Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Boston’s Irish John Walsh Did Apply — And Flourished

Throughout the years of the Potato Famine, nearly a million Irish arrived in the United States, often to face hostility.  The roughest welcome of all was in Boston, Massachusetts, with a population of about 115,000.  In 1847, the first big year of the Famine emigration, that city was inundated with 37,000 Irish Catholics immigrants — and they kept coming.  The result was “No Irish Need Apply” signs posted in shop windows and plant gates.   John H. Walsh likely saw such signs when he arrived on these shores as a youth but ignored them, applying himself in the whiskey trade and creating for himself and his family a flourishing business that lasted some 35 years.

Walsh was born in County Tipperary about 1841, just as the potato famine was beginning.  Although we have no photo, a passport application indicates he had a light complexion, blue eyes and a red beard.  Most notable, he stood over six feet, quite tall at time when the average height of a Harvard graduate was five feet, seven inches.  He arrived in America in 1865 at the age of 24, possibly having waited until the Civil War had ended.  Immigrant Irish frequently found themselves marshaled into military ranks.

Walsh’s early years in America are lost in the mists of time, but he appears to have apprenticed with a Boston wholesale liquor house, learning the trade, saving his money, and biding his time to strike out on his own.  He first surfaced in Boston business directories about 1878 as a liquor dealer and the proprietor of a boarding residence called “Centennial House.”  The 1880 Census disclosed the population of that establishment.  In addition to Walsh himself, listed as a “liquor dealer,” were his wife, Nancy, running the household, and two sons, James J., age 13, and William, age 11, both in school.  Nancy was aided by a staff of two, one of them John’s sister, Katie Walsh.   Among occupations of the eight boarders were two other liquor dealers, Richard Barry and Michael Kelly, and a barkeeper, Dennis Brown.  It would not have been unusual if these men were working for Walsh;  boarding with one’s employer was common in the time.

By 1880 Walsh was firmly ensconced in selling liquor from his headquarters in Haymarket Square, an historic former mercantile center in Boston. Opened in 1845, the square, shown above, was a well-known location from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, when the buildings around it were demolished to make way for government offices. 

John H. Walsh & Company advertised widely in Boston newspapers, offering themselves as “importers and wholesalers.”  Proof of the owner’s wholesale merchandising, likely to Boston area saloons and restaurants, is in the large ceramic jug shown here, holding a gallon of whiskey.  For his retail trade and back of the bar, Walsh featured a long necked attractive amber-hued glass container.  It was embossed in bold letters with the company name and on the base “Boston.”

The Irish immigrant also marketed several proprietary brands of rye whiskey, including “Walsh’s,” trademarked by the owner in 1894, and “Sphinx,” “Owl,” “Kernwood,” and “Ashworth.”   Evidence is that Walsh was rectifying this liquor, that is, blending raw whiskeys in a back room to achieve particular taste, smoothness and color.  

Walsh's flagship brand appears to have been Sphinx Rye, its labels depicting a Egyptian background replete with pyramids and the limestone statue of the Sphinx of Egypt, a reclining creature with a lion’s body and a human head.  Even Walsh’s bottle stoppers contained the Sphinx image.

Even as John Walsh was flourishing at the liquor trade, the condition of the Irish in Boston was improving as their numbers became a political force.   As late as 1867, however, an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic candidate captured the Democratic nomination and was elected the city’s mayor.  The first Irish mayor of Boston, with many others to come after, would not be elected until 1885.  The “No Irish Need Apply” signs began to disappear.  

John Walsh lived long enough to see these changes in Boston and contributed to his adopted country in several ways.  He was heavily involved in local politics, serving as a member of the Democratic City Committee and the State Central Committee and also helped organize the Irish Athletic Club of Boston. Another accomplishment was establishing the Centennial House hotel in Allston, Maine.  He died in 1888. 

By that time, Walsh’s eldest son, James was approaching 30 years old and had worked with his father in John H. Walsh & Co., for a decade.  While keeping the name of the liquor house constant, James brought new vigor and ideas to the firm.  As an example, he trademarked both Sphinx and Owl Ryes and appears to have opened a second outlet at 14 Cross Street in Boston.  He also was advertising an alcoholic tonic called “Walsh’s Rock, Rye and Gentian.”

