Monday, November 28, 2016

California’s Weils: All in the Family for 50 Years

For a half century the Weil family of San Francisco and Shasta operated one of California’s most successful whiskey businesses, beginning not long after the Civil War, overcoming many challenges, including the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and surviving up to the advent of National Prohibition.  As the founding brothers, William, Leopold, David and Joseph,  passed management along to their sons, the Weils were responsible for one of the longest tenure of any California liquor house.

The Weil brothers were born in Germany and likely  emigrated to the United States during the 1850s.   The eldest was William, born about 1826.  He was followed by Leopold, 1829, then David, 1836, and Joseph, 1842.  Their early activities have gone unrecorded but by 1859 they had settled in San Francisco.  We may assume that they were involved in the mercantile trades and that one or more of the brothers was working for a wholesale liquor house.  That may have been Frederick H. Putzman, a San Francisco liquor wholesaler and rectifier, who had established a operation at 213 Jackson Street about 1865. After three years in business, he sold out to the Weil Brothers.  While remaining at the Jackson Street address for the next 19 years, they changed the name to their own.  

Not long after taking over the business, the brothers divided responsibilities.  William and Leopold managed the San Francisco liquor business.  David and Joseph were dispatched to Shasta, California, a town 223 miles from San Francisco, to “handle distribution,” as one author has put it.  Because today Shasta, about six miles from Redding, is considered a “ghost town,” that may seem like a odd assignment.  At that time, however,  Shasta was a bustling place and the largest settlement in that part of California.

Morover, Shasta was a promising point for distribution of Weil whiskey.  It was an commercial center and a major shipping point for mule trains and stage coaches serving the mining towns and later settlements in northern California.  Moreover, although the Gold Rush had abated, many thirsty miners made Shasta a base of operations and saloons abounded — all potential customers.  In the mid-1880s, however, the Central Pacific Railroad bypassed Shasta in favor of Redding and the place went into decline.  At the time of the 1880 census David and Joseph Weil had left the liquor trade and were in business together in Shasta selling dry goods.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, William and Leopold were finding success and advertising the slogan “Up to You.”  They featured a number of brands, some proprietary mixed up on their premises and others as agents for Eastern whiskeys.  Among their offerings were "Kentucky Belle,” “Nonpareil,” "Our Boast,” "Pomona Brand,” "Standard Old Bourbon,” "Vanity Fair,” and "Virginia White Rye,” “Honeysuckle Bourbon,” and “Old Jug.”  

Their flagship brands were Standard Old Bourbon, likely their own blended product, and Nonpariel, for which Weil Bros. were West Coast agents.  That brand had been trademarked by Eastern Distillery of New York City in 1887 and then again by W. L. Perkins & Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota. [See my Perkins vignette July 2014.]  The Weils also advertised widely as agents for “Dr. Russell’s Pepsin Calisaya Bitters,” an alcohol-rich remedy for stomach disorders.  They packaged those products in both clear and amber glass bottles, from half-pint and pint up to quart-sized 

As they worked to make their liquor house succeed, the San Francisco Weils also were having personal lives. In the late 1850s William had married a German-born woman named Lona who was 12 years his junior.   They would have two children, both born in California,  Alex W. in 1869 and Bertha in 1871.  As of the 1880 census they were living together in San Francisco.  At age 21 Alex  W. was already working in the liquor house.  That same census found Leopold in the city, married to Bertha, a woman he had married when she was about 16 in Germany.  Two of their five living children had been born in Germany including Alex L., 36, who also was working in the liquor store.

In 1887 William and Leopold took both Alex Weils into management and changed the name of their firm to Weil Bros. and Sons, the name it would bear for the next 29 years.  About the same time, the company, possibly needing more space for its operations, moved to 13-15 Front Street, the address appearing on the letterheads shown here.  In 1892, a San Francisco business directory listed all four Weils, but seven years later Leopold and his son Alex apparently had left the firm and only William and his son Alex remained.

