Saturday, May 23, 2015

George Simmonds Put Nabobs on Frisco’s Nob Hill

Although calling someone a “nabob” has differing meanings,  George Simmonds, arriving in San Francisco in 1877, pictured the gent as an Oriental potentate on the labels of his flagship whiskey.   Simmonds' liquor proved popular and soon found its way to the city’s most exclusive areas, including Nob Hill, where the Nabob Whiskey could be found sitting on the sideboards in mansions of the rich.
Although personal information about Simmonds is scant, he is recorded by some sources as having come to California from Boston where he had been in the whiskey trade.   My search of census data for him there, however, does not reveal anyone by that name.  Moreover, an 1879 ad identified him as “G. Simmonds of Kentucky.”   Upon arrival in San Francisco, his age uncertain, George seems immediately to have established a liquor company indicating both experience in the trade and sufficient money to obtain a store and stock it with whiskey and other spirits.  He located the business on Montgomery Street, shown below as it looked about that time.
About the time Simmonds arrived on the West Coast, he also was a patented inventor.  In March 1877 he applied for and received a patent on “a new and useful improvement on Chamber and Nursery Lamps.”  It was a light without a wick that was held in a metal or glass bowl filled with a non-explosive oil.  A small upright tube was at the center that rose above the reservoir of oil.  A upper opening of the tube was ignited and would remain lighted as the oil rose through the tub until the whole quantity of oil was consumed.  Simmonds thought so much of this invention that his 1878 San Francisco business listing was “Nabob Whiskey and Patent Night Light.”  Perhaps because the lights did not sell, by the next year the night light reference was gone.

This invention with its application to nurseries may indicate that Simmonds had a family, but there is little evidence to support that idea.  He seems to to have avoided the federal census takers during his lifetime.  He moved his personal residence frequently, according to directories dwelling at 1719 Howard Street in 1878, 614 O’Farrell in 1880, both likely boarding houses.

From the first, as well, Simmonds seems to have been rectifying whiskey, that is, blending and compounding raw whiskeys to achieve certain smoothness and taste.  He was bottling it, putting on his own labels and selling it.    Likely needing more space for his operations, he had moved his business to 217 Front Street by 1880.  After three years at that location he moved again to 429 Battery, the address on the letterhead above. 

In 1882 Simmons trademarked the name “Nabob” for his brand of whiskey.  In his federal application he asserted that the word had been “arbitrarily selected.”   Well maybe.  Given the images that appeared on Simmond’s labels and bottles, Nabob was an important part of his merchandising strategy.   The picture above depicts a large bearded man in a turban and robe, with a hookah pipe and glass in hand.  He is being served a bottle of Nabob Whiskey by a servant in a distinctly Moorish setting.   
Simmonds had chosen the original meaning of the word, a deputy governor or viceroy of the Mughal Empire rule in India.  These were men who lived in comfort and splendor while oppressing the locals.   Subsequently the British adopted the term for a conspicuously wealthy Englishman who returned from India with riches gained through corrupt trade.  In our own time disgraced Vice President Agnew condemned vocal opponents of  the Vietnam War as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” 
The Simmond’s company advertised heavily in West Coast publications.  Its ads emphasized that Nabob was the “purest and best” for medicinal purposes, claiming that it had been recommended by Dr. H. C. Louderback of St. Louis “in all cases of nervousness, weakness, debility, dyspepsia, indigestion, etc.”     Simmonds also provided a testimonial from “the eminent” Dr.  S. Dana Hayes, state assayer for Massachusetts.  Hayes opined:  “The sample marked “Nabob Whiskey,” received from you, has been analyzed with the following results:  It is of selected alcoholic strength and free from added flavoring oils, acids, metals, or other deleterious substances.  This whiskey is pure, of superior quality, and suitable for dietic and medicinal purposes.”
The image of the nabob was found on Simmonds’ ads, labels and even embossed on the amber glass quarts that held his whiskey.  Found frequently by bottle diggers, many are believed to have been made by the San Francisco Pacific Glass Works (1876-1901).  The images may differ slightly on these quarts.   Below are two Nabob whiskeys, probably bottled at various times and from different batches of containers.  In each of the embossings the position of the nabob and the servant differ in relation to the other.  In addition, the figure of the nabob varies from bottle to bottle.

