Distilled History

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Archive for the ‘Campbell House Museum’ Category

June 6th, 2017 by Cameron Collins

A Toast to Minnie Kleeman

A small piece of history

Sometimes even the littlest of things can make a tremendous impact.

I should know, because I watched it happen two years ago. And it all started with a little piece of paper with the name “Minnie” written on it.

To be more specific, this little piece of paper is glued to the inside of a kitchen cabinet at the Campbell House Museum, where I’ve been a volunteer since 2012.  The written name “Minnie” is short for “Philomena”, as in Philomena Ann Kleeman, a cook who lived and worked in the Campbell family’s home over eighty years ago.

But before I get to the great story about Minnie and that little piece of paper, allow me to provide a bit of background information.

Philomena Kleeman in 1934The Campbell House Museum has been open for more than seventy years. And while it’s a great place for visitors to look at beautiful stuff and hear great stories, much more is happening behind the scenes. It’s a place of constant research and learning, and that’s a major reason I’m glad to be part of the Campbell family.

And it may surprise many that we are still just scratching the surface. Even after seventy-four years of operation, significant new information is constantly emerging. For example, we didn’t know the name of the architects who designed the house until a few years ago (Joseph C. Edgar and Thomas Warying Walsh). We just learned where one of the Campbell children is buried (he’s in Bellefontaine Cemetery with his brothers and sisters). And in an astounding 2012 discovery, it was proven that Robert Campbell once owned an enslaved woman named Eliza. All of these are important changes to the Campbell narrative, but even the littlest things like name pronunciations have thrown us for a loop. If you took my tour four years ago, you would have heard me pronounce Hazlett Campbell’s name with a short “a” vowel sound (like “hat”). Take my tour today and you’ll hear me say it with a long “a” (like “maze”).

The 1880 Census

But if there’s one aspect of the Campbell story that remains elusive, it’s the story of the Campbell servants. These are the scores of men and women who lived and worked behind the scenes as domestic laborers. They are the cooks, housekeepers, maids, and coachmen who worked long hours keeping the Campbell House running smoothly. And other than a few notable exceptions, we know almost nothing about them. Several names can be found from family letters, official documents, and census records, but that’s about it. Most of the Campbell servants simply showed up to work for a year or two and then left. And when they left, they took all of their stuff (letters, journals, photographs) with them. Little evidence of their time in the Campbell House was left behind.

Mary BoersteServants are an important part of the Campbell story, but they also represent an aspect of private life that has all but disappeared. Hiring live-in domestic labor still happens today, but on an infinitesimally smaller scale. 150 years ago, it wasn’t just commonplace for a wealthy family to utilize domestic labor, it was expected. And it would have been impossible for Robert and Virginia to live the lavish lifestyle they did without the aid of servants. In fact, the number of servants employed by a wealthy family even played a role in determining social status. With as many as nine or ten servants living at 20 Lucas Place during the peak years of the Campbell House, there’s no doubt that the Campbell family found themselves near the very top of the 1875 St. Louis social ladder.

While servant names and faces continue to be elusive, what is known is that their days were filled with backbreaking work. Campbell servants worked an average of 78 hours a week. On-call at all hours, servants were hard at work before the family awoke, and were still at it long after the family went to bed. The Campbell servants were responsible for every household chore, including cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, emptying chamber pots, sewing garments, arranging ice delivery, pulling weeds, fetching coal, driving carriages, and much more. During a time when appliances like washing machines, gas stoves, and microwaves didn’t exist, little time was available for anything but work.

Gus Meyer

Andy Hahn, the Executive Director of the Campbell House, once offered up a perfect analogy. He told me the primary job responsibility of a servant in the late 1870’s could be equated to the primary purpose of a household appliance today.  Take the vacuum cleaner, for example. In 2017, the time needed to vacuum a home can often be counted in minutes (maybe twenty in my little south city bungalow). But 125 years ago, cleaning carpets was an arduous, time-consuming task. In homes with wall-to-wall carpeting (known as “fitted carpets” back then), a servant would begin the process of cleaning a carpet by removing every piece of furniture from the room. And since Victorian-era homeowners loved filling their homes with as many chairs, tables, sofas, and pianos that could possibly fit inside, it was a major effort just to get the process going. After the room was cleared, a servant then had to get down on the floor and tear out the seams where each piece of carpet was stitched together. With the carpet separated into manageable pieces, each section was taken outside, hung on a line, and beaten with a carpet beater. After getting the dirt and dust swatted out, the maid had then had to put it all back together. After the pieces were perfectly aligned, re-sewn, and the furniture was moved back into place, it was time to move on to the next room. And since carpets were cleaned twice a year (on average), the process probably started again as soon as it was completed.

Campbell House Parlor

But being a domestic laborer in an elite, upper-class home did have its merits. It allowed young men and women to earn a decent wage along with free room and board. In some instances, even a servant’s clothing was provided. With few expenses (and little free time to spend money), a young woman like Philomena Kleeman could save her money and prepare for a life ahead. And that’s exactly what she did. Although her time at the Campbell House probably wasn’t as labor-intensive as what was described above (only one Campbell was alive during her time there), she made the most of it. After working at the Campbell House as a cook from 1932 to 1936, she returned to her hometown of Tell City, Indiana with $3,000 in her pocket. After marrying her sweetheart William Emmett Miller, she used her savings to build the house in which they would spend the rest of their lives together.

