Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Footnote to the Whiskey Menace

As most of our readers will be aware, the temperance reformers of the late 1800s and early 1900s were unsparing in their denunciation of the menace that they felt whiskey posed to society. They focused their attacks almost exclusively on the dangers posed by the contents of whiskey barrels. In the process, they overlooked another danger - posed by the barrels themselves. Even when emptied of their contents, whiskeys barrel could wreak disaster on the unwary, as a quick search of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database at the Tennessee State Library and Archives can attest.

Cooperage, barrel making, at Southern States and Lime Corporation, circa 1910.
Looking Back at Tennessee Collection. Tennessee State Library & Archives.

On April 5, 1888, Nashville’s Daily American reported “A Whisky* Explosion” in Lebanon. This “very singular occurrence” took place in front of Ligon’s Saloon on South Cumberland Street. For reasons that were not reported, the proprietor of Ligon’s laid a “parlor match” beside a hole in an empty whiskey barrel and “struck the match with his knife.” The barrel, the article noted, had been full of “Lincoln County whisky,” although it had been emptied some three weeks previously. Unfortunately, the three weeks were not sufficient to clear the volatile whiskey fumes from the barrel. The resulting explosion blew Ligon 10 feet through the front door of his saloon, inflicting serious and painful injuries.

The commotion associated with an exploding whiskey barrel did not escape the attention of the small boys of the era. On August 22, 1883, a Daily American story, headlined “The Small Boy’s Work,” described an experiment two youngsters undertook with an empty whiskey barrel between Cooney & Co. and Freeman & Co. on Nashville’s Broad Street. Perhaps in response to a dare, one stood on top of the barrel while the other pushed a burning match into the bung-hole. The boy standing on the barrel was thrown into the street by the resulting explosion, but apparently escaped serious injury.

This miscreant was somewhat luckier than young Herbert Nicholson of Clarksville, who tossed a lighted match into an empty whiskey barrel behind Pulley Bros. Saloon on Strawberry Street and then leaned over the barrel to see if the match was still lit. According to the report in the June 2, 1906 edition of the Nashville American, Herbert’s face was badly burned when the head of the barrel blew out. Herbert was arrested and tried in City Court, but escaped a fine when a lenient magistrate judged his injuries constituted sufficient punishment.

Three men, one sitting on a barrel that notes, "Mune Shine Wisky." Another sign notes, "The Mugs We Met in Hot Springs."
Looking Back at Tennessee Collection. Tennessee State Library & Archives.

Matches and mischief were not the only hazards. Whiskey barrels apparently were sometimes repurposed to store other commodities, but attempts to modify them for reuse could spell disaster. On July 4, 1884, the Daily American reported that Robert Davis of Franklin, the 18-year old son of a prominent family, had decided to use an empty whiskey barrel to haul water to a threshing machine. When he attempted to enlarge the bung-hole of the barrel by burning it out with a hot iron rod, the resulting explosion inflicted near-fatal injuries. The article explained that “exactly a similar occurrence” had happened a few miles away in the previous year, when an exploding barrel inflicted “painful wounds” on a man named George Hughes.

The Nashville American reported yet another such accident in its “Out of the Ordinary” column of August 22, 1900. A farmer named Herizler, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, reportedly “sat astride” an empty whiskey barrel while he attempted to enlarge the bung-hole with a white-hot iron. “The explosion was heard a mile away,” the item reported, and it was not certain that the farmer would recover.

The Infotrac database of 19th century newspapers yielded similar accounts of fatal or near-fatal whiskey barrel explosions in Waco, Texas (in 1875 and 1883), St. Louis, Missouri (in 1884), and Galveston, Texas (in 1892).

"A Whisky Explosion," (Nashville) Daily American, April 5, 1888.

In the early 1900s, some years before national prohibition, Tennessee passed a series of laws forbidding the manufacture, possession, and transportation of liquor within the state. The advent of prohibition in Tennessee appears to have reduced the incidence of whiskey barrel explosions, as reports of these events appear to fade out of the newspapers after the 1906 account mentioned above.

Today, like the makers of soft drinks, Tennessee distillers ship their whiskey in bottles. The exploding whiskey barrel, like the exploding soda fountain, has disappeared from the newspaper headlines.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: The difference between whiskey and whisky is simple but important: whisky usually denotes Scotch whisky and Scotch-inspired liquors, and whiskey denotes the Irish and American liquors. Source material located in our research of this topic cites the spelling of the word “whisky” without an "e" in several sources. Tennessee whiskey, however, is spelled with the letter "e." In publishing this article, we chose to remain true to the original source material, so we left intact the word "whisky" cited within quotes. In all other places, we made note of the proper spelling of whiskey, with an "e."

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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