilding as Greenville grew steadily from a population of 890 in 1870 to almost 10,000 over the next 30 years.

Henry opened a business there he called “H. Scott Wholesale Liquor Merchants” locating it on the main street, Washington Avenue, shown above  His customer base was in Greenville’s hotels, restaurants and saloons.  Henry also appears to have sold at retail.  His proprietary “house” brand was “Scott’s Private Stock Whiskey.”  He apparently met with considerable success in the sale of alcoholic beverages.  A measure of it was his being chosen by the Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee as its exclusive beer distributor in that region of Mississippi.

As his first three sons matured, Henry took them into the business one by one.  Jacob was the first to join his father in the liquor house.  He was followed by Louis, born in 1874, and  Isador, born in 1876.  As the years progressed the Scotts could see the Prohibition movement grow stronger and stronger in Mississippi, as in the rest of the Nation.  Gradually through “local option” laws surrounding communities were being shut off to them.   Finally in 1908, Mississippi by state law went completely “dry.”  H. Scott Company was out of business.

Henry, now 72 and possibly in failing health, retired.  His sons did not. About 1912 Jacob, Louis and Isador decided to open a liquor business in Memphis  Their father likely provided much of the upfront money to make the enterprise possible.  The brothers intended to cash in on the surging market for liquor through mail order sales to the proliferating “dry” states and localities.  The Supreme Court had ruled that laws prohibiting such sales violated the interstate commerce provision of the Constitution.  Even if Tennessee was mostly dry, Memphis was centrally located in the country and a transportation hub for railroad, river, and highway — ideal for such an operation.

Thus was born H. Scott Sons Company of Memphis.  Although all three were listed as the managers, Jacob, considerably older than his brothers and well established in Greenville. stayed at home.  Louis and Isador, the latter shown here, still in their 30s and unmarried, moved to Memphis. 

The Scotts set up shop in the Falls Building, seen here.  It was among the city’s most prestigious — and expensive — addresses. Moreover, the success of a mail order liquor house depended on flossy, eye-catching advertising done through widespread media and colorful catalogues, all contributing to a financial drain.  In a field already crowded with mail order dealers, Scott’s Sons, as in the ads below, attempted to carve a niche for themselves by claims like “We sink all competition on price and quality,” and offering cigar coupons.

Scott’s Sons promotional materials also touted dubious heath claims: “Your family doctor will tell you that it is a necessity to have whiskey on hand, because in case of sickness its usefulness cannot be estimated. You cannot wait until someone gets sick before you place an order.  Again:  “Doctors recommend whiskey for a tonic and say it will add years to your life because it has properties that will stop decay and waste.”

The brothers featured a variety of proprietary brands, likely ordered by the barrel and poured into whatever labeled bottles might be available.  Among them was “Grandpa Corn Whiskey” at 100-proof, sold with the claim:   Offers quality in every drop… is excellent for your health…will make you feel better after using it.” The company’s flagship was “Old Scott,” likely named after Henry and carrying his likeness on the label.  The bottle is shown below along with another featured brand, “Old Harvester.”

H. Scott’s Sons experienced a rocky financial road.  Really successful whiskey men typically resided in upscale houses or lodged in luxury hotels.  City directories indicate Lewis and Isador were living in a boarding house in 655 Poplar Avenue, a less fashionable part of Memphis, shown here.  As one observer has put it:  When company owners live in rented lodgings, that’s not exactly a sign of long-term prosperity.” Moreover, by 1915, the Scott brothers had moved their operation out of their posh address at the Falls Building and into a ground floor headquarters in the 70 block of Union Avenue, a street of small family-run businesses.  By 1918 they disappeared from city directories, apparently defunct.

The 1920 census found Isador back in Greenville, working as the manager of a candy factory.  Louis, having met his wife, Margaret Landman, in Memphis, stayed there becoming a manager at well known Goldsmith’s Department Store.  Louis died and was buried in Memphis in 1938.  In Greenville, Father Henry Scott died in 1915, followed by Jacob in 1923, and Isador in 1964.  The three are buried in adjacent graves marked by a large granite monument. 

