Monday, June 30, 2008

...Mixed Up in a Moonshine Case... ("Brooklyn CSI- "TMI!")

From Harper's story books :
a series of narratives dialogues, biographies and tales,
for the instruction and entertainment of the young.

(New York : Harper & Brothers, c1854-1856.)
Abbott, Jacob (1803-1879), Author.
(Image obtained from the NYPL Digital Library Online.)


""The liquor-dealer is your guide, philosopher, and creditor," commented The Nation in 1845. "He sees them more frequently and familiarly than anybody else, and is more trusted by them than anybody else, and is the person through whom the news and meaning of what passes in the upper regions of city politics reaches them." Saloonkeepers could thus earn the gratitude and confidence of large numbers of tenement dwellers, gratitude that could be repaid as votes on election day. The liquor dealer also had the name recognition and financial resources to bid successfully for political office."

Tyler Anbinder, "Five Points" Chapter 5 pages 145-6


When my Dad Retired from AT&T he wanted to start a family business with his sons. "O'Brien and Sons" if you will. He talked about trying any number of things: opening a Book Store, opening a Cigar Store, or buying the Liquor Store up the street.

Unfortunately, soon after his Retirement at age 55 he was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. He fought the good fight before he succumbed finally at the age of 62 .

When he spoke of buying a Liquor Store it was with the idea that it would be a business that should be "Recession Proof" ...when the economy goes bad, people buy Liquor... being the age old business maxim.

But I remember to this day, when he finally decided against the idea, how he quoted someone, I believe it was his Father or someone from his family I'm not really sure: "Never own a Saloon for No Good thing ever came from money made from Liquor."


The following goes a long way to explaining my family's longstanding belief in this superseding maxim. It is a transcription from the original because I couldn't paste it here as its size (about 5"x 23" or the full length of the front page.) was too big. I didn't like the way it looked cut up so I spent the last few days transcribing instead.

WARNING! There was no such thing as "HIPAA-Laws" in the 1895. The information imparted here would be the subject of Libel in todays world. Or perhaps an episode of "Brooklyn CSI"

In any case, this gets a bit gruesome so don't say I didn't warn you....


Wednesday, June 5, 1895



-O'Brien Placed a Pistol in His Mouth and Fired,


He Was Mixed Up in a Moonshine Case
Which Was to Have Come Up in the
Federal Court To-day- Brooding
Over the Affair Had Him Despondent,
So He Ended the Suspense

by Putting a Bullet Into His Brain.

John O'Brien, a saloon keeper at the corner of Clifton Place and Classon avenue, shot and killed himself this morning in the bedroom of his living apartments over the store. O'Brien was 51 years old and was a hatter by trade, as were several of his brothers, who also owned saloons. One of his brothers, James O'Brien, the proprietor of a saloon at the corner of Spencer street and Myrtle avenue, died suddenly about six weeks ago, and John O'Brien was very much affected. John worked every day at his trade of hatter in Knox's factory at Grand avenue and St. Marks place, the business of the store being conducted by two of his sons during the day, while he himself would tend bar at night.

His place has borne a reputation among the police as a quiet, orderly saloon, although he had been arrested on one or two occasions for violation of the excise law. He had conducted the saloon on Classon avenue more than twenty years. In February last two barrels of Illicit whisky were found in his cellar by the United States marshals. They were seized and O'Brien was placed under arrest, and before the United States commissioner was released on bail. He bought the liquor from the Brady Brothers, whose Illicit still just outside of Long Island City was raided in the latter part of last winter. There were three brothers of the name of Brady. Hugh, Tom, and Brian were engaged in the manufacture of Moonshine whisky. One of them is now under arrest and the United States officers are looking for the other two.

Ever since the seizure of the whisky in his saloon, and his arrest by the United States marshals, O'Brien has worried greatly over the matter. His friends have noticed his despondency and have tried to cheer him up, but he seemed to grow more and more disheartened. Last night as he stood behind the bar he was seized with a sort of fainting fit. He quickly recovered and said to his friends that he feared the result of his trial in the United States courts, which was set down for to-day. "I suppose I will have to pay a fine," he said, and added, "I would not mind that, but I am afraid I may be sentenced to imprisonment and that I could never stand. To have to go to the penitentiary would break my heart."