James Walsh also issued a number of shot glasses advertising his proprietary brands of whiskey.   These items would have been given to special customers, including saloonkeepers and bartenders using Walsh’s liquor in their establishments.  The detailed etching on these glasses, both the sphinx and the owl, render them of particular interest.  

These glasses also would have been relatively more expensive to produce than the average shot.  For his retail customers James provided a delightful pocket lucky piece.  It incorporated a 1901 Indian head penny rampant on a four leaf clover and the motto “It is pure whiskey.”
In his personal life, James had known tragedy.  The 1900 census found him living as a widower in Boston’s Ward 25, caring for a four year old son, John H., named for the grandfather.  By the 1910 census, this Walsh had married again, a woman whose first name was Ellen.  John H. was now 14 and no other children were recorded.  James’ 1910 occupation was given as “Owner - Liquor Business.”

How much longer James would have run the liquor business founded by his father is unclear.  I can find no Boston business directory entry for John H. Walsh & Co., after 1913.  Even so, the firm the Irish immigrant had founded as early as 1878 had survived at least 35 years.  With men like John Walsh applying their talents in Boston, the Irish had come a long way over that span — and would go further still. In 1913 the mayor of Boston was John F. (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald, the grandfather of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 

Note:  This vignette unfortunately lacks details on John Walsh’s early life in Ireland and his occupational history from 1865 to 1878.  The material on James Walsh also is sketchy.  I am hope a relative who has done genealogical work on these Walshes will see the post and help me fill in the blanks and correct any wrong assumptions I may have made.

Note 2:  In 2018 Peter Samuelson, a noted collector from the Northeast of labeled whiskeys, was kind enough to send me the striking labels of Walsh's Sphinx whiskey.  I was able to add them above and appreciate his sending them to me.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Dan Thorne’s Cabinet Saloon — The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good

Remember the Clint Eastwood classic, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” much of which took place in a Western saloon?  Daniel Conner Thorne’s Cabinet Saloon on Prescott, Arizona’s “Whiskey Row” had its own story, one best told with the movie title in reverse.  But first, a word about Dan Thorne, the genial bald-headed gent shown here. 

Born in New York about 1829, Thorne came West about 1850 with thousands of men joining the California Gold Rush.  After the gold petered out, he tried placer mining along the Snake River in Idaho Territory.  He apparently had married in New York at 18, but the name of his bride is lost to history.  Legend has it that she died on the way West in a covered wagon.  By the time he arrived in Prescott, Thorne was 40 years old,  a widower, and thoroughly familiar with the mining industry.

He did not stay long in town, telling friends that he was returning East to “commit matrimony.”  He found a bride in 19-year-old Mary Ann Wilson, a native of New Jersey.  After they were married in February 1870, Dan returned to Prescott to build a house for Mary Ann, who soon followed.  She would bear him three sons, Stephen Wilson, 1872;  Daniel Conner Jr., 1874, and Harry Ashley, 1877, and a daughter, Mary Anna, 1880.  Mary Ann died in bearing this last child, leaving Thorne a widower two times over, now with four small children to raise.  In 1881, a year after his wife’s death, Dan married again.  She was Ellen Josephine Bouyea, called Josephine, who ran a boarding house in Prescott.  Their marriage lasted 31 years.

Prescott's Whiskey Row
The Ugly - The Fire.  Although Thorne was prospering through his mining enterprises throughout this period, he also saw the possibilities for riches in operating a saloon in Prescott on its notorious “Whiskey Row.”   As early as 1869 he was associated with the Palace Bar and the Cabinet Saloon, two of Prescott’s most famous watering holes.  With a partner he built a large frame building on Lot 19, Montazuma Street, and opened the Cabinet, described as a “new resort.”  The owners displayed minerals and published ads inviting prospectors to bring in specimens for cash.

On the morning of July 5 a fire broke out in the kitchen of the Cabinet.  According to the July 7 Arizona Gazette: “Volumes of smoke poured from the doors and windows and soon the flames were seen issuing not only from the roof of Thorne’s, but from the eaves of the neighboring buildings so rapid was their progress.”   A saloon across Montezuma Street had to be dynamited to prevent the flames from jumping across the street.  The explosion was a success and that block was saved.  But the fire had roared down the other side of Whiskey Row destroying not only the Cabinet Saloon but the Palace Bar and other establishments. 