Despite the success of their father, two factors spelled the doom of H. Scott’s Sons’ Memphis enterprise.  First, they had miscalculated how crowded the field had become for mail order liquor sales.   Dozens of dealers already were selling directly to customers all over the United States.  Breaking in was an expensive, potentially long term proposition.  Second, and more important, the trade was highly dependent on compliant federal and state laws.  The Scotts had misjudged the growing strength of the “dry” forces and their unflagging efforts to ban mail order liquor sales — a crusade that culminated in fourteen years of National Prohibition.  In sum, Jacob, Louis and Isador had come late and the party was over.

Note:  I was drawn to the story of the Scotts by seeing the image from a catalogue cover that opens this vignette.  In the course of my research I found an article by Vance Lauderdale online that originally had appeared in the September 2011 issue of Memphis magazine. Mr. Lauderdale, who wrote a humorous column about his home town, found the image above particularly amusing:   The “order now” salesman [Isador?] is sitting in his office: “Meanwhile the Falls Building itself — where he would actually have been working — is visible down the street outside his window. I guess the artist couldn’t figure out how to show the H. Scott’s Sons salesman and the company’s building at the same time…. Even so, the Falls Building did not carry the name “H. Scott’s Sons” in giant letters across its rooftop.”

Sunday, April 11, 2021

George Hand and His Iconic Arizona Diary

As a saloonkeeper in Tucson, Arizona, during the last quarter of the 19th Century, George O. Hand drank to excess, often frequented prostitutes, and ran a saloon where violent behavior was a nightly affair.  Nevertheless, Hand, shown here, became an Arizona legend simply by the expedient of keeping a diary of his life and times.

Hand was born in 1830 in Whiteside, Oneida County, New York, the son of Ira W. and Sybil Foster Hand, the oldest of six children.  His father was listed in the 1850 federal census as a manufacturer, indicating a reasonable amount of wealth in the family.  The boy likely had a secondary education.  A brother became a well known dentist.  George himself had a wanderlust and with the hint of gold in California in 1849 set his sights on the West Coast. 

Hand’s success as a gold miner is unknown but when the Civil War broke out, he  enlisted in August 1861 at Nevada City, California, joining Company G of the California 1st Infantry Regiment.  Likely because he was older (31) and perhaps more literate than most Union recruits, he entered with the rank of sergeant.  The regiment never saw combat as Confederate military forays westward from Texas ended early in the war.  Hand and his fellow soldiers spent the duration doing garrison work in New Mexico, Arizona and West Texas, stationed for a time at Ft. Yuma, California, shown below. It was during this period that Hand first began to keep a diary.

After his discharge in August 1864 the writing stopped as Hand returned briefly to  his family in New York.  The 1865 state census recorded him there, listing his occupation as “miner.”  Hand did not stay long in the East, returning west to engage in a series of unsuccessful business enterprises in New Mexico and Arizona.  In 1867, he moved to Tucson, a town that was undergoing a growth spurt, and became a partner in a butcher shop.  

In the summer of 1869, Hand and his partner, George F. Foster, sold the butcher shop and opened a Tucson drinking establishment they called “Foster’s Saloon.”  When Foster temporarily left the partnership, Hand moved it from Main Street to the northwest corner of Mesilla and Meyer Streets.  Shown below is a photo of the area.  The man standing at far right is in front of the saloon. 


Like many buildings in Tucson, the drinking establishment was a one story adobe structure with a flat roof.   The interior was stark with a plain counter top as a bar and a few tables and chairs scattered around the room.  Hand and Foster subsequently put up a partition to separate the main bar from gambling tables in the back. The only adornment was some Currier & Ives prints that Hand pasted on the walls, including the one of a horse, shown here.  At night the barroom was lighted by kerosene lamps.  Several smaller rooms were at the rear, one them where Hand, a lifelong bachelor, slept.  A courtyard out back contained the privy.

Hand’s drinks similarly were unadorned.  Whiskey was his customers’ liquor of choice and they were not fussy. No need for nationally known brands.  Hand was buying whiskey by the barrel from wholesale dealers, selling some over the bar by the glass and decanting the rest into bottles and jugs for retail sales.  He did not slap proprietary labels on those containers as some did.

Hand is believed to have to have revived his habit of a daily diary entry about 1872 after opening the saloon.  Early entries apparently have been lost.  Those that exist begin in January 1875 and end in the late 1880s.  Biographer Neil Carmony has described the importance of Hand’s “saloon diary:”  “Most of the  pioneers who took the time to keep a diary were serious and orderly folks,not much given to humor and certainly not frank about their love loves…In his diary,  George Hand captured the flavor of the ribald, fun side of frontier life, described the often violent West, and revealed the…loneliness and tedium of a life far from home and family.”

