Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Albany Ale: The Curious Case of Mr. Delavan

John Taylor was a pretty important figure in 19th century Albany. He was a brewer, a businessman, water commissioner, canal boat magnate and Mayor. Hell, he'd eventually own the largest brewery in the country. But he may have done more for the U.S. temperance movement, in the early 19th-century, than anybody else in the country at the time.

Courtesy of the Albany Institute of History & Art
You might ask yourself why would a brewer help the anti-drink movement? Truthfully, he didn't mean to help them, it just sorta worked out that way.

Calls for state-wide or national temperance of alcohol began in the U.S., well before the time of John Taylor, but during the first part of the 19th century, New York was becoming a hotbed for the anti-drink stance. It was being fueled by the absolutist ideals and social activism of the Second Great Awakening as well as the pro "American" and often anti-ethnic views of many political parties during the antebellum period. By the late 1820s however, politics and infighting had fractured the movement and its progress had stalled.

The movement had split—with temperance moderates allowing some, responsible drinking on one side, and teetotaling prohibitionists, like the Connecticut preacher, Lyman Beecher, advocating against the use of any and all liquor, on the other side. It would be the later group that that would set their crosshairs on the brewers of Albany—led by the Edward Cornealius Delavan.

Delavan, a one time wine merchant in New York City, benefited from the success of the Erie Canal, and profited so greatly in the real estate market that by 1827 he had amassed enough of a fortune to retire—at the age of 34—to the outskirts of Albany. It was at this time that the young Mister Delavan, denounced his previous boozy employment, and took up the cause of temperance. Within two years he and his like-minded cohorts had founded the New York Temperance Society. Delavan evangelized the virtues of non-drink to the wealthiest of Albany society, asking them to lead by example, by discarding their expensive, imported wines. His zealotry however, hit a ever pitch when he mounted a campaign against Eucharistic wine in the mid 1830s. A position seen as tenuous, even by his own society members. But that didn't stop Delavan.

The number of breweries in Albany made the city's brewers an easy target for Delavan. In the 1830s, he began an all out war on beer in Albany. He publicly denounced many of the city's breweries, but in a February 12, 1835 article in the Albany Evening Journal, he took it one step further. Delavan claimed that John Taylor was drawing water, by which to malt with, from a pond contaminated by the rotting corpses of animals dumped there by slaughterhouses and glue factories; and from a stream which passed through the cemetery of the city's Almshouse. Although the claims against Taylor were the worst, Delavan targeted a number of brewers, and $300,000 worth of libel damages—from seven other of the city's brewers—would be brought against him, ultimately though, only John Taylor's suit was prosecuted.

Taylor, arguably the city's most well-known brewer, and therefore the one with the most to lose, filed his a libel suit against the prohibitionist in 1835, but it would not go to trial until five years later. The trial itself lasted six days, with some seventy witness testifying on both side. Try as they might to discredit Delavan, Mr. Taylor's lawyers fell short in that task—most likely since Taylor had indeed been using putrid water. Delavan proved this without a shadow of a doubt, was acquitted, and Taylor was ordered to pay cost.

Now, you'd think that Delavan's damning revelations would have collapsed the Albany brewing industry, but as George Rogers Howell so eloquently notes in his 1886 publication of the Bicentennial History of the County of Albany: "Higher ground was taken; and more aggressive and stringent methods advocated…" Everyone seemed to have washed their hands of the whole affair. The city's brewing industry didn't collapse, in fact it boomed, and Taylor continued brewing and became infinitely wealthy —and was elected mayor!

But the effects would be felt. Eventually.

You see, Edward Delavan was sneaky—or more to the point a propagandist. His intended goal was not to destroy the brewing industry in a single upstate New York city, but rather to seed the prohibitionist mantra across the country. What better way to do that than to involve himself in a legal case that garnered national headlines? A court case, in which he was acquitted—to add insult to injury. The mighty John Taylor, played right into Edward Delavan's hand. Albany's biggest brewer was a patsy in the very best sense of the word—and he was never the wiser. Delavan continued to use guerilla techniques to spread the word of prohibition into the 1860s. The Taylor case, however, would be the first salvo, and it was lauded amongst prohibitionist into the 20th century.

Taylor versus Delavan was the first, wide-spread, mainstream, dissemination of the anti-drink message. A message that would gain so much momentum in the 80 years after the trial, that it would result in a thirteen year ban on alcohol in the United States.


  1. Good post on a very interesting piece of local brewing history. A couple of supporting additions:

    The first story that appeared in the Albany Journal was on February 9th. Prior to the story on the 12th the local brewers had defended themselves in the Albany Journal, both making their own statements and publishing the statements of others in support of their position. These were interesting arguments that defended “Albany Ale” and Albany brewers as a corporate body, but also indicated the belief that at least some of their fellows might have been engaged in problematic behavior. As Fidler and Ryckman noted in their letter: “They attack Albany Ale, and convey the impression that it is all of this “filthy” character. If “one individual” has been “filthy,” are the whole to suffer?” (Albany Evening Journal, February 11, 1835) This was perhaps fodder for the later legislative investigation into brewing practices.

    The subsequent trials were based on the story from the 12th because Delavan named himself, which gave brewers a person to focus on, both personally and legally. As they noted in a joint letter, they did not “regret that the present charge has assumed a specific and definite character, and that its author (neither anonymous or irresponsible) will now have a full opportunity of investigating before a legal tribunal the truth and justice of the allegation.” (Albany Evening Journal, February 13, 1835).

    The first trial based upon Delevan’s story was actually that of White v. Delavan which took place in May of 1837. The White in question was William White of White, Barker & Co. White had a malt house “on the hill” and so saw himself as being directly implicated by the Delavan story.

    Like Taylor, White lost; but not for the same reason. Unlike Taylor (and Fidler and Dunlop), White wasn’t named in the story. The court ruled that, because of this, the story could not be a slander on him. This verdict might actually have encouraged Taylor in continuing his suit, as he was named in the piece and the White verdict could be read as the court seeing the content of Delavan’s letter as being potentially slanderous to those named.

    One of the interesting things about the charges laid by Delavan was that he was always careful to note that he was pointing out an issue with malting, but he never corrected others (which was most others in the temperance camp) when they indicated that poisoned water was used in the actual brewing of the ale. The stories of “fithly ale,” as you know, were numerous. Delavan also never corrected the continuing stories of the use of additives such as nux vomica, arsenic, coccolus indicus and opium which seemed to have spawned off of his piece. The 1835 legislative investigation was looking for these “replacements” in brewing materials when they investigated the brewers, largely because there was an impression – drawn from the English experience – that brewers used these things. The squeaky clean results of the senate investigation never got as much play as the stories of adulteration and bad practice. Just like today, good news doesn’t sell!

    I don’t see this story as the first salvo in regards to prohibition, but it was the first major blow against beer, which had always been seen as a temperance drink in opposition to harder spirits. Still, for the 1919 hiatus to occur, prohibition folks needed to shift attention from the manufacture of the beverage – and from the drink itself – to the morally degrading context of its sale. The evil and de-humanizing effects of the saloon are what closed the deal – and the breweries. But, as you point out, the Delavan case, was an early and effective blow for the temperance cause.