The Saloon


There has been a curious, somewhat anachronistic connection between preachers and saloons. The Great West was dotted with bars run by ex-clergymen from back east who for their own reasons had exchanged the cloth for the bar rag. Many gospellers, of course, invaded the precincts to bring the Word. They were invariably treated with courtesy, even when the hosts were assailed as “fiends in human form.” In encounters of this sort, the cupbearers of the Demon Rum came off at least as well as the spade-tail ministers so far as basic good manners were concerned. On one occasion when an evangelist made a few remarks of a religious nature at the end of a bar in a Macon, Missouri, gin mill, the proprietors and bartenders stood with folded arms during the devotions, then joined heartily in singing “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” Again, two clergymen preached so powerfully in Close & Patterson’s saloon in Las Vegas that they baptized four gamblers and fifteen hurdy-gurdy girls, who were led to the altar of penitence by Lazy Liz and Nervous Jessie. A reporter who was present passed up the opportunity to be saved, but remained for the jubilation when the bar reopened. When death came to Riley Grannan, an honest gambler who had been generous to his nightcrawling friends, the services were held in back of a Nevada saloon. The tribute and farewell to Grannan, delivered by a wayward Methodist preacher who had himself drained the chalice of life to the dregs, is generally regarded by those fortunate enough to possess the full text as one of the truly eloquent and moving funeral orations in our language.∗

‣Reprinted in Play the Devil: A History of Gambling in the United States , by Henry Chafetz, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1960.

The personality of a publican was important. It helped boom business if he was a philosopher, a comic, an alderman, or a man of the people who had been in the public eye. One such was Steve Brodie, who did or didn’t jump from the Brooklyn Bridge on July 23, 1886, but in any event parlayed his notoriety into a popular resort. Retired fighters moved easily, almost inevitably, into barkeeping. John L. Sullivan, high up in saloon hagiology, tried over and over again to become a successful boniface. But he wasn’t cut out for it. Himself a man who got up in the morning with the feeling that he was spitting cotton, John L. could go through several pints before he felt even a little bit wet, and he was so expansive by nature that he was always inviting his customers to promenade up to the bar and have one on the house. “The Strong Boy” wore out several partners and finally landed in bankruptcy court.

The idea that the saloon was all evil was the product of the farmer mentality of the period. Yet the whiskey lecturers were right to some extent. In the small towns, before local option drove the saloon out, the bars were supported by serious drinkers who were indeed social outcasts. Tucked away on side streets, such barrooms were often places of violence. One saloon in Memphis set out a private-label whiskey with a strikingly candid name—“A Fight in Fifteen Minutes.” In the five-cent houses, a man could get a mouse with no trouble at all. There were cuttings and occasional gunfire, and what was worse, a good deal of Monday absenteeism from the wholesome twelve-hour daily discipline of factory life.

The grand opening of a new saloon in any American city was a jovial and stylized occasion. There would be a formal parade. Great Clydesdale horses in four- or six-hitch would draw a beer dray followed by a brass band composed of players with names like Johann Sebastian Schwartz, not to mention several Mullers and a Sontag. The board of aldermen and city fathers would be in the line of march, as well as thirsty citizens in mufti and the usual urchins who appeared on circus day. The bartenders would take their places, wearing clean jackets and geraniums wrapped in silver foil in their lapels, hair well pomaded with Lucky Tiger and carefully roached up in front. The brewer’s representative would be on hand, hail fellow well met, to stand treat and pass out cigars. He would also arrange for the license at city hall, go bail for good customers, and fix the cops. Sometimes the arrangements were even more imaginative. When the Bon Ton opened on East Randolph Street in Chicago, the proprietor sent out engraved invitations to come and meet the mayor, and Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink McKenna. To open the Monte Carlo in Dawson, Alaska, William F. (“Swiftwater Bill”) Gates arrived at the landing wearing a Prince Albert coat and high silk hat, and there was a lovely girl perched on top of every barrel of whiskey.