During this period Hand was living a life far different from his New York family.  Shown left with one of his many young friends, dressing and looking like an early day hippie, George generally was considered a “good guy” in Tucson’s rough and rowdy community.  In his diary Hand was starkly honest about his activities and the saloon.  For example, he documented his alcoholism with precision:   Jan. 19, 1875:  “Got up at 8 o’clock. Took one drink and was tight.  Kept drinking until 11 a.m., then went to bed full of rot and slept till 3 p.m.” Nov. 5, 1875:  “Got drunk today.” and the next day: “Got tight again. Went to a funeral.  Got tighter at night.”  Oct. 5, 1877:  “Very dull.  Drank all day and all evening.”

He was equally faithful in documenting his visits and payments to Tucson prostitutes:  Jan. 13, 1875: “Cruz—$5.00;”  Jan. 18, 1875:  “Unknown girl—$3.00;”  Nov. 6, 1875:  “Juana—$1.00.” Dec. 23, 1876:  “Called on Pancha a few moments—$10.”  Hand also described the raucous activity at the saloon:  May 23, 1875:  “Green Rusk got tight, had a row with John Luck and got a cut in his head from a cane.” May 29, 1875:  “Boyle hit a man in the eye for calling him a son-of-a-bitch.  Later in the evening I knocked a man down,”  Mar. 9, 1976: “Mr. Bedford, being full of liquor, made a row with old Dick.  Foster hit Bedford in the neck and put him out of doors.”

Interspersed among such diary jottings are some Western history gems: "March 19, 1882:  “Morgan Earp died today from a gunshot wound he received while playing billiards in Tombstone. He was shot through a window from the sidewalk.”  March 21, 1882:  “Frank Stillwell was shot all over, the worst shot-up man that I ever saw. He was found a few hundred yards from the hotel on the railroad tracks [In Tucson]. It is supposed to be the work of Doc Holliday and the Earps, but they were not found. Holliday and the Earps knew that Stillwell shot Morg Earp and they were bound to get him.”

Twenty years after Hand’s death, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson’s morning newspaper, shown here, began publishing entries from his diaries as a historical feature on its editorial page.  From 1917 to 1972, the saloonkeeper’s observations were printed almost daily, bringing a man who otherwise likely would have been utterly forgotten to the forefront of public attention.  As Carmody has noted:  “For more than four decades, thousands of Arizonians began their day reading George Hand’s laconic [and sometimes expurgated] comments on frontier life.”   One observer has called Hand’s diaries “sacred documents.”

Hand continued to co-manage the saloon until 1881 when he and Foster, partners for twenty years, shut it down. He found it difficult to stay away from the whiskey trade. In March of 1882 Hand entrained 60 miles south from Tucson to Contention City, now a ghost mining town eight miles east of Tombstone.  There he pitched in to help a friend open a new saloon.  After staying four months Hand returned to Tucson, never again leaving that city.

As he aged, Hand modified his behavior and his appearance.  Townsfolk, recognizing his Civil War service, began to address him with respect as “the old Captain” even though Hand had never risen above sergeant.  His veterinary skill with dogs brought him friends among people of wealth.  Gone was the shaggy, unkept beard and the wrinkled clothing.  A photo in middle age with a favorite dog shows Hand dressed in a three-piece suit and holding a bowler hat, looking every bit the Eastern businessman. He and Foster were elected charter members of the Society of Arizona Pioneers, a forerunner of the Arizona Historical Society.  Hand also was an active member of the G.A.R., Civil War veterans organization.  Remarkably given his past, he served for a time as the chaplain of the Tucson chapter. 

After Hand’s return to Tucson in 1882 he was hired as a janitor and night watchman for the newly constructed Pima County courthouse, shown here  The job gave him an income, an office in which to continue writing his diary, and a place to sleep at night.  Even in his younger days Hand often had complained of feeling ill. In 1887 his health deteriorated rapidly, apparently heart failure.  

By April Hand was too sick to work and was taken in by the Foster family.  He died on May 3, 1887, at the age of 57 and was buried in the G.A.R. section of the Tucson Cemetery.  His tombstone is shown here.  Note that it does not give Hand’s dates of birth or death but only his Civil War unit.