Patrons of the Palace were undeterred.  They carried the saloon’s ornate Brunswick bar across the street, saving it for posterity, shown here as it looks today.  Much of the liquor also was saved and drinks were being served even as the blaze was being extinguished.  Some 80 businesses and properties on Whiskey Row were destroyed,  including an estimated 25 saloons and every bordello in town.  A photograph taken after the conflagration shows the ruins.  You can just make out the “Palace.”  Saloonkeepers resumed business temporarily under tented sheds.
Almost immediately Thorne with others agreed to collaborate on rebuilding both the Cabinet and Palace Saloons.  Damage to the Cabinet was estimated at $7,000 (equiv. $175,000 today) and a similar amount for the Palace.  Instead of constructing again with combustible wood, the rebuilt saloons were made of brick, granite and iron.  The new Palace was estimated to cost an unheard-of $50,000 and restoring the Cabinet likely involved a similar figure.  Above is a photo of the exterior of the rebuilt Cabinet. Unfortunately a political sign obscures the front. 

Included here are two photos of the interior of Thorne’s restored saloon. The top shot apparently is the earlier with none of the floral wallpaper and inlaid floor that show up on the photo below.  On the second the tiles on the floor spell out “Cabinet.”  This was entirely within Thorne’s practice of from time to time giving his establishments, as the press put it “a thorough overhauling” and “an improved style.”

The Bad - The Bandit:  “Brazen Bill” Brazelton was well known as a Western outlaw.   During a stage coach robbery Brazelton typically wore a mask over his face and carried a pistol and rifle in one hand while ordering the driver and passengers to hand over their valuables. Before being hunted down, he is alleged to have committed nine such robberies in Arizona and New Mexico.  Brazen Bill, shown below, and Dan Thorne met up on September 27, 1877, when the latter was riding shotgun on a stage coach to California.  The bandit forced the stage to stop and ordered Thorne to toss out the Well Fargo express box and break it open.  

As Thorne did, a gust of wind blew the bandana from Brazelton’s face, as Dan was looking straight at him.  The outlaw hastily pulled the cloth back on his face and told the saloonkeeper he would have to kill him, since Dan could recognize him.  Then Bazelton changed his mind and rode away with the box.  Not long after his return home, Thorne was standing at the end of the bar, facing the swinging doors when Brazen Bill entered his saloon.  Dan recognized him at once as the holdup man;  Bill recognized him as well and left in a hurry.

Telling the story later, Thorne said to listeners:  “He did’t need to do that.  He spared my life and didn’t even rob me; I would have showed him the time of his life.”  That life had only a short time left.  In August of 1878 the Sheriff of Pima County with a posse of five caught up with Brazen Bill two miles south of Tucson, Arizona, and gunned him down.  

The Good - The Adoption.  Perhaps the best story from Thorne’s Cabinet Saloon occurred on a snowy night in January of 1898 when a veiled woman dropped a baby girl on the bar and then disappeared out the swinging doors into the dark.  The local Courier newspaper told it this way:  "All other business was brought to a standstill while the crowd gathered around the bar where the little one had been deposited. As it was impossible for all to get near, one of the employees got up and explained the situation and read the note left with the baby." 

The unsigned note said the father, a miner named William Bell, had abandoned the baby, and the child was now being returned to him by way of the Cabinet, a place he frequented.  Bell wasn't present that night, but the miners, ranchers and railroad hands present, their emotions apparently loosened by whiskey, were so taken with the chubby, cooing infant that they cooed right back at her and some wanted to adopt her.  “Not less than 40 men said they wanted to take the little one home,” reported the Courier. "Several babeless married men almost came to blows over the possession of the little one."  

Although the newspaper indicated that the matter was settled by throwing dice, possession of the tot might have been determined by other means.  The winner was not any of the boozy bar denizens, but a local probate judge named Charles Hicks.  Hicks, shown here, is said to have cradled the infant in his arms and taken her home to his wife. They decided to called her Violet.  This orphan girl became Violet Hicks, who learned to ride horses before she could walk, had a loving home staffed by two servants, and was the legally adopted daughter of Charles and Laura Hicks.

The Rest of the Story:  By this time Dan Thorne, now in his 70s, had sold the Cabinet Saloon to other owners, perhaps because of the stress of managing too many properties and was devoting his time to his numerous mining claims, including the Tip Top Mine shown here.  He had moved with Josephine out to Maricopa County to be closer to his investments.  He may have kept a residence in Prescott, shown residing there in the 1900 census and recorded as a mining operator. 

