Born in Belgium, the youthful Bennett Pieters appears to have exploded onto the Chicago social scene about 1860, newly rich from sales of a medicinal he had invented called “Red Jacket Bitters,” sold as a remedy for stomach ailments. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Pieters…was a popular man among the set: he kept good saddle and carriage horses; had rooms at the Sherman house; had excellent suppers, where the guests …were regaled with champagne.” And then the bottom dropped out.
Pieters arrival in Chicago is uncertain as is the date of his inventing the bitters remedy. The earliest cited date is 1858 when he began a vigorous marketing campaign for his nostrum from an address at 139 South Water Street. Pieters was advertising not only in Chicago newspapers but in publications throughout America and said to have plastered his notices on fences and any blank walls he could find. Note the sign bottom left on the illustration of Chicago’s Rush Street Bridge.
Pieters’ ads emphasized that “there is unequaled virtue in the Red Jacket Stomach Bitters." They are, he claimed, “A combination of rare herbs, prepared in the choicest old bourbon whiskey.” Not only did his bitters aid digestion, they cured severe headaches and were a preventative against fever and ague (malaria). By wrapping his remedy in an Indian motif, Pieters was tapping into the rampant myth of the times that Native Americans possessed special knowledge of medicines.
One author has conjectured: “People had supposed that his bitters owed their rare virtues to samples unknown to the white man, gathered at midnight in primeval forests by grim Indian chiefs, or dusky Indian girls….The secrets having been specially communicated to Pieters under circumstances of so private a nature that they never became public.” He trademarked the Red Jacket name in 1864.
Pieter’s bitters rapidly caught on with the public. As an example, in 1969 as part of a Kansas archeological training program, a bottle was excavated at Fort Zarah along the Santa Fe Trail in Barton County. This suggests that pioneers heading West were counting on Pieter’s nostrum to fend off illness. The bottle he used was a distinctive rectangular shape that came in various shades of amber, as shown above and below. When new they came with a label depicting Red Jacket, a chief of the Seneca tribe.
As sales mounted Pieters grew wealthy. He also found time for a personal life, marrying in Chicago a woman named Amelia who likely was in her late teens when they wed. She had been born in New York of immigrant Canadian parents. Bennett ensconced Amelia in a home that the Chicago Journal described as “…Among the the most elegant and refined in the city, adorned in the most chaste and beautiful manner, and gracefully presided over by his wife, an estimable, accomplished lady.” The couple would have one child, a son they called Frederick.
Although he had been in town only a short time, Pieters soon gained a notable reputation in Chicago business circles. The Journal extolled him as “…A man of fine abilities, and beside being shrewd and successful in business, he was possessed of superior scholarly attainments.”
With a partner, Pieters also was growing the business. Leaving its Water Street address the company by 1864 had moved to 21 River Street. Two years later Bennett Pieters & Co. moved to 31 and 33 Michigan Avenue, listed as distillers and wholesale liquor dealers. An 1866 tourist guide to Chicago commented that the firm’s business had expanded beyond their former quarters and “now occupies a store of palatial proportions—solid stone and brick, five stories high.”
But trouble hovered on the horizon. During the Civil War the Federal Government slapped a special excise tax on alcoholic beverages. Considered medicines, bitters though alcoholic were taxed at a somewhat lower rate. Selling both whiskey and bitters, Pieters was subject to the taxes and acknowledge it by printing up special revenue stamps to wrap on his products, letting the consumer know the reason for the added cost. As did other whiskey men, Pieters put his own likeness on the stamp. (The stamp shown below recently was advertised by an auction house for $4,500.)
Having a revenue stamp was one things, actually handing the money collected over to the government was another. In October 1867 the Feds swooped in, arrested Pieters and his partner, and their place of business was seized by the authorities. They claimed that Bennett, Pieters & Co. had been deficient in keeping records and thereby defrauded the U.S. of a large amount due for tax. Pieters and his partner quickly put up $10,000 (equivalent to $220,000 today), had their establishment returned to them, and continued in business.
Within a year, Pieters again was in legal trouble, this time for suborning a Western Union Telegraph operator into giving his liquor house free early A.M. wire service in order to be in touch with a company outlet in Omaha, Nebraska. When Western Union discovered that its facilities were being used after its regular closing hour of midnight, it hired the famed detective Alan Pinkerton to investigate. Pinkerton, shown here, quickly fingered Pieters and his partner as the culprits.