At some point marketing for Simmond’s Nabob Whiskey on the West Coast was farmed out to the F. Mandlebaum Company of 312 Sacramento Street, near Front, in San Francisco. Moreover, by 1881 Simmonds had taken a partner, Ami Vignier, and the firm became Vignier & Simmonds, located at the Battery address and still featuring Nabob Whiskey.   Vignier had been involved in the liquor business since 1868 in San Francisco but his merger with Simmonds was short-lived.  Within several years, Vignier had departed the partnership and opened a store two blocks away from Simmonds on Battery that operated until 1914.

On other Simmonds’ bottles, as shown below, the figure of the nabob disappeared completely and just the name of the whiskey was embossed.  He also employed other images to advertise Nabob whiskey.   Shown here is a trade card in which a young man in medieval dress has doffed his hat to a young woman carrying a cane.  The caption mysteriously reads: If you had drunk Simmonds’ Nabob Whisky, I wouldn’t have cared.”   George’s other house brands included "Iroquois Whiskey,"  "Simmonds’ Choice,"  "Simmonds’ OPS," and "Cream of the Valley Gin."  

By 1887, San Francisco business directories were recording that George Simmonds & Co. was being run by other individuals.  Among them was Philip Simmonds, his relationship to George unknown.  Another was Albert Dallemand, a whiskey man with interests in both San Francisco and Chicago. [See my post on Dallemand, September 2012.]  The company was now listed as located at 215-217 California Street.  By 1889 the Simmonds Company had disappeared completely from San Francisco directories.

I surmise that George Simmonds died in 1896 or 1897 but my attempts to confirm his death and locate his final resting place have been fruitless.   Given the many elaborately embossed bottles Simmonds left behind, it is hard to believe that his total career in San Francisco was barely ten years.  It is a tribute to his business genius that he was able to make his whiskey a best seller in so short a time and establish his Nabob brand on the liquor shelves of his adopted city, even reaching to the fancy houses of the American nabobs on Nob Hill.

Note:  When stymied about components of the personal histories of whiskey men featured here, I frequently seek help from descendants to fill in the blanks.  Frequently in the past relatives have stepped forward to provide information and often relevant photographs.  Such are always welcome as are suggested corrections.  I am hopeful of someone stepping forward and fleshing out the details of George Simmonds’ life.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Boston’s John Doane Issued His Own Moose Call

 Many whiskey men have used animals as the symbols of their spirits, everything from dogs and bears to ducks and eagles.   Boston’s John S. Doane, shown right, was fixated on the moose for his liquor, employing two bull moose on virtually every advertisement and label of every bottle he sold.  In effect, he issued his personal “moose call” and the customers came running.

By the time John Doane was born in 1842, however, the last moose had been extirpated from Massachusetts more than a century earlier, the victim of hunting and habitat loss.  Doane’s birthplace was Wellfleet, Mass., a town about half way down Cape Cod.  It had its beginnings because of whaling, fishing, and rich oyster beds.  As a boy John would have seen the ships come and go from Wellfleet’s harbor.  With the decline of whaling all the schooners had departed by 1900.

Doane came from an old New England family, his ancestors having arrived during colonial times from England.  His father was Hezekiah Doane, son of Henry and Abigail Holbrook Doane.  His mother was Catherine Jenkins Smith, the daughter of John and Ruth Witherell Smith.  Both of John’s parents had been born in Wellfleet.   He was the eldest of five children, with one brother and three sisters.  
Having reached his maturity in the 1860s, Doane was eligible for Federal service in the Civil War.   History records two Private John Doanes in the Union Army, but an obituary for our man indicates his having joined in 1862.   That would make his unit the Massachusetts 8th Battery Light Artillery.  It was organized at North Cambridge for six months service in June 1862.   Employed initially in guard duty around Washington, D.C., the regiment saw limited action at the battles as the first Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam, the latter shown above.  The unit later was returned to guard functions.  The 8th, almost unbelievably, suffered only one enlisted man killed and 10 felled by disease before the regiment finished its short enlistment period in November 1862 and was mustered out.

