Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Whiskey Ring


In researching a new novel idea, I stumbled across an interesting piece of American history that I’d never heard of--the Whiskey Ring. I found the details fascinating, so I thought I would share them with you.


President Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant became President of the United States in 1869. It was a difficult time for America. The Civil War had ended four years earlier, and Reconstruction was still the law of the land. Grant won the presidency on promises of peace, prosperity, and progress. And there was progress. It was during this time that the first Transcontinental Railroad was finished, people flocked to the western territories, and American manufacturing skyrocketed. However, Grant’s presidency was plagued by scandal, and one of the biggest scandals was The Whiskey Ring.



After becoming President, Grant surrounded himself with friends he’d made during the war. One such friend was Orville Babcock, whom he’d served with from the Battle of Vicksburg on through the end of the war. Grant made Babcock his personal secretary while in office.

As Grant came to the end of his first term, a former supporter was causing problems for the President. Senator Carl Schurz led liberal Republicans in trying to vote Grant out of office in the next election. The Republican Party realized they would have a fight to secure Grant’s reelection, so they set about raising funds for his campaign. The Whiskey Ring was born in 1871.

In its simplest form, those involved in the ring sold more whiskey than what they reported to the government for tax purposes. The difference then filled the Republican Party’s campaign accounts, and was, among other things, used to pay off newspapers which would print articles favoring the Grant administration.

But the Whiskey Ring was hardly simple. It stretched across the nation to cities like St. Louis, Chicago, New Orleans, and many others. In each city, people at every level of the whiskey-making and selling process were involved, either by choice or forced through coercion or blackmail. From the whiskey distillers and rectifiers on to the storekeepers and tavern owners, all the way to U.S. Treasury agents were involved. For one year starting in November 1871, the principle members of the ring received between $45,000 and $60,000 each. To put that in perspective of today’s dollars, that’s equivalent to $865,000 to almost $1,154,000. Needless to say, with that much money and power behind him, Grant won a second term in office in 1872.

Once Grant’s reelection was secured, it became a venture purely based on greed, defrauding the government of over a million and a half dollars a year for the next several years. It wasn’t until Grant appointed Benjamin H. Bristow to be the Secretary of the Treasury in June of 1874 that the tide began to change.


Benjamin Bristow
It took little time for Bristow to realize there was a case of fraud going on, and he set out to end it. However, high-level interference prevented him from doing so easily. In January of 1875, Bristow ordered the transfers of Internal Revenue supervisors in several major cities, including St. Louis. At first, President Grant seemed to go along with the transfer plans, but within a week, he reneged and told Bristow to leave things as they were. Other such moves were also blocked, either by Grant or his secretary, Babcock. Bristow was getting nowhere fast.


Orville Babcock
It was only when the owner of the newspaper, the St. Louis Democrat, contacted Bristow privately with an offer to help, that his goal could be realized. The newspaper owner put Bristow in contact with the commercial editor for the Democrat, a man named Myron Colony. He was well respected in St. Louis, and known to ask detailed questions and make copious notes on St. Louis business statistics for his articles in the paper. Colony secretly investigated the businesses involved in St. Louis’s Whiskey Ring starting in March of 1875, then handed his findings off to Bristow. By May, Bristow had the proof he needed to end the corruption for good. Federal lawmen arrested over 300 participants for involvement in the ring, as well as seized distilleries and rectifiers. There was even proof that the fraud reached all the way to the White House. Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, was found to have intimate relations and confidential correspondence with the worst and most connected offenders of The Whiskey Ring.

Next month, I’ll continue the story of Orville Babcock’s arrest and trial. For now, I’d love to know if you’ve heard of the Whiskey Ring before today, and what you think of this piece of our nation’s history.


Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and made the top 10 and top 3 in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.




15 comments:

  1. No, Jennifer, I'd never heard of it. I knew Grant had a corrupt administration but didn't know in what way. But I work in the hospital named after him! :) Interesting blog!

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  2. I'm like you, Laurie. Until I started researching, I'd only heard that Grant's presidency was plagued by corrupt and questionable practices, but never what they were. Thanks for reading today!

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  3. I am sure if not for being a war hero Grant would never have been considered for president. His family settled in Galena, IL after he retired from the presidency. This little bit of scandal may explain why Grant was totally broke. He was a terrible businessman and statesman. All he knew well was soldiering. The town of Galena wilingly built his family a home.(It is a museum today.) After he passed his wife was destitute. Reminds me of Lincoln's wife. There was no widows benefits for wives of former presidents. If they did not handle their finances well their families ended up in poverty. Corruption connected to presidencies definitely kept opportunities for financial gain out of reach.
    Cindy Huff

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    1. So very true, Cindy! I know Grant had a difficult time after the war and his term in office. He did try for a third term some years after leaving the White House, but thankfully, it went no where!

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  4. Jennifer, thank you for sharing this interesting post.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Melanie. thanks for reading.

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  5. Jennifer, I have never heard of The Whiskey Ring. Thank you for the interesting post. I honestly do not know very much about Grant as president so this article is very enlightening for me. Thank you

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading, Jackie. I'm glad it was interesting to you.

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  6. What a scandal! I had not heard of the Whiskey Ring before reading your post and look forward to next month's continuation. Thank you for sharing this interesting piece of history!

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

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  7. I have not heard of the Whiskey Ring and it certainly looks 'shady' to me. Raising $ for an official by selling whiskey. You certainly have found an obscure piece of history. Good research. sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

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    1. Very "shady", Sharon...and the plot thickens next month. Hope you'll return to learn more.

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  8. Scandal, corruption, and greed, oh my! Tell me more, tell me more! Muahahahahah! I can just see these dirty & crooked whiskey ring dudes curling the ends of their evil, creepy mustaches! I cant wait to hear how it turned out in next month's post! Great post, Jennifer!

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  9. I don't know if you are still active on this blog! Myron Coloney (as he spelled it) was my great-great-grandfather, and the subject of my own curiosity. It appears that Myron was fired after successfully collecting evidence for the Whiskey Ring trials? Have you run across anything about that?

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    1. Hi Dale, yes, I'm still active here. Unfortunately, I don't have a whole lot of information about your great-great grandfather. I have written about six chapters of a novel where the Whiskey Ring plays a part in the story, but the story is languishing at the moment. When I return to it, I'll have much more research to do on the Whiskey Ring and those that played a part in it all, so if I find anything more about Mr. Coloney (thank you for the correction on the spelling of his name!), I will try to let you know.

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