September 8, 1898, was a typical autumn day in New York City. In downtown Manhattan, Vesey Street, shown here, bustled with carriage and foot traffic. In the wine and liquor establishment of Max Stiner & Company at 36 Vesey, the staff was working at their usual tasks. The owner was absent, leaving his 19-year-old son Milton Stiner to watch over the activities. At 5:20 p.m. an explosion, heard for blocks, shook the five story building. A disaster quickly unfolded at Stiner’s liquor house.
In the cellar where the blast occurred three men and one young woman were working: William Witt, the foreman; Ralph Scheondorff; a third man known as “Paul Latour,” and 19-year-old Lydia St. Clair. The shock was followed by a burst of fire. All four were imperiled. Although the first floor almost immediately was filled with smoke and fire, the rest of Stiner’s employees, choking, were able to make it outside. Witt managed to reach the top of the front stair before he was overcome and engulfed in flames. Scheondorff and “Latour” (real name Carl Herlowitski) later were found dead lying side by side in the front section of the cellar, both badly burned. Both Witt and Scheondorff had families.
Miraculously, Ms. St. Clair, who was pasting labels on bottles, escaped unhurt up a back stairway. Joseph Fitzgerald, chief bookkeeper, unable himself to reach the front door, rescued the woman. He headed to a rear window, jumped down and fetched a ladder for her exit. Fitzgerald told authorities: “She was nearly frightened to death, and I don’t blame her, for she had a pretty close shave. If she had been a minute later she probably wouldn’t have been alive now.”
The New York Fire Department quickly arrived on the scene, pouring water on the conflagration. Major damage was contained to the cellar of the five story building. Despite the toll in human lives, the structure was not greatly damaged. Stiner’s wine and liquor stored underground was a total loss, estimated at $40,000. Possibly afraid of the wrath of his absent father, Milton was uncooperative with fire officials, claiming not to know how many people were at work that day, or even their names. Said the New York Journal story: “It was not without a good deal of difficulty that the firemen could induce young Mr. Stiner to give them any information.” Where was Max Stiner? “Somewhere uptown” was Milton’s vague reply. The father did not appear on the scene until hours later.
Like a man accustomed to setbacks, Stiner (sometimes given as “Steiner”) immediately directed the cleanup of the wreckage left by the explosion. Before long the his wine and liquor enterprise was back in business. He had not come this far in carving out a career in the “Big Apple” wine and liquor trade to let this setback deter him.
Stiner had begun life 47 years earlier in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the son of Jacob and Anna Hoffman Steiner. At 19, an age that made him vulnerable to mandatory service in the Austrian army, he determined to emigrate to America. He embarked from Bremerhaven, Germany, aboard the SS Deutschland, shown below, a ship regularly carrying immigrants from Europe to these shores. Disembarking New York Harbor, Stiner apparently immediately fell in love with “the city that never sleeps” — and never left.
In a 1900 passport application, Stiner was described as five feet, seven inches tall, dark blonde hair, gray eyes and a round face. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate a photograph. Nor have I been able to determine his occupation for his first decade in New York but assume he was working in the mercantile trades. He was recorded in the 1880 federal census as a “retail tea merchant,” and in 1881 city directory as the manager of Steiner & Co. “teas,” located at 226 Columbia Street, not far from the port area.
By 1894, Stiner apparently had decided that his “cup of tea” more likely was a shot of whiskey and had opened the liquor store on Vesey Street. He was dealing in both retail and wholesale goods, the latter sold to the many saloons, hotels and restaurants that dotted the Manhattan landscape. He was receiving wines and liquors by the barrel and decanting them into smaller vessels. Stiner’s jugs were of a quality to draw attention to his establishment. In sizes up to five gallons, he provided his wares in salt-glazed stoneware containers with his name written in large cobalt script. Shown throughout this post for their variety, these jugs would have been emptied by his customers into smaller vessels for pouring over the bar.
Max had married several years after his arrival in America. His bride was Carolyn, called “Carrie.” Munch, a 22-year old woman who had been born in New York of immigrant parents from Bohemia, Cecelia (Lederer) and Benjamin Munch. Her father ran a Manhattan cigar store. Max and Carolyn over the next 14 years would have seven children, five sons and two daughters. As the size of their family grew, the Stiners moved frequently. In 1894 they were recorded living at 248 East 78th Street. Three years later they resided at 150 West 130th Street. By 1899, Max had sufficient wealth to move the Stiners into fashionable quarters at 149 West 120th Street, shown here.
Max did not have long to enjoy home and family. Suffering from heart disease he died at home in early June 1904 at the age of 53. An obituary hailed him as “well known in this vicinity, where he had a large trade.” He was buried at the Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery in the Ridgewood District of Queens. His grave is not identified.
In the wake of the founder’s passing Max Stiner & Company was carried on — but with changes. In 1904 the business was incorporated. Among the incorporators were the widowed Carrie Stiner, vice president, and son Milton, president. Benjamin Stiner was treasurer and secretary. The company appears to have put more emphasis on retail sales and issued at least two proprietary brands, “Old Dante Private Stock” sold as “The Connoisseurs Favorite,” and “Old Dinah,” a blended whiskey, trademarked in 1911. Milton also seems to have scrapped the decorative jugs favored by his father for more utilitarian but cheaper containers.
The last record for the company is a 1916 listing in a New York business directory. With National Prohibition becoming ever more likely the Stiners may have decided simply to shut the doors on their Vesey Street establishment. As for the tragic events recounted earlier, I am unable to find any answer to the question of what triggered the fatal explosion and fire. Several causes were suggested — alcohol from the liquor, an open gas jet, sewer gas — but none, to my knowledge, has ever been ever confirmed.