Although some of Doane’s comrades likely re-enlisted in other newly forming units, no evidence exists that he continued as a fighting man, possibly having seen enough of the carnage to desire to stay out of “harm’s way.”  Nonetheless, after the Civil War he was an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the politically powerful Union veterans organization.

In 1869 he married a Massachusetts-born woman named Sarah.   At the time he was 27 and she was 24.  The 1870 U.S. Census found them living in Ward Two of Boston.  As yet there were no children.  Doane’s occupation was given as proprietor of an “oyster house,” likely a saloon.

Doane next surfaced in Boston as owner of the “John S. Doane Co., Importers, Wholesale Dealers and Jobbers in Foreign and Domestic Wines and Liquors,”  located at 149 & 151 Blackstone Street.  Although Boston business directories first listed the firm several years later, Doane claimed an 1866 founding date for his enterprise.  Almost immediately upon opening his doors he adopted the bull moose as the symbol and brand of his whiskeys and wines. 
The choice may have signaled his vision about the ultimate size of his business.  Moose are the largest mammal in the United States.  A bull moose can weigh anywhere from 600 to 1,000 pounds.  They stand up to six feet at the shoulder.  Moose antlers are also spectacular, spreading at times six feet from end to end. Although the animal was gone from Massachusetts   Doane clearly was thinking big when he chose two bull moose as his symbol.  It was his version of a “moose call.”   
In addition to the activities listed on his letterhead, Doane was a “rectifier,” that is, he was buying whiskeys from a variety of distillers, then blending and compounding them to achieve taste and smoothness.   He then was merchandising them with his own labels — virtually all of them bearing the images of moose.  His brands included "Doane's X X X X,” "Doanes 149,” "Fairy Grotto Rye,” "Long Life Malt,” "Old Dimple Rye,” "Old J. S. D.,” and "Sandy Camp Rye."  

He sold these whiskeys in large ceramic containers to his wholesale customers, but had a line of retail products ranging from flasks to quarts.  Shown here, his whiskey was sold in clear and amber bottles, apparently not embossed but carrying distinctive paper labels.  A Doane price list indicates that his house brands were low cost liquors, ranging from 75 cents to a dollar a quart.  He also sold a range of more pricey national brands, likely an attempt to foster a mail order customer base.
In Boston Doane found himself challenged by stiff competition.  For example, a 1906 city directory listed no fewer than 107 businesses listed as wholesale liquor dealers.  Taking a familiar route to gaining favor with his customers,  he offered shot glasses to saloons and barrooms that carried his liquor.  His glasses were distinctive by the two etched moose.  More unusual was a thermometer giveaway with temperature commentaries including “steam heat,” at 78 degrees, “blood heat,” at 98 and “fever heat” at 110.  

At some point Doane, obviously successful in the liquor trade, opened a second location at 12-14 Endicott Street in Boston.  The addresses on his labels were appropriately altered to reflect the second outlet.  One is shown left on a Doane wine bottle.  Through all Doane’s years in business, the moose remained linked with the motto:  “Fide et Fiducia.”  Although the Latin meaning of both words varies, my interpretation is “Faithful and Trustworthy.”  My assumption is that this applied to the whiskey as well as to the animals. 

The 1900 Federal Census found the John and Sarah Doane boarding on Dudley Street in Boston, a residential hostelry known as the Hotel Gladstone.  Doane’s occupation was recorded as “wholesale wine and spirits.”  Five years later, John died and his funeral was held at the Gladstone.  He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, shown here, located in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.  With his death and the coming of National Prohibition, his liquor dealership went out of business never to be revived.

