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Brooklyn’s Whiskey War of 1869

The story of Brooklyn’s Whiskey War is a little known, but important piece of Brooklyn cities history. The issues stem from distillers in Brooklyn’s 5th Ward (Todays Vinegar Hill) under reporting the amount of Whiskey produced and therefore paying less in tax they they should have. By 1869 troops were sent to destroy the barrels of whiskey that exceeded the reported amount, and to destroy the many illegal stills as well.

Common accidents to workers in the stills were a problem. Explosions and accidents would routinely seriously injure workers.

And finally the “Swill Milk” trade was connected to thousands of infant deaths as a results of drinking milk from the poisoned cows.

The following are contemporary accounts of the events:


Brooklyns Whiskey War
From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, 1869.



Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 4, 1869

The Campaign In Irishtown.

Operations suspended — The Troops are

Withdrawn — The After Excitement —

Impromptu mass meeting — The In-

habitants of Irishtown Highly Indig-

nant over the Presence of the troops.

Through the medium of the Eagle the public was informed of the occupation of Irishtown by the Federal troops yesterday morning and the summary seizure of the various stills that there carried on a flourishing business. Through the same medium, the public are informed that the campaign is over. The troops have been withdrawn and have returned to the forts, from whence they came to seize the whiskey in behalf of the United States Government. Peace and quietness reigns in Irishtown. No longer is the sight of a free people insulted by the presence of an army, in arms, and occupying the streets through which they were to roam in blissful assurance that they lived in a Republic, where a standing army is looked upon as a reproach. No longer the streets resounds to the tramp of armed men. The clank of the saber, and the rattle of musketry. No, all is quiet in Irishtown. The inhabitants of that classic locality may go hither and thither, and their progress will not be impeded by the appearance of armed men.

The army of the United States, last evening, embarked on various tugs and returned to garrison duty after a spirited but bloodless campaign, covered with imperishable glory and renown. The residents of the Fifth Ward have returned to their business, and the campaign is looked upon as a hideous night-mare. The dispossessed are probably the only ones who give the campaign much attention this morning, and no doubt their curses are more deep than loud.

Considerable excitement existed during the afternoon and evening, and the various liquor saloons were the centres at which gathered a talking crowd recount to the exploits of the day. The present administration came in for a good share of condemnatory remarks, for mixing with what was called “d———— dirty business.”


At the corner of Little and Plymouth streets a knot of men were gathered, talking loudly over the affair of the day . One particularly made himself prominent in the conversation and finally a large crowd gathered about him. Some in the crowd called out :Give us a speech, Dennis, and tell us about it.” Dennis, thus adjured, mounted a whiskey barrel which had been rescued from the Revenue officials and delivered himself of a speech, which was taken down on the spot by one of our indefatigable reporters, he said:

Feller-citizens, ye have sen this mornin’ our homes marched into by min as called themselves sogers. Its bludy shame, I say. (Applause and cries, Its right ye are.) Here ye seed to-day a lot of fellers because they had blue coats on and white badges, come and rob decent white min of their whiskey. What right has dey te steal whiskey from us, (Applause.) If we go to steal of whiskey, we gets sent up. Cos why? Cos we’re poor. But these fellers cos theys ‘pinted by President Grant they can steal anything. (Cries of That’s so, you bet.) Don’t dey steal wer in their pay, don’t they steal til they got rich every mothers son of thim. Av corse they does. Didn’t ye see thim come here this mornin’ and steal the whiskey, that min, furst rate min too, that gives us as much poteen as we wants fur the askin’ of it, made to sill. (Tremendous applause.) The thim dirty fellas wid muskies. If it hadn’t been for thim how’d we’d a warmed those Dutchmen, hey, the dirty black guards. (Applause, terrific cheering and cries go it me boy Dennis.) Doesn’t the Eagle (three rousing cheers for the Eagle was here given) tell us that we live under a civil governmen’ hey? Of course it does. The eagle knows all about it, av course it does, (which sentiment was loudly applauded.) Is this civil guvening, when a dirty lot av blackguards wid goold lace and swords and drums and muskets, can come in and steal a poor man’s whiskey. Av course it isn’t. (Immense applause lasting for several minutes.) This is what ye get for electing’ Grant. It’s a dirty shame, so it is, ‘cos these sogers was her. Let the dirty blackguards of spotters cum down here alone, and try to sillin’, and see what byes give ’em. It’s a nice reception they’d be getting’, just as shure as me name is Dennis Muldroon. Eh! Byes, hos that? (Tremendous applause.) Now lets take a drink, and may bad luck fellow the dirty devils.