In 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake and fire took its toll on the Weil enterprise.  Burned out of their Front Street store, the Weils relocated for two years to 228 Eighth Street before moving into their last address at 133 Fremont Street.  By this time William Weil had retired from the firm and his son, Alex, had been joined by Moritz Weil.  Moritz’s relationship to the family is unclear.  Born in Germany in 1846, he could have been a younger brother of the original four, an elder son of one of  them, or perhaps a nephew.  The 1910 census found him in Assembly District 41 of San Francisco, a 64-year-old widower, living with a married son who was an attorney.  Moritz gave his occupation as “merchant, wholesale wines.”

My assumption is that Alex and Moritz continued to operate Weil Bros. & Sons until 1918 when prohibitionary forces likely caused them to terminate operations. Moritz died in 1828, but I have been unable to find information on the deaths and place of interment of the other Weils.  It is my hope that these omissions can be filled by descendants who might see this post.

For 50 years the Weil family operated a successful liquor house in San Francisco, overcoming the tumult of the Civil War, the decline in their Shasta-based activities, the financial “panics” of 1873 and 1893, the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and the deaths of the founding brothers.  This long business life could not withstand the onslaught of National Prohibition, but did it give future generations many artifacts by which to remember the remarkable Weils.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Ed Hughes Helped Tame a Rowdy Town

“Starting in life with nothing, and by steady industry and thrift, coupled with skill and inventive genius, building his own fortunes to good proportion and permanent substance of magnitude, Edwin S. Hughes, of Glenwood, is not only a self-made man but one of the leading business men on the Western slope of this state.”

Thus did the 1905 volume, entitled “Leading Men of Colorado” describe Ed Hughes, a whiskey man, in a biography.  It described in some detail his multifaceted business and community activities but failed to capture how Hughes, the dapper gent seen right, helped transform a Colorado town from a frontier haven for gamblers and gunmen into a tourist destination for the gilded gentry.

Hughes was an Easterner, born in April 1856 at Flemington, New Jersey.  He was the son of Jared and Rhuhama (Hartpence) Hughes, both native Pennsylvanians.  Father Jared was a farmer and livestock dealer who was successful in business and active in local Democratic politics. The 1870 census found the Hughes family living in the Garden State.   “Edwin” as he was listed, was 13 years old and part of a family of seven children.  

Ed Hughes did not in fact “start in life with nothing,” and was able to extend his schooling in Flemington until he was 17.   He seems to have had no stomach for farming, however, and early moved to Bushnell, Illinois, where he worked in a butcher shop and clerked in a hotel.   After toiling in Bushnell for about six years, he moved west in 1879 to Leadville, Colorado, a boom town founded on the nearby discovery of silver deposits.

In Leadville, he learned the bottling trade and appears to have had a strong talent for it.  He worked there for five years but perhaps sensing the demise of the town as the silver played out, moved to Aspen, Colorado, about 130 miles away over rugged terrain.  There he worked in another bottling operation owned by a man named Charlie Lang.   Hughes soon rose to the manager’s position.  Perhaps recognizing that bottlers were largely unknown but needed in the West, after a year and a half with Lang in Aspen, in 1887 he moved up the road 40 miles to Glenwood Springs and started his own bottling company.
Glenwood Springs, originally called “Defiance” by its rambunctious residents, was anything but a tourist hub.  Located in a mountain valley at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork River,  many more saloons, gambling houses and brothels existed than grocery stores and restaurants.  As one local historian has put it:  “More saloons existed here than a city needed, honestly, but we had them.”  They were the scene of some fatal gun fights, one the same year Hughes arrived, when two men were gunned down in a single incident.  Harvey Logan, aka “Kid Curry,” a notorious bank and train robber, frequented the town. Doc Holliday, the gambler dentist and fast gun from the “Gunfight at OK Corral” lived there and is buried in the city cemetery.  An early photo shows the mud-rutted main street of Glenwood Springs.

As a newcomer, Hughes had the wisdom to see the potential of the area in the extensive geothermal resources that existed, most famously in hot springs. It was an era when many believed that mineral waters held restorative qualities and could even cure diseases.  He saw that a market existed. The arrival of railroads, the Denver and Rio Grande from the east, the Colorado Midland from the south, meant that people could travel to Glenwood Springs in relative comfort.  Hughes would provide encouragement.

Using the “skills and inventive genius” attributed to him Hughes managed to corner the market on capturing and bottling the water.  He called it “Yampah Water” after the spring from which it came and claimed it had medicinal qualities.  Shown here is a labeled body of Yampah Water.  