1953 Campbell House Guestbook

But wait a minute… didn’t I just get done explaining that very little is known about the Campbell servants? How could I possibly know how much Minnie Kleeman saved and what she did with it? And how do I know the name of the guy she married? Well, this is where this story gets even better. And it all started with that little piece of paper glued to a kitchen cabinet door.

It all started on a Saturday when I was at the house giving tours. A fellow docent named Dennis Rastert told me a story about a Christmas party held at the Campbell House back in 1922. The party was hosted by Hugh Campbell, the older of two surviving Campbell sons living in the home at the time. Hugh Campbell was a very generous man, and one way in which he showed his appreciation to those who worked for him was to throw lavish Christmas parties for his servants and their families.

The Campbell House

The 1922 party is special because we actually have a written account of the event by someone who was there. In his account, a man named Dewey Dauby details an extravagant affair that included a catered nine-course meal and dancing to a seven-piece orchestra. Among other indulgences, Dauby describes his plate surrounded by “six small glasses filled with wine and liquors of different kinds”, and he goes on to say that it was impossible to empty one of the glasses without it being immediately refilled. As the festivities continued, Dauby admits to feeling a bit “dizzy” while making eye contact with another man “in a funny hat” on the other side of the room. After the two men raised their glasses to each other, Dauby hilariously realized that he’d been toasting to his own reflection in a mirror.

Dewey Dauby was at the Campbell House in 1922 as the guest of Mary Boerste, one of the few Campbell servants we know quite a bit about. Dauby had recently married Mary’s niece, Polly (Pauline) Kleeman, and the couple attended the party as part of their honeymoon in St. Louis. Born in 1883, Mary Boerste came to St. Louis in 1904 to visit the World’s Fair. Instead of returning home after her visit, Mary answered an ad in a newspaper for a housekeeping job at the Campbell home. And after being hired by Hugh Campbell, she remained there for the next thirty-two years, becoming one of the longest-tenured servants and a significant part of the Campbell story.

Servants in the Garden

 After telling me this story, Dennis showed me the small piece of paper  (that I had never paid much attention to) glued to the inside of the kitchen cabinet. Seeing “Minnie” written on it, I learned the name was short for Philomena Ann Kleeman, Mary Boerste’s niece. Minnie also attended the epic 1922 Christmas party. She was eighteen at the time, and she’d return to the Campbell House ten years later when her aunt Mary helped secure her a job as the Campbell cook.

As for me (sufficiently envious of Dennis and his tale), I walked back into the kitchen and took a picture of Minnie’s little piece of paper. Happy to add another story to my tours, I applied a shiny filter and posted it on the social media site Instagram. A few weeks later, my iPhone dinged and notified me that someone had commented on my post. And that’s when the real fun began.

 (I’ll let the image below speak for itself)

The Instagram Post that Started it all

After a few back and forth messages on Instagram, I soon found myself in the midst of an amazing email correspondence with Beth Puckett, Minnie’s oldest granddaughter. She explained the Instagram find was the result of a simple Google search by her cousin, Susan Kornreich Wolf, who was visiting her mother, Patricia Miller Kornreich, in Maine. The two were curious about Minnie’s time in St. Louis working for a millionaire and discovered the above Instagram post, shared it with the rest of Minnie’s family, and just like that, a new connection between the Campbell House and someone who lived and worked there came to be.

William Miller & Philomena Kleeman

The excitement of this new connection quickly spread throughout the Campbell House and Minnie’s family. Information began flowing back and forth, and both sides became excited about a rare opportunity to share information. And a couple of months later, four members of Minnie’s family came to St. Louis to see the Campbell House in person. Along with Minnie’s children Wilma and Cliff, Minnie’s granddaughter Beth and great-granddaughter Emma spent an afternoon touring the house and talking with museum staff. Interestingly, it wasn’t the first visit for Wilma and Cliff. In 1953, Minnie brought her entire family to St. Louis to see the place where she lived and worked for four years. At the time, Wilma was fourteen and Cliff was ten. Their visit is even recorded in the Campbell House guest book.

But the story gets even better. During their visit, Minnie’s family donated two shirts that Minnie had taken with her back to Indiana in 1936. The shirts once belonged to Hazlett Campbell, and getting those shirts was a significant acquisition for the Campbell House. Prior to that donation, no clothing belonging to any of the Campbell children existed in the museum’s collection. And for those wondering if Minnie Kleeman stole the shirts, she didn’t. It’s funny to consider, but Hazlett Campbell was beyond the need for such fancy attire when Minnie worked in the house. One plausible theory is that she simply held on to the shirts as a source of extra fabric.