The conclusion of this vigorous address was greeted with uproarious applause, and all that could get in, adjourned to a neighboring drinking shop. Several other scenes of this character might have been seen during the evening, but no disturbance occurred to increase the excitement the presence of the military had occasioned. Women as well as men were loud in the denunciations of the men, who would lend themselves to such a business, which according to their views was the most despicable that men could engage in. What seemed to enrage the boys the most, was that they were not allowed to break heads of the revenue officials. It was toward them that their ire was directed, and the military only came in for unpleasant remarks, as they put a stop to their pleasant intentions. Certain it is that Irishtown will be anything but safe for such revenue officers as showed their faces yesterday.

This morning there is no excitement. The boys are pursuing their daily avocations, and from all appearances no one would suppose that anything unusual had occurred yesterday.



New York Times, December 4, 1869

The Whiskey War.

A Military Expedition to “Irishtown.”

Seizure of Thirteen Illicit Distilleries.

The denizens of the Fifth Ward of Brooklyn while cooking their early breakfast, yesterday morning, were somewhat astonished at hearing the tread of an army under their windows, and the rather unusual sounds peculiar to the deploying of armed forces. And when the long-drawn-out sound of “halt” was echoed, up went hundreds of windows and out went hundreds of heads to see what was the matter. What could it mean? Was the question with many, while with the devoted whiskey distillers there was a suspicion that the extraordinary military display had something to do with them. The Democracy had preached to them that General Grant’s Administration was wasting the public money; that Radical officeholders were swallowing the taxes, and that as for them it was their duty to pay no taxes for the support of an Administration they didn’t like, and which they didn’t elect. As taxpayers, they were determined to resist all encroachments upon their liberties as freedom-loving citizens, (freedom always meaning the kind that the Fifth Ward

Democrats are willing to enjoy but not to extend to others). To make whiskey, and to sell whiskey and to drink whiskey, and elect John Clancy Alderman, are the only things that save the Fifth Ward – the Gibraltar of the Brooklyn Democracy. Long have the illicit distillers of this region enjoyed immunity from interference, and they have manufactured untold quantities of the stimulating fluid without paying the Government the taxes due thereupon. True, stills had been captured and carried away by indefatigable internal revenue officers and United States Marshals in times gone by, but other stills took the place of the old ones, and whiskey making went on just as before. The Fifth Ward must have whiskey, even if they had to make it themselves. If not it would be impossible for them on great election occasions to have the votes counted “straight” for their side. They must have whiskey, and they would make it in spite of the Government, which might pay its national debt as it liked, but no whiskey tax for them.

This much is necessary to be said to announce why the United States authorities combined yesterday morning to execute the laws that have been framed for common weal. It ahs been demonstrated so often in the Fifth Ward, adjacent as it lies to the Naval Yard, that the illicit whiskey makers whose name is legion, hold the Government and its officers in utter contempt: that the authorities have resolved upon the plan of taking a summary course in order to execute the laws and collect the revenue – hence the descent which was made upon the distillers yesterday. Being determined to root out these vile dens, General Pleasonton, Collector of the Fourth Internal Revenue District, New York, made one of the greatest whiskey raids on record. Thirteen distilleries were utterly demolished from which were taken and stored in the Navy Yard several pumps, stills worms of various dimensions, a doubter, worm tub, thirty-five barrels of whiskey, worth altogether several thousands of dollars.

In view of the desperate character of the men in the neighborhood, and in remembrance of the former difficulties in the same field, General Pleasonton applied to the Government for military aid, which was freely accorded. Major-General McDowell having commend of the Department of the East, ordered out the regulars of the harbor garrison to cooperate with the revenue officers. The force consisted of 500 men of different arms of services, commanded by Generals Vogdes, Kibboo, and Abbott with 200 of the First United States Artillery, from Forts Hamilton and Wadsworth, and 250 infantry from Governor’s Island and Fort Schulyer. These were taken to the Brooklyn Navy Yard at 4 A. M. yesterday by the steamers Pope Catlin and Henry Smith. At the same hour fifty men in citizen’s attire – veterans and members of the Grand Army of the Republic – mustered outside the Revenue office, No. 61 Chambers street, in this city, where they were joined by Colonel Clifford Thompson, General Pleasonton’s deputy, who commanded the expedition. At 5 o’clock column was formed and the men marched to the foot of Chambers st., East River, where they embarked on the Navy Yard tender Katalpa and started to meet the regular troops. It was snowing very hard at the time of departure, but the men, mostly Germans were evidently in excellent spirits and seemed to enjoy the affair as a reminder of their former campaigning. General Pleasonton and Vogues, Colonel Willard Ballard, R. M. Cooney, Malcolm Wallace and Colonel Jab. H. Stevens with a few members of the press, took passage on the vessel. At 6 A. M. she reached the Yard, where the military already were drawn up in line. A council of ward was held by the officers, and Colonel Thompson’s party received their axes and crowbars. It was resolved to divide the troops and working party into three detachments, each of them to be assigned respectively to the command Colonels Thompson, Willard Bullard, R. M. Cooney. The consolidation of forces having been satisfactorily consummated and the commander of each detail having received specific orders the troops moved in column through the train gate of the Navy Yard, and treated the denizens of that portion of the Fifth Ward contiguous to the Navy Yard to a thorough surprise by deploring in Water street, Little street, Hudson avenue, and other adjoining thoroughfares, where illicit distilling is actively prosecuted, metaphorically speaking, beneath the acute and generous olfactory organ of Uncle Sam aforesaid. When the troops were in position Colonel Thompson and party proceeded to a distillery in Little Water street, which was being worked at the moment. The Colonel ran rapidly to the door with the hope of intercepting the distillers, who made a rapid retreat from the premises. Calling his gang, he set them to work vigorously and ere long brought to light a number of vats filled with the boiling liquid, and two complete sets of distilling apparatus. The den was situated in the centre of a lot surrounded by shanties, whose inmates startled by the noise of axes and sounds of general demolition, poured into the open space and indulges in the bitterest invectives against the officers. There were many men among them who were not at all careful to use chose epithets, but were by far too free with their threats of violence. Seeing danger ahead if these fellows were permitted to remain near the workmen. Colonel Thompson stepped up to the ringleader and ordered him off the premises. The man refused to go and gave evidence in the most insulting manner of his determination to resist the authorities and get up a riot. With coolness and promptitude, the Colonel seized man by the nape of the neck and ran him out of the alley. Here, then seemed to be every prospect of trouble, but on being reinforced by a Sargent and guard from the artillery on Water street, Colonel Thompson resumed operations immedately. The reinforcements were posted in and around the scene of the conflict. On the other streets in the like manner, Colonel Bullard, R. M. Cooney and Jerome D. Ware aided by Generals Kibboo and Abbott and Colonel Best made short work numerous distillers in like manner. These gentlemen, like Colonel Thompson, personally directing the movements of the stalwart men with the extra insignia of authority, who were armed with axe and crowbar and who despite all revolutionary and riotous ramblings made under the awe-inspiring presence of the regulars, the following seizures of stills:

One on Little street, said to belong to Samuel Warren; one in United States street near Little to Carey; one in United States street, near Little, to James Moran, and another to McMahon two in Plymouth street, said to be owned by Baydoks and Gaffney; one in Plymouth street near Gold, and one in Little street, the reputed owned of which are Orborne & Mullady, and Whiteford & Brady, respectively.

