Sunday, February 26, 2023

Patrick Dempsey and the Lowell “Rum Riots”

 Patrick J. Dempsey, shown here, was known in Lowell, Massachusetts, as one of its most benevolent citizens, contributing to a host of charities out of his considerable wealth from whiskey sales.  As one Lowell commentor put it:  “His obituary reads like the cause for canonization of a saint.”   Nonetheless his liquor store became the centerpiece of an 1870 melee, during which police were assaulted and shots were fired.  The event became known as the Lowell “Rum Riots.”

Born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1822 in Rathban, County Wicklow, Ireland, a village tucked in the Wicklow Mountains, shown above, Dempsey was the son of Christopher and Katherine Dempsey.  Of his early life and education, little is known.  By the late 1840’s he had arrived in the United States, eventually finding his way to Lowell where many Irish immigrants had settled.

By 1848 at age 27 Patrick found a bride in Bridget C. Hill, a 20-year-old local girl. Over the next decade the couple would have three daughters.  Family responsibilities may have provided him the incentive to strike out on his own.  He rented a basement room where he brewed root beer.  According to “LowellIrish,” a Lowell historical site, Dempsey was so successful he branched out into beer and other alcoholic products.  That led to his running saloons and opening a series of bars and liquor stores, reputedly “dealing spirits across the state.”

But Dempsey faced a challenge in a rising prohibitionary tide.  Next door, Maine as early as the 1850 had passed laws against the consumption of alcohol.  The campaign accelerated after the Civil War as returning veterans swelled the drinking public.  During the 1870s Massachusetts joined other New England states in cracking down on liquor sales.  When authorities came to Lowell, they immediately headed to Dempsey’s establishment, the city’s largest, shown above.  An outraged and rowdy opposition crowd gathered.

LowellIrish [see below] told the “rum riot” story:  “The crowds began stoning the officers.  One of the roughians used a hoe to strike an officer.  The officer’s gun fired during the melee hitting one of the crowd.    The man who struck the officer, Pender, was arrested and held for bail, but his case was quickly moved since his family was known to have small pox.  The next day the crowd returned, but was informed of undercover constables in the crowd who were ready to stop any trouble before it erupted.”

When that crowd dispersed, the Lowell melee effectively ended.  The following day, as the authorities returned ready to do battle, they were greeted by pro-“dry”

women and girls cheering them on.  Dempsey’s stock was among the hundreds of barrels of alcohol seized and shipped to Boston for disposal.   As frequently happened, the crackdown was followed by strong public backlash.  Dempsey soon was back in business, advertising his “ales, wines and liquors of all sorts.”

That included sales of one of the most controversial alcoholic beverages of the times:  Absinthe, thought to be highly addictive.   Widely known as “the green fairy,” Dempsey’s absinthe sold under a green butterfly label, one of the few brands marketed in America outside of New Orleans.  The product gained considerable public attention.  Shown below is a spoof of a Van Gogh painting showing Vincent, sitting at a bar, sketching.  A bottle of Dempsey’s “Butterfly Absinthe” sits at his elbow.

Whiskey brands featured by the Irishman’s liquor house included:  “Caprice,” “Mayfair,” “Miami,” “Milady,” “Overmarch,” "Patts Malt,” "Puritan Gin,” “Tournament,” and “Westover."  The company waited until 1906 after trademark laws were strengthened to register most of those brands with federal authorities. “Patt’s Malt Whiskey,” which I assume was named after the founder, interestingly was not among them.

Leavening Dempsey’s business successes were the heartaches in his personal life.  After ten years of marriage his wife Bridget died, leaving him with three small daughters to raise.  Four years later, he remarried.  His bride was Margaret Deehan, a Lowell woman of 24.  Over the next thirteen years the couple would have seven children of their own. The first was George Christopher, an only son, and six more girls.  In 1865, daughter Catherine, only 15, would die.  In total Dempsey would witness the deaths of three daughters before his own passing.

None of those losses, however, dimmed Dempsey’s innate benevolence. Recognizing his status as one of richest men in Lowell, he was a regular contributor to a number of causes.  A favored one was St. John’s Hospital, shown here,  where he was accounted a founder and continuous benefactor.  His gifts to St. John’s were said to have included “preserves, sugar and a child’s bathtub.”  Dempsey was also known for sending floral displays to the funerals of friends, neighbors and employees.