I was unable to be there when Minnie’s family came to visit the Campbell House, but I was fortunate to be part of a second donation that soon followed. A few weeks after their visit, Minnie’s granddaughter Beth contacted me again to arrange a special delivery. A few days later, I hand-delivered a photo album to the museum that once belonged to Mary Boerste, Minnie’s aunt who worked in the Campbell House for more than thirty years. Mary Boerste died in the Campbell House in 1936, and Minnie’s family believes it was this event that stirred Minnie to return to her home in Indiana. Along with her own belongings (and a couple of Hazlett Campbell’s shirts), Minnie also packed up her aunt’s photo album and took it all with her. Nearly eighty years later, Minnie’s family generously decided to hand it back to the Campbell House.

Hazlett Campbell's shirts make their return

This special photo album contains nearly 200 photographs that had never been seen by anyone at the Campbell House before. Suddenly, after more than seventy years of operation, the Campbell House had new photographs of the home, new photographs of the garden, and best of all, new photographs of Mary Boerste and other servants. From these photographs, the museum learned the house once had awnings, that a unique screen once existed in the garden, and that the furniture in Mary Boerste’s bedroom wasn’t arranged as she had it during her time in the house.

Mary's Bedroom

But perhaps the highlight of this experience is learning more about Philomena Kleeman herself. Through a freak social media connection, we now know that a woman who once  lived in the Campbell House lived a splendid life after she left. And we’ve learned more about how she lived it. We know she was a hard worker, but she was reluctant to come to St. Louis in 1932 because she’d be far from the man she loved. And we know that she married William Miller as soon as she returned to Tell City in 1936. We know that together Minnie and William raised five wonderful children, and that all of them came to St. Louis in 1953 to visit the museum where Minnie once lived and worked. We know that her fried chicken was everyone’s favorite, along with mashed potatoes, milk gravy, and green beans. We even know that Minnie continued gluing recipes and housekeeping tips to her cabinet doors like she did at the Campbell House. And finally, along with so much more, we know that Minnie passed away in 1983.

Today, two years after the events in this post happened, I still look forward to telling visitors about my favorite items in the Campbell House collection. But now there’s one I look forward to more than any other. Today, my favorite item in the Campbell collection is not a piece of furniture, a painting, or a stained glass window. It’s not Virginia’s Limoges china, Robert’s straight razor, or the Schomacker piano in the parlor.

It’s a little piece of paper glued to the inside of a cabinet with the name “Minnie” written on it.

Minnie's Family
The Drink
This is the most difficult Distilled History post I’ve ever written. Unlike posts about cholera epidemics in the 1840’s and fires in the 1870’s, people who care deeply about the subject matter of this post are still around. I wanted to make sure I got it right.

In trying to find a drink for this post, I asked Beth if Minnie liked to have a drink from time to time, and if she did, what was her beverage of choice? My grandmother was a sherry drinker, so I found it funny when Beth told me that her grandmother didn’t go for that. Minnie was content with a cold beer or two on a hot summer day.

But Beth also sent me a fantastic photograph of Minnie taken sometime during the 1970’s. In it, Minnie is holding a drink in her hand while smiling from ear to ear. Is it possible that Minnie is holding a Manhattan cocktail? Is it possible that she also enjoyed a drink that is also my personal favorite? Or maybe I’m trying to make this story even better than it needs to be. Either way, the photograph makes me think that Minnie Miller led a wonderful life after her time in St. Louis.

And I’ll drink to that.

Minnie & a Manhattan (maybe?)
June 30th, 2016 by Cameron Collins

The Magnificent Southern Hotel

The Southern Hotel on Plates 4 & 24

As much as I love the rich history of St. Louis, I must admit that a vivid imagination is often necessary to enjoy much of it. This city has always had an inclination for knocking down old stuff, and that fact makes it tough for many in St. Louis to recall what the streets, buildings, and people who moved among them looked like years ago.

Fortunately, I believe I’ve always had a pretty good ability to think things up. As much as I wish I could still gaze upon long-lost treasures such as the Planter’s House Hotel or Chouteau’s Mansion, I’ve never had a difficult time staring at a parking garage and imagining a vivid St. Louis street scene that occurred there 150 years ago.

And that’s what I did just a few weeks ago. I hopped on my bike, rode downtown, and worked my way to the corner of 4th and Walnut. That’s where the Stadium East Parking Garage stands today. It’s an active garage, often filled with cars and surrounded by ticket scalpers on Cardinal game days. But as I sat there and stared, I saw something completely different. I was looking at the majestic Southern Hotel, and I envisioned it dominating a bustling corner filled with people, horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, and noise.

4th & Walnut Today

Before I go into detail about that vivid scene, I should mention that one could spend days thinking about what’s happened on that corner. First of all, it’s where Fort San Carlos once stood, the centerpiece of the only battle fought west of the Mississippi River during the American Revolution (an event I wrote about in this blog back in 2013).

It’s also where many believe the famous Odowan Indian Chief Pontiac is buried. Historically significant for the military campaign he personally launched against the British in 1763 (the appropriately titled “Pontiac’s War”), Chief Pontiac was murdered near the village of Cahokia by a Peoria warrior in 1769. It’s believed his remains were brought over the river to St. Louis and interred in the ground near that intersection.

