Wednesday, May 22, 2019

David Nicholson’s 1843 Whiskey Inspiration

Memorialized recently as among the 100 Who Helped Shape St. Louis,” David Grace Nicholson has been hailed as a grocer who broadened the palate of the local citizenry, the developer of a notable downtown building, an outspoken Union patriot in a divided Missouri, and even the author of “a high order of verse.”  Yet the single accomplishment that has kept Nicholson’s name alive before the American public was that inspired day in a back room of his store when he created the recipe for an historic whiskey, known ever after as “David Nicholson’s 1843.” 

Nicholson was born December, 1814, in the Scottish village of Foster Wester, County Perth, into a family of modest means.  After rudimentary schooling and largely self-educated, he became a grocer’s apprentice in Glasgow, and later in Oban, the West Highlands.  About 1832 Nicholson emigrated to Canada, landing at Montreal, proceeding to Ottawa.  Unsuccessful in finding employment, he learned the carpenter’s trade and as an itinerant traveled to a number of Canadian towns and eventually found his way to the United States. 

Beginning in Erie, Pennsylvania, moving to Chicago and ultimately on to St. Louis,  Nicholson plied the carpenter’s trade.   An 1883 biography commented:  “Physically strong and mentally quick, he was…noted for rapid and superior workmanship.  Some of the finest ornamental woodwork in St. Xavier’s Church, St. Louis, was his work….”   Although a devout Presbyterian, in later years Nicholson often referred with pride to his labor for the Jesuits.

In St. Louis, David met Jane McHendrie, an immigrant from Scotland who was 10 years his junior.  They wed about 1840.  Their marriage would produce six children, three boys and three girls. Nicholson settled his family in a large home, shown here.  An imposing structure it had 84 feet of frontage on Garrison Street near the corner of Franklin.  Later the home would be presented by grateful St. Louis citizens to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman for his service to the Nation during the Civil War.  As a passionate pro-Union partisan, the grocer must have been delighted.

In 1843 at the age of 29, Nicholson gave up carpentry to join with a fellow Scotsman and wine merchant to form a specialty grocery and liquor dealership.  With a genius for business, David flourished, moving several times as the volume of customers increased.  Shown here is an illustration of one of his early stores.  As a wholesaler, Nicholson did a brisk trade helping to supply wagon trains with food and drink as they headed west from St. Louis.  As the ad below demonstrates, he also was doing business in the East from a sales office in New York City.  

After several moves Nicholson in 1870 settled into a large building at Nos. 13 and 15 North Six Street between Market and Chestnut, one constructed on his own specifications.  Shown here, the structure featured five floors, each 50 by 135 feet.   He employed 50 clerks to deal with the constant customer traffic.

Nicholson was the first St. Louis grocer to import foreign comestibles, sometimes chartering ships and loading them with cargoes from abroad.  Said a biographer:  “He did more than any other man in the St. Louis trade to educate the community in the importance of purchasing superior goods, and to induce the consumption of commodities hitherto unknown in this market.”

One previously unknown commodity of Nicholson’s doing was his recipe for whiskey.  Whether in 1843, as he started in business, or later, he developed  recipes for bourbon and rye that found ready acceptance from the drinking public in Missouri and across the Mississippi River in Illinois.  For more distant sales in places like New York, he also seems to have emphasize nationally known brands, like “Old Crow.”   

In naming Nicholson as one of the 100 people who shaped the city, the St. Louis Magazine commented:   “Where would we be without David Nicholson, the only distiller who didn’t leave town after the Whiskey Ring scandal.”  Nicholson, however,  was not a distiller but rectifier, that is, someone blending whiskeys purchased from distillers, of which Missouri had many.  Shown here is a separate warehouse Nicholson kept to store for liquor.  My assumption is that his company “master blenders” also operated there, producing “David Henderson’s 1843.”  Many St. Louis rectifiers had been caught up in the crimes of the Whiskey Ring, however, and Nicholson’s honesty became his hallmark:  According one biographer: “He had great contempt for the ‘sharp practices’ common in the trade and despised those who were guilty of them,”

Characterized as sometime gruff and outspoken, Nicholson also was portrayed as “tender as a woman” with a gift for poetry.  According to the biographer: “In his early days he wrote numerous compositions in verse that were of a high order of merit, and during the Civil War wrote several patriotic odes that were characterized by unusual poetic inspiration and fervor.”