Despite his wealth Dempsey chose to reside in a Lowell district known as “The Acre.” in effect an Irish “ghetto.”  In time he was able to buy considerable real estate there, living in a house large enough to contain his growing family.  It became the centerpiece of a tract known as “Dempsey’s Place,” with surrounding 

apartment buildings that he owned and typically rented to Irish immigrants.  Although rich enough to have lived in upscale parts of Lowell, his preference was to reside among his fellow countrymen.   Dempsey also bought property in Salem, Massachusetts, on the Atlantic shore north of Boston where the family had a summer home.  

After the brief prohibitionary setback of 1870, Dempsey continued to guide the fortunes of his beverage empire for the next three decades.  He carefully groomed George as his successor, seeing that the young man graduated from high school with sufficient credentials to be admitted to MIT. There George, shown here, was given special training in chemistry as a member of the class of 1888.  Upon his graduation, the father admitted him as a partner in his enterprises.  Dempsey’s wisdom soon became apparent as George demonstrated an exceptional affinity for the liquor trade.

The father-son partnership terminated in 1901 when Patrick’s health faltered and George took on full management responsibilities.  In December of the following year Patrick Dempsey died.  After a well-attended funeral Mass, he was buried in St. Patrick Cemetery in Lowell.  The drawing here graced the “whiskey man’s” obituary.

Upon taking over the operation George Dempsey made immediate changes.  He took steps to create a new partnership with Lowell resident Patrick Keyes.  He also began the process of trademarking company-issued brands of whiskey.  He moved the corporate headquarters to Boston, the building shown below, and incorporated it as “P. Dempsey & Company.”  By 1913, George had built his own distillery in Boston and was no longer dependent on outside suppliers.

George also was gaining a national reputation as an anti-Prohibition activist  While Patrick was described as a quiet man of few words, his son gained attention as an active spokesman for National Association of Distillers  and Wholesale Dealers.  “When the liquor controversy arose in 1906, Mr. Dempsey appeared before the Secretary of Agriculture to represent the intelligent thought from the liquor dealers’ side, and won high praise from Secretary [James] Wilson.” — said his obituary.  George also published a book, “The Prohibition Question” in which he excoriated the “drys” for “…making officers of the law double-faced and mercenary, legislators timid and insincere, candidates for office hypocritical and truckling….”

If he had lived, Patrick would have been proud of his son’s fight on behalf of the whiskey trade.  In the end George’s eloquence made no difference.  On January 1, 1920 National Prohibition was imposed.  The liquor empire that Patrick Dempsey had spent his life building came to an abrupt end after almost 70 years in business.

Note:  This post would not have been possible without the information provided by the article from LowellIrish of March 29, 2012.  The organization included this statement:  “The mission of LowellIrish is to collect and preserve the history and cultural materials, which document the presence of the Irish community in Lowell. As the first immigrant group in a city that continues to celebrate its immigrant past, LowellIrish will serve as an advocate to support a better understanding of the historical, political, religious, and social function the Irish played in the formation of the city.” 

Addendum:  With the current post this website has registered a milestone 1.4 million "hits" over its 12 years of existence, with interest in pre-Prohibition American whiskey history coming from all over the world.  I am very grateful for this response and hope to continue posting articles for the foreseeable future.


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Frisco’s John Spruance — Designed to Sell Whiskey

Called the “Metropolis of the West,” San Francisco was the first major city west of the Rocky Mountains and the center of the western liquor trade. Noted for its proliferation of distillers, wholesale and retail liquor dealers and saloons, competition for drinking customers arguably was the fiercest in America.  John Spruance distinguished his liquor house amidst the crowd by the eye-catching designs of his saloon signs, labels, and other advertising. 

 Saloon signs:  Shown above is a unusually large and elaborate saloon sign issued by Spruance and gifted to San Francisco drinking establishments featuring his whiskeys and other products.  The sign advertises “Spruance Stanley Co., Importers and Dealers in Wines and Liquors, San Francisco,” with an unusual illustration of two fancy dressed women in a rowboat that might be tipped over at any moment.  A standing lass shows a bit of bosom; her companion flashes some leg. 