Moose, by contrast, have done well.  The State Division of Wildlife in a recent bulletin announced that the animals have returned to Massachusetts.  Populations have been increasing steadily in New England states as the end of hunting and detrimental forest practices have facilitated higher reproduction and survival rates.  Consequently the moose have reintroduced themselves into northern and central portions of Massachusetts.  Among the places where they frequently are sighted is Middlesex County.  I fancy that they are there looking for John Doane’s resting place to pay homage to him for the many years he kept their portraits in front of the American drinking public.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Many Faces of Billy O’Hern — Minneapolis Saloonkeeper

The genial smile of the man at right, the one wearing the jaunty straw skimmer hat and bow tie, is Billy O’Hern who ran a saloon, pool room, and retail liquor, beer and tobacco emporium on on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis.  Although facts about O’Hern’s personal life are scant, he clearly liked having his picture on his advertising materials and by tracking them it is possible to trace this whiskey man’s progress through life.

Although O’Hern apparently avoided U.S. census takers throughout his life, the Minnesota State Census caught up with him in 1905, in Ward Eleven of Minneapolis.  He was living over his saloon.  To the interviewer Billy revealed that he had been born in Minnesota in 1875 and that his father had emigrated from Ireland and that his mother was Canadian born.  He was not married and, to my knowledge, remained a bachelor all his life.

Of O’Hern’s early life, my research revealed nothing.  He emerged into the public record in 1902 when, with another Irishman named John P. Collins, Billy opened a saloon at 927 Cedar.  He was 27 years old at the time.   After about a year Collins departed the partnership and Billy continued on at the same address.   As the trade card picture above would imply, at this stage of his career, O’Hern was playing the role of genial host. He was selling his whiskey in glass pint flasks as well as in larger containers;  most had “Billy O’Hern” embossed on them.

The generous saloonkeeper image was evident in the gifts O’Hern was bestowing on regular customers.  Among them was a small beer stein, ceramic with a metal top.  Probably made in Germany especially to his order and shipped to Minnesota, the stein was an expensive gift, bestowed by the saloonkeeper on favored customers during the 1910 Holiday Season.  Less costly was a beer mug that included the verse “To the Auto:  May We Hear It Toot in Time to Scoot.”  His name also appeared in red Celtic lettering.  Another mug, not shown here, contained the motto: “Your Money is Your Best Friend” and indicated that the ceramic was a 1909 present from Billy.

Fast forward a few years and a subsequent trade card.  This older Billy has discarded the straw skimmer and genial smile.  He has on a bowler hat and a skeptical look.  Has something occurred to disrupt the geniality of this publican?

Move to the next O’Hern trade card.  The message is just the same as the earlier trade cards but a different image of Billy has emerged.  Gone is the bowler hat and bow tie.  Now O’Hern is wearing a fedora, a four-in-hand tie, a suit and a vest.  The look is rounded off by a watch fob and a dark goatee.  This is a wealthy and well-turned-out publican, showing off his prosperity.  The trade card indicated he can afford two phone companies.

O’Hern throughout this time was giving out bar tokens of at least three varieties, as shown here.  These tokens, while they might be taken as symbols of Billy’s generosity, also might indicate considerable shrewdness.  If someone bought a round of drinks for a group, the bartender would give a token or two to those patrons already having a drink and collect the full sum from the round-buyer.  The owner would collect immediately, and the drinkers would have tokens for later use that frequently were lost or forgotten.  As the token cost less to produce than the value of the drink, there could be a significant profit to the bar owner. 

Moving on another few years into the 1910-1920 period, we find a major change has taken place in O’Hern’s aspect.  No longer is he “Billy,” but now “Wm. F.”  Here his face appears on a tip tray.  The goatee and hat are gone.  No smile.  This O’Hern now has the look of a slightly overweight, self-satisfied businessman.   

