Thursday, February 27, 2014

1874 New Vienna Whiskey War

February of 1874 was the culmination of temperance battles in New Vienna.  The "Wickedest Man" in New Vienna and the Women's Temperance made national and international news in newspapers in at least 18 states and Great Britain carrying the story. Pennsylvania and Illinois seemed the most interested.  Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and London were among the cities whose readers were "entertained" by the stories originating in New Vienna.

Below are two more recent articles about New Vienna's Whiskey War, though neither is dated or sourced the second one appears to be from late 1988 or 1989.  More information on sources and links to newspaper clippings from February 1874 are included at the end of this post.

(1874) When New Vienna 'Went Dry' by Helen M. White
Unknown Source, unknown date

A wise old man once said, "Beware of women banded together in determination.  They can accomplish any goal and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them."

This statement certainly applies in the case of poor John Calvin Van Pelt of New Vienna in Clinton county, who at one time proudly wore the title, the wickedest man in Ohio."  He wore it, that is, until the good ladies of the community took matters in charge during the winter of 1873-74.

Van Pelt was a large, square man noted for his bulldog pluck.  He kept the Dead Fall Saloon when that strange phenomenon in the temperance cause known as "The Women's Crusade" broke out and ran like a fever over Southern Ohio.  Fierce and exciting while it lasted, the movement ws short-lived and passed into history in a few months.  But in New Vienna the battle of the crusaders and Van Pelt was fought to a finish.

Following the pattern set, the women assembled outside the Dead Fall Saloon and, kneeling in the muddy snow, started singing hymns and praying.  Whereupon Van Pelt, brandishing a club, drove them off and threatened "to hang, draw and quarter them if they returned."

Undaunted, about 50 of the ladies returned the next day.  This time they serenely entered the saloon, knelt in their voluminous skirts on the dirty, sawdust covered floor and again begain their pious efforts.

Driven by the frenzy of frustration, Van Pelt seized buckets of beer slops and soundly soaked the unresisting and determined group.  On finishing their devotions, they calmly arose and departed to find outside nearly 200 men, their brothers, fathers, and son, bent on avenging them and hanging the raging saloon keeper.

Van Pelt was taken to the local lockup to cool him off and keep him safe, but upon his release he swore fearful and public vengeance to the undoers of his once-peaceful domain.

Unimpressed, the ladies in bands entered as they wished, prayed, sang and departed.  Van Pelt jumped with rage at each excursion upon his property, losing both face and customers at every encounter.

In desperation he finally offered to sell out, lock, stock and barrel, for the rediculously low price of $95 – but he had no takers.

About a week after his offer to sell, he rolled the barrels into the street, broke them open and sloshed his merchandise into the gutters.

Perhaps the rugged, bullying Van Pelt had heard the saying, "If you can't whip them, join them, for he then announced that he wished to join the cause he had fought so bitterly.

A chastened John Calvin Pan Pelt wholeheartedly entered the field as a temperance lecturer.
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 1874 New Vienna's Wickedest Man accompanying illustration
Captioned: This picture is from a tin-type taken at the time by a traveling artist.  The women of the village of New Vienna, Ohio are laying seige [sic] to the saloon of Van Pelt, the wickedest man in Ohio.
 Article Titled: The Women's Temperance Crusade Meets the Wickedest Man in Ohio
Unknown magazine, c1989

In the winter of 1873-74 (there) arose in Southern Ohio that strange phenomenon in the temperance (movement) cause known as the 'Women's Crusade.'

It began in Hillsboro (Ohio) on the last of December, and in the course of a few months extended into adjoining States.  In the large cities it was not anywhere successful, but in the small villages, the results were often surprising, the Crusaders in some cases closing every saloon and for the time entirely suppressing the liquor traffic.  The manner of conducting their operations was in this form; the women daily assembled and marched in solemn procession two by two, sometimes to the number of 50 or 100.  On coming to a saloon they halted in front and sent in word for permission to enter and hold religious exercises within.  If this was denied they held them outside.  They opened with singing two or three hymns, and then all kneeled on the pavement regardless of the condition of the weather and the streets; sometimes kneeling in the mud or snow.  In every case the ladies pled [sic] with the saloon keeper to induce him to sing [sign?] the pledge, and in this way every saloon was visited.  In the larger places the ladies organized in separate bands so as to simultaneously visit different saloons.

The excitement soon died away, and at the end of  few months the crusade had passed into history.  While it was in progress the public prints were filled with anecdotes of the experience of the Crusaders with the saloon keepers.  Those of the New Vienna, (Ohio) ladies in Clinton county were particularly interesting with John Calvin Van Pelt, reputed to be the "wickedest man in Ohio."  He kept a saloon near the depot, known as the "Dead Fall."  He was a tall, solidly built man, with a red nose and the head of a prize fighter, and noted for his bull-dog pluck.

The ladies assembled and proceeded to Van Pelt's "Dead Fall," when he threatened to hang, draw and quarter them if they came to his saloon again, and the next day he decorated one of the windows of his saloon with flasks of whiskey.  Across the other was an axe, covered with blood; over the door empty flasks were suspended, and near them a large jug branded "Brady's Family Biters."  Over all wave a black flag, while within Van Pelt was seen brandishing a club, threatening and defying the temperance band to enter at the risk of their lives.  This had no effect, however, as about fifty ladies entered and, kneeling, one of them began praying, when he seized a buck of dirty water and threw the contents against the ceiling, from which it came pouring down upon the kneeling supplicants; at the same time he hurled the vilest invectives at them, but they heroically stood to their posts until thoroughly drenched with dirty slops and beer, when they retreated to the outside.  Without were about 200 men, husbands, fathers, and brothers of the ladies, and it was only through the earnest entreaties of the women that they were prevents from mobbing Van Pelt.  He was, however, arrested and languished in ail several days before getting bail.  In the meanwhile his brother officiated at the saloon, permitting the ladies to enter and carry on their devotional exercises.