Meanwhile, along each side of the sign, small windows bear six other illustrations.  The first tier feature “putti,” — naked baby figures.  At left, five such seem to be engaged in a liquor celebration; at left the tots are harvesting grain.  The next tier depicts barrels, at left in a general warehouse, at right bearing the names of company products, among them:  "Kentucky Favorite,” O.P.T. Whiskey,” “O.F.C Sour Mash Whiskey,”and "Sunflower Pennsylvania Rye.”  The third tier includes a drawing of the Spruance Stanley liquor house and a primitive still.

Although wrestling a central theme from the previous sign is impossible, the picture above tells a story when closely observed.  At first glance it would seem the typical bucolic deer representation.  But look in the far distance.  High on a ridge a wagon loaded with barrels of whiskey is leaving the scene.  But not before the driver has unknowingly dropped and broken open a barrel of O.F.C. Sour Mash.  A doe is eagerly drinking up the spill while the stag is eagerly swallowing a mouthful of liquor.   There will be a hot time in the glade tonight!

The third Spruance Stanley sign, advertising “Kentucky Favorite Old Bourbon Whiskey,” is a more typical drinking establishment offering.  A comely young woman showing a hint of bosom and an elaborate hat was a standard wall decoration in the pre-Prohibition era.  Surrounding the figure with a horseshoe was a touch to be seen in other company advertising.  It apparently represented the Kentucky origins of several Spruance brands.

Labels:  Spruance’s liquor house lavished similar attention to design on its labels, making them as eye-catching a possible.  Shown above are two examples.  At left is the label that adorned the company’s African Stomach Bitters, a “medicinal” with a high alcoholic content.  Note the elaborate typography that gives this label style.  Unlike most depictions of Africans this individual is heavily clothed.  The second label is similarly ornate with a variety of type faces (often called “circus” layout).  A horseshoe is part of the motif.  

As shown below, Spruance also provided for elaborate embossed labels on the glass bottles themselves.

Other:  Spruance shot glasses, given away as advertising to the saloons, hotels and restaurants featuring the company liquor also are distinctive.  They advertise company brands, “Sunflower Pennsylvania Rye and “Old Bourbon Whiskey.”  Note that on shot glasses Spruance once again used the horseshoe motif. 

The man behind these artifacts was John Spruance, born in Pennsylvania in January 1823.  Of his early life little is known.  He first attained notice in San Francisco business directories in 1867 as a partner in a local liquor house called J & J Spruance.  That business was dissolved in 1872 and Spruance emerged as the managing partner of a new organization called Spruance, Stanley Company.  During ensuing years, although the company name remained the same, S. L. Stanley departed to be replaced by a succession of partners.  

Self-described as “Importers and Wholesale Liquor Merchants,” Spruance’s company was successful for 34 years as its imaginative marketing designs proved popular with the drinking public .  He was able to open a second outlet in Sacramento.  Spruance’s profitable enterprise came to an abrupt halt with the San Francisco 1906 earthquake and fire.  Many Frisco liquor merchants rebuilt.  Now in his early eighties, Spruance did not.  

Two years later, on December 21, 1908, John Spruance died, a month short of his 86th birthday.  His legacy is in the well-designed array of saloon signs, bottles, labels, and other liquor-related artifacts eagerly sought by collectors today.

Note:  Unfortunately I have not been able to find a photo or other picture of John Spruance, despite his many years at the head of a major San Francisco liquor house.  My hope is that a descendant or alert reader will see this post and be able to remedy the omission. 

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Pennsylvania Whiskey’s Weighty History

In March of 2017 at a Philadelphia meeting of  boutique distillers I spoke briefly on pre-Prohibition whiskey-making in Pennsylvania.  That experience sparked my interest in understanding better the nature and extent of the industry in the Keystone State.  I focussed on the Pennsylvania distilleries represented among my collection of pre-Prohibition paperweights.  Shown here are nine weights, with information on the four companies that issued them.