We can conclude that this visage is a later one because the rival phone companies, as often happened, have morphed into a single utility.  Not only has Billy — excuse me, William — changed his look, he has altered the embossing on his bottles of whiskey.  It now read “William F. O’Hern Wines, Liquors & Cigars.”

The final trade card shown here carries its own surprises.  Here an older looking William is sporting a mustache and has an additional line of goods.  While he is still dealing in wines, liquors and cigars, he is also selling dogs.  Pitt bull terriers were his specialty and, he advertised, “always on sale.”  O’Hern, the owner of “Bullrat” and “Slim,”  apparently had become an impresario of dog-fighting.  This blood sport was legal in Minnesota at the time and even today, according to state authorities, goes on illegally.

Although O’Hern was still selling whiskey and beer when the final card was issued, National Prohibition could not have been far off and the alcohol trade made illegal.  Closing down the bar and shutting off the spigots, O’Hern still had his restaurant, pool room and cigars to sustain him financially.  One report has him serving soft drinks to his customers during the 14 “dry” years.  

Then this Minneapolis saloonkeeper fades into the mists of history — no census reports, no death notice, no gravestone to place him in time.  Because he liked to have his picture taken, however,  we can trace Billy O’Hern, as few other whiskey men,  for almost two decades of his rapidly evolving life -- and looks.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Max Mann and Booze Along the Bayou

Bayou Sara,  the Mississippi River town shown above, no longer exists.  When it was a bustling Louisiana port in the second half of the 19th Century, however, Max Mann, the son of immigrant Jewish parents, kept the often rowdy residents and visitors well supplied with whiskey and thereby rose to wealth and local prominence.

Mann’s parents likely were among the Jewish emigres from Europe who often were escaping from religious persecution in their own countries and seeking the opportunities offered by America.  Many of them arrived here with little money and began to forge a living as peddlers, bringing needed goods to farm families and isolated communities.   They invested their money wisely and eventually could open stores.   As one writer has put it, these Jewish emigres lent “much needed merchandising and business skills to agrarian societies along the Mississippi River corridor.
The Manns had elected to settle in a Louisiana river town with a notorious reputation.  According to residents, early in its history ladies did not dare go onto the streets of Bayou Sara, including its main street, shown above, in daytime unescorted — and never after dark.  Saloons abounded, most of them featuring gambling tables.  Drunken brawls were common and since most residents carried pistols killings were not unusual.   It is said that five men were killed in one night in Bayou Sara.

In time things settled down as the town became a busy cotton port with a thriving commercial center and residential areas. It boasted drug stores, sawmills and lumberyards. livestock traders, fish markets, livery stables, grocers, dry goods stores, a bakery, post and express offices, icehouses, banks, and clothiers.  Bayou Sara even had a fair grounds and a ball park.   But the focus of much community life was the saloons.

The most popular drink emporium in town belonged to Max Mann.  Shown above, it was two stories tall and backed on the Mississippi River, the front on Bayou Sara’s main drag.  Like other buildings in town, the top story boasted a porch with a fancy wooden balustrade surrounding it. Max’s place was a frequent stop where both steamboat passengers and locals could get a glass of beer or whiskey.  My guess is that Max and his family lived above the saloon.

I believe that is Max himself standing next to his establishment in the photo right, balancing a bail type jug on his hand.  Not only was he serving up whiskey over the bar, he was selling it in ceramic containers to the locals.  As advertised on the front of his saloon, the jug probably held “Five Feathers Whiskey.”  This was a brand from Edwin Schiele & Company of St. Louis that Mann was importing from up the Mississippi River, carried in the many river boats plying those waters.  As on a second jug shown here, he claimed to be the sole agent for the label in Bayou Sara and vicinity.  This jug, by the way, recently sold at auction for $1,500.  