As he aged, Nicholson involved other relatives in his busines. He brought his wife, Jane, into the firm as an officer.  His nephew Peter Nicholson, who had trained as a grocer in England, came to the U.S. in 1852 and was hired immediately by his uncle.  Starting as a clerk, Peter proved to have exceptional energy and mercantile acumen. The customer base was said to reach “gigantic” proportions as Peter increasingly was given management responsibilities.  Among the company’s prime profit centers was David Nicholson 1843 whiskey.

Nicholson died in November 1880 at the age of 65.  He was buried in Block 167/168 of Lot 2344 in the Bellefontaine Cemetery of St. Louis.  Jane would join him there 31 years later.  Their graves are marked by a tall obelisk and a joint gravestone.  Peter Nicholson subsequently took over directing the grocery and liquor house.  The building burned in 1891 and after finding other quarters temporarily on Sixth St., the nephew moved to North Broadway, operating the liquor house and marketing David's whiskey until 1920.

As for the fate of David Nicholson’s 1843 whiskey, the following years are murky and somewhat conflicted.  The assumption is that with the coming of National Prohibition, Peter sold the rights to the name.  Shown right, the Peter Hauptmann Company of St. Louis appears to have owned the label in 1934, immediately after the end of the “dry era.”  The brand eventually became the property of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle and the Stitzel-Weller Company who continued to issue a Nicholson whiskey.  Those whiskey men then sold the rights to an outfit known as Luxco.  

Exactly who is making the whiskey today is not well understood. The bottles shown above are the current manifestation.  One critic has opined:  “This bottle is highly recommended as a hype-free, lower-cost alternative to some of the classic rye-kissed Kentucky Bourbons available today….This brand has survived over 170 years and continues to impress.”  David Nicholson would be proud.

Notes:  The major quotes regarding David Nicholson are from a biography called “Saint Louis City and County, From the Earliest to the Present Day, including Biographical Sketches of Representative Men” Vol. II. by J. Thomas Scharf, published by Everts & Co, Philadelphia, 1883.  My vignette on “Pappy” Van Winkle was posted on this blog on November 22, 2014.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Dan Breen and the Wild Side of Life in Texas

Born in a small Ohio town into a family of modest resources, Daniel “Dan” Breen, shown here, figuratively “followed the telegraph lines” west to San Antonio, Texas, where he prospered as a saloonkeeper in particularly violent times.

Breen’s 1866 birthplace was Ada, Ohio, a quiet community about 70 miles south of Toledo, a town whose claim to fame is having the shortest name in Ohio.  Dan’s parents were Daniel Breen and Johanna Buckley.   Their 1864 marriage license was unusual since it was applied for by Johanna’s father, Jeremiah, and initially his name was inked in as the groom.   The couple would go on to produce eleven children of whom Daniel Jr. was the second.  The 1880 census listed his father as a railroad worker and “crippled.”

One asset Ada boasted was the presence of a post-elementary educational institution called the Northwestern Ohio Normal School, now Ohio Northern University.   Likely by working his way Breen was able to attend and graduate in 1884 at the age of 18, licensed as a telegraph operator.  That was someone who used a telegraph key to send and receive Morse code in order to communicate via land lines, a 19th Century "high-tech" occupation.  Young men like Breen left farms and hamlets  to take high-paying jobs “reading the wire.” In those early days the demand was such that operators could move from place to place and job to job for ever-higher salaries.

Breen followed the telegraph lines out of Ada and away from his immediate family to travel west.  Shown left is a photo of a typical Old West operator, his hat and clothing advertising his professional status.  Dan’s intermediate stops are unrecorded but by 1893 when he was 25, he had located in San Antonio, Texas.  Not long after his arrival Dan married Mabel Donovan, a woman of Irish heritage who had been born in Illinois.  Their only child, a son, would be born the following year. 

At some point Breen exited telegraphy.  In the 1899 San Antonio city directory, he was listed as working in a company called the San Antonio Brokerage Office, in which C.C. Breen, likely a relative, was a partner. It may have been through that occupation that Dan met William R. “Billy” Simms.  

Considered a “desperado” by some, Simms, shown here, was co-owner of the Vaudeville Theater in San Antonio in 1884 when notorious Western gunman Ben Thompson and a companion were shot down at that burlesque house, gambling hall, and saloon.  [See my post on Thompson, September 27, 1917.]  Simms was charged with aiding and abetting the murder.  Considered a friend by Thompson, Billy was accused of having lured him to the scene.  When the accused gunmen were tried in 1887, however, charges were dropped against Simms.  