The Chicago Tribune had a field day, devoting multi-columns to the story and headlining “Startling Disclosures—A Possible Clue to Extensive Revenue Frauds—Whiskey on the Wires.” Its story speculated that Pieters was running a secret, illicit distillery in Nebraska. This apparently was never proved and only the telegraph operator was arrested. Pieters and his partner paid his bail. A jury subsequently acquitted the telegrapher and no action was taken against the liquor house.
Pieter’s downfall came when he attempted to defend his trademark against a Chicago rival who, likely sensing an opportunity for some easy profits, began manufacturing and selling a product called Red Cloud Bitters. Claiming an infringement of his rights, Pieters brought suit in U.S. District Court. As part of the deliberations, the judge had an expert chemist analyze Red Jacket Stomach Bitters. The chemist found that the nostrum consisted of inferior whiskey flavored with ingredients that included tansey, a herb that can cause convulsions and liver and brain damage if taken in quantity, and jimson weed, a powerful hallucinogenic. The judge ruled that having misrepresented the contents of his bitters, Pieters was not eligible for trademark protection and Red Cloud Bitters could continue to be sold.
This appears to have been a final blow to the young Belgian entrepreneur. Profits from his nostrum nose-dived as newspapers across the country ran the story. Profligate with his money when riding high, as one author put it: “…Hence when calamity came upon him he had nothing to fall back on.” In addition, Pieters who always been a heavy drinker became an alcoholic. As a result, he was forced in 1869 to merge his liquor business with another Chicago wine and whiskey wholesaler. Within months he would be forced out of that company and forever lose control of Red Jacket Stomach Bitters.
As Pieters’ drinking increased, his family was required to sell most of its possessions and finally their home, leaving them virtually destitute. Then in a stunning development, Pieters, still a relatively young man, enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army, assigned to the Fourth Cavalry, Company F, the insignia shown here. After a physical exam in Chicago, he was sent to for training in horsemanship and cavalry formation to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Pieters had traded in the fancy suits of a successful Chicago businessman for the uniform of a lowly private, the garb illustrated here. At Fort Leavenworth, he was given a sorrel horse, the color everyone rode in Company F, and sent West to the Indian Wars. In an apparent effort to put his woes behind him, Pieters rode off with his comrades, thereby abandoning his family.
In August 1871 Pieters’ company was part of an expedition into Indian Territory against the Comanches and Kiowas who had refused to stay on their reservation and were plundering on the Texas frontier. Although the U.S. foray proved fruitless, the following year the 4th Cavalry with 222 cavalrymen destroyed a major Indian village on the north fork of the Red River about six miles east of the site of present-day Lefors, Texas. Meanwhile newspapers all across the country, among them The McArthur Enquirer, of Vinton County, Ohio, and the New-Northwest of Deer Lodge, Montana, citing the Chicago press, reported at length on Bennett Pieters' fall from grace.
A question arises about whether Pieters reformed his habits while in the service. A special order was issued by the Department of War on Thursday, October 23, 1973 included a paragraph on three cavalrymen who had been discharged. Among them was Private Bennett Pieters, Company F, Fourth Cavalry. Was this a routine discharge of a soldier whose enlistment was up, or something else? The context of the Army document suggests that a court martial might have been involved.
Evidence exists that after his discharge, Pieters returned to Chicago. There he found that his wife, Amalia, had obtained a legal separation in February 1873. According to newspaper stories her petition to the court alleged that she had been reduced to utter poverty and misery through her husband’s love of intoxicating drink. When Bennett failed to show up for a hearing to answer her complaints, the court granted her the separation.
Amalia and her son were recorded in Chicago in the 1880 census. Amalia was “keeping house” and Frederick was “at school.” Bennett is not with them and Amalia was listed as a widow. Whether this indicates that Pieters may have died in the seven years after his discharge is not clear. Regardless, there the trail of goes cold. I have been unable to find any further mention of him or his burial place. Bennett Pieters had burst like a shooting star over Chicago and almost as suddenly completely disappeared from view.
Note: Preceding Pieters’ Red Jacket Bitters was "Red Jacket Whiskey" from the Red Jacket Distillery in Buffalo, New York, owned by two remarkable whiskey men, Thomas Clark and his successor James M. Merritt. Their story can be found on a post dated August 17, 2018, on this website. Thanks go to Ferd Meyer and his Peachridge Glass post of March 13, 2013, for bringing my attention to Bennett Pieters and for the use of images of bitters bottles included here. Also appreciation to Joe Gourd for two illustrations from his extensive collection of bitters materials.