A last word on George Hand I leave to Author Neil Carmony:  “His ingenuous writings are both rich reading and important historical documents. George Hand chronicled the lives and loves of the pioneers with a candor and style that is unique in the literature of the Old West.

Note:  Although a number of articles have appeared about George Hand, the principal source for this vignette was the book, “Whiskey, Six-guns & Red-light Ladies: George Hand’s Saloon Diary, Tucson, 1875-1878,”  edited by Neil Carmony and published by High-Lonesome Books, Silver City NM, 1995.  Carmony has included them all in an unexpurgated edition, along with informative commentary.  I recommend it to readers of this blog.  The photos here are gratefully acknowledged from the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Wealthy Whiskey Men Outside the Law

Foreword:  A few men who entered the whiskey trade did so from positions of wealth and social prestige in their communities.  Many more acquired their money and community recognition from the healthy profits that could be made by selling liquor.  A few individuals in each group could move toward criminality if they saw their incomes being threatened.  These are brief stories of three rich whiskey men who “went to the dark side.”    

Long before the name Hollywood became identified with the motion picture industry, New Yorkers were drinking a popular brand of whiskey by that name, as shown below on a 19th Century bar token.  The liquor was the product of William Maynard Fliess, shown here.  Fleiss was a prominent New York businessman, government reformer and philanthropist whose fall from grace was intwined with his relationship to a corrupt New York police inspector known as  “Clubber” Williams.  

After disdaining a career in law, the rich and well-born Fleiss in the 1870s purchased a liquor dealership in Manhattan and was mixing raw spirits at the 47 Broadway address to create the blended “Hollywood Whiskey.”  Its sales enhanced his wealth and he invested in Western mines and railroads.  He was chosen as a member of an elite committee of New York citizens investigating political corruption and appointed chairman of its law committee, a singular honor.  The resulting prestige appears to have vaulted Fliess into the upper echelons of New York society.   One writer called him:  “A thorough businessman, a good public speaker, an enthusiastic fisherman and an excellent rife shot.”  

Enter Alexander S. Williams, a New York policeman who in 1887 had risen to the rank of inspector in Manhattan.  Because of his aggressive police methods including the liberal use of his night stick, he was widely known as “Clubber" Williams.  Clubber was notorious for soliciting bribes.  Just how and when Fleiss cut a deal with Williams is unclear.  Soon district police were taking great interest in the sale of Hollywood Whiskey.  Captains and detectives were introducing company salesmen to the saloonkeepers of the area with implied police protection for those who purchased it.  Many complied.  “…The Hollywood Company is said to be in a highly prosperous condition, yielding large profits,” said an investigative report.

A probe by a committee of the New York State Legislature had a particular interest in the relationship of Williams to the Hollywood Distilling Company and William Fliess.  One report suggested that Fliess had given Williams a part ownership in his company.  Others believed it was just a standard case of bribery with Clubber filtering some of the money down to his foot soldiers in blue. With committee hearings meriting daily stories in New York’s newspapers, Fliess’s standing as a businessman, anti-corruption leader, and member of New York high society clearly was besmirched.  

But why would such a man stoop to deal with Clubber Williams, a known shady character?  My belief is that the liquor dealer was in financial distress, likely over the collapse of his Western investments.  Never formally indicted for wrongdoing, Fleiss faded from public view.  Almost nothing more about him appears in the public record, including his place of interment when he died in 1904 at the age of 71. 

Alfred E. Norris was a certified “blue blood,”  born to well-to-do parents, well educated, a member of Philadelphia’s most exclusive clubs, and listed in the city’s high society “Blue Book.”  He lived in a mansion home where he and family were waited on by four live-in servants.   What then was Norris doing consorting with the likes of Joel D. Kerper, one of Philadelphia’s most notorious bootleggers?  The answer, as will be seen, would be found in National Prohibition.  

Born in 1960,  Norris, while still in his 20s with the help of family money went into the whiskey trade, establishing a Philadelphia liquor enterprise he called “Alfred E. Norris & Company.”  His flagship label was “Garrick Club,” a rye whiskey.  As an aristocrat might do,  Norris named it after one of the oldest and most prestigious men’s clubs in London.  It proved to be very popular.