Hughes also bottled ginger ale, cider, sarsaparilla and beer, calling his business the Glenwood Springs Bottling Works.  Hughes embossed his bottles, helpfully providing the date of their creation.  Shown here and below are clear Hutchison stoppered bottles from 1899 and 1900.  Other dated “Hutches” have been found dated 1892, 1903, 1909 and 1909.  The 1892 bottle had a base mark identifying it as the product of the Colorado City Glass Co. of Golden, the only one so marked.

In January 1888, Ed Hughes married Helen Heichmer, the daughter of Martin and Annie Heichmer, both immigrants from Germany who first settled in Pennsylvania.  Helen was born there, one of nine children and in 1879 relocated  with her family to Colorado, where she met Ed.   With his marriage, the peripatetic Hughes saw reason to settle down in Glenwood Springs.  The 1900 census found them there with two children, Charles E., 12, and Helen L., still an infant.

As the 20th Century progressed, residents of Glenwood Springs began to see the economic benefit of improving the town.  Hughes, an ardent Democrat, was elected to the town board and became a force behind construction of better streets and sidewalks.  A ban was placed on gambling and prostitution, one enforced by stiff fines.  One sign of the times was an advertisement for mineral baths that featured a dainty young girl almost fully covered in a bathing suit beckoning tourists to Glenwood Springs — a far cry from the fancy ladies that earlier had graced the town.

With heady profits from his mineral water, sarsaparilla, and other beverages, Hughes  in 1894 added a wholesale liquor business.   Although Glenwood Springs was in the process of shedding its rowdy reputation, saloons still abounded.  The photo above shows Hughes’ store as a horse-drawn wagon delivered barrels of Budweiser. The address was 824-826 Commercial Avenue.  The bottom floor was Hughes’ sales area; upstairs rooms were rented out as residences.  As a wholesaler Hughes was drawing whiskey from barrels brought by rail from sites eastward and decanted into ceramic jugs bearing his name.  Two varieties are shown here, the one on the right dated 1910.

Hughes also had the distinction of issuing one of the most elusive American whiskey jugs known, a highly sought but seldom seen Knowles, Taylor & Knowles (KT&K) jug that in  gold old English letters bore the label, “The Opera ... Ed. Hughes ... Merry Christmas.”  Shown here, it carried the familiar KT&K mark.  According to one account it was found years ago near the small ghost mining town of Red Mountain.  I assume "The Opera" was a Hughes saloon.

Ever the canny businessman, Hughes apparently decided that just as he controlled the mineral water from the local hot springs, it might be possible to monopolize the flow of liquor to local drinking establishments.  An example of his strategy was a deal he made with his old boss, Charlie Lang, who had come to Glenwood Springs from Aspen.  In exchange for selling Lang the Mirror Saloon — land, building and fixtures — for the bargain basement price of $6,500, Hughes extracted a promise.  Lang would purchase all his liquor, beer, tobacco products and other supplies exclusively from him for the next three years.  If those terms were violated, Lang’s mortgage would be immediately due to Hughes.  This example was cited recently to illustrate “…the monopoly Hughes had in Glenwood Springs to dictate pricing, supply and even the establishment of saloons.”

Apparently this gambit by Hughes was short-lived.  A scandal involving him and other city officials was reported to have ensued a year later, the nature of which was not revealed.  Whatever its magnitude, the scandal does not seem to have impeded Hughes’ rise to wealth and influence.  His bottling plant continued to flourish, said to incorporate a number of “efficiencies” Hughes had invented and patented.  The entrepreneur also acquired area substantial real estate, encompassing both ranch and mining lands.

Hughes’ most important acquisition was the Hotel Colorado. Established by silver magnate and banker Walter Devereux, construction of this structure, patterned after the Villa de Medici in Italy, began in 1891 and finished in 1893.  Shown above, the building was made of cream-colored Roman brick and Peachblow Sandstone, boasted 12,000 yards of imported carpet, and featured grounds covered with 2,000 rose bushes.  The date of Hughes’ purchase is not certain but he owned it for some years in the early 1900s.  In addition to using the ample profits of his liquor and bottling interests, he also issued bonds to raise the money, calling this enterprise the Glenwood Hot Springs and Hotel Company.