The Southern Hotel in 1869

Those are pretty good reasons to stare at a corner and wonder what once happened there, but I think the magnificent Southern Hotel, which stood on that corner from 1865 until 1934, provides many more. I should also admit I’ve been boasting about the Southern Hotel for years. The guy who owned it from 1865 until 1877 is someone I’m a huge fan of. That man is Robert Campbell, and it his house (now known as the Campbell House Museum) that is the base of operations for this blog and where I spend time as a volunteer.

The Southern Hotel in 1868

The idea behind the Southern Hotel’s construction, a project of several prominent city leaders in the 1850’s, was based in the belief that St. Louis required a world-class hotel as it rushed to become a world-class city. Profit was surely a motivation, but civic pride was the driving force behind this particular hotel. And when it opened in December 1865, the city celebrated. Marching bands played, governors visited, and glowing reports of the opening night’s gala were printed in newspapers across the nation. The Missouri Republican proclaimed it the “finest hotel in the world” and it was “the theme of many celebrated pens and tongues, both native and foreign”. It even became the subject of song: “The Southern Hotel Waltz”, which was published in 1865 by composer Albert Mahler.

The Southern Hotel Waltz

The Southern Hotel occupied the entire block bounded by Walnut, 4th, 5th (now Broadway) and Elm Streets (of which Elm no longer exists in that part of the city). The principal front and entrance of the hotel faced Walnut Street, stretching 270 feet from one end to the other. The Southern was six stories tall, with an exterior made of “Chicago stone”, which the St. Louis Republican at the time described as “magnesian stone of excellent properties”. It contained over 350 guest rooms and apartments, and employed nearly the same number of people to keep it running. It was designed in the Italianate style by the famous St. Louis architect George Barnett, who’s other notable works included the Old Courthouse, Henry Shaw’s Tower Grove House, and the Grand Water Tower.

TChief Pontiac Commemorative Plaqueo imagine what this special hotel looked like in its day, it’s important to note that the city of St. Louis at that time was a very crowded place. The population was almost exactly what it is today (about 320,000), but the city itself was much smaller. Before 1876, the city’s western boundary sat just a few hundred feet west of Grand Avenue, and Carondelet hadn’t been added yet. Although new neighborhoods had been developed away from the congested riverfront starting in the 1850’s, the city around the Southern Hotel remained densely populated. The neighborhood around the Southern was also a very upscale part of town. Grand homes and elegant buildings surrounded the hotel, especially to the north and west. It was a time when St. Louis was one of the biggest cities in America, and it could rival the glitz and glamour of cities like New York and Philadelphia.

The Southern was the most luxurious hotel in St. Louis, and if one wanted to be seen, the Southern was the place to be. If one stood on the corner of 4th and Walnut in the 1870’s, seeing a celebrated actress of the day, a business tycoon, or even a president walk through its doors would not have been a surprise. Inside, one could find Mark Twain playing billiards, Adolphus Busch sipping wine, or Ulysses S. Grant leaning against the Southern Hotel’s famous mahogany bar. In the hotel’s immense rotunda, Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde, or the famous actress Lily Langtry could stride by, all of whom were guests at the Southern at one time or another. And if one was fortunate to be invited, attending a lavish banquet in honor of a prominent citizen such as James Eads, Henry Blow, or Robert Campbell was a possibility.

The Southern Hotel in 1888

Famous guests aside, the Southern Hotel was also the site of some remarkable events. The most tragic of them explains why there were actually two Southern Hotels. In the early morning hours of April 11, 1877, a fire broke out in the hotel’s basement. The result was a tragedy that rocked the city of St. Louis and became front-page news across the nation. Perhaps more than twenty guests and hotel employees were killed, many more were severely injured, and the original Southern Hotel was completely destroyed. However, the story of that fire is also remarkable for the bravery and heroism shown by the St. Louis Fire Department (and that story is coming up next in this blog).

The Southern Hotel Dining Room in 1894

Another amazing story is the Preller trunk murder.  On April 12, 1885, the manager of the Southern Hotel checked room 144 after reports of a foul odor emanating from the room. Inside, he found the decomposing body of a man stuffed inside a trunk bound with rope. The victim, identified as Charles Arthur Preller, was found wearing nothing but a pair of white underwear with the name “H.M. Books” stitched into the waistband. A cross had been carved into Preller’s chest and a placard with the inscription “So perish all traitors to the great cause” was found along with the body. The subsequent trial of H.M Brooks (who had to be fetched from New Zealand) is so fantastic that I can’t do it justice here (in other words, Preller also gets his own future Distilled History post).

Bob Wilkinson, barber of the Southern Hotel

Along with fires and murders, the Southern provided the backdrop for a host of notable events. It’s at the Southern where a man named Logan Reavis argued that the capital of the United States should be moved from Washington D.C. to St. Louis. It’s where James Eads proposed building a ship railway across Mexico, and where William McKinley caused an uproar when he did something no other president had done before: he lit a cigarette in public. In a room at the Southern Hotel in 1888, Democrats decided to nominate Grover Cleveland for President. Eight years later, Republicans used the Southern to negotiate the nomination for William McKinley. The outlaw Jesse James was rumored to stay at the Southern Hotel during his visits to St. Louis under the alias “J.J. Howard”. He came often for the purpose of racing his horses at the St. Louis Jockey Club (and he was recalled as an excellent tipper). In the years prior to becoming a publishing icon, Joseph Pulitzer lived in rooms 305 and 306 at the Southern Hotel, and he was there on the night of the tragic fire. In an article written for the paper Pulitzer would own just two years later (the St. Louis Dispatch), it’s reported that Pulitzer had to flee the building “sans shirt, stockings, or anything else”.