Perhaps as a way of restoring a more legitimate persona, the native-born Texan subsequently sold the Vaudeville Theatre and with partners opened a new drinking establishment.  Called “The Crystal Saloon,” it boasted impressive crystal glass chandeliers and an elaborate interior, by far the fanciest watering hole in San Antonio and one of finest in Texas.  By the time Breen arrived in town, according to one author, Simms had become: “…One of the leading figures in San Antonio and was a member of the most influential social organizations.  Politicians and businessmen courted his favor and he was consulted on major city projects.” 

Billy Simms must have seen potential in Dan Breen.  When the Texan branched out with a combination saloon and gambling hall named the “Crystal Turf Exchange” he brought the Ada, Ohio, product into the operation as a partner and the manager.  Located on San Antonio’s Main Plaza, The Turf Exchange may have been a cut or two below Simms’ saloon.  Called a “bookie joint” by some, the business advertised:  “If you want to make a bet on the races, they will accommodate you.”   

More telling was the inclusion of the Turf Exchange in the notorious San Antonio “Blue Book,” a guide to a good time for visitors including information on the location and quality of its brothels.  The author of the Blue Book told readers on the prowl:  “If about town during the afternoon, drop into the Turf Exchange…you can here get some very desired information.”  Simms and his partners in the Turf Exchange were reported to become “very wealthy men.”

Earlier in his career Breen had lived in an apartment with his wife, Mabel, and his son.  His growing wealth now allowed him to buy a spacious home at 518 West Craig Place.  Still standing, the photo here shows how the house looks today.  Breen also used his newly acquired riches to leave the Crystal Turf Exchange and open his own saloon on  Houston Street, below, a major thoroughfare.

As seen here from a postcard, Breen’s saloon was itself an upscale place, boasting tile floors, overhead fans in the days before air conditioning, and an ornate bar.  Among the liquors available at Breen’s was “Four Roses” brand, a whiskey originated in Atlanta by Rufus Rose and developed into a national brand by Paul Jones in Paducah, Kentucky, after the Civil War.  As package goods it was available in quart bottles and pint and half-pint flasks.


For whiskey over the bar, Dan provided tokens to frequent customers worth, as he put it,  “XII 1/2.”   Customers would know that the reference was to a “bit,” a unit of common currency derived from the early Southwest tradition of cutting a Spanish milled dollar into eight pie-shaped pieces or bits, each worth 12 and 1/2 cents.  “Two bits” made a quarter as that coin sometimes is called today.

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 the reckless violence of its past and it would erupt in Dan Breen’s saloon on the night of August 18, 1910.  The shooter was a wealthy businessman and public official from Hidalgo County, located about 230 miles south of San Antonio near the Mexican border.  His name was Dennis B. Chapin.  

Chapin, shown here, had been the kingpin of developers who laid out a new community at a crossroads that eventually became the county seat.  Because of his leadership, residents named the town “Chapin” in his honor.  For several years he served as a Hidalgo County judge and recently had been nominated without opposition to the Texas legislature.

Chapin’s target that night at Breen’s was Oscar J. Roundtree, shown here, an Arizona Ranger from 1903 to 1906 and a Texas Ranger from 1906 until 1910.   Roundtree's service with the Rangers was unblemished and he bore a good reputation.  After resigning as a lawman the previous January, he had been living in San Antonio for about four months.

An altercation began after Chapin and a friend entered Breen’s about 9:30 p.m. and encountered Roundtree.  After Chapin invited the former Ranger 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. Unmarried, he was buried in the Sonora Texas Cemetery.  Chapin was arrested immediately  and spent six days in jail until a judge granted his release on $15,000 bond.  

During his trial the following December, Chapin claimed that Roundtree was working as bodyguard and pistoleer for a hostile former business partner.  According to press reports Chapin told the jury:  “Roundtree was hired to murder me.  I know what I am talking about, because I have copies of  a cypher translated, which he sent to his employer while spying on my actions.”   Perhaps awed by his wealth, the jury believed him and after deliberating only 20 minutes acquitted him.  Breen’s reaction to the violence committed in his saloon has gone unrecorded.