Hotel Colorado became a favored destination for Easterners lured by the mineral water baths.  Arriving mostly by train, they reveled in the comforts it afforded as well as its firework displays, live music and elegant dining.  After extended stays there by Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Hotel Colorado gained the name “Little White House of the West.”  With considerable help from Ed Hughes, Glenwood Springs had become a retreat for the rich and famous.

Ed Hughes died in 1915 at the age of 59.  He was buried in Glenwood Springs Pioneer Cemetery.   Looking on as he was interred were his wife, Helen, their children, and contingents from both the local Elks chapter and the Knights of Pythias, to which Ed had belonged.  With his death much of the financial empire he had created collapsed.  Helen Hughes found herself unable to pay interest on $75,000 in bonds owed to investors in the Glenwood Hot Springs and Hotel Company and was forced into bankruptcy.  At the consequent sheriff’s sale in February 1916, according to the Aspen Democrat-Times, the Hotel Colorado, hot springs and other valuable Hughes properties valued at between $250,000 and $400,000 were sold to a local businessman for the paltry sum of $78,535.  No other bidders appeared and the transaction took only a few minutes.

Hughes Wholesale Liquor fared only slightly better.  It was managed and later owned by Ed’s brother-in-law, Joe F. Benedeck.  He operated for a few months until Colorado went dry in December, 1915.  It later became Benedeck’s, a wholesale merchandise store that remained in business until 1972 when the family sold the building.  By then Glenwood Springs thoroughly had shucked its rowdy reputation, advertised by the Chamber of Commerce as a “family friendly vacation destination” offering attractions like rafting, kayaking, climbing, hiking and fly fishing.  From his grave I imagine Ed Hughes is smiling.

Note:  The photo of the Hughes' "Opera" jug has been added in September, 2018, through the courtesy of John DeGrafft, a Arizona collector who owns a number of KT&Ks and other "fancy" American whiskey jugs.

Addendum:  This post marks a milestone.  As of today I note that the number of followers for this blog have exceeded the 100 mark.  I am very grateful to each of them for their interest and support.  This is my 476th profile as I continue to find interesting "whiskey men" to write about.  As long as that is the case, new vignettes will appear here regularly.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

William McRoberts: A Story in Five F’s

Escaping a brutal Famine in Ireland, bringing slaves to Freedom, experiencing two Family tragedies while rising to become among America’s most notable distillers, experiencing disastrous Fires, and subsequently facing Financial struggles, William McRoberts lived the kind of story from which novels are made.  

Famine: McRoberts was born in 1824 in Dundonald, County Down, now Northern Ireland, the bucolic village shown above located not far from Belfast.  His parents were William McRoberts Sr., the son of John McRoberts and Margaret McLean, and Anna Moore, a daughter of Robin Moore.  The family home was at Ballyoran.  Shown right, the McRoberts house was a substantial ivy-covered residence bespeaking some affluence.  Surrounded by six brothers and sisters, William likely knew a relatively tranquil childhood.

That picture changed abruptly in the 1840s while McRoberts was still in his teens.  The failure of the potato crop, the primary food staple of the Irish people, caused widespread starvation, death, and massive migration from the Emerald Isle.  The McRoberts family is said to have scattered over the world to Canada, the U.S. and Australia.  William was among those who came to America, likely aboard one of the so-called “famine ships,” that crammed hundreds of people into cramped spaces for a rough two-weeks on the Atlantic.  He eventually found his way to Cincinnati.

Freedom:  When McRoberts next surfaced in the public record he was working for a Cincinnati wholesale liquor house known as Boyle, Miller & Company.  Steven S. Boyle, like McRoberts, was an immigrant from Ireland. About 1853 he gave young William a job as a “drayman,” driving a horse-drawn wagon.  In this role McRoberts became a cog in the “Underground Railroad,” smuggling escaping slaves to freedom in the North and safety in Canada.

A key to freedom was crossing the border of slave states; the Ohio River was a major objective.  By the first decades of the 1800s, every state in the North had legally abolished slavery, including border states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.  Ohio had the most active escape network with around 3,000 miles of routes used by runaways.  It also was the closest state to Canada with only about 250 miles from the Kentucky border to Lake Erie and safety.