The Southern Hotel in 1914

Sports and recreation were also no stranger to the Southern. People gambled, drank, boasted, and challenged each other daily at the Southern Hotel. The hotel’s bar is where Adolphus Busch placed $100 bets that he could name any wine he sipped, and it’s where “Gentleman Jim” Corbett challenged John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship in 1892. The result of that bet was one of the most famous fights in boxing history, and the first match to require that gloves be worn by the heavyweight contenders. Even baseball can point to the Southern for some of its history. Newspaper accounts of the time reported that the Southern Hotel’s lobby is where two newspaper men helped the American League’s Ban Johnson and the National League’s John Brush settle their differences. As a result, an annual event known as the “World Series” would come to be.

The Southern Hotel in 1934

After the fire in 1877, the Southern Hotel was rebuilt (eventually) and it opened again to great fanfare in 1881. The new version was bigger, fancier, and advertised as “completely fireproof”. This newer version of the Southern continued as the city’s premier hotel, and it thrived during exciting times such when the world came to St. Louis in 1904. But cultures change, cities change, and the glimmer of the Southern began to fade in the early 20th Century. Citing declining patronage, the Southern Hotel was closed for good on August 1, 1912. Despite immediate rumors that it would soon reopen as a hotel, be converted into an office building, or even turned into a beer garden, none of them came to fruition. The former Southern Hotel spent its final two decades mostly empty or sporadically utilized as an exhibition hall for automobile shows. Burdened by taxes they no longer wanted to pay, the owners announced in 1933 the building was to be demolished.

And just two years later, a shiny new Mobil gas station opened on a pretty remarkable corner in downtown St. Louis.

The Drink
Tony Faust's Restaurant and Oyster Bar

For someone like me (someone who spends way too much time thinking about how and what people were drinking 150 years ago), places like the Southern Hotel are special. Today, great bars can still be found at hotels, but it’s not quite the same. Hotels were social centers back then, and hotels were places where 19th Century drinkers went if they wanted something other than a shot of whiskey (see: saloon) or a stein of beer (see: beer garden). Specifically, it was hotel bars that helped usher in an increasingly popular form of drink in the late 19th Century: the cocktail. St. Louis’s most famous example of this is the Planter’s House Hotel, which stood on the other side of the Old Courthouse. That’s where Jerry Thomas, a man known as the “father of American mixology”, plied his trade in the mid-19th Century.

Today, good cocktail bars are ubiquitous, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of passing one of them up in order to get a drink for this post. For one thing, parking is no fun for hotel drinking, especially at the many downtown St. Louis options. However, it’s only fitting that I make my way to a hotel bar and toast the Southern, so I chose the St. Louis Union Station’s Hilton Hotel. Thinking it’s probably closest I can get to the spaciousness and grandeur of the Southern Hotel in its prime, I can report that I wasn’t disappointed at all. Union Station’s Grand Hall, with all its tourists, light shows, and lack of cocktail snobbery (that I can provide), is a fun place to have a drink.

Union Station's Grand Hall

I ordered the New York Central Manhattan off the cocktail menu (of course), and I’ll admit I wasn’t disappointed with that, either. The price is ridiculous ($11 for Four Roses?), but I’m pleased to report it was stirred and served up without me asking for it that way.

Cheers to you, majestic Southern!

Southern Hotel Timeline

 Key sources:

  • The Campbell House Museum archives gave me enough material about the Southern Hotel to write a book about the Southern and everything that happened there. I’m considering it.
  • “St. Louis’ Southern Hotel Fire of 1877” – Gateway Heritage, Fall 1985, pages 38-48
  • Many of the anecdotes about stuff like Busch’s wine bets, Corbett’s challenge, and the presidential nominations came from newspaper articles “remembering” the Southern Hotel when it was demolished in the 1930’s. Someday, I’d like to go back and nail them down with primary sources, but I think that will have to wait for a bigger project (book) to do that. In the meantime, the September 8, 1933 and the August 15, 1934 editions of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were a big help
  • In researching this post, I probably dug through over one hundred newspaper articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the Missouri Republican, the New York Times, and many others. I’m not going to list them all here, but if anyone would like a list, please contact me.
  • More attention to sources will be given in my next post about the 1877 fire that destroyed the Southern Hotel
March 11th, 2015 by Cameron Collins

One Hell of a Summer

Portrait of Joseph J. Mersman (1824-1893)

On a cold and dreary evening in late February 1849, a young man with a small journal tucked into the pocket of his overcoat stepped off the steamer Thomas Jefferson and onto the St. Louis riverfront. His name was Joseph J. Mersman, and his story isn’t much different from the thousands of immigrants who poured into St Louis in the years prior to the Civil War. Mersman was of German heritage, born in the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg twenty-five years earlier. He came to America at the age of eight and eventually settled with his family in southwestern Ohio. As a young man, he distinguished himself as a bright, hardworking, and ambitious individual. A whiskey rectifier by trade, he had just concluded a ten-year apprenticeship in Cincinnati. When it ended, he set out to make his own way, and St. Louis is where he’d do it.

