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April 9th, 2015 by Cameron Collins

Der Boss President

Chris Von der AheOh, baseball. It’s finally time for baseball.

And boy do I need it. After several dense and exhausting posts, (including one that detailed how death once visited St. Louis), it’s time to lighten things up. And what better time to do it than right now, because baseball is finally here again.

I’ve taken a swing at St. Louis baseball previously in Distilled History, and my fun search for where baseball has been played in this town remains one of my most popular posts.  I’m still catching hell (often) for not being a Cardinal fan, but I hope my appreciation for the history of the game in St. Louis allows me a brief reprieve.

That’s unlikely, but as I mentally prepare for a certain down year in the Bronx, I decided to take a longer look at one particular St. Louisan who had a major impact on the history of my favorite game.

His name was Chris Von der Ahe, and in the early days of the game, he’s a major reason why baseball took root in St. Louis. His tenure as owner of the St. Louis Browns (before they were Cardinals) ended over a century ago, but his legacy is vital to the history of the game and this city.  Actually, I’ve been a bit surprised to learn that many of my Cardinal-loving friends know nothing about him. I guess history isn’t for everyone, but I have a very good reason why every baseball fan in St. Louis should raise a glass to the memory of Chris Von der Ahe:

Beer.The Golden Lion

That’s right. As baseball fans, we should all take a moment and thank Chris Von der Ahe for beer. Well, maybe not beer in general, but certainly how it relates to the game of baseball. It sounds crazy now, but before Chris Von der Ahe stuck his bulbous nose into professional baseball back in the 1870’s, taking in a professional baseball game while sipping a cold beer was no easy feat. In fact, it was completely forbidden.

My interest in Von der Ahe was kindled by a recent book suggestion. The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn details the story of a riveting pennant race the St. Louis Browns participated in during the summer of 1883. It’s a wonderful story of 19th century baseball, and Chris Von der Ahe is Achorn’s central figure in it.

1882 St. Louis Brown Stockings

Von der Ahe’s larger-than-life personality pours off Achorn’s pages. He was bombastic, egotistical, and undeniably controversial. He drank often, he was a blatant philanderer, and he craved constant adulation from everyone around him. He was an incessant self-promoter, often telling stories of his rise to the top as cigar smoke wafted from beneath his walrus mustache. He was “portly”, he wore bowler hats, and he radiated confidence in heavily starched shirts. His German accent was so thick that utterances of “Paseball” and “Vas it a good game?” led some to amusement and others to underestimate his shrewd intelligence. During his time in baseball, his drive to earn a profit drove every decision he made. When he achieved it, he’d proudly walk down Grand Avenue behind a wheelbarrow filled with cash. When he didn’t, he’d start meddling in a game that he didn’t fully understand. His actions, fines, and demands often left his managers and players completely exasperated. He was “Der Boss President”, and he made sure everyone knew it.

theboss_compton

Christian Frederick Wilhelm Von der Ahe was born in Prussia on October 2, 1848. Many note his birth year as 1851, but as Achorn points out, it’s likely Von der Ahe changed the date intentionally in order to avoid military service in Germany. Freed from army life, Von der Ahe left his native country and emigrated to America in 1867.

Chis Von der Ahe 1886In 1870, just three years later, he’s running his own grocery store on the western edge of St. Louis. In the same year, he marries Emma Hoffman and the couple give birth to a son. His early days in St. Louis aren’t remarkable compared to the thousands of Germans who poured into Missouri in the mid-19th century. Von der Ahe was a businessman, and his decision to add a saloon to the back of his grocery store made sense. The beer industry was thriving in St. Louis in the 1870’s, and the opportunities to make money selling it were substantial. In 1874, Chris Von der Ahe stumbled upon one of them.

That’s the year Von der Ahe moved his grocery and saloon to the northwest corner of Grand and St. Louis avenues. He likely didn’t realize his good fortune at first, but the new grocery stood just a block away from the Grand Avenue Grounds. That ballpark would soon become home to the first professional baseball club in St. Louis, the St. Louis Brown Stockings.

In his book Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, author J. Thomas Hetrick tells the story behind Von der Ahe’s epiphany. On a warm summer day, Von der Ahe asked one of his bartenders, Ned Cuthbert, why the saloon frequently emptied for a just a few hours on certain days. Cuthbert, a ball player himself (and a future manager the St. Louis Browns), told him that’s when his customers walked down the street to see a ballgame.

Suddenly, Chris Von der Ahe became very interested in baseball.