People who guided slaves from place to place were called “conductors.”  McRoberts was a conductor with excellent opportunities. Among his duties was traveling by horse and wagon over the Ohio River to nearby distilleries in Kentucky, bringing barrels of whiskey back to Cincinnati.  Somewhere on his return McRoberts would halt his team and another conductor would help him load a slave, or perhaps two, into whiskey barrels that he would then cart back across the river and offload at Boyle Miller.  After dark, the escapees would be spirited up to another “station” likely at Auburn Hills, Ohio, on the way to Canada.

What was McRoberts motivation?  My first assumption is that Steven Boyle was aware of the gambit and approved.  Both men were taking a risk. Boyle could have had his wagon, horses and cargo confiscated.  McRoberts would have faced fines, jail, and possible physical harm if caught.    William’s wife, Mary Harriet Conway, may have been an abolitionist influence. He had married her in Cincinnati in 1850, a Presbyterian minister presiding.  Recorded as Boyle’s drayman from 1853 to 1859, McRoberts had the opportunity to assist dozens of escapees until the outbreak of the Civil War that eventually ended the need for the “Railroad.”

Family:  The 1860 census found William, with his Irish-born wife, Mary Harriet Conway, living in Cincinnati with four children, three girls and a boy, ages 9 to 1; a fifth child, a boy, would be born later that year.  With them was William Conway, 14, attending school, a younger brother of Mary Harriet.  William’s occupation was given in the census as “clerk,” having been raised by Boyle to a position inside his whiskey operation.  By the following year, the obviously talented McRoberts had been moved up to foreman. He also must have been investing in the distillery.  Upon Boyle’s death in 1865 McRoberts became its principal owner in partnership with Hamilton Miller.

When the Civil War ended McRoberts wasted no time in expanding his distilling activities.  He built a second distillery near Latonia Station, on the Louisville Short Line & Kentucky Central Railroads, located about four miles south of Cincinnati.  Known on Federal rolls as RD #2, 6th District of Kentucky, McRoberts designated this plant the Willow Run Distillery. Much later he installed his son-in-law, Thomas Hewitt, as the manager. Under the leadership of McRoberts, who has been described as a “master distiller,” the fortunes of Boyle, Miller continued to rise.

Amid all this success, there was tragedy.  In January 1864 the McRoberts’ youngest daughter, Harriet only five years old, died of burns and was buried in Sec. 46, Lot 23, Spring Grove Cemetery.  Not long after, the date uncertain, Mary Harriet herself died, her burial place still unidentified.  This left William with four children under the age of 16 to care for.  Seemingly looking for a mother for his brood, he remarried in 1866.

McRoberts’ second wife was Ellen “Ella” Barker, the daughter of a highly privileged family from Peoria, Illinois.  Nineteen years younger than her husband, Ella had been sent to the exclusive Maplewood School for young ladies in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and was accustomed to spending summers at a seaside cottage near Boston.  William may have met her through her father, Gardner Thurston Barker, a well-established Peoria distiller.  After the marriage Barker made McRoberts a partner in his company.  The couple would have two children of their own, both boys.  When his eldest son from Harriet Conway, Gavinus, came of age, William brought him into the distillery business.

In 1867  McRoberts bought seven acres on Grandin Road in the Walnut Hills area of Cincinnati.  There for $30,000 ($750,000 today) he built a large home for Ella and the children on what would become known as Cincinnati’s “Millionaires Row.”  As can be seen above, it was a spacious dwelling with a large wrap-around porch, doric columns and a mansard roof, forming a very attractive residential dwelling. 

Fire:  Fire was an ever present problem for liquor enterprises.  While McRoberts was still working as a drayman, a serious fire broke out at Boyle’s Wholesale Liquors, located at 53 East Second Street, recorded by the Cincinnati Firefighters Diary.  The loss from this blaze was set at $150,000, equivalent to more than $3.5 million today and three firefighters were hurt.  Without any real proof, it occurs to me that this fire could have been set.  Southern sympathizers called “Copperheads” were rife in Cincinnati and, if they had known about the company help to escaping slaves, might well have torched the building.