By 1902 the Thornes had moved back to New York City.  There they took up residency in an apartment building at 248 Sherman Street in Manhattan.   Thorne died there on March 21, 1913, and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Broome County, New York.  Although his gravesite is shown here, his stone appears to be missing.

Called “one of early Prescott’s most colorful and innovative entrepreneurs” by the author of a book on “Whiskey Row,”  Dan Thorne surely knew the truth of the “good, bad and ugly” of the Old West.  He also knew the pride of having established and maintained for years a saloon of which it has been said:  “The Cabinet would yield a history and legacy that is arguably unmatched in the American Southwest’s frontier saloon history.”
The Cabinet Saloon
Note:  The story of Dan Conner Thorne and the Cabinet Saloon, only partially told here, comes from two principal sources:  First, Bradley G. Courtney’s “Prescott’s Original Whiskey Row,” from which the quotes in the final paragraph are taken, and, second, “Dan Thorne:  Whiskey Row Success Story” an article by  Thomas P. Collins, first published in the Prescott Courier on Sept. 12, 1999.  Many of the illustrations are courtesy of Prescott’s Sharlot Hall Museum.  See also my post on F. G. McCoy, another Prescott saloonkeeper, April 4, 2016.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Mobile’s Eicholds & Weiss: “A Big Hit” Followed by “The Big Out”

Eichold Brothers & Weiss, Mobile wholesale liquor dealers and self-identified “rectifiers” featured as their flagship label “A Big Hit” whiskey and their business prospered for many years. Their “big out” occurred in 1908 when Alabama adopted a total ban on the manufacture and sales of alcoholic beverages.  The company was forced out of business after prospering for more than a third of a century.

Like many successful liquor enterprises, this one was founded by immigrants, with the help of a Mobile local.  The newcomers were brothers Leopold and Emanuel Eichold and the Alabaman was Jacob Weiss.  The Eicholds were born in Germany in the mid-1840s, the sons of Jacob and Sarah Eichold.   When Leopold was 20 years old and Emanuel 18, the pair left Germany, arriving in the U.S. in 1866, just after the Civil War, and settled in Mobile where they likely had relatives.

For the next ten years, the brothers worked for other merchants, learning the liquor business in the process.  During this period they came to know the considerably younger Weiss, who may have been a relative.  He was native born, the son of German immigrants. In 1876 the three men pooled their assets and talent to start their own business.  Thus was born “Eichold Bros. & Weiss, Wholesale Dealers in and Importers of Liquors, Cigars, and Tobaccos and Rectifiers of Spirits.”  They were located at 1-5 and later 1-7 Commerce Street in Mobile.  Two illustrations capture the building facade at two points in time.

An 1884 publication on Mobile businesses extolled the partners as “men of sturdy honesty, untiring industry, indomitable energy and sleepless enterprise.”  By that time they had built their business into one of Mobile’s largest whiskey houses and had extended sales over much of Alabama and adjoining states of Florida and Mississippi, using a sizable traveling sales force. “Their large brick store, of full depth from the ground floor to the third floor inclusive, is at all time filled with stock….”  That included a full line of brandies, whiskies, wines and tobacco items, the 1884 report said, while boasting of the owners’ knowledge of and facilities for rectifying spirits.

Although the owners billed themselves as a liquor wholesalers, I have been unable to find any large containers of their whiskey.  In contrast, a number of flasks meant largely for retail sales are known.  Their flagship brand was “A Big Hit” whiskey, shown here in half-pint and pint sizes. (The pint may have been “purpled” later.)
Another major Eichold, Weiss label was “Golden Cream.  It is represented here by a pint flask and a mini-jug.  Other house “rectified” (blended) brands were “Belle of Mobile,” “Monroe Park.” “Rag Time,” and “Simon Suggs.”  Those labels were trademarked in 1906 and 1907.  Registrations for several are shown below.

Meanwhile, despite their purported “sleepless enterprise,” the partners were having personal lives.  The 1900 census found Leopold Eichold head of a household that included his wife, Emma, maiden name, Eichold.  Married at 18 in 1881, Emma was 16 years his junior and likely a relative. The couple had a daughter, Birdie, and also living with them was Leopold’s brother and partner Emanuel; a nephew, also named Emanuel J. Eichold, and one servant.  In the same census Jacob Weiss was a 43-year-old bachelor, residing in a household headed by his mother, Rachel, and four siblings, all unmarried in their thirties and forties.