Alfred E. Norris & Co and its lucrative business came to a screeching halt in 1920 with the imposition of National Prohibition.  Norris and his family then moved to New York City.  Enter Joel D. Kerper, widely known as the bootlegger who obtained illegal liquor for Philadelphia’s elites. The bootlegger and Norris partnered in a scheme in which Norris, identified as “a Manhattan broker,” sent Kerper express shipments of high grade liquor masquerading as ink, paint, olive oil and other unremarkable commodities. This arrangement was successful for years until 1929 when Hoover Administration officials began to crack down on illegal booze.  

Prohibition agents who raided Kerper's establishment found liquor and a customers' list that included the names of many socially prominent individuals, including the link to Norris.  In 1929 Norris was charged with conspiring to transport liquor, a federal offense punishable by a hefty fine and a long prison sentence.  His arrest resulted from telephone orders he took from Kerper to initiate liquor shipments.  The story of the New York money man being caught in a scandal made Time magazine and newspaper headlines around the country.

The Norris’ case had many legal twists and turns.  Dogged in pursuit of a conviction, the U.S. Attorney General Mitchell took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  There in May 1930 the Court let stand the original indictment. On the matter of whether Norris and Kerper were engaged in a “criminal conspiracy” -- Mitchell’s underlying reason for bringing the charges -- the Supremes refused to go along. On that issue the High Court pointedly stated: “...We express no opinion.  Norris paid a $200 fine and went home to his Manhattan mansion, fading into the mists of history. 


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.”  What had brought Norman to this criminal conviction?

Earlier, Norman had made a name for himself by owning hotels, restaurants and serving liquor there, and selling it in stores he owned. His flagship label was “Viking,” a name he never bothered to trademark.  Norman also was a leader of the anti-prohibition lobby in Washington State.  Regardless of his opposition, a statewide ban on alcohol was enacted in 1916.  Perhaps remembering prior successes at flouting local “dry” laws, Norman continued to sell liquor from his 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.”

As indicated by headline that opens this vignette, 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 he actually served time.  Later Norman continued to be active in business, looking after other investments that now included utilities, mining and real estate.  The millionaire executive, hotelier and whiskey man lived to see National Prohibition repealed in 1934, remaining active into his nineties. 

Note:  Lengthier individual vignettes on each of these whiskey men may be found elsewhere on this website:  William Fleiss, May 24, 2020;  Alfred Norris, November 23, 2013; and William Norman, March 21, 2020.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Don’t Mess with Henry Berger, Cuz Henry Don’t Like It

 Do not let the benign face of the young man at left fool you.  He grew up fatherless; educated himself in that fabled school of hard knocks; ran a store in a tough part of town, and after being strangled at gunpoint by a trio of robbers managed to shoot one of his assailants.  He was Henry Wenzel Berger of Vicksburg, Mississippi, a whiskey man who did not like “being messed with.”

Berger was born in Natchez, Mississippi, in july 1865, not long after the end of the Civil War that had brought hard times to much of the South.  His father, Charles Berger was a baker.  When Henry was only  seven, Charles died, leaving his mother, Barbara (nee Spengler) a widow with two young children to raise.  Berger’s education and early career have not been documented but it can be assumed that he received the minimum schooling and went to work at an early age. 


By the time Henry was 18 he had moved from Natchez 73 miles north on the Mississippi River to the larger city of Vicksburg, shown here in the late 19th Century. There at 18 years old he opened a restaurant/saloon under the name “H.W. Berger.”  Located at Washington and China Streets, a rough part of town, his eatery was open round the clock.  Berger claimed:  “Tables are constantly supplied with The Best this and new Orleans or St. Louis Markets afford.”

Exiting the restaurant business, Berger then entered into a partnership with a Vicksburg local named Bove, setting up a general store on Washington Street that sold a wide variety of goods, including liquor.  On a hot June night in 1891, Berger and his partner were just closing up when there was a knock on the door and someone calling “Open the door Mr. Henry.”  Accustomed to being addressed in that fashion, he opened the door and a man he did not recognize walked in.

When the customer bought five cents of candy and proffered a quarter, Berger was obliged to open the safe to make change, shutting it immediately.  In the meantime two other males he did not recognize had entered the store.  All three then brandished pistols and demanded money.  According to the Vicksburg Evening Post, the feisty Berger answered:  “Well here is the safe, gentlemen, help yourselves.”  When their efforts at opening the safe failed, one drew a large knife and threatened to cut Berger’s throat unless he opened it.  Henry was unmoved.