Just after Christmas 1867, with McRoberts in charge, fire visited the premises of the distillery, destroying the plant.  Its storage areas held 9,000 barrels of highly inflammable whiskey that fueled a fire so intense that the stone walls of the building crumbled.  The Spencer House hotel at the rear was seriously threatened but saved by fire crews. One firefighter was injured. The loss to McRoberts and his partner was set at $450,000, equivalent to more than $9 million today.  Although insurance paid $200,000, the remainder came from the owners’ pockets. 

Undeterred by this setback,  McRoberts immediately began to rebuild.  Only a few months later a newsman from the Cincinnati National Union visited the site and reported that:  “This establishment has, Phoenix-like, arisen from its ashes and is again in full blast and in complete running order.”  Introduced to McRoberts, who possibly escorted him through the distillery, the journalist was shown a enormous still in operation, the first of three scheduled to be installed.  He reported that the stills would make Boyle, Miller “the most extensive distillery in the United States.”

The reporter paid particular attention to the problem of fire:  “Although this portion of the building cannot be said to fire proof, extra and unusual precautions have been taken in its erection against probable fire.”  Among these were pipes in the walls extending from the first to fourth floors,a few feet apart. The ideas was that flames would be drawn through them like chimneys and escape at the top without injury to the walls.

Financial Struggles:  Those precautions proved unavailing.  In 1869 Boyle, Miller suffered a second major fire, again with great monetary loss.  This time McRoberts lacked the resources to rebuild.  He sought to recoup from the Federal government the amount he already had paid in taxes for the now destroyed whiskey, but was refused.  Prior to passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, distillers were taxed on product immediately after it was put in barrels and stored for aging.   Such taxes were a principal sources of federal revenue until a national income tax was imposed in 1913.  Eventually McRoberts sued in Federal Court for a refund.

Authorities were highly skeptical about claims from distillers experiencing fires.  In some cases, owners had been known clandestinely to cart their barrels to a new location, torch their plant, and ask for a refund on taxes paid.  While no such suspicion fell on McRoberts, the situation could lead to high tension.  In 1870 a Federal liquor gauger/inspector named Mohan had a confrontation with McRoberts, attacked him with a knife and was arrested.

Meanwhile, the Northern Irish immigrant was struggling financially.  By 1871, McRoberts’ partnership with Hamilton Miller had been dissolved and Boyle, Miller & Co. ceased being listed Cincinnati directories.  The same year he sold his Walnut Hill mansion and an indeterminate amount of acreage for what appears to  have been a “bargain basement” price,  With a partner named Todd, he retreated to Boyle’s former location at 53-55 East Second Street, running both a liquor store and a second enterprise, W. McRoberts & Co., listed as manufacturers of coloring and flavoring for liquors.  All the while he was paying lawyers in a vain attempt to retrieve his whiskey tax.

According to a descendant, during this period of financial struggle, Ella McRoberts began to spend more and more time in Peoria with her parents.  At some point she left for good, taking her two sons with her.  Whatever the emotional toll of this desertion, it pales with the suffering McRoberts met in July 1875.  While boarding a train he lost his footing and fell under the car.  The wheels passed over his leg and abdomen in what appeared to be a fatal accident.  McRoberts, however, survived almost five months with his injuries, dying at his home on McMillan Street in January 1876 at the age of 52.

His funeral was held at home, arranged by Thomas Hewitt and a friend and liquor dealer, Edmund Amann,   The Members of the Walnut Hills Knights of Pythias held a special ceremony in honor of their brother member the same day at their Castle Hall.
While his family and friends gathered at his graveside McRoberts was laid to rest in Section 46, Lot 23, of Spring Grove Cemetery not far from his daughter Harriet.  The family monument is shown here.

It is unclear whether Ella returned to Cincinnati for his funeral.  McRobert’s obituary makes no mention of her.  She continued to live in Peoria for the rest of her life, never remarrying, raising her sons and being active in community affairs until she died in 1923 and was buried near her parents.  With William’s death the family settled the long-running dispute with the federal government over the tax issue.

Within the space of a single vignette, it is scarcely possible to reflect the full character of an individual.  The years between McRobert’s arrival in the U.S. and working for Boyle in Cincinnati are largely a blank.  There are no clues to how William worked his way up from drayman to owner in just six years, or clues to his evident business sense and entrepreneurship.  It is unclear whether his financial struggles of the 1870s should be laid to the aftermath of the fire, to effects of the Panic of 1873, or to some other cause.  What we know of McRoberts, particularly his audacity and courage in helping escaping slaves, makes us want to know more.