Mersman’s story isn’t exactly unique, but how we know his story is. It’s because of that journal he carried in his pocket. In reading Joseph Mersman’s words, we get his account, in his own handwriting, of a new life in a new city. And the story gets even better because of the month and year he happened to arrive. That’s because in the weeks before Mersman disembarked, another traveler of note arrived in the same way looking to make St. Louis home. The difference is this predecessor didn’t bring cigars, whiskey, and a love for theater like Joseph Mersman did.

It was Vibrio Cholerae. And it brought death.

Vibrio Cholerae

Better known simply as “cholera”, no disease gripped people with fear more than the invisible germ that ravaged populations around the world in the 18th and 19th Centuries. St. Louis was no exception. In the fall of 1832, the city’s first major outbreak of cholera killed hundreds at a time when the population barely exceeded 6,000. Just seventeen years later, the number of people calling St. Louis home had soared past 70,000. And when Joseph Mersman became one of them in 1849, St. Louis was on the precipice of a truly gruesome summer. By August 1, just six months later, ten percent of the city’s population would be dead.

The exact number of people killed in the 1849 cholera outbreak is actually unknown. Dr. William McPheeters, a prominent physician in St. Louis at the time, tallied 4,557 in an article published in the wake of the outbreak. However, most historians agree the number is much higher, closer to seven or eight thousand. The disease killed so quickly and on such a massive scale, many deaths weren’t (or simply couldn’t be) reported. Hundreds of victims that succumbed to the disease were simply buried, thrown in the river, or dumped on carts that traveled the streets at night picking up bodies. Regardless of the final number, cholera’s resurgence in 1849 killed unlike anything in the city’s history.

Joseph Mersman Quote #1

Upon his own arrival, Mersman writes in his journal about how muddy St. Louis is. It’s actually quite an understatement. Familiar with life in an urban jungle (he came from Cincinnati, which was much larger than St. Louis in 1849), Mersman was simply used to it. But someone visiting from the 21st century would be horrified by the sanitary conditions of St. Louis in 1849. The city was congested, it reeked, it was polluted, and it was teeming with filth.

Kayser's Lake

The average St. Louisan living in 1849 inhabited a city that perhaps grew too quickly for its own good. When Joseph Mersman arrived, the city had yet to implement key infrastructure elements. A functioning sewer system is just one example. As a result, the disposal of waste, particularly human waste, was often handled in a primitive way. If not right onto the street, people regularly dumped feces into creeks, ponds, and the Mississippi River. With little knowledge of the danger it introduced, it was also commonplace to find privies and outhouses erected directly next to wells and cisterns.

Many St. Louisans realized it was a growing problem and tried to do something about it. In a notable example, an engineer named Henry Kayser suggested using the limestone sinkholes beneath the city as a natural sewer. It worked, but a densely populated city can quickly overwhelm nature. After heavy rains, the sinkholes backed up, forming a block-sized pond of human waste and festering water at the north end of the city. It was dubbed “Kayser’s Lake” by nearby residents disgusted with the result.

St. Louis in 1849While cholera was beginning to get a head of steam, Joseph Mersman was beginning a new career. He was by trade a whiskey rectifier, a profession that entailed purchasing cheap whiskey made from surplus corn and improving it. This was done by re-distilling it and adding various ingredients to improve the taste. When the process was complete, the improved spirit was sold to hotels, saloons, brothels, and anyone else who would buy it. His partner in trade was a man named John Clemens Nulsen. Both of German heritage, the two men formed a lasting friendship along with a successful business selling whiskey.

Joseph Mersman Quote #2

Joseph Mersman knew cholera was on the rise even before he arrived in St. Louis. He notes reports of outbreaks in New Orleans and Vicksburg, which meant cholera was likely working its way up the Mississippi. It was just a matter of time until it reached St. Louis.

Joseph Mersman's Diary

Cholera is a deadly disease caused by a microscopic bacterium. Look at Vibrio Cholerae through a microscope and it looks like a curvy little worm. But if a human being ingests about 100 million of them (which a glass of tainted water can provide), death may come within a matter of hours. Cholera does this by rapidly reproducing and clinging to the walls of a human small intestine. An epidemiologist could provide a more scientific explanation, but the quick version is as cholera continues to multiply, the body is essentially tricked into discharging water (mostly through extraordinary bouts of diarrhea). That’s how cholera kills. It dehydrates its victim, and it does it very quickly.

Dr. William McPheeters, the same man who tallied the number of dead when it was over, was also the man to treat the first reported case of the outbreak on January 5, 1849. His patient, a stocky German who had arrived in St. Louis on a steamboat from New Orleans, was described as “Vomiting freely, with frequent and copious discharges from the bowels; at first of slight bilious character, but it soon became pure “rice water.” As the disease progressed, his patient suffered intense abdominal pain and his skin became “of a blue color and very much corrugated.” McPheeter’s first patient died the next morning.