Phillip H. Hamburger, a German Jewish immigrant, was not the first distiller to conflate Pennsylvania whiskey with the Monongahela River that flows through the Keystone State. That waterway had been identified with strong drink since the 18th Century. But Hamburger made the Monongahela the centerpiece of his merchandising and his rye whiskey was, as a writer recorded in 1904, “not only known from ocean to ocean, but in every civilized country on the globe.”

Beginning as a liquor wholesaler, Hamburger moved gradually into distilling, initially through an investing in a primitive distillery at Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, on the Monongahela River owned by George W. Jones.  After Jones died, Hamburger took it over, changing the company name to the Ph. Hamburger Co.  Once he had achieved full ownership, Hamburger moved ahead boldly to expand his facilities and his market. He built significantly onto the original plant and warehouses. A contemporary publication reported: “The Hamburger Distillery, Limited, is one of the largest plants of the kind in the world, covering about fourteen acres of ground.” 

Hamburger marketed his brands extensively in newspapers and magazines. He featured three brands, all advertised on paperweights here. In addition to “G.W. Jones Monongahela Rye,” both “Bridgeport Pure Rye” and “Bridgeport Pure Malt” boasted the Monongahela origin on their labels.  All three acquired a national and even international customer base. In 1914, Hamburger’s whiskey won a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Nottingham, England, and again in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco. During his lifetime Hamburger had been an important force for make Pennsylvania rye whiskey recognized worldwide. 

Beginning his career as a baker, John Dougherty, an Irish Catholic immigrant, soon moved into distilling, opening his own whiskey-making facility in 1849. Dougherty’s “Pure Rye Whiskey” met with almost immediate success, capturing a market in the Philadelphia area and beyond. The company’s first still was a wooden one of 750 gallons. It soon was joined by a second copper still with a 1,200 gallon capacity. Both were fueled by steam. A new larger warehouse was built in 1864, with a capacity of 3,000 barrels.  

In 1866 John Dougherty died at the age of 78.  Son William took over as senior manager and the company name was changed to J.A. Dougherty’s Sons. The business continued to grow. Three new warehouses were built over the next several years adding 12,900 gallons of storage capacity. The complex employed some 30 workers. In 1879 the first warehouse was enlarged to hold 4,000 barrels.  Year after year the fame of Dougherty whiskey grew.

At the age of 67 William died in 1892 at his residence in Philadelphia, leaving his brother Charles as the manager of the firm. The youngest Dougherty son continued the successes forged by his father and brother. He discarded the wooden still in favor of a second copper pot and in 1893 rebuilt one warehouse to hold 3,800 barrels and added new floors to another to increase capacity to 25,000 barrels. The continued expansion was indicative of a growing national market for Dougherty Pure Rye.

In contrast to Hamburger and Dougherty, William C. Wilkinson was born in Philadelphia and of old Pennsylvania stock.  Originally a partner in a local wholesale liquor house, when the partner died in 1893, Wilkinson bought the entire business and changed the name to his own.  His flagship brand was “Stylus Club.” Philadelphia’s Stylus Club was an organization restricted to editors, reporters, publishers and other contributors to local newspapers and magazine. Founded in 1877, it was largely a social gathering where, it has been speculated, a fair amount of drinking went on. 

Not a distiller, Wilkinson represented a growing element within the industry, that of a wholesale liquor dealer selling whiskey under his own proprietary brand.  He might be buying whiskey from a Pennsylvania distillery and bottling it as it came, or mixing several whiskeys, sometimes adding other ingredients, in his own facility.  This process was known as “rectifying.”  Frequently rectifiers would trademark these brands, as Wilkinson did with “Stylus Club” in 1891.

A variation on that model was practiced by the Flemings, part of a prominent Irish family of Pittsburgh druggists.  Under the name, Jos. Fleming & Son, Joseph and his son George, turned a drug store rectifying operation into a national whiskey powerhouse.  Doing business from its single location at Market and Diamond Streets, the company advertised “Fleming’s Export Rye Whiskey” and “Fleming’s Malt Whiskey” across America.  Bottles similar to those shown on the paperweights here have been found all across the country, including one recently discovered in a Sacramento, California, state park. 