Chapin, however, did not go unpunished.  His political career was at an end and his reputation in Hidalgo County plummeted.  The populace there regretted naming their town for him and officially changed it to “Edinburg” to honor John Young, a prominent local businessman who had been born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Today Edinburg has a population approaching 90,000.

The Ohio native appears to have 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.  Breen died on April 15, 1918 at the age of 51, apparently the result of stroke.  He was interred in the Mission Burial Park of San Antonio. Unusually, neither his wife or any Breen relative is recorded buried with him. 

The road from sleepy Ada, Ohio, to gun-toting San Antonio was a long one for Dan Breen.  He had escaped a humdrum life working in his tiny home town to running his own saloon in a wide open  — and too often violent —booming Texas city.   For an adventurous youth of America’s mid-19th Century, the choice had been clear.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Whiskey Men and Multiple Marriages

Foreword:  In profiling some 660 pre-Prohibition “whiskey men” I have been impressed with the stability that most achieved in their married lives.  Divorce was uncommon.  Moreover, a second marriage usually meant a first spouse had died.  Sometimes, it appears, re-marriage was a way for a man to have a mother for his young children.  My research, however, has revealed three cases of whiskey men in multiple marriages, each of them unique in the conjugal details.

Whoever coined the phrase, “lucky at cards, unlucky at love,” might have had in mind Samuel J. “Sam” Thompson of West Brownsville, Pennsylvania.   Sam won a distillery in a game of chance one night and became famous for making a premier whiskey.  As he was rising  in wealth and prestige, however,  three of his four wives died within five years of his marrying them, one of them leaving him with three small boys.

At the age of 23, Sam married for the first time in 1843.  The bride was named Martha Cooper.  After five years of marriage but no children, she died in 1848, leaving a grieving husband behind.  The same year,  Lady Luck was with Thompson in a poker game, winning the deed to a distillery along the Monongahela River.   Although the distillery was the only way of collecting the debt, Sam knew nothing about making whiskey and competition was stiff.  An old friend gave him advice:  “Make better whiskey than the others.”   He did and during the next several decades, the name Sam Thompson Rye became synonymous with quality.

In 1857 Sam moved to a large house on the other side of the Monongahela River in the town of Bridgeport.  Two years later at the age of 39 he married a second time.  She was Esther Wilson of Washington County.  Over the next five yearsEsther bore him three sons.  Then in 1864, this second wife died, leaving Sam with three small children, one of them a baby.   A single father, he raised his boys without a female partner for the next six years.   Then in 1872, at age 52, he married Elizabeth Crawford.  But the Thompson “five year curse” struck again.  Elizabeth died in 1877.

Meanwhile Thompson was demonstrating ability as a businessman with interests in banking, natural gas and coal mining.  He also married again.  This time in 1882, he wed Bridget Dawson, a local widow.  Sam was 62.  Bridget outlived the Thompson 5-year curse by three years and was still living with him at his death.  Sam died in December 1899 at the age of 79 and was buried in a family plot in the Beallsville Cemetery, Washington County, Pennsylvania.  It appears that all four of his wives are buried adjacent to him.

In writing about her Montana ancestor, a descendant headlined an article Franklin James Pierce A Complicated Man.”  That was an accurate assessment of a saloon keeper and liquor dealer whose labyrinthine ways and tangled fortunes were reflected in his marriages.  An family history has copies of three Pierce marriage certificates issued within a single decade.  In 1890 when he was 24, working as a waiter in Butte, Frank met an Irish immigrant girl named Julia O’Neil by whom he fathered a son.  He subsequently wedded her.  After a relatively short marriage, they divorced and she returned to Ireland with the boy.  

Eventually Pierce moved to Missoula, Montana, where he owned and managed the Gem Theatre, a vaudeville house. There he met and fell in love with Lulu Inman, originally from Kansas City, a dancer who was performing at the Gem.  They were married on New Years Day 1898.  Lulu rapidly became restless “off the circuit” in Missoula, Montana.  When her chance came to join the Rentz-Santley Novelty & Burlesque Company on the road, Lulu left town and abandoned Pierce.  The local newspaper headlined:  “She Refused to Live with Him; Missoula Man Looking for Divorce from His Spouse on the Ground of Desertion.”  