Steamboats on the St. Louis Riverfront

The diarrhea, or “rice water” as Dr. McPheeters referred to it, is one of the primary symptoms of cholera. It consists of evacuated bodily fluids (mostly water) and small bits of intestinal lining (that happen to resemble rice). It’s an unpleasant scenario to consider, but it’s important in the understanding of how cholera spreads from one person to another. In St. Louis and cities around the world, buckets of “rice water” discharged from cholera patients were often poured right into a city’s water supply. When a neighbor came to retrieve a bucket of drinking water for the day, the cholera within was essentially being hand-delivered to its next victim.John Snow

This helps explain why St. Louis became the most deadly American city to be living in during the summer of 1849. In a crowded, polluted, river-dependent city, nobody understood that infected water was spreading cholera. In fact, only one person had started to figure it out, but he lived half a world away.  John Snow, a noted physician and scientist in London was piecing together his theory at the same time cholera was closing in on St. Louis. Snow wouldn’t prove his theory until five years later, when he isolated a single water pump in London’s Soho neighborhood as the culprit behind a cholera outbreak that ravaged London in 1854.

But in the mid-19th century, few were willing to accept such a theory.  Nearly everyone believed they already had cholera figured out. While many chalked it up as a punishment from God, most people believed that diseases such as cholera, the plague, and even chlamydia were spread through foul air, specifically by the noxious fumes generated by rotting organic matter. This is the miasma theory, and it was widely endorsed in the mid-19th century. It’s advocates included John Snow’s colleague William Farr, Florence Nightingale, and St. Louis’s own Dr. William McPheeters, who wrote of the 1849 outbreak:

Quote by Dr. William McPheeters

As detailed earlier, St. Louis had more than its fair share of rotting organic matter. And in neighborhoods packed with slaughterhouses, poorly built graveyards, animal pens, tenements, and tanneries, the stench was often overpowering. With gagging at the smell of rotting flesh and fecal matter a natural reaction in every living human, it’s not a stretch to believe that people once believed noxious vapors played a role in making people sick.

Illustration by George John PinwellAs 1849 moved into spring, the spread of cholera began to pick up steam in St. Louis. By the end of May, cholera was killing up to eighty people a day. As a result, it’s estimated that up to 20,000 people fled the city (some sources estimate up to half of the population picked up and left). Around this time the city started to take action. Arsenal Island, located south of the city, was turned into a quarantine zone. All boats traveling north were required to stop and be inspected. Anyone on board showing symptoms of cholera was forced to remain on the island until dead or until symptoms disappeared.

Joseph Mersman remained in the city to keep his new business running, but wrote on May 13th that the “City looks like a desert Compared to its usual appearance”. Regardless, Mersman did his best to maintain a normal life. He continued to focus on work, visit saloons with friends, and attend theater productions.

Joseph Mersman Quote #3

But things would go from bad to worse. On May 17, a fire broke out on the riverfront destroying much of the downtown business district. Raging for nearly twelve hours, the blaze destroyed over 400 buildings. Remarkably, many St. Louisans welcomed the fire, hoping it would also burn away the contagion spreading through the city.  Then cholera hit close to home when Mersman’s own building contractor fell to the disease. In the wake of this, Mersman becomes less inclined to wander about in his new city. He writes “one cannot be certain of staying alive for another day” and makes a point to complete his work early each day and remain close to home. He uses the time to study languages, which he practices by writing many of his journal entries en français.

Joseph Mersman Quote #4

June and July brought the worst of it. With hundreds dying everyday, terror gripped the city. Tired of waiting for the city to act, the people of St. Louis took matters into their own hands. After several prominent citizens angrily confronted city officials, a Committee of Public Health was formed, consisting of the mayor (the only city official allowed to join) and various members of the community. Completely ignorant of cholera’s methods, the committee held fast to the theory that miasma was behind it all. In short order, several extraordinary city regulations were implemented. However, none of them addressed the city’s contaminated water supply.Columbarium of the Missouri Crematory

Keeping hogs in the city was forbidden until the outbreak was over. Scavenger carts were ordered to make rounds in city neighborhoods, picking up garbage, dead animals, and sewage (with the contents frequently being dumped into the river or Chouteau’s Pond). Fines were levied on citizens who didn’t keep their property clean and free of filth. People were advised to burn sulphur and coal in order to rid the air of disease. Temporary hospitals were established around the city, with a multitude of doctors and collection vehicles assigned to each. Fish, veal, and pork were banned, despite doctors insisting on a strict diet of nothing but meat. Long suspected of spreading cholera, vegetables were banned from being sold in city markets. Since many believed the disease originated in poor neighborhoods crowded with German and Irish immigrants, some concluded (including the previously mentioned Dr. William McPheeters)  that even sauerkraut and cabbage had something to do with cholera’s wrath. And in a city that would become famous for making it, even beer was banned in St. Louis during the summer months of 1849.