Five Feathers must have been popular — the saloon shown below during a flood was advertising its “Silver Feathers,” a brand I can find nowhere else and likely named to be competition for Mann’s brand.  Max also was a dealer for “Harper Rye,”  presumably the whiskey that I. W. Bernheim was producing in Louisville, another city with river access for shipping liquor to Bayou Sara.  Mann ran frequent ads for the brand in St. Francisville True Democrat newspaper, emphasizing that Harper Rye had been “scientifically distilled; naturally aged; best and safest for all uses.”

Whatever success Bayou Sara experienced over the years, it could not escape the reality that, as per the picture above, it flooded constantly.  With all its buildings of frame construction, it also suffered from fires.  After one particularly disastrous flood in 1893, Max Mann moved his saloon, lock, stock, barrels and jugs, to Ferdinand Street in St. Francisville, a town located on a high bluff overlooking Bayou Sara.  At this point Max also was wealthy enough to find a place for his family away from his business establishment and built a spacious home nearby on Royal Street.
The U.S. census-taker found the Manns there in 1910.  Max had been married 17 years earlier to a woman named Hettie Schlesinger.   He was 25 when they wed, Hettie was 23.  The couple soon began a family.  When the census taker called there were three children, Theresa, 16; Laurence, 13, and Vivian, 10.  Max’s occupation was given as “proprietor, saloon.” 

Mann was not totally tied up in the whiskey trade.  As early as 1896 he was advertising in the local newspapers his availability as an agent for M. Born & Co., billed as “The great Chicago Merchant Tailors,” a firm that made clothes to order.  

Also active in civic affairs in Bayou Sara,Max was one of a group of local businessmen who sought a public levy to extend the tracks of the railroad into town by putting a spur track from its then terminus south of town along the levee to the upper end. The railroad brought cotton from local plantations to the river packets docked at Bayou Sara.  The petitioners sought by the tax to raise $1,000 to make the extention possible.  In 1905, Mann was elected as a director of the People’s Bank, a financial institution in St. Francisville, a position he held until the bank was sold in 1913.  He also had a political career, serving a term as an member of the Board of Aldermen for West Feliciana Parish (County).

Things changed drastically for the Manns in 1920.  Even though Louisiana had never voted Prohibition and was counted among the “wettest” states in the Union, with advent of the Volstead Act Max was forced to shut down his saloon.   The 1930 census found him and wife Hettie living in New Orleans with his married daughter and their grandchild.  Now age 62, he listed no occupation.  Within a year or so, the couple left New Orleans for Woodville, Mississippi, where they made their home in retirement.    

While on a visit to a daughter in Lecompte, Louisiana, in 1934, Mann was stricken suddenly and died,  leaving behind his widow, three grown children, a grandchild and a brother.  He was buried in the Beth Israel Cemetery near Woodville.   Hettie would join him there ten years later.  Their joint headstone is shown here.

An historian of Bayou Sara and St. Francisville has described the benefits that the Jewish settlers brought to Louisiana:  “Accepted as contributing members of their adopted communities along the Mississippi River corridor, these immigrants as they succeeded in business supported public works and served in important civic offices.”  . 

Monday, May 11, 2015

B. J. Semmes and Jorantha: Love and Whiskey in Difficult Times

Benedict Joseph (B. J.) Semmes literally had been born into whiskey-making. But it was not until he had wooed and won the love of his life, Jorantha, the daughter of a New York congressman, that with her support he was able to steer Semmes distilling through many crises and maintain a whiskey dynasty down to three generations.
Semmes was born in 1823 in Georgetown, by then part of the District of Columbia, the son of Raphael and Matilda Semmes.  One relative had been the proprietor of the City Club Tavern in Georgetown and later Rhodes Tavern in Washington proper.  Four years before Benedict’s birth Semmes family members had begun making whiskey on a commercial basis.  In 1894 he told a U.S. Senate committee investigating the Whiskey Trust:  “We began business in 1819 in Washington, D.C., and built the first brick storehouse on south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Capitol and the Treasury Department, and built the Yannissee Distillery in 1823 on Yannissee Creek, Maryland, within sight of the dome of the Capitol.”   The Semmes clan called their whiskey “Yannissee.”