Not long after the census, the Eichold Bros. & Weiss firm underwent a significant change of management.  It appears that Emanuel’s health was in a period of decline.  He would die in February 1904 and was buried in Mobile’s Spring Hill Temple Cemetery.  During the same period Leopold also appeared to have withdrawn from day to day management.  Subsequently, the name of the firm became the Weiss Eichold Liquor Co., and was capitalized at $50,000 (equivalent to over $12 million today).  Jacob Weiss, 44 years old, became president and Emanuel J. Eichold, the nephew, was vice president, according to Mobile business directories.

Slowly the noose of statewide prohibition was tightening. The Alabama legislature under pressure from the Anti-Saloon League followed Georgia’s 1907 full alcohol ban by passing a “local option law” that allowed counties and localities to go “dry.”  The state the next year followed that law with a complete prohibition on the manufacture and sales of spirits.  The Weiss Eichold partnership was forced to shut down. .

The 1910 census found Leopold, age 62 and apparently retired, living with Emma, daughter Birdie and her lawyer husband, and three servants.  In ensuing years Emanuel J., now married with his own family, became a manager for Mobile’s City Coffee Company.  Weiss, according to directories, went on to manage a local vegetable market.  As the two remaining founders died, they also were buried in Spring Hill Temple Cemetery.

In 1884 when Eichold Bros. & Weiss were at their peak, they had been hailed in Mobile for their observance of “liberality and fairness in business matters.”  Yet their reputation made little difference when the forces of prohibition prevailed.  After prospering for years with “A Big Hit” brand whiskey, the liquor firm was doomed to a “Big Out” — permanently out of business twelve years before National Prohibition.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Brigham Young and “Valley Tan” Whiskey

Terming the Mormon leader Brigham Young a “whiskey man” might strike some as an absurdity, given the injunction against strong drink that has been a traditional teaching of the Church of the Latter Day Saints.  The facts seem otherwise.  For example, in 1873 at Young’s request the territorial legislature granted him the exclusive right to manufacture and distribute whiskey and other spiritous liquors in Utah.  “Valley Tan” was the name of his principal brand.

Young seems to have been of two minds on the subject of strong drink.  Although indications are that he drank beer when polluted water was an issue, he is said never to have tasted whiskey.  Brigham is recorded saying:   “If I had the power, I would blow out the brains of every thief in the territory, and I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves.”  Strong words indeed from a religious leader and sometime distiller.

Valley Tan predates Young’s monopoly over Utah whiskey.  The name itself was associated with a range of goods produced by Mormons in Utah.  One of the first industries they introduced into the Salt Lake Valley was leather tanning.  Because their tanning process often was done crudely, the term became associated with any article of home manufacture done in a rough-hewn way, including distilling liquor.  A quart whiskey bottle bearing Valley Tanning (V T) embossing is shown right.

Prominent witnesses to the character of  Valley Tan have attested to the raw-boned nature of this liquor.  Among them was Mark Twain.  In 1871 he visited Utah and was given a swallow.  No stranger to strong drink, Twain found it an unusually potent.  His subsequent book, “Roughing It,” contained a story about a man named Bemis who came into Twain’s Salt Lake City hotel room about 11 P.M., “…Talking loosely, disjointedly and indiscriminately, and every now and then tugging out a ragged word that had more hiccups than syllables in it.”   Twain then described how Bemis threw off his clothing and went to bed with his boots on.

At first, Twain wrote, his traveling companions thought it was something Bemis had eaten. “But we knew afterward that it was something he had been drinking.  It was the exclusively Mormon refresher, ‘Valley Tan.’”  The author then explained: “Valley Tan is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; it is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah.  Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone.”

Other testimony to the potency of Valley Tan came from the famed explorer and adventurer, Sir Richard Burton, shown right, who in 1860 stopped to explore Salt Lake City and its environs.   Among the people Burton was eager to meet was Orrin Porter Rockwell, a notorious figure with a reputation as a ”mountain man,” Mormon enforcer, and wanted criminal.  At this point Rockwell had been appointed deputy marshall of Salt Lake City.  His reputation had preceded him and Burton was anxious to meet him.