Joseph Mersman Quote #6Remarkably, perhaps by an overall improvement in city sanitary conditions, or that death and flight left fewer people in St. Louis for cholera to infect, or maybe Vibrio Cholerae had simply run its course, the number of reported cases began to drop significantly in the final days of July 1849. The city declared it over on August 1, and by mid-August, Dr. McPheeters tallied deaths by the week instead of by the day.

It didn’t go out without a fight. It had one more go at the man who had been writing about it all summer. On August 1, Joseph Mersman must have agonized as he witnessed his business partner Clemens Nulsen become afflicted and suffer through the symptoms of cholera. Knowing his close friend could be dead within hours, Mersman tried to ease his mind by concentrating on business matters. Then, on the very next day, Joseph Mersman felt the sharp pinch of severe abdominal pain. Cholera had finally come for him too.

Joseph Mersman Quote #5

Remarkably, Joseph Mersman and John Clemens Nulsen both survived. And in the wake of it, the two men would have many more reasons to celebrate. Along with a successful business, the two men became brothers-in-law when Mersman married Claudine Creuzbauer in 1851 (Nulsen had married Claudine’s sister Albertine in 1848). John and Claudia had eight children together, which must explain why his daily musings in a journal became few and far between in the years after their marriage. With fortune at hand, the family moved into a stately home in the Lafayette Square neighborhood. Leaving a healthy estate behind (that his children grappled over), Joseph John Mersman died on March 26, 1892.

The Campbell House Museum

As for St. Louis, The 1849 cholera epidemic had a lasting impact on the city. Most importantly, the death toll of nearly 10% shattered hundreds of families across the city. It was impossible for any one individual to avoid some level of tragedy. But as families mourned loved ones lost, St. Louis quickly went to work making the city safer and more livable.  Chouteau’s Pond and Kayser’s Lake were drained, sewer systems were built, sanitation improved, and rural cemeteries such as Bellefontaine and Calvary were founded outside of city limits.  Many who fled the city to escape cholera stayed away, leading to the growth of towns and communities beyond city limits. It also led to the development of new areas within the city, luring wealthy citizens such as Robert and Virginia Campbell (who lost their oldest son to the epidemic) and Henry Shaw to spend more time away from a dirty and congested riverfront.

And finally, cholera wasn’t done either. It reared its head again in 1853 and 1873, but each time on a much smaller scale. And despite John Snow’s efforts in London, western civilization didn’t really get a handle on the little germ until 1884 when the German microbiologist Robert Koch finally put the miasma theory to rest. Koch confirmed and publicized the findings of Filippo Paccini, an Italian scientist who’s isolation of Vibrio Cholerae was disregarded thirty years earlier.

Chouteau's Pond drained

The Mill Creek Sewer

The Drink
Angel's Envy & Riegers

I’ve rarely been more excited in my few years writing Distilled History than the moment I learned about Joseph Mersman’s diary.

I’ve struggled a bit recently finding really good drink connections (James Eads presented a challenge), but it’s like Joseph Mersman simply fell into my lap. Not only did he provide a fascinating perspective of St. Louis during its darkest hours, he was a whiskey man.

Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Mersman writes about getting to know the city, and much of this is done by attending theater and drinking in saloons. He never mentions it by name, but it’s very likely he had a drink or two at the Planter’s House Hotel, located just down the street from the whiskey rectification business he operated with John Clemens Nulsen. It’s also possible he was also served by the cocktail icon Jerry Thomas, who tended bar at the Planter’s House during Mersman’s early days in St. Louis.

Mersman's Dom Brandy Old Plum Recipe

Anyway, what’s even more exciting is Joseph Mersman scrawled out many of his own whiskey rectification recipes in the same journal that detailed cholera. If I had more time (and 70 gallons of whiskey on hand), it would be a fun project to not only fully decipher his recipe for “Dom Brandy Old Plum”, but scale down the ingredients and try it myself.

But until then, I knew the guy I had to talk to about whiskey rectification in the 21st century. Ted Kilgore, the mad cocktail genius at the (new) Planter’s House, needed about three seconds to understand what I was up to. After watching him run off, and getting a hug from his lovely wife (this blog has its perks), Ted returned and presented me with two blended whiskeys to try. Of the two I picked Angel’s Envy, a blended Kentucky straight bourbon aged in port wine barrels. Very smooth and delicious, I noted raisins in the aroma.

Port wine and raisins. Joseph Mersman would certainly approve. The same ingredients exist in one hell of a recipe that probably helped him get through the terrifying days of one hell of a summer.

Mersman's Port Wine Recipe

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Key sources and additional reading:

  • Joseph J. Mersman Diary – Missouri Historical Society
  • “A Summer of Terror: Cholera in St. Louis, 1849” by Linda A. Fisher Missouri Historical Review Vol. 15 (April 2005)
  • “History of Epidemic Cholera in St. Louis in 1849”  by William M. McPheeters St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal 7  (March 1850)
  • “Cholera Epidemics in St. Louis” Missouri Historical Society – Glimpses of the Past 3 (March 1936)
  • “The St. Louis Cholera Epidemic of 1849” by Patrick E. McLear Missouri Historical Review 63 (January 1869)
  • The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary: An Urban Life in the Emerging Midwest edited by Linda A. Fisher
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
  • Lion of the Valley by James Primm
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