Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
September 23rd, 2015

Compton & Dry in Color

No Color in Plate 42

Well, that map is still driving me crazy.

Compton and Dry’s 1875 Pictorial St. Louis, the same map that led me on an exhaustive brewery hunt earlier this summer, has completely derailed my summer plans once again. I can’t say that’s actually a bad thing, but it does mean that a dozen or more potential Distilled History ideas have to take a back seat once again.

(Note: If you aren’t familiar with Compton & Dry’s epic map, click here. Or, get to the Missouri History Museum as soon as you can.)

For a history nerd who dreamed of being a cartographer as a kid (seriously), this map infatuation of mine explains why Compton and Dry’s opus is easily my favorite item or “thing” in St. Louis history. I think about it every single day, a result of its use as my iPhone wallpaper and its prominent placement on my living room wall. It is also the most referenced source material in just about every history-related project I undertake. And what gets me in trouble is that each time I look at it, I can’t help but think up new ideas in which to have fun with it.

Like this one, which drifted into my head several weeks ago:

"Hmmm. I wonder how long it would take to color that map?"

Looking back on that moment now, I probably should have taken a moment to think about what I had in mind. Hand coloring the Compton and Dry map, all 110 plates of it, is a monumental task for a throng of artists, let alone an individual non-artist. But before I had an idea of what I had taken on, a cocktail was poured, Photoshop was open, and a gigantic map beckoned.

Anthony & Kuhn's Brewery on Plate 27That’s when the real delusions of grandeur began. In only fifteen minutes,I had the finishing touches applied to a single building, a brick brewery drawn on Compton & Dry’s Plate 27. A post on social media followed, and the horde of “likes” that flooded in had me instantly convinced that I was about to strike St. Louis history gold. I even convinced myself that I could finish the project in a year, maybe two.  So I dove in further, determined to soon have the 110 plates of Compton & Dry’s map in full-color glory for all to see.

Before I get to the what happened next, I want to mention that I’m well aware that I’m not the first person to “colorize” Compton and Dry’s map. I’ve seen other attempts, most notably an unknown artist who took a crack at Plate 42 with watercolors many years ago. I think it looks fantastic, but many of the buildings, homes, and roofs are painted with just a few different shades of brown and gray. I’ve also never seen examples of the technique applied to any of the other plates. I wanted to try adding color to the map (in intricate detail) using a full spectrum of color.

Fast-forward about eight weeks and here I am. After countless hours of zooming, coloring, erasing, shading, and tweaking, is my plan to color the Compton and Dry’s map in two years possible?  The answer is simple: Absolutely not.

Watercolor Colorization of Plate 42

However, I’m happy to say that I have completely finished one of the 110 plates to my satisfaction. And I am really happy with how it looks. I’m sure I missed a pixel or two, but I really did my best to make sure every single building, house, tree, sidewalk, fencepost, and blade of grass had color. I added stained glass to church windows, added sunlight to trees, and used at least thirty different shades of brick. When possible, I even tried to accurately match a few structures to the colors they wore in 1875.

Vignettes from Plate 42

But at times, it became an overwhelmingly daunting task. The first plate I chose to color contained so many trees, so many chimneys, and so many roofs. Looking back, it was the roofs the stopped me after one plate. Roofs are boring to color. But in the end, I do think it was a fun project to work on. It gave me something to (mindlessly) do as I watched a ballgame, filled in crossword puzzles, and sipped cocktails. I’ll also say that coloring is very relaxing. It’s made me realize that I few cranky people I know could use a box of crayons.

Christ Church Cathedral on Plate 42

Like my watercolor friend of the past, I chose to begin with Plate 42. It’s where my beloved Campbell House is drawn, and my office (the “real job” office) sits in a building at the northwest corner of 18th and Washington in a building constructed after the map was drawn. But Plate 42 is also crammed with tons of great history. I can’t even begin to do it justice here, but plate 42 shows us Washington University at its original location (southwest corner of 18th and Washington), the future site of City Hall (Washington Park), and the future site of the magnificent Central Library (Missouri Park). Just behind the Campbell House, the city’s first public high school (known simply as “High School” in 1875) can be seen at the corner of Olive and 15th. Finally, two long structures known as the Lucas Market can be seen running right down the middle of Twelfth Street. That market is gone today, but it serves as a reminder why Twelfth Street (now called Tucker Boulevard in that part of the city) is one of the widest streets in downtown St. Louis.