Note:  This post was researched from a wide number of resources.  A vignette on the Amanns of Cincinnati can be found on May 6, 2017.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Was Boston’s Reuben Ring a Bad Actor?

Born into a well-known family of actors, Reuben Ring chose to sell whiskey for a living rather than perform on a stage.  Perhaps he had talent but lacked the necessary passion for the limelight. On the other hand, there were government authorities from Maine to Minnesota who strongly might contend that Ring’s business practices proved that he was, in truth, a bad actor.

Born in Boston in 1840 Ring sprang from a long line of ancestors famed in the British Isles as Shakespearean players.  His great grandfather, Charles Fisher, shown here playing Falstaff, came to the United States before the Civil War and journeyed with theatrical caravans as far west as the Mississippi River.  Fisher was married to Josephine Bowen, a noted American actress.  When he died in 1911 the New York Times headline read: DEATH OF CHARLES FISHER; HIS RECORD IS A LONG CHAPTER IN OUR STAGE HISTORY. HE DIED IN THIS CITY YESTERDAY IN THE SEVENTY-FIFTH YEAR OF HIS AGE -- HIS HONORABLE THEATRICAL CAREER -- PARTS HE PLAYED.

Reuben’s father was James H. Ring.  While not boasting so distinguished a career as Fisher, his mother’s father, James H. was a well-known comedian and actor who played for years with the Boston Museum acting company, so called because its early performances were held in the quarters, of the Boston Museum.  Shown above is a photo of a performance.  As the troupe’s leading comedian that may be James at far left.
The acting “bug” apparently never bit Reuben.  Although, as we shall see, the tradition carried on with later generations, this Ring sought other career paths.  When he registered for the Civil War draft in 1863, he gave his occupation as “clerk.” The 1870 census found him still living at home with his parents, a 30-year-old bachelor.  His occupation then was given as “gas pipe salesman.”  

At some subsequent point Ring went to work for a liquor firm that had been established on Elm Street in Boston before the Civil War.  The founder was Seth E. Pecker who featured a brand he called “Custom House Gin,”  a reference to the Boston landmark.  He is remembered for having sold his liquor in cobalt decorated jugs that today fetch fancy prices.  One is shown here.

By 1862 Pecker had moved to larger quarters at 39 and 41 Commercial Street.  There he hired as a manager, Frank O. Dame, turning the liquor house over to him by 1869.  Dame changed the business name to his own.  While staying at the Commercial Street address, he continued to sell Custom House Gin, and added proprietary whiskey brands “Club Old Bourbon”  and “Club A.A.” bourbon and rye.  

At some point, Dame hired Reuben Ring who by 1890 was spokesman for the firm.  Ring was quoted in Bonfort’s, a whiskey trade paper, commenting on the year just past at Dame’s liquor store and saying: “…In some respects it was the best year the house ever had.”  This prosperity was reflected in the larger Boston economic scene, the city shown here as it looked in 1890.  By now almost 50 years old and still a bachelor, Reuben married in 1891.  His bride was Annie C., a woman about his age who had a married son, Harry Delano.  The 1900 census found the Delanos living with the Rings.

By 1896, Frank Dame had exited the scene and Ring became the sole proprietor of the Commercial Street liquor house.  Reuben Ring and Co. continued to feature the two proprietary brands, as indicated by illustrations from the company letterhead. He also was pursuing aggressive business methods that were not always appreciated by local authorities.  Maine officially had gone “dry”  not long after the Civil War but individuals could order booze from out of state for personal consumption, but re-sale was illegal.  Despite that, many liquor retailers continued to operate there “sub rosa”.

In 1906 Reuben Ring & Company sent a shipment of liquor to Lewiston, Maine, via the Boston & Maine Railroad, the principal carrier of alcohol from New England suppliers into Maine.  The consignee was one “John Cram,” a fictitious name designed to trick authorities as to its true destination.  Somehow the train car in which the whiskey sat was moved from track to track, making retrieval difficult for the mysterious “Mr. Cram.”  After a little more than an hour had passed, local authorities, who had been tipped off, moved in and confiscated the liquor.  In a case entitled “State v. Intoxicating Liquors,”  the Supreme Court of Maine subsequently ruled that the seizure was illegal and returned the shipment to Ring.  Despite the railing of Maine newspapers against “Boston rum-sellers,”  Ring continued sending booze into the state.