Their encounter occurred over dinner one night at the home of a mutual friend just outside town.  The Orrin Rockwell the Englishman encountered was “…a man about fifty, tall and strong, with ample leather leggings overhanging his large spurs, and the saw handles of two revolvers peeping from his blouse.”  Rockwell and Burton apparently hit it off from the beginning.  According to Burton’s account, Rockwell pulled out a dollar and sent to “the neighboring distillery for a bottle of Valley Tan.

“We were asked to join him in a ‘squar’ drink, which means spirits without water.  Of these we had at least four, which, however, did not shake Mr. Rockwell’s nerving, and he sent out for more, meanwhile telling us of his last adventure.”
Burton apparently kept up with Rockwell, drink for drink, as the mountain man gave him advice about the Englishman’s plans to travel overland to California.  Sir Richard later sent him a bottle of brandy as thanks, never remarking on the quality of Valley Tan.

Another link from Brigham Young to Valley Tan was its sale in the department-like store the leader had established to provide necessities to Mormons in Salt Lake City, ostensibly because non-Mormon local merchants were gouging his people.  Called Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), the store, shown above, sold Valley Tan.   That could never have occurred without the leader’s blessing. 

Because Young died in 1877, his whiskey monopoly may have lasted only a short four years.   His death did not, however, end his association with alcoholic drink.  He is shown here pictured on a Pabst beer issued mug issued in 1897 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Mormons in Utah.  Young’s association with Valley Tan was perpetuated by Fred Kiesel, a liquor dealer who operated out of Ogden, Utah, and financed a second outlet in Salt Lake City. [See my post on Kiesel, August 2014.]  

Kiesel, left, was a “Gentile” who enjoyed tweaking the Mormon establishment.   Certainly among his jabs was issuing his own Valley Tan whiskey and advertising it with a picture of the Brigham Young monument that stood in downtown Salt Lake City.  

Shown right is a celluloid match safe with an ad touting Valley Tan as the “Pioneer of Whiskies.”  The reverse side advertised “Brigham Young Tonic Bitters” with a picture of the Mormon leader.  Kiesel’s bitters also was a beverage well-laced with alcohol.

Of Brigham Young, his son-in-law William Hooper wrote: “Brigham Young hates intemperance and its evils, and who, if he could have, would never have made a drop or permitted a drop to enter Utah. He wishes that all the whiskey that the Gentiles brought had been so filled with poison as to have killed all who drank it.” 

Yet Brigham Young allowed Valley Tan whiskey to be sold in the ZCMI and later sought and received the monopoly franchise to manufacture and sell liquor in Utah.  This whiskey man clearly was of two minds.  As one writer has summed up the situation:  “…Young generated a large amount of revenue for his new territory by taxing and controlling the very liquor he manufactured, yet despised.”

In recent years Valley Tan has made a re-appearance on the whiskey scene.  In 2007 a Colorado native named David Perkins opened Utah’s first distillery since the 1870s in a village called Wanship, about 37 miles from Salt Lake City.  Perkins claims it was from Sir Richard Burton’s writings that he found the recipe for Valley Tan.  It is said to have been made originally from wheat and potatoes. Perkins uses just wheat for his whiskey and claims that his “Valley Tan is lighter and more delicate than other whiskeys — perfect for sipping.”   Certainly this liquor is a far cry from Mark Twain’s “fire and brimstone” Valley Tan — Brigham Young’s Mormon whiskey.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Could Dan Russell “Corkscrew” into Whiskey History?

In the lore of Kentucky whiskey, Dan Russell is a distinctly minor figure.  Most books on the history of the industry ignore him completely.  In others he is at most a passing reference or a footnote.  That obscurity, however, was not for Russell’s lack of trying.  By pushing front and center his name, his face, a title, and, yes, a corkscrew, he eagerly sought a place among the state’s acknowledged whiskey barons.  What happened?

Records indicate that Dan, shown above, was born in Kentucky in 1855, the son of Lucien Russell, a New Yorker, and Mary True, from Virginia.  Although he seems to have avoided the U.S. census for most of his life, he apparently became known for his active participation in Kentucky politics and fraternal organizations.  When he ran for state senator in 1904, the Louisville Irish American newspaper, as might be expected, extolled him as “…One of our most prominent citizens, one of those who has an abiding faith in Louisville.”  Later Russell would serve as the local representative of the Kentucky’s governor, where he was given the title of “colonel.”  Although he belonged several fraternal organizations, Dan was particularly active in the Improved Order of Redmen, recorded as its “Great Prophet” in 1906 and later as head of the local chapter.