Chris Von der Ahe Quote

Baseball in the 1870’s was a much different game than we know today. The sport had taken the country by storm in the years since the Civil War, but the game was still in its infancy. Players didn’t wear gloves, a coin flip determined who batted first, and foul balls caught on a bounce were considered outs. Sitting in the grandstands next to a woman was almost unheard of, and in an era when the Prohibition movement was gaining momentum, holding a mug of beer in your hand was nearing the same fate. In fact, baseball’s early years were so riddled with gambling, game fixing, and unruly behavior by players that many simply gave up on it. The first iteration of the St. Louis Brown Stockings, which folded in 1877 after a game fixing scandal, met the same fate as many 19th century ball clubs.

Chris Von der Ahe Timeline

William Hulbert

Enter a man named William Hulbert. In 1876, as owner of the National League’s Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs), Hulbert became a major force in restoring baseball to its proper place in American sport. His decisive efforts in opposing all forms of gambling, improving player behavior (on and off the field), and restoring integrity to the game are undeniably commendable. But many at the time believed he took matters too far. He set ticket prices at National League games at fifty cents, a price that assured only the wealthy and people of means would be in attendance. If a common laborer or lowly immigrant happened to get a ticket, the National League’s ban on Sunday baseball eliminated the only day of leisure available to a class of people required to work six days a week. Finally, every National League ballpark was strictly forbidden to sell alcohol to spectators in any form.

To a German immigrant in St. Louis that had just started becoming interested (and investing) in baseball, such regulations were ludicrous. Chris Von der Ahe insisted that in cities with large German populations (such as St. Louis and Cincinnati), making the game accessible to immigrants and the lower classes was essential to making baseball profitable. Von der Ahe wasn’t alone in his opinion. The Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first professional team since its inception in 1869, was expelled from the National League in 1880 as a result of the team’s refusal to adhere to Hulbert’s strict regulations.

The 1885 St. Louis Browns

With the folding of the Brown Stockings and Cincinnati out of the National League, two major western cities found themselves without a professional club. But in 1880, Chris Von der Ahe was persuaded by Ned Cuthbert and a man named Alfred Spink (the future founder of the Sporting News), to invest in a new professional baseball team in St. Louis. Seeing the game as a perfect way to sell barrels of beer to packed grandstands, Von der Ahe dumped his entire life savings into the venture. Along with obtaining the lease to the Grand Avenue Grounds (soon to be renamed as “Sportsman’s Park”) and upgrading the facility to hold over 10,000 thirsty cranks (the 1870’s term for “fans”), professional baseball was finally back in St. Louis.

After a year of playing a schedule filled with semi-pro opponents, Chris Von der Ahe and representatives from five other cities met in Cincinnati in late 1881. When the meeting adjourned, a new professional league named the American Association had been formed, with plans to begin play in 1882. To lure cranks to their new league, American Association owners took direct aim at William Hulbert’s  restrictive National League rules. At the insistence of the Von der Ahe and the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the sale of alcohol at games was allowed and even encouraged. Games could be scheduled on Sunday without fear of retribution. And most importantly, all six teams agreed to a ticket price of just twenty-five cents, making the game accessible to a class of people who had been previously priced out of baseball.

On May 2, 1882, the season opened as Chris Von der Ahe’s St. Louis Brown Stockings faced the Louisville Eclipse at Sportsman’s Park. That game, which the Brown Stockings won 9-7, is considered the first one ever played in the rich history of the St. Louis Cardinal franchise.

St. Louis Base Ball Timeline

In the first several years of play, the American Association thrived. Crowds packed into grandstands as National League owners fretted about how to counter the “Beer and Whiskey Circuit”, a moniker the American Association owners didn’t mind in the least. Despite mediocre production from the Browns in the first few years of play, attendance at Sportsman’s Park soared. Von der Ahe capitalized on the support by lining grandstand aisles with vendors holding trays of beer and shots of whiskey. Marching bands entertained customers before and after games as Von der Ahe lured many of them back to his saloon for another drink. He even turned distant right field into an open beer garden, in which balls remained in play if they happened to be hit that far.

The 1888 St. Louis Browns

Then the Browns began to win. Led by player/manager Charles Comiskey (and aided by piles of money Von der Ahe threw at the best players available), the Browns won four consecutive American Association pennants from 1885-1888. At the conclusion of the 1886 season, the Browns topped the National League champion Chicago White Stockings in an early version of the World Series. It must have been a fine day for Chris Von der Ahe to defeat the team of his old rival Hulbert (who had died in 1882) and own the best baseball team in the world.