Time-lapse Video (with background music)

Most significantly, plate 42 is where the Lucas Place neighborhood appears on Compton and Dry’s map. The height of residential luxury in 1875 St. Louis, Lucas Place can rightly be called St. Louis’s first suburb, an inescapable aspect of the city today. Planned and developed by a man named John H. Lucas in the 1840’s, it was the first neighborhood to be deliberately built at a distance from  the city’s congested riverfront.

Lucas Place was at its apex when Compton and Dry drew it on their map in 1875. Along with the Campbell family, Lucas Place was home to many wealthy and prominent figures in 19th Century St. Louis. The list includes William S. Harney, one of the longest-serving Generals in American history, Henry Hitchcock, a co-founder of the American Bar Association and the first dean of the Washington University’s Law School, and Trusten Polk, a former Governor of Missouri and former United States Senator. Lucas Place on Plate 42

What’s depressing about plate 42 today is how much of it has been erased. Of the hundreds of homes, schools, churches, and buildings drawn on plate 42, only four structures remain today. Along with the Campbell House, only three churches drawn on Plate 42 still stand today: Christ Church Cathedral, Centenary Methodist Church, and St. John the Apostle Catholic Church. It’s a blunt reminder that St. Louis has literally wiped much of its history right off the map.

Finally, I wanted to mention something I couldn’t stop (humorously) thinking about the more I stared at the map. After spending countless hours looking at it, it became impossible not to notice how absurdly neat and tidy St. Louis looks in Compton and Dry’s version of it. I didn’t find myself coloring in piles of animal manure, drunken men stumbling out of saloons, or puddles of fetid water, all of which St. Louis had plenty of in 1875. I also looks nearly void of people, with only a few loitering on random corners. I know Compton and Dry drew their map to make St. Louis look pretty, but it would have been fun to color in a bank robbery or maybe some roaming livestock.

Vignettes of Plate 42

Despite my determination to get Plate 42 fully colored, I’m done with Compton and Dry for a while. My dreams of having a full-color version of the map by 2017 have been laughed off long ago. However, I’m sure I’ll pick up the pen again before too long. think I’ve kicked off a fun hobby I’ll have for years to come, and I’m sure I’ll use a bit of color here and there to support future blog posts.

But enough with all that. Let’s get to the color.

Full Image

Plate 42 in Color

Before/After Image Slider – Move (hover) the mouse left and right to view before and after versions. (Update: This plugin doesn’t seem to play nicely when viewing on mobile devices.)

Image Loupe – Drag the mouse pointer to zoom in parts of the final image.

The Drink

Saloons on Plate 42

Follow this blog, and you’ll know that each post ends with a drink that relates directly to the subject matter of the post. But Plate 42 doesn’t offer many drink options since the dozens of saloons that once dotted it are all long gone.

But the Campbell House, one of four still standing tall from Plate 42, has given me an opportunity to not only get a drink, but to give a few away.

On Friday, September 25 (tomorrow), Distilled History is teaming up with the Campbell House Museum for our annual #DrinkupTweetupSTL event. I blogged about last year’s event, and we have even more fun lined up for this year. Typhoon Jackson will be back to provide live music, free beer will be provided by Schlafly and Urban Chestnut, and free food will be provided by Caruso’s Deli. The house will be open to take a look at, and I’ll have a bunch of fun Victoria-era drinking history on hand. We’ll also be raffling off a bunch of great prizes, including a brewing history tour (led by me) and our annual grand prize, a chance to do a shot of whiskey out of a silver cup once owned by President Ulysses S. Grant.

I’ve even got a few additional perks. First of all, I’ll have a 4×5 foot enlargement of Plate 42 in full color on display for everyone to take a closer look at. I’ll also be passing out samples of my “Campbell Beer Series” and my own version of bathtub gin. This year also marks the debut of “Gus and Mary’s Answer the Bell Ale”, a new addition to the Campbell beer family honoring the many servants that worked and lived in the home during its eighty-four year run. Please consider joining us!

Campbell Family Beers
March 11th, 2015

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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