Benedict’s youth apparently was unremarkable, growing up in a reasonably affluent D.C. family and educated in local schools.  He may well have worked in the Semmes liquor business from an early age.  At the age of 24, he met Jorantha Jordan, a New Yorker, when she accompanied her father Lawrence Pallette Jordan, a congressman, to a session of the House of Representatives.  Jorantha was 19.  With frequent letters between Washington and New York, their courtship lasted 18 months, complicated because of her initial reluctance to convert to his Catholicism.  During this period he came to appreciate her business skills, writing her:  “…You have an enquiring mind—speak precisely—act readily, and are not Dull at figures.”

In late 1849 or early 1850 they were married and Jorantha settled into the role of housewife and eventually mother.  The fuzzy photo shown here likely is that of the young couple. Their first child, Julia, was born in late 1850, followed by two boys, Joseph Malcolm in 1852 and Raphael Eustice in 1855.  Semmes supported the family by working in a District of Columbia store, recorded as a “wholesale merchant.” 

By 1859, however, he had seen brighter horizons westward and decided that Memphis, Tennessee, a fast growing community on the Mississippi river, held opportunities that the Nation’s Capital did not.  After a friend secured a $3,000 line of credit for him, Semmes traveled there by himself and opened a dry goods store.   Reputedly after having the building blessed by a local priest, he called for Jorantha and the children to join him.  

Semmes' venture into dry goods may have been short lived.  His letters to Jorantha had noted that business was slow.   By 1860, business directory listings indicate that the B. J. Semmes Company primarily was selling liquor.  Before the store could reap significant profits, however, the Civil War erupted.  ln March 1862,  Benedict enlisted as a sergeant in Company L, 154th Tennessee Regiment, leaving the store management to Jorantha.   Wounded only a month later at the Battle of Shiloh, Benedict went home to recuperate and helped his wife sell off the stock.  Upon returning to action, he was commissioned as a captain in the Army of Tennessee and later assigned as chief of the army's commissary. 

While he was away, Jorantha — now caring for six children — was showing considerable business initiative.  In 1863 she reported to her absent husband that she had earned a profit of $150 by bottling and selling whiskey and brandy to supplement the Semmes family income.  The older boys had helped her.  By the end of the war, however, she was forced by the fighting in Tennessee to remove the family to Corinth, Mississippi.  Promoted briefly to major,  Semmes surrendered with the Confederate Army in April 1865.  Author Frank Byrne says:  “In a matter of weeks Semmes returned to Memphis where Benedict reopened Semmes & Company, a wine and liquor firm….The early success of Semmes & Company rested in part upon the wartime activities of Semmes family, particularly the labor of his wife.”

This post-war period was one of bitterness in Southern towns like Memphis. In testimony to the U.S. Senate seeking protective legislation, Semmes maintained that he could not produce financial records from 1883 to 1866, as requested by the committee, as “Gen. Sherman burned our books on his ‘March to the Sea” so that we only have complete records since 1866” — likely a stretch since Sherman is recorded as having started that march from Atlanta, not Memphis.  Semmes also complained that:  “Our distillery was burned, without insurance, during the war.”   He did not make the location of that facility explicit.

Whatever damage had been done, with the support of Jorantha,  Benedict recouped quickly. After spending three years at an address at 234 Second Street, he moved to larger quarters at 297 Main Street. As a whiskey blender and compounder, Semmes featured a number of proprietary brands.   They included “Jo Blackburn,” and “Tennessee Club.”  Most important, he had carried the “Yannissee" name with him from Washington DC to Memphis and made it his flagship whiskey label.  He advertised it as shown right with a strange set of letters that have been widely misunderstood.  They are in the Coptic script and spell out “Memph,” the name of the ancient Egyptian town from which Memphis was derived.  Semmes trademarked the Coptic symbols and gave some of his ads Egyptian themes.

