Foreword: The American Civil War brought with it strong partisan views about the struggle. Some Northerners supported the South; some Southerners favored the North. In such a tense environment the charge of treason was easily brought against such individuals, sometimes formally, sometimes by inference. Those in the liquor trade were not immune. Related here are descriptions of three incidents in which whiskey men were accused as traitors, and the outcomes.
The Whitlock brothers, Benjamin M. and Edmund A., were grocers in New York City who launched several popular whiskey brands and also were widely known for Southern sympathies and pro-slavery views during the 1850s and early 1860s. A major mercantile firm, Whitlock Bros. Company sold so extensively below the Mason-Dixon line that it was called “The Southern Headquarters.” The brothers were outspoken in their support of Southern causes.
In 1860 Benjamin went further. As the Nation trembled on the brink of war, he invited to New York members of the “Savannah Republican Blues,” a Southern militia unit, ostensibly to promote reconciliation. The unit is shown in a newspaper illustration of the time. The officers and men were welcomed at the Whitlock’ s Beekman Place establishment, fed lunch, and that afternoon transported by boat to Benjamin’s large brownstone mansion on the Hudson River, about three miles from Manhattan.
When the Civil War broke out, the Whitlocks, “lost overwhelmingly.” Their Southern customers either ignored their debts to the New Yorkers or were unable to make the necessary financial transfers because of wartime disruption. Owed the equivalent of millions today, the Whitlocks were unable to collect. They also faced boycotts by Northern customers. Benjamin’s relationship to his brother-in-law William McDonald, identified by authorities as a Confederate agent, also was a lively subject for gossip including whispers of treason aimed at the Whitlocks.
Following the burning of Atlanta, McDonald and his co-conspirators set out to burn down portions of central Manhattan. They succeeded in torching an empty room in the prestigious Astor House, a few rooms in nearby hotels, and the Barnum Museum, here shown on fire, escaping to Canada just as authorities closed in. Although the fires were soon extinguished and no one injured, the event sparked immediate outrage that innocent women and children might have perished.
Reputedly as a result of this stress in their lives, having lost everything, both Whitlock brothers went to early graves. Benjamin, crumbling both physically and mentally, died in 1863 at the age of 46. Amid the outcry over the McDonald’s “terrorist” raid, an event that could be tied by inference to the Whitlocks, Edward sickened and died in May, 1865 also at 46. Even today some Whitlocks are unwilling to acknowledge any kinship with the brothers.
A member of a highly successful San Francisco liquor business known as Truett, Jones, and Arrington, Gideon Jones was arrested, accused of treason, and jailed in 1863. He was accused as the middle man in a scheme to aid the Confederate cause by outfitting a rebel “pirate ship,” a conspiracy that went terribly wrong for the participants.
Jones apparently was recruited by the ringleader of the conspiracy, Asbury Harpending. He was a fellow Kentuckian who was an unabashed supporter of the Confederates and under loose Federal watch. With the Civil War raging in 1863, Harpending, shown right, hatched a plot to have Southern sympathizers in California outfit a “pirate ship” and sail the Pacific Coast, preying on U.S. merchant vessels. Jones was enlisted to help the conspirators buy the needed items. As a local merchant and trader, Jones’ purchases, even of guns and ammunition, likely would go unremarked. It also can be assumed Gideon was responsible for putting aboard the whiskey and beer the crew would require on the voyage.
But Federal authorities were watching. On the day the ship was scheduled to leave San Francisco harbor, they pounced. Nearby on the U.S. warship Cyrene, boatloads of Marines were dispatched to board the ship. On the steam tug Anashe, revenue officers and San Francisco police had been idling, watching as supplies were being brought aboard the schooner. At a signal from the Cyrene, the tug headed toward the erstwhile pirate vessel. Upon boarding they found the guns and ammunition and arrested everyone aboard.
Meanwhile back on land, whiskey man Gideon Jones was in deep trouble. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest and he was thrown into the San Francisco jail. In a subsequent indictment from the U.S. Circuit Court Jones was accused of “treason,” charged with having aided in fitting out the pirate ship and for unspecified “conduct directed against the country.” While some San Franciscans howled to “hang ‘em all,” President Lincoln asked that they be released. Gideon Jones ended a free man.
In March 1862 as Richmond seemed under imminent attack, Confederate authorities there arrested suspected Union sympathizers, including John M. Higgins, a prominent and prosperous Irish immigrant grocer and liquor dealer. In contrast to other political prisoners, Higgins’ incarceration was short and his release controversial.
Declaring martial law, Richmond authorities arrested Higgins on a charge of “treason.” He was targeted because of his relationship with Union Colonel (later General) Michael Corcoran, shown here. Because two of Higgins’ aunts had married two of Corcoran’s uncles, the liquor dealer and the soldier had become friends. Early in 1862 Corcoran sent a letter to Higgins advising him to move his wife and family North and assured him that he would see them to safety under a flag of truce. When the letter was intercepted by Confederate authorities they immediately marked Higgins as a traitor.
Along with others seized in the roundup, Higgins was imprisoned at Richmond’s former “Negro jail” on Franklin Street, renamed “Castle Godwin” after a local police official. Meant to accommodate about 75 prisoners, within weeks the small facility held 250 prisoners in thirteen rooms. When Castle Goodwin was closed after about two months, inmates were sent to a prison in Salisbury, North Carolina. Higgins was liberated, however, and allowed to go home. Some cried “foul,” claiming the Pope had interceded for Higgins, a Catholic.
Setting aside whatever views he previously might have held, Higgins took the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. He found employment in the office of the chief military officer in command of city forces who also supervised the prison Higgins had just left. Ironically, Higgins’ job included examination of mail to and from prisoners being held in Castle Godwin, now mainly deserters and soldiers who had gone AWOL. With the end of the war Higgins went back to his Richmond grocery trade, emphasizing liquor sales once again and reclaiming his former prosperity. His store is shown here.