The Definitive Dwiggins no. 100—The New Vienna Whiskey War

In the winter of 1873-1874, Dr. Dio Lewis of Boston sparked a series of temperance crusades in the center of Ohio. He lectured on temperance in Hillsboro on December 22 and in Washington Court House three days later. His first lecture “which came down like an electric cloud” fired up Mrs. Eliza J. Thompson who, with seventy-five women from the Hillsboro Presbyterian Church, began the First Crusade on Christmas Eve. That evening, and for several days thereafter, they gathered in prayer at the local drugstores and asked their proprietors to sign pledges not to sell liquor for non-medicinal purposes. Their success was followed by similar crusades in Washington Court House, Wilmington, and New Vienna. [1]

The Fourth Crusade in New Vienna culminated in what has come to be known as The New Vienna Whiskey War. A ferocious “battle” that took place there between the forces of temperance, led by a coalition of Methodist, Baptist and Quaker women, and saloonkeeper John Calvin Van Pelt (1834–1914).

The last saloon to surrender was the “Dead Fall,” kept by John Calvin Van Pelt. The building was a miserable one-story frame structure near the railroad depot, and Van Pelt had the reputation of being “the wickedest man in Ohio.” In appearance he looked like a prize-fighter, and in behavior he acted like one possessed of devils. [2]

Every day for three weeks in January thirty to fifty women marched to Van Pelt’s saloon and knelt in prayer in front of it. They endured verbal and physical abuse from the saloonkeeper as he threatened to “draw, hang and quarter them,” displayed a bloody axe in one of his windows and a black flag of piracy in another, and poured buckets of dirty water and beer on them. The women persevered and on January 26, 1874 Van Pelt closed his saloon, used his axe to destroy his barrels of whiskey, and announced that he was joining the temperance movement. Details of the “war” can be found in a number of books, magazines and websites, but the liveliest account is the one in History of the Woman’s Temperance Crusade: A Complete Official History… by Annie Wittenmyer (Philadelphia: The Office of the Christian Woman, 1878). [3] Wittenmyer, the first president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) not only tells a good story, but her book provides the broader backdrop for The New Vienna Whiskey War.

The temperance movement that began in Hillsboro did not end with the surrender of Van Pelt in New Vienna. It continued across Ohio and into neighboring Indiana. [4] According to Michele J. Stecker, by the end of February 1874, at least 241 saloonkeepers in those two states had quit their trade and 128 towns had become “dry.” The crusade in Ohio climaxed in November with the organizing of a National Temperance Convention at Cleveland, which gave birth to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. [5]

Temperance crusade in front of the Dead Saloon, New Vienna, Ohio (1874). Photographer unknown. Courtesy Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

Temperance crusaders in front of the Dead Fall saloon, New Vienna, Ohio (January 1874). Image reversed. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Special Collections, Boston Public Library.

What does all of this have to do with W.A. Dwiggins? Nothing. At least not directly. The photograph above (reversed so that the building is on the left) is in the Dwiggins Collection at the Boston Public Library in a folder labeled “Eva Siegfried Dwiggins.” Someone has written on the back: “1873 temperance crusade in New Vienna.” [6] My attempt to check this attribution led me to the story of The New Vienna Whiskey War—and to a variation of this scene.

"The Crusading Women of New Vienna" from Historical Collections of Ohio: An Encyclopedia of the State by Henry Howe (Columbus: Henry Howe & Son, 1889).

“The Crusading Women of New Vienna” from Historical Collections of Ohio: An Encyclopedia of the State by Henry Howe (Columbus: Henry Howe & Son, 1889).

The wood engraving above is described by Henry Howe, author of Historical Collections of Ohio (1889), as “The women of the village of New Vienna, Ohio are laying seige to the saloon of Van Pelt, the wickedest man in Ohio.” He explains that the illustration is “taken from a tintype by a traveling artist.” [7] Although there are differences between the two, I believe that the tintype Howe refers to is the basis for the photograph in the Dwiggins Collection. One obvious difference, the reversal of the image, is explained by the fact that tintypes are not produced from a negative. The poor quality of the Dwiggins Collection photograph—note the blurred head of the man standing in the doorway—is also typical of tintypes, which were the “instant photography” of the day.

But the big difference between the photograph and the wood engraving is in the depiction of the crusading women and of Van Pelt, the saloonkeeper. In the photograph the women are all standing erect, posing for the photographer. Van Pelt seems to be slouched against the saloon door. In the wood engraving the women are all kneeling in prayer or sitting. Van Pelt is standing straight, holding his hat in his hand, and facing the viewer. (He also seems to have gained weight.) In essence, the engraver has changed the photograph to more accurately capture the reality of the standoff between the temperance crusaders and the saloonkeeper—but not entirely since nearly everyone is looking at the viewer.