Before long, however,  Frank found true love in the person of Mary Helena Murphy, born into a New Orleans immigrant Irish family.  She also was a performer at the Gem.  In June 1900 the couple were married by an Episcopal priest at Holy Spirit Church in Missoula.  Pierce subsequently opened a saloon and liquor store in Butte, Montana, featuring a whiskey he called “Green Arbor.”  He bought a large house in Butte.  He needed it.  This marriage was destined to last and produce ten children.  A photo from Missoula taken about 1910 shows Frank and Mary (standing) with five of their brood.  They named the two oldest girls “Missoula” and “Montana.”  While some of his children were still youngsters, Pierce died in 1926 of heart disease at the age of 59.  

During a highly energetic lifetime James R. “Jim” Hogg managed to juggle the responsibilities for making and selling a nationally recognized brand of whiskey, managing an array of successful local businesses, serving as Mayor of Popular Bluff, Missouri, and winning four terms as County Sheriff.  With enough activities to keep most men exhausted, Hogg also found time for multiple marriages over his 74 years.  

Hogg, shown here, was married five times, divorced four times, and married to one woman twice.   She was his first wife, Ida Dillard, the daughter of Louis Dillard, a pioneer farmer who was one of the founders of Hilliard, Missouri, and a man of some wealth.   When Hogg married Ida about 1880, her father gave him a 160 acre farm in exchange for a wagon and a team of horses.  That marriage produced one son in 1881.  By 1884, however,  Hogg had divorced Ida and was married to Susan S. Klutts who bore him twins in February 1885, one of whom died in infancy.

Fast forward to about 1887.  Hogg had divorced Susan and remarried Ida.  In December of 1888, she bore him a daughter.  Then, possibly as a complication of childbirth, Ida Dillard Hogg died.  Her husband’s grief appears to have been short-lived.  Barely a year later he married Clara Catherine Smith of Poplar Bluff, possibly to have a mother for his children.  Jim and Clara would have three sons of their own in what appears to have been the longest of Hogg’s marriages.  The 1900 census found a family of five Hogg children, one of Ida's, one of Sarah’s and three of Clara’s, all living with the couple.

Sometime during the next decade, Jim and Clara divorced. The 1920 census found him, now age 57, married a fifth time to Ruth Naoma Haas (or Hawas), a woman 23 years his junior who was working as a clerk in a dry goods store when they met.  Perhaps because of the age difference this union also was not fated to last. In the 1930 census Hogg was living with his brother and gave his marital status as “divorced.”  When he died by drowning at age 74, the tributes were many, including this one:  “No resident of Butler County was ever closer to his  fellow men than the beloved Jim Hogg during his lifetime.”   The writer might have added  “And closer to Butler County women.”

Note:  More complete biographies of these whiskey men can be found elsewhere on this blog:  Sam Thompson, September 4, 2012;  Franklin James Pierce, May 22, 2017;  Jim Hogg, November 29, 2013.

Friday, May 10, 2019

John Higgins: Southern Traitor? Pal of the Pope?

In March 1862 as Richmond seemed under imminent attack, Confederate authorities there arrested suspected Union sympathizers, including John M. Higgins,  a prominent Irish immigrant grocer and liquor dealer.  In contrast to other political prisoners, Higgins’ incarceration was short, allegedly freed by the intervention of Pope Pius IX.  Was it true?

Although it was not until three years later that Union forces would take Richmond, the advance of General McClellan toward the city during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign panicked Confederate officials.  They declared martial law and arrested a number of prominent citizens on charges of “treason.” Higgins apparently was targeted because of his relationship with Union Colonel (later General) Michael Corcoran, shown here.  

Because two of Higgins’ aunts had married two of Corcoran’s uncles, the liquor dealer and the soldier had become friendly.  Early in 1862 Corcoran sent a letter to Higgins advising him to move his wife and family North and assured him that he would see them to safety under a flag of truce.  When the letter was intercepted by Confederate authorities they immediately marked Higgins as a traitor.

Along with others seized in the roundup, Higgins was imprisoned at Richmond’s former “Negro jail” on Franklin Street, renamed “Castle Godwin” after a local police official.  Meant to accommodate about 75 prisoners, within five months the small facility held 250 prisoners in thirteen rooms.   An armed sentry guarded the front door.  Meals for prisoners were provided by a nearby saloon.

