To suggest that Kinsey “Stormy” Jordan was a complicated character is an understatement. The famous Prohibitionist preacher, Billy Sunday, hailed him “as the only liquor owner who told the truth about booze.” On the other hand, Jordan was described by another anti-alcohol zealot as “a man, known the State and nation over for his shameless, law-defying wickedness….” Stormy’s reputation spread far beyond Ottumwa, Iowa, and rendered him the subject of national attention and controversy.
Born in Jefferson County, east central Ohio, in 1832, he was christened Kinsey by his parents but early picked up the nickname “Stormy,” possibly as a result of an 18th century hymn entitled “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” Little is recorded about his life before Jordan arrived in Ottumwa in 1860. After working for a time in a local packinghouse, he opened a small saloon in the basement of a building across from the train station and erected a sign on it that read: “The Road to Hell.” It was said to be dingy place, probably not unlike the interior of an Iowa saloon of the era shown below.
It was the illuminated “Road to Hell” sign that endeared Billy Sunday to Stormy. Shown left, the fire-breathing Temperance preacher and former baseball star also was impressed that anyone who came into Jordan’s saloon and asked for the best he had in the house was surprised when the proprietor put a pitcher of ice water in from of him on the bar. “And right under the main sign of Stormy’s bar was a smaller sign which read ‘Nose paint,’” enthused Sunday.
It was not clear if Sunday ever ventured into Jordan’s saloon. Another sports hero of the time who definitely had no problem imbibing the strong stuff stopped by. So the story goes, John L. Sullivan, the former heavyweight champion, walked into Stormy’s saloon and called for a cigar. Jordan placed a box before him, and when Sullivan asked the price, the proprietor in his gravelly voice croaked, "A dollar apiece." Laying down a $20 gold piece John said, "I'll take the box," and walked out.
Seven years after arriving in town, Stormy married Mary Sophia Wood, the daughter of a prominent Ottumwa physician, Andrew D. Wood, and his wife Eliza Ann (Pease). Mary Sophia bore him two daughters before dying in 1872 at 30 years old and five years of marriage. Left with two toddlers, Jordan wasted no time remarrying. This time his bride was, Julia Frances Wood, the younger sister of his first wife. He was 41, she was 20. Julia would bear him five more children.
Despite his notoriety as a saloonkeeper, the people of Ottumwa came to respect Stormy for his straight talk and plain dealing. Three times they elected him to the city council. They also patronized the “Road to Hell” saloon in such numbers that Stormy was forced to expand. In the late 1879’s he opened a new watering hole, one he called “The Corn Exchange.” The local paper called it “the finest in the city.” This saloon was located adjacent to the city’s main business district, shown below.
As Jordan prospered, however, prohibitionary forces in Iowa were gathering strength. A 1851 law had forbidden “dram shops,” where only alcohol and no food was served. Saloons always had food and were not affected until 1881 when legislators added an amendment to the state constitution essentially voting the state “dry.” With the law due to go into effect on July 4, 1881, Stormy was faced with the prospect of having to shut down The Corn Exchange. Taking the advice of a “wet” Chicago federal judge, however, he decided to sue in U.S. District Court.
Accordingly Jordan brought suit and continued to run his saloon. He was arrested, convicted in a local court, fined — which he refused to pay — and tossed into the Ottumwa jail, shown above behind the courthouse. His attorneys took the case into U.S. District Court before Judge James M. Love, shown left, a longtime serving federal jurist appointed by President Franklin Pierce. A former army officer in the Mexican War and Iowa politician, Love was not a “dry” sympathizer and, despite the pleas of state officers, ordered Stormy released and ruled that his saloon could continue to operate until the federal case was settled.
Unconvinced, local officials jailed Stormy a second time and again the matter was referred to Judge Love. This time he scolded, not Jordan, but the local prosecutor. Any subsequent arrest of Stormy, the judge asserted, would taken as meddling in a case pending before his court and would result in the offending local official being fined or perhaps jailed. With this ruling — and his continued operation — Stormy’s defiance made headlines across America.
Almost overnight Jordan became a national figure, attacked by some, lauded by others. Appleton’s Magazine reported: “Let us not do injustice to “Stormy” Jordan, in some ways the most picturesque figure that emerged from the dust of the fight and the most irreconcilable fighter of them all….Jordan kept his place wide open day and night, paying penalties, fighting, and gaining national fame as a consequence.” In 1904 a play called “The Missourian” toured widely throughout the United States. A leading character was a saloon keeper called Stormy Jordan. “Drys,” however, excoriated Jordan as a scofflaw and he became the subject of one prohibitionist’s verse:
True self-respect would just as soon
Meet Death as enter a saloon—
The Stormy Jordan “Road to Hell,”
Or the tobacco-monger’s cell.
Like Judge Love, Iowa Governor Horace Boies, shown right, was accused of being “soft” on Jordan. In an open letter to Boies, a female constituent demanded that “…liquor dealers shall obey the law. If ‘new and extraordinary’ measures be needed, then adopt them and stand by them in the name of law and order. The man and officer who would do less is an anarchist and a traitor.”
Ignoring these imprecations, Jordan continue to run his saloon for years while his case toiled through the federal judicial system all the way the way to the United States Supreme Court. As result, Jordan was able to conduct what was said to be the only operating saloon in Iowa. After his federal suit was decided against him, however, he decided on a different course. According to the Ottumwa Courier, he called the newspaper to say he would succumb to the inevitable and quit the saloon business, at least in Iowa.
He then apparently decided on a more drastic pivot: He became a Methodist and a full-fledged evangelist. Reported the Wines and Spirits Journal: “His appeals now to his old associates are eloquent and hundreds are flocking to hear him.” The publication, however, scoffed at this conversion: “The Methodists are welcome to ‘Stormy’ Jordan. The liquor trade wants none of him or his class.”
Although the Iowa law eventually was repealed, Stormy Jordan did not return to the liquor trade. In the 1900 census, he recorded his occupation — perhaps tongue-in-cheek — as “day laborer.” He died five years later, age 73, survived by his widow, Julia, and seven children. With family and friends in attendance by his graveside, he was interred in plot 330/K in the Ottumwa Cemetery.
In its obituary The Courier recognized Jordan as one “whose spectacular career as a saloonkeeper won him a national reputation.” The newspaper followed with a statement that makes a fitting ending to the Stormy Jordan story: “He was a man of strong character and marked eccentricity, strictly honest and honorable and generous to a fault.”