Among the rumors occasioned by the movements if the government officers was one of an organized resistance being contemplated. Among these were prominately mentioned. “The Rangers,” one hundred strong under command of the valiant Captain Doughtey, and two target companies, something less than a thousand strong, marshaled by other valorous commandants. But no serious offensive demonstration was made. By 12:30 o’clock in the afternoon the excitement was at an end. The troops took up the line of march for the Navy Yard, guarding in their centre the working revenue force, which was the especial aversion of the populace. From 11 to 12:30 the carmen of the stills seized were compelled by the revenue officials to cart so much of the whiskey as they desired to be taken to the Navy Yard. A detachment of soldiers surrounded the cart, and were followed by a hooting and yelling crowd to the gates. Plymouth, Little and John streets were crowed with the inhabitants of the classic locality of “Irishtown,” and they were not slow in expressing their opinion of the revenue officers.

The most extensive seizures of the day was made in United States, at the further end from Little street, and almost against the Navy Yard wall.

From the centre of a large wooden shed was tumbled out the largest and best apparatus yet seized. It was smoking hot, appeared to have been in full blast very recently , and was worth at least $2,000. Under this still in gigantic casks were thousands of gallons of dirty liquid, showing that the trade which was carried on here was not insignificant by any means. Buildings were ripped up, and tumbled down, floors were raised to find beneath more evidence and apparatus of the trade, and while all this was proceeding many curses, both loud and deeps, were showered on the curse-proof heads of the deputies. Men who lived with the square invested by the authorities were soon speaking in groups of twos, threes, and dozens, and with lowering looks and clenched teeth and fists, seemed to talk about sometime being able to destroy the enemy in detail.

As the troops were gathered on Little street, awaiting the order to return to the Navy Yard , they were surprised with a shower of bricks from some of the housetops and upper windows. After that the eyes of the soldiers were kept upon the roofs of the houses.

Finally the order was given to march, and the step taken amid divisive shouts, jeers and hisses of the crowd. The column formed with the artillery on the right, the workmen in the centre and the infantry under General Kibboo on the left. At the word it commenced its march along Little through Water street and down Hudson avenue toward the Navy Yard. The streets were literally thronged with men and women burning with a desire to wreck a summary vengeance upon the devoted heads of the Internal Revenue officers and men. As they neared the corner of Plymouth street a perfect shower of bricks and stones fell upon the centre; several men were struck. On head his head cut badly, another his nose, and not a few were more or less injured, “Close up!” rang out the order from the officers as the appearance of things grew more serious. At this moment Colonel Thompson was struck on the back with a brick, as were also Mssers. Wallace and Stevens. They turned immediately, drew their revolvers and faced the men determined not to be driven off any faster than they had concluded to go. There was every prospect of a desperate fight as doubtless there would have been had not General Kibboo faced his men about, confronted the infuriated mob and advancing in line upon them compelled them to retire. Their retreat being covered in this manner the men succeeded in getting into the Navy Yard without having sustained much injury. One of them, however, received a blow from an ax on the back of his head. He was badly cut and removed to the Marine Hospital. Some of the New-York reporters were mistaken for Revenue attaches because they wore similar badges and narrowly escaped with their lives. At 2:30 P. M. the party embarked for their several destinations, the soldiers to the forts and Revenue officers to their accustomed places.

Of course, there was much seen and heard during the morning which was of an extremely judicious character. Among the incidents were the following:

A still had been seized and placed on a cart ready for transportation to the Naval Yard. The soldiers, who had been placed to guard the horse, cart and driver were withdrawn. Several young men sauntering about seeing the still unguarded, leaped upon the cart, and at a rattling pace drove away, leaving the driver standing upon the sidewalk. When the guard returned, not being able to find the still, they took the driver in lieu.

A detachment of soldiers was guarding a small worm on Little street. Two young fellows, strolling along, quietly pulled it from under their legs and dashed off with it. One of the soldiers started in pursuit, but the youngsters had got into a crowd and the worm changed hands so quickly and the spectators were unconscious of anything unusual occurring that he was compelled to return without it.

The soldiers and revenue officers were compelled to take a good of deal of “chaff” from the sidewalk but as that broke no bones they paid buit little attention. They were advised of the existence of illicit stills in remarkably strange places and men with unheard of names were said to manufacture most singular whiskey from the queerest materials. No tongues were as loud as those of the women and their sallies provoked frequent laughter.