As he languished for weeks at Castle Godwin, Higgins would have had ample time to review how he had come to that point.  He was born in County Sligo on the northwest coast of Ireland in 1832, the names of his parents unknown.  He arrived in the United States in 1850 at the age of 18 and headed almost immediately for Richmond where he seems to have had relatives in the liquor or grocery trade.

By 1852, possibly with assistance from those same relatives, Higgins opened his own specialty grocery store, shown here.  It stood on the northwest corner of Franklin and Seventeenth Streets in Richmond, with liquor a principal commodity.  

John also married.  His wife was Kate C. Dempsey, born in March 1826 in Cashell, County Tipperary, Ireland.   Their first child, also named John, came in September 1860, eighteen months before his father’s arrest.  The couple would go on to produce seven more offspring, five girls and two boys.  Interestingly, the others were born only after the end of the Civil War.

Because “habeus corpus” had been suspended by the Confederate government for the duration of the conflict, few if any political prisoners were ever tried — merely held and sometimes freed as influence was brought to bear.  Among Higgins’ fellow prisoners was George Washington Frosst, shown here.  Frosst was a Maine-born machinist  who was outspoken in favor of the Union and equally vociferously opposed to Roman Catholicism.  When Castle Goodwin was closed after about two months and Frosst with other inmates were sent to a prison in Salisbury, North Carolina, Higgins was liberated and allowed to go home.

Frosst was outraged, claiming that Higgins was a “papal delegate” and had been released through the intervention of the Pope. Later he wrote:  “Romish subjects were allowed their liberty which were denied those whose fathers had fought and died against European influence and dictation.  At this time ’Hell was smiling’ on the Church of Rome and John M. Higgins, an Irish Pagan, was in clover.”

Not exactly in clover.  The same martial law that had led to Higgins’ arrest also decreed that no liquor could be sold within the city limits of Richmond.  The liquor
business that the Irishman had built had to be suspended for the duration of the war.  Higgin’s income and ability to support his family had all but vanished.  Setting aside whatever views he may have had on the Confederacy, he took the oath of allegiance and found employment in the office of General John Winder, shown here.  Winder was the chief military officer in command of city forces and supervisor of the prison Higgins had just left.  Even more ironic,  Higgin’s job as a clerk in the Confederate War Department included examination of mail to and from prisoners being held in Castle Godwin, now mainly deserters and soldiers who had gone AWOL.

Once the war had ended, Higgins went back to his grocery trade, emphasizing liquor sales once again.   By 1870 his net worth, according to the federal census, had advanced to $15,000 (equiv. to about $330,000 today).   He also was advertising his wares in local newspapers with the slogan “Pure goods, full value for money.”  

With his growing prosperity Higgins was able to move his family into an impressive looking home, shown here left.  In time both his eldest son, John R., and a younger boy, Gerald, were working in the store with him.

Higgins’ popularity as a merchant also assisted him in carving out a political career.  In 1872 he was elected to the City Council of Richmond, a thirty-member body with five representatives from each ward.  He was re-elected numerous times, serving 18 years in all.  Among his duties was oversight of the local police.  In 1901 Higgins announced that he would be a candidate for Police Commissioner of Richmond, citing his experience on the Council’s Police Committee.  I can find no indication that he achieved that post.

Higgins continued to be active even into old age in guiding the fortunes of his company.  He died in July 1906 at age 74 and was buried in Richmond’s Mount Calvary Cemetery.  His gravestone noted his origins in County Sligo. His wife, Kate, had preceded him, dying in August 1892 at age 56.  The family burial plot is marked by a large statue of an angel standing on a cloud.  

What of G. W. Frosst’s charges about the reason for Higgins’ release from jail?  The Irish immigrant definitely was a Catholic and active in local church affairs, including for a number of years president of the Catholic Beneficial Society, a Richmond religious organization devoted to charitable causes.  Moreover, when his daughter was married in 1880 the ceremony was performed in the city’s cathedral by a newly created Archbishop, indicating Higgins’ importance in the church. No evidence exists, however, of his being a “papal delegate” as charged by Frosst.

Nor is there proof that Pope Pius IX took a personal interest in Catholics caught up in the American Civil War.  While he offered to moderate the conflict between North and South, the Pope also was for emancipating the slaves and withheld formally recognizing the Confederate government.  It is highly unlikely that he would have interposed on behalf of John Higgins.  The more plausible answer to the Irishman’s release was his prominence in Richmond and his willingness to take the Confederate oath of allegiance.