As druggists, the Flemings shaped their advertising to emphasize the medicinal benefits of whiskey.  Their ads are redolent with statements like “physicians should recommend…” and “physicians prescribe….”  As prohibitionary forces closed in, such medical claims became the best refuge for many Pennsylvania whiskey purveyors, the majority not druggists. 

Joseph Fleming died in 1890 and son George at a relatively young 51 in 1912. Shortly thereafter other family members sold the business and the whiskey brands to a local pharmacist who continued to operate the business under the Fleming name until the imposition of National Prohibition in 1920.

None of the four liquor establishments featured here survived the 14 “dry” years until Repeal in 1934.  Their histories and those of dozens of other pre-Prohibition Pennsylvania distilleries and liquor houses document the growth of the state’s whiskey industry from small farmstead stills to companies with a national marketing reach.  The paperweights they issued serve as a reminder of that dynamic era.

Note:  Elsewhere on this website can be found more complete biographies of each of these four whiskey men:  Philip Hamburger, Feb. 21, 2012;  John Dougherty, Jan. 16, 2012;  William Wilkinson, March 1, 2014, and Joseph Fleming, Aug. 13, 2011.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Walshes: NOT Kentucky “Whiskey Barons”

Beginning with their immigrant Irish father, James, and carried forward by two sons, Nicholas and Denis, the Walsh family carved out a liquor dynasty in northern Kentucky that began before the Civil War and lasted for more than a half century.  Because the Walshes openly declared themselves to be whiskey re-distillers and compounders, the state’s “whiskey barons,” dedicated to straight bourbons and ryes, could scorn them for making “imitation” whiskey.   Truth was, the Walshes really didn’t care.

James Walsh, left,  was born in April 1817 in County Mayo, Ireland, the names of his parents unrecorded.  Information on his education and early occupation is also sparse.  Unlike many Irish whiskey men James did not come to America as a child or teenager.  Records indicate his immigration was in 1832 when he was about 25, eventually heading to Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.  Walsh appears to have returned to Ireland three years later to marry Mary Ellen McCarthy of Cork.  Bride and groom were both 28.  Over the next dozen years, living in Covington, they would have three sons, James, Nicholas, and Denis.

About 1848 Walsh found employment in Covington working for a liquor house that had been erected in 1830 as a whiskey “rectifying” plant, located near a major suspension bridge that spanned the Ohio River. Shown above as later expanded, the facility was founded by Marcus Smith who later sold it;  a succession of owners ensued over the years.  Walsh is recorded employed there as a distillery worker.  When the Irish immigrant’s talent for the business was recognized, Walsh was brought into management by a subsequent owner, Samuel Murphy.  He became a junior partner in 1860. 

With Murphy’s withdrawal, Walsh moved into position as senior partner.  During this period, as his sons matured, he brought Nicholas and Denis into the company.  The following decade was one of rapid expansion for the distilling firm.  In addition to its Covington compounding and re-distilling operations, it acquired the rights to the production of the Sam Clay Distillery in Paris Kentucky (6th District, RD #77) and source of nationally known “Sam Clay” sour mash whiskey.

  Shown above, the Paris Distillery was located 1/2 mile east of Paris on the KentuckyCentral Railroad.  It had the capacity to mash 412 bushels of grain daily and a warehouse capacity of 15,000 barrels.  Insurance underwriter records from this time describe the distillery as being of frame construction with a metal or slate roof. The property included a frame cattle shed 225 feet west of the still, and five warehouses:

   Warehouse A -- brick with a metal or slate roof and located 350 feet north of the still.

   Warehouse B -- brick with a metal or slate roof, adjoining "A".

   Warehouse C -- brick with a metal or slate roof, located 300 ft NW.

   Warehouse D -- a new brick building with a metal or slate roof, located 180 feet       NW of the still and 10 ft east of "C"

    A Free Warehouse -- iron clad, located 210 feet north of the still.

Now operating as James Walsh & Company, in 1875 the Walshes acquired the Rossville Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, 25 miles east of Cincinnati. Shown below, this plant at buildout had a daily mashing capacity of 5,000 bushels of grain, storage space for 60,000 barrels in its warehouses, four steel grain elevators holding 200,000 bushels, and two slop dryers that held 5,000 bushels of feed.