The following year a physician and political figure named George L. Crocket wrote a lightly fictionalized account of what he intended to be an expose of the way liquor was dealt in Maine.  One character was called “Windy Bill,”  described as a teetotaler and Democratic Party operative.  While having a role in liquor enforcement,  Windy Bill “all this time has been the soliciting agent for one of the wealthiest and largest liquor firms in Boston."  Crocket subsequently identified the firm as Reuben Ring & Company.  I can find no evidence of Ring retaliating.

Windy Bill is characterized as dealing with illicit Maine liquor dealers and putting all his orders through to Ring in Boston.  Custom House Gin sold for $3.25 a gallon, Club AA for $3.50, and Club Old Bourbon for $3.50.   One Crocket character remarks that in Maine a gallon of any of that hard stuff would cost six dollars. Windy Bill hints that the differential is a political payoff and he is in on the boodle.  Although nothing is alleged  about Ring getting kickbacks, the Maine monopoly obviously was lucrative enough.  

Although Minnesota was a markedly “wet” state, Ring managed to trigger an investigation there.  In 1908 the Hennepin County Attorney cross-examined officials of a local firm called Twin Cities Express Company, suspecting that it had been used as a conduit for the Boston dealer’s liquor without paying the required taxes.  As revealed in an interrogation of an employee, the express company owed a big debt to Ring.   Moreover, an agent of Ring’s named Reed had been inserted as treasurer of the firm and handled all the cash.  The County Attorney asked:  “What did your business with Ruben Ring Co. amount to?”  The reply:  “About $200 every two weeks.”  That would be equivalent today to $5,000.  It is not clear that any charges resulted from this investigation.

Was Reuben Ring a bad actor?  Lewiston enforcement officials would say so. Dr. Crockett would likely agree, as might the Minnesota county attorney.  The Boston dealer’s aggressive methods of selling his whiskey seems to have crossed the boundary of propriety in several places and at several times.  Yet in his home town, others would have demurred. In 1908, while still under investigation in Minneapolis, Reuben was appointed a Boston justice of the peace.  Earlier he had been made a director of the Fourth National Bank, a financial institution boasting $7,000,000 in deposits.

Although the Ring stage tradition seems to have skipped Reuben, his younger brother James produced a new generation of performers.  The most famous was a daughter, Blanche Ring.  Shown here, she was a singer and actress on Broadway and in Hollywood movies, active from 1887 until 1945.  She is remember for introducing such popular songs as “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,”  “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers,” and “Yip-I-Addy-I-Aye.”  

Blanche’s brother, Cyril Ring, had a career as an actor from 1921 to 1951.  By the time of his final appearance he had appeared in more than 350 films.  His most famous role was as a foil for the Marx brothers in their 1929 “Coconuts.” He is shown here in a still from that film with Harpo Marx.  Cyril also was the first husband of actress Charlotte Greenwood.

Two other nieces of Reuben Ring had theater ties.  Julie Ring, right, became a stage actress and married a British actor named Al Sutherland.  Their son, A. Edward Sutherland played in 37 films early in his career, beginning as a Keystone Cop in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), that starred Charlie Chaplin. Sunderland later turned to directing. Another niece, Frances Ring, married a popular stage and silent screen star named Thomas Meighan.  Thus was the Ring family thespian tradition carried on. 

As for Reuben Ring, the 1920 census found him living on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, a widower, with the stepson and his wife.  At 80 years old he was still listing his occupation as “liquor, wholesale.”  He died the same year and was buried in Mayflower Cemetery in Duxbury, Massachusets.  With National Prohibition now a fact, this was a last gasp for his enterprise.  His company and his brands disappeared forever.  But Ring, true to his nature as a “bad actor” clearly had never thrown in the towel to the “drys.”

Note:  I am indebted to an alert reader who gives his name as "Grif" for providing me in December 2020 with the information on Reuben Ring's place of interment.  Unfortunately there is no photo of his headstone on "Find a Grave."