Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Whiskey Ring, Part Two



Last month, I told you all about the Whiskey Ring, a tax evasion scandal that plagued Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency in the 1870’s. If you missed the post, you can read it here. So let's continue the story!

Political Cartoon on the Whiskey Ring,
drawn by Thomas Nast

Orville E. Babcock
Thanks to the help of a St. Louis newspaper reporter named Myron Colony, Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow was able to gather enough information to blow the Whiskey Ring scandal wide open. By the Spring of 1875, over 300 arrests were made in strategic cities throughout the United States, and a grand jury sifted through the evidence during that summer. At first, President Grant backed up the grand jury, stating “Let no guilty man escape if it can be avoided.” However, the grand jury’s investigations soon exposed the President’s personal secretary, Orville E. Babcock, as having intimate knowledge of the scandalous Whiskey Ring dealings. The most incriminating evidence were several telegrams exchanged between Babcock and two of the ringleaders in St. Louis. As the grand jury found more and more evidence against Babcock, Grant flip-flopped with his approval of the jury’s investigation. He grew suspicious, especially when those same ringleaders in St. Louis were convicted and sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary. The investigation led nearer and nearer to the President’s secretary.

By early 1876, Babcock was put on trial for his involvement in the scandal. But this is where things grow truly interesting. President Grant felt the trial was as much an attack against him as it was against his secretary, and Grant went to great lengths to help his friend. First, just ten days before Babcock’s trial began, the President secretly created a “no deal” policy, stating that prosecutors could not give convicted criminals immunity in exchange for their testimony. Without that incentive, no one wanted to testify against Babcock. Also, it appeared that the jury was stacked with those who would vote to acquit Babcock. But the greatest help to Babcock’s case came when the President of the United States chose to testify on his friend’s behalf—something no President had ever done before, nor since.

Political Cartoon on the Whiskey Ring, drawn by Thomas Nast

President Ulysses S. Grant
Grant wanted to personally take the stand, but he was persuaded to testify by deposition done within the controlled setting of the White House instead. The prosecution and the defense settled upon a list of questions, and on the appointed date, President Grant testified. The President was said to have a photographic memory, but that memory failed him over and over during the deposition when he was asked about particular circumstances or pieces of evidence. But when it came to painting his friend in a good light, his memory did not fail him. In addition to Grant’s testimony, Babcock’s defense team provided numerous other character witnesses to state what a good, honest, and upstanding man he was.

The final help to Babcock’s case came when the judge instructed the jury before they went into deliberations. The jury was told to place more weight on the character witnesses for the defendant than on the evidence against him. Since the President of the United States had been one of those character witnesses, it took the jury only two hours to deliver their verdict. Not guilty.

While he was acquitted in the Whiskey Ring case, Babcock was forced to resign his position as Secretary by the rest of the President’s cabinet. Just ten days later, he was indicted for his suspected involvement in another scandal of the Grant administration. Once again, he was acquitted in the second case, and not surprisingly, the President took care of his friend. Babcock was appointed to the position of Chief Inspector of Lighthouses by President Grant, a position which he held until his death a handful of years later. Death by drowning in the line of duty.

So what do you think? Last month, many of you said you hadn't heard of the Whiskey Ring scandal, although most who commented were aware that President Grant's administration was wracked by scandals. Does this outcome surprise you? Why, or why not?



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.

10 comments:

  1. You always want to believe that the President of these great United States is an honest man. When you find out differently, it is rather disheartening.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I completely agree, Melanie. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Delete
  2. Jennifer, interesting posts--part 1 and part2! The outcome didn't surprise me. We've seen something similar play out many times over since Grant's time. I often wonder if it's possible to be an honest person when given as much power as the president.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good point, Margaret. Power so often seems to corrupt. That's one reason why I doubt I'd ever run for public office. Glad you enjoyed the posts! Thanks for commenting.

      Delete
  3. I had never heard about President Grant testifying by deposition for his friend about the Whiskey Ring. Thanks for your post. wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sharon. I'm glad I could share a piece of history you didn't yet know.

      Delete
  4. Hi, Jennifer! I enjoyed learning the rest of the Whiskey Ring story. Sadly, the outcome was not surprising. It seems that dishonesty and corruption are often found in government offices.

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So true, Britney. Thank you for stopping by!

      Delete
  5. While I didn't know all the facts about this scandal, I did read something about it in history. Didn't pay much attention to history in those days. :) I'm not surprised at the outcome because Grant era produced several scandals. Too bad Grant couldn't accept the truth and let the justice system do its job. Thanks for an interesting post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Martha. And I am with you--too bad Grant couldn't let the justice system do its job. How different would things have been if he had? Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete