H. P. Westerman, whiskey and the Pekin press

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The November 2015 issue of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society Monthly, page 1466, includes an excerpt and a reprint from two vintage newspapers that tell of Pekin alcohol distillery owner Henry P. Westerman (1836-1922). It’s not really the kind of news about one’s self that one likes to see in the newspaper.

The excerpt, headlined “H. P. Westerman in the Toils,” comes from the Delavan Times of Dec. 11, 1875. It reads as follows:

“The Pantagraph is responsible for the statement that a warrant was issued out of the United States District Court Saturday for the arrest of Henry P. Westerman, of the Pekin Alcohol Company. It is charged that there were frauds perpetrated by the Pekin Alcohol Manufacturing Company up to last January, when the name of the company was changed to the Pekin Alcohol Company. It is for refusing to produce the books of the old company showing the transactions during the time of the crooked work, that he is to be arrested. The penalty is from $500 to $5,000, and six months to ten years imprisonment.”

The significance of that piece of news is explained by a previous From the Local History Room column, “Pekin was encircled by the Whiskey Ring,” published in the April 7, 2012 Pekin Daily Times. The federal warrant issued for Westerman’s arrest was a part of U.S. Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow’s efforts to put a stop to a widespread conspiracy to evade the federal whiskey tax. The 1949 Pekin Centenary describes the Whiskey Ring’s activities in Pekin, which included “emptying the vast city cisterns built for fire protection here in Pekin, and filling them with highly inflammable bootleg whiskey instead of water.”

The Pekin Centenary continues, “Liquor was also cached in corn shocks, and kegs were sealed and sunk in the Illinois river, here and at Peoria and other locations.”

The Centenary’s account of the Whiskey Ring does not name any of the Pekin conspirators, but we know Westerman was involved, because, as the TCGHS Monthly’s reprint of an editorial column from the Nov. 3, 1881 Washington Republican informs us, Westerman was “the old head of the Pekin whiskey ring.”

This engraving of Henry P. Westerman was published in the 1873 "Atlas Map of Tazewell County"

This engraving of Henry P. Westerman was published in the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County”

Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County, Illinois,” page 1083, mentions that John L. Smith (who served as Pekin mayor in 1885 and 1886) sold his distillery to Westerman, which may be how Westerman first got into the distilling business. Westerman’s Pekin Daily Times obituary also mentions that he “was an early resident of this city and for many years was prominent in its affairs. He at one time conducted the old Crown distillery here and was actively engaged in business here for many years.”

Allensworth’s history, page 905, says Westerman was elected Fourth Ward alderman for Pekin in 1861, but he resigned the same year. He later moved to San Francisco, Calif., where he died, his body being brought back to Pekin and buried in Oak Grove Cemetery (now Lakeside Cemetery). As an aside, Oak Grove Cemetery began as Temperance Cemetery, founded by the Pekin Sons of Temperance, so the burial of an old Pekin distiller there makes for something of a humorous irony.

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County, Illinois,” page 611, includes this short biographical notice of Westerman:

“H. P. Westerman was born, Aug. 25, 1836, in St. Louis, Mo., and is the son of Conrad and Margaretha (Lang) Westerman. His father and his family came to Pekin in 1846, and old Father Westerman died here in 1873. H. P. attended the common schools of Pekin, and then entered Bell’s Commercial College, from where he graduated. In 1848 he embarked in the dry goods business as clerk, and from that time his active business career began. He was united in marriage with Mary L. Gregg, Oct. 13, 1856. Three children were born to them, two of whom are living.”

In fact, Westerman is known to have had four children: a son, Don Heaton Westerman, who died when only 9 months old in August 1866, and three daughters, May Leslie Westerman, who died at age 9 also in August 1866, Alice Breimar Westerman Chain, and Susan Leslie Westerman Brown.

Though Chapman devoted only a single paragraph to Westerman himself, Chapman continued with two pages of a biography – more of a panegyric, perhaps – of Westerman’s wife Mary, who served locally in the Soldiers Aid Society during the Civil War for four years, two as president and two as secretary. Chapman tells of dissension in the Society over how best to spend their donations, which led some local newspapers to denounce Mary Westerman unjustly, accusing her of “striking hands with the Copperheads.” (She was a Democrat, and many Democrats in Pekin during the Civil War were Copperheads, that is, they had Confederate sympathies.)

Besides Chapman’s information, the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County,” page 38, features a lengthy biography of H. P. Westerman and his wife Mary, while engravings of their mansion and of Henry’s distillery are found on pages 8-9.  Mary Westerman is also important to the history of the Pekin Public Library due to her prominent role in the founding and promotion of the Ladies Library Association, forerunner to the public library.

This detail of an 1881 newspaper column in the Washington Republican tells of an altercation between a Pekin alcohol distiller and a prominent Pekin newspaper publisher and printer. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE TAZEWELL COUNTY GENEALOGICAL & HISTORICAL SOCIETY

This detail of an 1881 newspaper column in the Washington Republican tells of an altercation between a Pekin alcohol distiller and a prominent Pekin newspaper publisher and printer. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE TAZEWELL COUNTY GENEALOGICAL & HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Given the number of newspaper articles over the years that showed Henry Westerman in a negative light, it’s perhaps understandable that he wouldn’t be on the friendliest of terms with the local press. It’s in that context that the first paragraph of the Washington Republican’s above quoted editorial column of Nov. 3, 1881, may be understood. The Republican editor’s column reprinted a couple items from a recent issue of the Peoria Journal, in which the Journal (and the Washington Republican) enjoyed some jokes at the expense of their Pekin newspaper rivals:

“J. B. Bates, of the Republican, who was threatened at his very domicile by H. P. Westerman, the old head of the Pekin whiskey ring, evidently wished the people to know that he carried no concealed weapons, as he marched from and to his home with the immense Missouri bush-whacker’s rifle over his shoulder. Armed with such a murderous-looking weapon, we are rejoiced to know that he will hereafter walk in the paths of peace.”

The Journal mixed up the initials of the editor of the Tazewell Republican – he was W. H. Bates, while J. B. Irwin was then editor of the Pekin Daily Times. In any case, the Washington Republican’s editorial writer remarked, “Nor is Bates the only Pekin editor who is fearful of being blown into kingdom come. Hoffman, also, sees danger ahead and while he has no fears of the hereafter he don’t propose to take passage across the rolling Jordan until he gets a good ready, and woe be unto him who tackles the Dutchman. See what the same [Peoria Journal] writer says of Jack:

“Jack Hoffman of the Freie Presse, with blood in his eye, and his ears flopping, marched boldly down Court street with a shot gun over his shoulder a la Bates. All the editors here appear to be on the war path. Peace! peace, brethern (sic), let not your angry passions rise, for we think too much of you all, to have even one of you pass out of the world in a hurry, besides you would be missing heaps of fun up here on earth.”

The Washington Republican’s editorial writer then added, using colorful language that would likely result in a libel suit today, “Bates and Hoffman are not alone in this, for Irwin has been in hot water ever since he went to Pekin, and has had more trouble with his neighbors than all the others put together. He fears neither God, hell nor the devil, and, in fact, the nearer he gets to the latter the more he feels at home. The old man will reach for him though some of these days, and then heaven pity the unfortunate imps who must endure his company throughout eternity.

#copperheads, #h-p-westerman, #j-b-irwin, #pekin-history, #w-h-bates, #whiskey-ring, #william-h-bates

Pekin was encircled by the Whiskey Ring

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in April 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .

Pekin was encircled by the Whiskey Ring

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The era of Prohibition during the 1920s is remembered as a time of speakeasies, bootlegging and larger-than-life gangster kingpins. Not as well-remembered, however, is an earlier time when a vast and lucrative bootlegging conspiracy operated in the United States.

Known as the Whiskey Ring, this criminal enterprise got its start in St. Louis about 1870, spreading to several other major cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and New Orleans, also putting down roots in Peoria and Pekin. It was aided and abetted by corrupt political officials both high and low. Among the leading conspirators was none other than Gen. Orville E. Babcock, private secretary to President Ulysses S. Grant (though the president himself was never implicated).

In the 1949 Pekin Centenary, we read, “The power of the ring was said to be tremendous in a wide area with headquarters at St. Louis, and something of its potency here in Pekin is indicated by the incident in which a revenue man was reportedly arrested by local authorities and held in custody on a trumped up charge while a boat-load of whiskey was cleared off the dock and hidden away.”

Alcohol was not illegal in those days — quite the contrary, it was a booming business. However, during the Civil War the federal government had imposed heavy taxes on whiskey to help finance the war effort, and the tax remained in force even after the war’s end. Before the war, whiskey cost only 25 cents a gallon, but the federal tax of $2 a gallon sharply increased the cost of doing business. Added to that were local taxes and fees, such as the doubling of Pekin’s liquor license fee from $100 to $200 per year in 1870 (as recorded in the 1887 Pekin City Directory).

It wasn’t too long before many distillers began to come up with ways to evade the tax, chiefly through bribery, smuggling and bootlegging.

“Officials were party to the secret alliances which made it possible for some whiskey makers to present false reports, with the effect of paying taxes on as little as one-third of their actual whiskey shipments. In 1870 the vast bootleg conspiracy received some attention, although it continued until 1874, using less bold methods,” says the Pekin Centenary.

“On the other hand,” continues the Centenary’s account, “there was nothing bashful about the business of emptying the vast city cisterns built for fire protection here in Pekin, and filling them with highly inflammable bootleg whiskey instead of water. Liquor was also cached in corn shocks, and kegs were sealed and sunk in the Illinois river, here and at Peoria and other locations. Hundreds of those invaluable kegs were recovered by federal agents dragging the river later.”

Powerful and well-connected though they were, the ringleaders of the conspiracy could not escape justice forever. On May 10, 1875, U.S. Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow, using secret agents from outside his own department (since he couldn’t trust his own men), coordinated a series of raids and broke up the ring. Due to Gen. Babcock’s closeness to the president, Bristow did not inform Grant of the operation.

According to the Centenary, “(T)he break-up finally came with wholesale arrests all over the state. It is recorded that Pekin people at that time saw whole carloads of prisoners hauled through to St. Louis to face a Federal court. Actually, however, no one of importance was ever sent to jail, as only a few ‘mediocrities’ took the punishment and the whole thing passed over; but at any rate the ‘whiskey ring’ was broken and the millions of dollars being sidetracked from the U.S. treasury into private hands, while never recovered, was at least discontinued.”

In fact, although Babcock managed to secure an acquittal, 110 people were convicted in federal court and more than $3 million in diverted taxes were recovered by the federal government.


This Feb. 1876 drawing from “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” depicts a hearing in St. Louis, Mo., at the start of the trial of Gen. Orville E. Babcock, private secretary of President Ulysses S. Grant. Babcock was one of the ringleaders of the Whiskey Ring tax fraud conspiracy, but was acquitted in federal court.

#pekin, #preblog-columns, #whiskey-ring