Semmes was packaging his whiskey both in ceramic and glass.  Shown here is a gallon jug that likely was meant for his wholesale trade.  It has a typical Bristol glaze off-white  body and Albany slip brown top with his name stenciled on the front in large letters.  His retail customers could received their Yannissee whiskey in dark amber quart bottles.  Two variations are shown below, the second one broken, uncovered by digger.

In his 1894 Senate testimony, Semmes stated that he was renting Charles Nelson’s Greenbriar Distillery, shown below, 22 miles from Nashville, and running it as the Yannissee Distillery for such time as he required each year. “…We never produce each year over 2,500 barrels or less than 600 barrels.”  In 1893 and 1894, however, “owing to depression in business and the recent financial panic,” Semmes had shut the distillery down and made not a single barrel.  Moreover, in 1890 he had exported 500 barrels of whiskey from the U.S. to Germany to avoid taxes amounting to $20,000 ($500,000 equivalent today). In effect, he was testifying in favor of reforms that became the Bottled-in-Bonding Act of 1897.
Semmes disclosed that in addition to distilling whiskey, he was buying wine and liquor both in the United States and abroad, including other national whiskey brands, in order to meet customer demand in Memphis and its environs.  Those products provided the company little benefit, he contended, because he was forced to compete on cost with dealers in other cities for the same brands.  Although Semmes did not state it specifically, his mail order sales would have been particularly affected.  Apparently comfortable with his trademarks, he added:  “Of course our own brands of domestic goods are ours and under our control.”

The whiskey dealer took the opportunity of his Senate testimony to rail against protectionist policies that shielded the manufacturers of Northern states, Alabama, and Louisiana.  He noted that the suit of clothes he was wearing while writing his testimony had cost him $65.  A friend  had showed him a similar suit bought in Canada that cost only $20.  Semmes may have been thinking of his own brood when he complained of the expense protectionism imposed on him and others “to support and educate a large family in elegant luxury.”

Throughout the challenges their liquor business faced, Jorantha continued to be consulted by Benedict on business matters.  Moreover, as his sons Joseph and Raphael reached maturity, both were taken into the firm and eventually into management positions.  An 1897 letterhead from B. J. Semmes & Co. listed all three men.  The letterhead also boasted that  after chemical analysis Yannissee brand whiskey had been awarded a U.S. Marine Hospital contract for medicinal whiskey.  The Semmes claimed to carry the largest stock of old Tennessee sour mash whiskeys in the state.  The company was continuing to prosper.

In 1902, Benedict Semmes died at age 77.  While his family gathered around his grave site he was interred at Calvary Cemetery in Memphis.  Jorantha would join him when she died in 1925. Their attractive marble headstones are shown here.  Joseph and Raphael kept the liquor business going, for a short period establishing an adjunct store in St. Louis, Missouri.  In 1910 they moved their Memphis operations to 50 N. Second St. and then to 14 N. Front Street.   With the onset of state prohibition in Tennessee, B. J. Semmes and Company was forced to close in 1915.

That event wrote the final chapter on this liquor dynasty and its Yannissee whiskey.  Company letterheads and advertising always cited 1819 as the date of its founding.  The Semmes family had kept making and selling liquor through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the financial “panic” of the late 1800s, harsh taxation, high tariffs, and the Whiskey Trust.   Benedict himself summed up the Semmes history in his Senate testimony:  “We have never failed or burned out during three generations of our family….”

Note:  The relationship between Benedict Semmes and his wife Jorantha, particularly as it relates to business matters, was featured by Frank J. Byrne in his 2006 book, Becoming Bourgeous:  Merchant Culture in the South, 1920-1865.  Byrne drew his material from letters exchanged by the couple from in 1848 to 1865 that are among the Benedict J. Semmes papers archived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  I have drawn from Byrne’s book as well as other sources, particularly Semmes' 1894 written testimony to the Senate Finance Committee.