O'Brien was alone in the room when he shot himself. His wife noticed that he was uneasy during the night. This morning he awoke early and told his wife he would rest a little longer before getting up. She said she would go downstairs and prepare breakfast. The family occupy the entire house. The living rooms are on the second floor, while the bedrooms are on the third floor. He told her that he would be down to breakfast as he wished to get away early, in order to attend to some business at the excise board before appearing for trial in United States courts. He appeared to be feeling more nervous than on the night before.

One of his youngest sons, Daniel, slept in a bed in the same room with his father and mother. It was about 7:40 o'clock when the boy heard a muffled sound, which he said sounded as though his father had shouted "Get up" to him. The boy sat up in bed and looked toward the bed where his father lay. O'Brien had pulled the clothes up over his face, but the boy noticed smoke coming from beneath them and, becoming alarmed, screamed for his mother. Mrs. O'Brien was on the floor below and also heard the report of the pistol, but thought it was caused by the shutting of a box lid in the Liquor Store. When she heard the screams of the boy she ran upstairs and, pulling away the clothing from her husbands face, saw at once what had happened. She ran to the hallway and called to her son George, who was downstairs in the saloon.

George ran up stairs and found his father lying in bed, with blood flowing from his wound and the pistol with which he had shot himself clutched in his right hand. He called another brother and sent him to the house of Dr. E. S. Chick, at 303 Greene avenue, while he himself ran to the Forth precinct station house and told what had happened, and asked that a call for an ambulance be sent out. A hurry call was sent to the Homeopathic hospital, and within ten minutes the ambulance, in charge of Dr. Lazarus, was at the door of O'Brien's saloon. In the meantime Dr. Chick had arrived, but O'Brien was dead when he got there.

Dr. Lazarus and Dr. Chick made an examination and found that O'Brien had placed the muzzle of the revolver in his mouth and discharged it, the ball passing through the roof of his mouth and lodging at the base of his brain. Death must have been instantaneous. The weapon which O'Brien used to take his life was a Smith & Wesson .32 caliber, five chamber, hammerless revolver. It was a revolver which O'Brien kept in his saloon during the day but took to bed each night, placing it under his pillow. This has been his custom ever since the Luca murder, as he said he did not propose to be unprepared if any burglar came prying about his rooms at night.

O'Brien's home life was very pleasant, and neither his wife nor any of his son's had the least suspicion of any such act on his part. He was generally cheerful, except for the despondency he manifested at times since his arrest by the United States marshal. He leaves five son's, John, George, William, Danial and Joseph. The three first named are grown, while Danial and Joseph are under 16 years of age. No arrangements have been made for the funeral.


Yeah, it's gruesome just like I said, but the amount of information is overwhelming and invaluable too! I know that these are my ancestors. I know this because of the occupations. (Hatters and "Liquor Clerks" etc.) This story also fits nicely with family lore as well.

The general location of the residences is correct, but the James' and John's are confusing. I tend to think that my branch is the James who died six weeks earlier, but as you can see this John's wife was named Elizabeth which is right in line with the family naming pattern:

I am however stymied by the lack of census data for 1890. George, William, Danial and Joseph do not seem to fit and this is why I tend to lean towards James at Spencer and Myrtle.


The leap back to Pittsfield & Lenox must be made from here. The lack of Census data is complicated by the fact that I am not sure when the move happened. This is why I turned to Newspapers in desperation. Now I have much more to go on and I guess I will have to see if persistence can bring about more info about this John's brother James' death sometime in April of 1895 and compare a list of children from the sketchy info that I have from my great aunt Elizabeth (O'Brien) Kiernan.


Thats all for this episode of "Brooklyn CSI-TooMuchInformation!" Tune in next week for a possible episode of stereo types in Irish-gangsta dialects. (Oh yeah, I found more articles featuring Longshoreman James O'Brien thugs who are quoted as speaking Cagney-esque "Youz-Guys" kinda stuff.)



  1. Did you notice that one paragraph said O'Brien was alone in the room when he shot himself and the very next paragraph said his son David was in the room with him? So much for journalistic accuracy.

  2. Yes! I caught that as I was transcribing it but left it as is for authenticity sake.