However, success would not last for Chris Von der Ahe. Despite repeated success on the diamond, his ego and pursuit of financial gain became a hindrance. He repeatedly fined players for poor play, barked orders at them from his personal box, and openly questioned managerial decisions. He once fined third baseman Arlie Latham for “singing and otherwise acting up” during a game. In another notable incident, his team openly rebelled after Von der Ahe chastised player in front of spectators. The team refused to get on the train after the game, and when they did play again, they started losing suspiciously. In 1885, he suddenly sold away five of his best players, infuriating his manager and opening himself up to severe criticism from the press. In time, the Sporting News would begin referring to him as “Chris Von der Ha Ha!”. Further salary dumps in 1877 fueled speculation that Von der Ahe planned to move the team to New York, a city with limitless baseball and beer profits that everyone knew he craved.

Chris Von der Ahe Quote

His controversies weren’t limited to baseball.In 1895, Von der Ahe marched across Grand Avenue and attacked an African-American man he was certain had robbed his saloon. After landing several blows, he pulled out a pistol and fired it at the man’s feet. His unabashed womanizing led him to divorce (twice), notably from his first wife Emma who even smashed a bottle over the head of one of his lovers that had the nerve to appear at Sportsman’s Park. His only son Edward helped prove the infidelity in his mother’s attempt to sue Von der Ahe for divorce. When the trial ended, he severed ties from his father for good.

But in the end, it was debt that took down Chris Von der Ahe. The more he meddled in the game, the more he alienated players, fellow league owners, and fans. Ticket sales plummeted, debt mounted, and the St. Louis Browns became the worst team in baseball in the 1890’s. After baseball minds got together and agreed to merge St. Louis and three other clubs into the National League, Von der Ahe’s players suddenly found themselves without a contractual obligation the Browns. The best of them jumped at the opportunity to sign with other clubs.

The Von der Ahe grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery

After a litany of lawsuits and legal wranglings that peppered the decade, the end finally came in 1898. Failing to pay a settlement from a lawsuit brought against him in Pittsburgh, Von der Ahe was grabbed, thrown in a truck, and taken by force to Pennsylvania. Eventually freed after being jailed and put on trial, the incident was a massive source of embarrassment for the proud German. In the wake of it, with outlets such as the Sporting News calling for his immediate dismissal from the game, National League brass finally took action. In 1899, Chris Von der Ahe was forced from ownership of the St. Louis Browns and the team was sold at auction.

In the years after his life in baseball, Chris Von der Ahe slowly faded into obscurity. Once a national name, he returned to the life of a simple saloon owner in St. Louis. But for a brief moment in 1907, Chris Von der Ahe was again able to bask in the glow of overwhelming adulation. At a dinner held to honor the history of the Browns at the Southern Hotel in downtown St. Louis, Von der Ahe stood before thunderous applause. For an evening, people forgot about the controversial Chris Von der Ahe and recognized him for all he had done for St. Louis baseball.

For a fleeting moment, Chris Von der Ahe was “Der Boss President” again.

The Drink

It’s important to note that when the St. Louis Browns became members of the National League in 1892, no stipulation was put in place requiring the St. Louis club to cease scheduling games on Sunday or to stop selling beer to its fans. It took several years, but as Edward Achorn details in the epilogue of his wonderful book, other National League teams eventually chose to shed the silly restrictions as well. Today, millions of baseball fans go to Sunday ball games and order large, expensive beers without giving it a second thought. It’s likely that would have become possible without Chris Von der Ahe’s meddling, but he was still the first to make it his issue. And for that, we should all raise a glass to the man.

For my own personal toast, I’m in somewhat of a bind because I can’t drink a beer at the ball game. The St. Louis Cardinals are opening the season in Chicago and my favorite team plays 1,000 miles away. But I do love listening to baseball on the radio. Instead of packing into a crowded sports bar, I’m going to take the opportunity to enjoy St. Louis before the summer humidity gets here. While I listen to the Yanks play the Blue Jays on the porch of my little house in south city, I’ll throw down a few cold beers.

Baseball is here again, and I’m a happy man.
quote_line
Key Sources and Additional Reading: 

Note: Like Von der Ahe’s personality, the full story of our “Boss President” is far too big to fit into a single post.  I’m already thinking the story of his demise is one that I may need to detail further in this blog at some point in the future. In the meantime, the following sources can provide a detailed (and fascinating) look at the full story behind of Chris Von der Ahe.

  • The Summer of Beer & Whiskey by Edward Achorn
  • Before They Were Cardinals by John David Cash
  • Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns by J. Thomas Hetrick
  • Baseball’s “Boss President” Chris von der Ahe and the Nineteenth-Century St. Louis Browns by Jim Rygelski – Gateway Heritage Magazine (Missouri History Museum)
  • This Game of Games – A (fantastic) website dedicated to telling the story of St. Louis baseball in the 19th century
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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