The engraver has also “improved” the scene, heightening its drama. He has cropped it, removing the heads in the foreground of the photograph, a portion of the saloon roof at the top, the two women to the right of Van Pelt, and the open ground to the left. The two women standing in the back of the crowd in the photograph are now joined by another woman and a child—all of them placed behind an invented picket fence that gives that portion of the saloon an odd domestic air. Although the engraver kept the “REFRESHMENTS” sign over the door, a smaller sign below it has been deleted. There is no evidence in either image of the bloody axe or black flag of piracy that Annie Wittenmyer described.

The Dwiggins Collection is a photograph, not a tintype. It is on paper and it is sepia-colored not dark. How and when was it made? I have not located any tintype images of the New Vienna temperance crusade online. Is it the only surviving photographic evidence of this historically important moment?

Finally, how did the photograph end up in the Dwiggins Collection? Eva Siegfried Dwiggins, WAD’s mother, is not likely to be among the women in it. Although she had lived in New Vienna in 1871 when her father, the Rev. B.Y. Siegfried, had a pastorate in the town, he had moved on by the end of the year. In 1874 the Baptist minister in New Vienna was the Rev. H.R. Witter. And Eva was attending the Young Ladies Institute in Granville, 104 miles away. Thus, there is no Siegfried family connection to the events in New Vienna. Although Zimri and Phoebe Dwiggins, WAD’s paternal grandparents, were ardent supporters of temperance, it is unlikely they would have made the roughly twenty mile trek from their farm in the northern part of Union County to New Vienna to take part in the Dead Fall saloon prayer marches. Most likely, the photograph was given to Rev. Siegfried by one of his colleagues or parishioners in New Vienna as a memento of one of the temperance movement’s victories; and then inherited by Eva, and eventually by WAD.

Despite the lack of a direct connection between The New Vienna Whiskey War and W.A. Dwiggins, the photograph remains instructive as a visual reminder of the fervency that animated the temperance movement in Ohio in the 1870s. Even if they did not take part in the crusade in New Vienna, both sets of his grandparents surely rejoiced in its success.

1. The four cities form a triangle (bounded by US 22, US 62 and SR 73) with Hillsboro at the southern point, Washington Court House at the eastern point, Wilmington at the western point, and New Vienna between Hillsboro and Wilmington on what is today SR 73.
2. History of the Woman’s Temperance Crusade: A Complete Official History… by Annie Wittenmyer (Philadelphia: The Office of the Christian Woman, 1878), p. 80. There is a wonderful description of Van Pelt in The Wilmington Journal (Wilmington, Ohio), 14 January 1874, p. 3: “…a burly desperado, with shaggy beard and hair, which might have been improved by a ten cent comb; his finger nails, somewhat discolored, while the exterior of the man might be bettered by the judicious use of a preparation called ‘soft soap.'”
3. Ibid., pp. 79–84. Also see Historical Collections of Ohio: An Encyclopedia of the State… by Henry Howe (Columbus: Henry Howe & Son, 1879), vol. I, pp. 427–429. The New Vienna Ohio Memories blog says that the battle in New Vienna made news nationally and internationally. For a contemporary summary of the Hillsboro crusade see The Highland Weekly News (Hillsborough, Ohio), 1 January 1874, p. 1 and 29 January 1874, p. 2. A lengthy description of the Wilmington crusade is in The Wilmington Journal (Wilmington, Ohio), 8 January 1874, p. 2. Abbreviated contemporary accounts of the New Vienna crusade can be found in The Wilmington Journal (Wilmington, Ohio), 14 January 1874, p. 3; The Richwood Gazette (Richwood, Ohio), 29 January 1874, p. 2; The Jackson Standard (Jackson, Ohio), 29 January 1874, p. 2; and The Somerset Press (Somerset, Ohio), 30 January 1874, p. 2. They include some details left out of Wittenmyer’s book. The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a series of lengthy articles in January and February 1874 that chronicled “The Women’s Whisky War.”
4. Among the later Ohio cities was Mount Vernon in Knox County (see Wittenmyer, pp. 112–114). The temperance crusade there was documented by Fred S. Crowell in a series of twenty-six stereographs that can be found online at Ohiopix. They show the erection and use of a “praying booth” in front of a saloon, something which was not part of the New Vienna battle.
5. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia edited by Jack S. Blocker, David M. Fahey, Ian R. Tyrrell (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2003), vol. II, pp. 684–685.
6. Folder 6, Box 39, 2001 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library.
7. Historical Collections of Ohio: An Encyclopedia of the State… by Henry Howe (Columbus: Henry Howe & Son, 1879), vol. I, p. 428. Wittenmyer does not reproduce this wood engraving and she makes no reference to the scene being recorded. However, she does mention that a “photographist” caught the scene of Van Pelt announcing his conversion and preserved it for posterity. See Wittenmyer, p. 83. Was Howe the first place the wood engraving was published?