Upon Van Pelt's release, he became more bitter and determined.  He boldly attended the meetings of the ladies at the Friends' Meeting House, and publically argued the question with them, and being a man of quick wit provided a formidable disputant.

But at length he gave evidence of weakening by offering to sell our for five hundred dollars and eventually dropping to ninety-five dollars (the amount of his legal expenses), and agreeing to quit the town on the payment of this sum.  Many were in favor of accepting this proposition, particularly the ladies, one of who said that she had forgiven the insults heaped on her and, although refusing to acknowledge any indebtedness, was willing to make him a present of the amount to compromise with Van Pelt on any basis, and held that "he might be thankful to get off with his life."

A few days later he proved indisputably his title of the "Wickedest Man in Ohio."  When the ladies called at his saloon he told them they might come in and pray if he were allowed to make every other prayer, which condition was accepted, and after the opening prayer by them he commence a long and blasphemous harangue in the form of a prayer.  He classed women as brutes and asked the Lord to be merciful to them and teach them wisdom and understanding.  Women, he said, first caused sin and were in great need of prayer.  The Lord operated the first distillery, or at least made the fist wine, and he was following the Lord's example, etc.

Before the services ended three prayers of this description had been made.  The women were amazed at such depravity, and disheartened at any prospect of his reformation, but a week later he surrendered, took up the cause he had fought so desperately, and became one of its most ardent disciples.

About noon of the day on the surrender it got noised about that it was about to take place, bells were rung, boys rushed through the streets with handbills, crying, "Everybody meet at Van Pelt's at two o'clock and hear his decision."  After singing and prayer by the ladies, Van Pelt appeared and made a complete surrender of stock and fixtures.  He said he yielded not to law or force, but to the labor of love of the women.  One barrel of whiskey, another of cider and a keg of beer were then rolled out, and seizing an axe he said, This is the same weapon with which I used to terrify the ladies; I now use it to sacrifice that which I fear had ruined many souls!"  Whereupon he drove in the heads of the barrels, and the liquor ran into the gutters.  Prayer was then offered, a hymn sung, and he made a few more remarks saying: "Ladies, I now promise you never to sell or drink another drop of whiskey as long as I live, and also promise to work with you in the cause with as much zeal as I have worked against you."

There was great rejoicing throughout the town, and in the evening a thanksgiving meeting was held at the Christian Church, at which Van Pelt spoke.  He was a changed man, with his eyes fully opened to the evil of liquor traffic, very repentant and humble, and zealous in this efforts to induce others to quit the business, and a week later he entered the field as a Temperance lecturer."

(The above was seen in Vol. 1 of "Historical Collections of Ohio" which was published in 1888.  Jim Teal collection.)

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Newspaper Articles:

"Obdurate Van Pelt." Chicago Daily Tribute 5 Feb. 1874: 1. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <>.Temperance Battle continues in New Vienna. Incorrectly identifies New Vienna as being in Clark County.
"Some Time Ago . . ." Decatur Weekly Republican 29 Jan. 1874: 3. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <>.Women's Temperance 1874 --New Vienna news starts to spread. Van Pelt Temperance article about New Vienna.
"Temperance Crusade." Vermont Phoenix [Brattleboro VT] 30 Jan. 1874: 1. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <>.
"Temperance Whirlwind in the West." Harrisburg Telegraph 5 Feb. 1874: 1. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <>.Van Pelt, incorrigible and combative, saloon keeper, continues the battle against temperance. Incorrectly identifies New Vienna as being in Clark County.
"Thursday, February 5, 1874." Bucks County Gazette [Bristol, PA] 5 Feb. 1874: 2. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <>.New Vienna's Signal Victory in Temperance Campaign
"Whisky [sic] War in the United States." The Times [London, England] 25 Feb. 1874: 6. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <>.New Vienna's Whiskey War makes London news
"Women's Praying Anti-Liquor Association." Los Angeles Herald 7 Feb. 1874: 3. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <>.New Vienna Women's Praying softens heart of wickedest man.

Other Sources:
"Arthur's Illustrated Home Magazine, Volume 42." Arthur's Illustrated Home Magazine 42 (1874): 278-80. Google Books. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
"Crusade Meets The Wickedest Man in Ohio." Unknown 1989: 22-24. Print.
Durant, Pliny A. "The Women's Temperance Crusade." The History of Clinton County, Ohio, Containing a History of the County; Its Townships, Cities, Towns, Etc.; General and Local Statistics; Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men; History of the Northwest Territory; History of Ohio; Map of Clinton County; Constitution of the United States, Etc. Chicago: W.H. Beers, 1882. 428-29. Print.
Teal, Jim. Historical Collections of Ohio. Vol. 1. 1888. Print.
White, Helen M. "When New Vienna 'Went Dry'" Unknown (n.d.): n. pag. Print.
Wittenmyer, Annie, and Frances Elizabeth Willard. "New Vienna, Ohio." History of the Woman's Temperance Crusade. A Complete Official History of the Wonderful Uprising of the Christian Women of the United States against the Liquor Traffic, Which Culminated in the Gospel Temperance Movement .. Boston: J.H. Earle, 1882. 79-83. Print.


  1. A very colorful and fun read. The movement to suppress alcohol was doomed to failure in my opinion. Drinking alcohol to excess is such an ancient and global practice that trying to shut it down was foolhardy. I mean it may have worked temporarily in a few places but in totality never would have. There was always going to be a black market at any rate. Just my opinions. Thanks much!

    1. Link, I totally agree. The same could be said for the War on Drugs. Lots of strong feelings on both side.