In 1886  "Industries of Cincinnati,” a book extolling the virtues of the city, reported that the Walsh company now owned three distilleries, employing some 100 workers. The corporate offices were at Pike’s Office Building in downtown Cincinnati.  By  this time the company had reorganized with James Walsh, Nicholas Walsh, Denis Walsh, and Peter O'Shaughnessy as partners.  Under their father’s watchful eye, Nicholas attended to the office work, Denis looked after the Lawrenceburg operation.  H. D. Haynes managed the Paris Distillery. Peter O'Shaughnessy superintended the compounding and redistilling business in Covington. 

Their large distillery facilities allowed the Walshes to issue a blizzard of brands:

"A Rye Whiskey - Kenton Co. Ky.", "A. L. Rye", "Belle of Paris", "Duncan Bourbon", "Gold Medal Rye", "Golden Pheasant", "Joe Fiske", "Juniata Pure Rye", "King of Kenton", "Ned White", "Old Buck Creek", "Old Hickory", "Orange Valley", "Paris Club", "Rossville B Bourbon", "Rossville B Rye", "Sam Clay", "Walsh Old Stock", and "Well House.”    Of these, the Walshes trademarked only four:  “Orange Valley” and “Well House” in 1876, and then, possibly discouraged by the lax legal protection afforded, not again until years later with “A Rye Whiskey” in 1906 and “Old Hickory” in 1907.  Over time the company also sold corn whisky under several labels, said to be aged 10 years.


Kentucky’s straight bourbon distillers, the so-called “Whiskey Barons,” were contemptuous of operations like the Walshes.  Col. E. F. Taylor, vocal leader of the bourbon makers, referred to compounded and re-distilled whiskey as “imitation” and lobbied Presidents and the Congress to require that the word be prominent on labels. Corn whiskey was derided as “cheap goods.”  The idea that the Walshes operated a distillery in Indiana also would have elicited criticism.  Truth was, however, Walsh’s whiskey was less expensive than straight bourbons and the market for them was brisk.  Profits rolled in and the family thrived.

The ascendancy of the Walshes was not without setbacks.  On March 19, 1893, fire broke out at their sprawling five story re-distilling and compounding facility in Covington.  For two and a half hours local firefighters strove valiantly to save the structure but to no avail.  The walls crumbled and destruction was total.  Falling debris also damaged adjacent small structures.  A Government bonded warehouse in the rear escaped but about 2,000 barrels of whiskey stored elsewhere were destroyed.  The New York Times reported the total loss at $250,000 (equivalent to $8.2 million today) “well insured in numerous companies,

mostly foreign.”

By that time, James Walsh had died.  Apparently in declining health he had retired in 1888 at the age of 71.  Two years later, while on a visit to Washington, D.C., he was stricken and died.  The cause given was “apoplexy,” likely a stroke.  He was buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, just outside Covington.  

The burden of maintaining the Walsh whiskey empire fell to Nicholas.  In charge when the fire ripped through the Covington plant, he decided not to rebuild.  Nicholas also was faced with the growing prohibitionary fervor in the country, reducing markets.  Moreover, increasing pressure from the Whiskey Trust had grown strong in Kentucky.  In 1902 he sold the Paris Distillery to the monopoly.  Following the 1905 death of his brother, Denis, Nicholas increasingly relied on  Peter O’Shaughnessy who brought his own sons into company management.  Retiring in 1914, Nicholas died in 1915 at 59 years old.  The Walsh dynasty, despite the critics, had lasted 54 years.

The O’Shaughnessys continued to operate as James Walsh & Co., with their main distillery the Rossville plant in Lawrenceburg.  Indicating the continuing prestige of the Walsh name, they called their flagship liquors “James Walsh Bourbon” and “James Walsh Rye.”  Following the imposition of National Prohibition, the plant continued production of grain alcohol for medicinal and commercial purposes and resumed making whiskey after Repeal.  It was subsequently sold to Schenley.

Meanwhile, the Walshes, father and sons, lie united in death even as they were in life.  Shown left above is the family monument that stands in St. Mary’s Cemetery.  Note the panels below each of the arches.  They memorialize each of the three men buried nearby, a family united in their passing as they were in life.

Note:  This post was assembled from a wide variety of sources available on the Internet.