Thwarted in that effort to intimidate the storekeeper the intruders found a cotton rope, made a loop knot and proceeded to strangle him.  “Mr. Berger although in a suffocating position still pluckily refused to accede to the demand,” according to press accounts.  Fearing for his partner’s life, Bove opened the safe.  The gunmen took cash and fled.  Just moments after his garroting, Berger leapt into action, grabbed his gun and began firing, slightly wounding one of the intruders.  As the three armed men ran out the door, Berger continued to pursue them down the street, firing as he went.  To no avail.  The robbers got clean away.   

Perhaps it was the trauma of this potentially deadly encounter that caused Bove to exit the partnership while Berger, remaining on Washington Street, continued in business, “prosperous and successful” according to one account.  In March 1902, however, a calamitous fire of suspicious origins ripped through his store destroying the building and Berger’s entire stock.  Two small homes that adjoined his building also were consumed.  According to the Vicksburg Evening Post:  “There was some delay in getting a sufficient water pressure.  The work of the fire department was also somewhat deficient.”  The loss was estimated at $8,000 ($176,000 in today’s dollar) only partially covered by insurance.

Berger, now 37 years old, again displaying toughness in the face of adversity, determined to start over.  Understanding the profitability of the liquor trade, his new enterprise was a liquor, wine, cigar and tobacco store.  He was selling liquor both at retail and wholesale in glass pints and quarts and in stoneware half gallon and gallon jugs.  It was one of his two gallon jugs that recently sold at auction for $250, that led me to Henry and his story.  Views of that jug, right, and a gallon jug are below.

The Mississippian appears to have been a “rectifier,” someone blending whiskeys in order to achieve a desired color, smoothness and taste.  These then were sold as his proprietary brands, among them “Berger’s Private Stock Whiskey” and “Old Ft. Miro Rye.”  He failed to trademark either label.  In addition, Berger was selling national whiskeys like “Paducah Club” and “Kentwood Rye” both brands from Loeb, Bloom & Company, a liquor wholesaler in Paducah, Kentucky. [See my post on Loeb, Sept. 26, 2018].  Along with their whiskeys, Loeb, Bloom would have provided Berger with advertising giveaways, including mini-jugs and shot glasses.

Despite his heavy business responsibilities, Henry in his late 20s found time to marry. His bride was Clara Spengler, a woman of about 21 when they wed.  Clara, a Mississippian born in Vicksburg in 1872, is shown here in maturity.  They would have only one child, Mary Henrietta, born in 1895.  The family eventually lived at 1101 Belmont Street, shown here, a structure now converted into a restaurant.

Family life, however, did not end Berger’s problems.  The early 1900s found him as the proprietor of the Woodbine Saloon and the building it occupied at 106 Washington Street.  He was arrested in March 1907 for having rented an upper floor of the building to a fraternal organization called “The Owls Club.”  The club rooms consisted of a library, a dining and lounging room, and a large room where card games, chiefly poker, were carried on.  Under a Mississippi anti-gambling statute both the owner and the occupant of a building where gambling was discovered were subject to legal penalties.  After a police raid on the club Berger was slapped with a $25 fine. 

Ever feisty and unwilling to pay up, Henry hired a top Vicksburg law firm to defend him. Several witnesses, including the Owls’ president, testified there was no way Berger could have known there were poker games going on overhead.  The club entrance, his attorneys pointed out, was a stairway at the side of the building, well away from the saloon.  When it was pointed out by the prosecution that Berger himself was an Owl, his defense crumbled. The Vicksburg judge added $100 to the fine.  

More devastating to Berger than his conviction, Mississippi voted itself completely dry the following year.  He was forced to shut down his liquor operation and the Woodbine Saloon.  For the following several years Vicksburg directory entries indicate no occupation for Berger.   Although bootlegging was common in Mississippi, he was never connected with it and he later ran a “dry” cafe.  In 1945 Henry Berger died in at home at the age of 79 and was buried in Vicksburg’s Cedar Hill Cemetery.  His headstone is shown here. There is no large monument to this feisty Southerner in the graveyard.  Instead his liquor jugs keep alive the memory of a “don’t mess with me” whiskey man.

Note:  As mentioned above, it was a Berger jug that first alerted me to the fortitude of Henry Berger facing multiple travails as a liquor dealer and saloonkeeper.  Stories from the Vicksburg Evening Post and other newspapers furnished much of the material, augmented by the Federal census, Vicksburg directories, and genealogical sources.