After working for others in the liquor industry, The Great Prophet had the foresight to see that the Old Times Distillery, located on Louisville’s West Broadway would be an excellent vehicle to advance his interests.  That distillery, founded in 1869, had been brought into national prominence in the 1890s by Charles Lemon and Dick Meschendorf, described as “young and pushing businessmen.”   
Seeing the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago as a excellent opportunity for publicity they had built a small working log cabin distillery in the heart of the fairground “between the cliff dwellers exhibit and the educational buildings.”  The exhibit was a great success, the whiskey won a gold medal, and “Old Times” was launched as a national brand.

By 1907 when Russell appeared on the scene, Meschendorf had departed [see my post of February 2013], and Lemon had died.  Dan was able to buy a controlling interest and become president of the facility, shown right, and soon changed the name to the D. H. Russell Distillery.  In addition to continuing to feature the Old Times brand, the new owner added several others, including “Old Dan Hyland,” “Red Clover Blossom,” “Russell’s Extra Pure,” and most important, “Old Dan Russell Whisky.”  Although Old Times had been trademarked in 1905, Russell did not bother to register any of his other brands.

Shown here is a 1909 magazine ad selling Old Dan Russell, illustrated with a quart bottle of the whiskey with Dan’s own Irish face gracing the label.   He claimed it was eight summers old, bottled in bond and a full 100 proof — 50% alcohol.  This was at a time when most bourbon was 80 proof.  Russell sold his potent liquor for $1.05 a quart or $4.20 a gallon, the latter to be sent express post paid.  By this time, Russell commanded a large building on Louisville’s “Whiskey Row” at 725 West Main Street.  Shown below, five stories high, the structure offered retail and wholesale sales on the ground floor.  The mail order department and liquor storage facilities were on the upper levels.

Seemingly always anxious to put his name before the public, Russell issued shot glasses that linked his name with the famous Old Times label.  By far his most famous giveaway was a “silver mounted, buck horn handled corkscrew.”  Shown here depicted on a trade card and in reality, the instrument handle was carved from an antler. 
A multi-purpose tool, not only was it a “corkpuller,” it also could draw rubber stoppers from Hutchinson style bottles and lift the crown tops from beer.  To get one free at Christmas 1906, one needed only to buy two gallons of Old Times.  Orders were to be mailed to “your Old Friend D. H.  Russell.”  This item seems to have caused quite a stir in the whiskey industry, possibly prompting  several less exotic Russell corkscrews.
Dan Russell never seems to have married, although that cannot be confirmed because of the lack of census data.  He appears to have been a boarder over much of his career and a 1915 directory listed his residence as the Seelbach Hotel, one of the city’s fanciest.

Given Dan Russell stature as president of a major distillery and his own clear effort to get his name known widely in Kentucky and, indeed, the Nation, why has whiskey history largely ignored him?   The reason may lay in a story in a local Loujsville newspaper of March 13, 1917.  The headline read:  “Alleged Conspiracy to Sell Stolen Postage Stamps,  Dan H. Russell, a Prominent Louisville Man, Placed Under Arrest.”   For whatever reason, Russell had been entangled in a national conspiracy to buy and sell stolen postage stamps, estimated by the government to be worth $40,000.

Also arrested were the ringleaders, a man named Henry Bronger and his son, along with a local druggist.  According to postal inspectors, Louisville was the center of the plot, receiving and “fencing” stamps sent from points as far away as Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.  Hauled into court, Russell — identified by the paper as “a leader in fraternal circles and prominent in the business and social life of Louisville” — pleaded guilty in Federal Court to having knowingly received the stolen stamps.  Possibly because of his prominence he got no jail time but a fine of $1,500 (equiv. $37,000 today).  

Three years later he witnessed the advent of National Prohibition that required that all Kentucky distilling and liquor sales to cease.  Having been disgraced, Dan was now without employment at the age of 55.  These tidings may have taken a toll on his health.  The following April, Russell died and was buried in Section 2, Range 36, Grave Six, of Louisville’s Eastern Cemetery, one of the city’s oldest graveyards that subsequently was abandoned and largely forgotten.

Shown above, the ruined cemetery could be symbolic of Dan Russell himself, a man who vigorously sought visibility for himself in his home town, his state, and his industry, only to be brought down by a clearly criminal act and relegated to a footnote in the history of Kentucky whiskey — like the burying grounds, seemingly abandoned and forgotten.