The number of stills seized is thirteen and as it is understood that these were more illicit stills in the same region it is not improbable until they are all unearthed. The quantity of whiskey poured in the streets in its pure state will surly go a great way toward disinfecting the Fifth Ward even if it falls in reducing the rate if mortality. The general opinion relative to the streams of whiskey is that pouring it was the quickest was to settle disputes.



The Brooklyn Eagle, July 14, 1871


Probable Loss of Life


Important Arrests

Statement of Gen. Jourdan.

At his earliest arrival at his office on the corner of Court and Jorelemon Streets, about 1 o’clock, a reporter of the Eagle waited upon Gen. James Jourdon, the Assessor of the Second District, who was in command of the raiding expedition, and obtained from him the following statement: Pursuant to my orders given last night the entire force of this office, including Clerks, Assistant Assessors and Gaugers assembled at 3 o’clock this morning at the Navy Yard, where a company of U.S. Marines were in readiness to render us required assistance. The expedition had been kept a profound secret, its purpose to seize more thean three persons. That purpose was to seize the persons of Gorman, McMahon & Cassidy, very notorious keepers of an illicit distillery, located in the Fifth ward, on what is known as Dixon’s alley, a spot where frequent raids have been made. Our raiding party numbered something less than one hundred perons in all, the marines being under command of Col. Brome, and all under my direction. At about three o’clock all necessary preparaqtions having been made. A portion of the force proceeded to the houses of the men to be arrested. Cassidy was found at home and in bed, and was taken without opposition. McMahon had in some way got an inkling of our approach and sought to escape, when surprised at the door he fled to an upper apartment, and being followed there he precipitated himself from a three-story window in the rear of the house. As he picked himself up from the earth in a much shaken condition, he was welcomed to the hospitable arms of the Assistant Assessor.


and so luckily escaped arrest. While the operation detailed were going forward, General Jourdan with eight or ten men were keeping watch and ward over the enterprise in York street, between Hudson avenue and Dixon’s Alley, a party of twenty or thirty men, concealed behind the buildings on Hudson avenue, opened upon them.


And pistol balls flew think and fast about their heads. The officers fired in return with, however, little effect as the whisky men were hidden behind the houses and could not be seen, it is believed, however, that one man was shot and killed. At the moment the firing commenced, Mr. Clinton Gilbert, a gauger in the Assessors office, when about executing an order of the General was shoot — the ball entering through the lower part of the back and passing out through the abodmen. One of two shots were fired after this, but Mr. Gilbert was carried in safety to the Marine Hospital, where he was properly cared oofr. The two prisoners were given into custody of the U.S. Marshal.

No police were present at the affray, or took any part therein. Such are substantially the facts given by Gen. Jourdan. One or two other persons including a Mr. Tuttle were slightly injured. Appended in the report of


Jas. Cassidy and Michael McMahon, the two men who were arrested this morning on a charge of being illicit distillers. Are at present in the basement of the Montague street building, occupied by the United States authorities.

They were interviewed at two o’clock this afternoon by am Eagle reporter.

Both men were sitting in their shirt-sleeves. Cassidy was smoking a cigar, and McMahon was contemplating life through somewhat dirty windows of the basement.

In answer to the questions of the reporter, Cassidy said he resided at the private house No. 203 Prospect street; by occupation he was a sub-marine diver, and at the time of his arrest — about four o’clock this morning — his was asleep in bed. Up to last April he had been in employment of the Commissioners of Charities and Correction, and had never had anything to do with manufacture of illicit whisky.

Michael McMahon stated that he resided at the private house No. 116 Hudson avenue. He was arrested there at about a quarter past four o’clock this morning and did not know why, as by occupation he was a laborer and had never had anything to do with illicit whisky.

Both of the men stated that they did not know any reason why they should be arrested, and in default of furnishing $5,000 each they will have to be locked up.


Clinton Gilbert, is still at the Marine Hospital. His injuries are of so serious a nature that the doctors say it is impossible for him to survive more than tree days.




Special thanks goes out to Michael Cassidy‘s website for bringing this event to our attention and allowing us to use his content.