The Proto-Michael Jackson, E.A. O’Brien

E.A. O’Brien And His Editor Boss Rang Them Bells

We have seen numerous examples of press coverage of American beer and breweries in the second half of the 1800s. Often these appeared in New York-area papers, especially the New York Times and New York Sun, but occasionally elsewhere. The big city was more propitious to such coverage, with a parallel phenomenon for trade directory and industrial history volumes: these usually appeared in the larger or hub cities.

It is thus unusual to find a frankly admiring appreciation of beer and the saloon in Omaha, Nebraska in 1887. Prohibition sentiment was strongest in the sparsely settled states where old stock Americans predominated. Even in large centres, newspapers were usually careful not to offend propriety and have the pulpit come down on them. They might cover beer and breweries but in a qualified way, taking care to express the general societal disapproval. (It is much like today where one is cautious about disagreeing with an idée reçue, the certainty of climate change, say).

There were always exceptions, often by way of printing a story which originated in a distant, larger place. The origin was disclosed so readers could see it was from afar, the things the “big city” wrote about vs. their burg. The most informative story I found on the Pabst-Anheuser-Busch battle over prizes at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was in a Texas newspaper, but the account originated in Chicago.

The E.A. O’Brien who wrote an appreciative account of beer and saloons in Omaha didn’t hold back or defer in any way to Prohibition sentiment. His account is rather modern, a frank and grateful story of drink when used “rationally”.

O’Brien was a proto-Michael Jackson, even the rhythms of his prose reminded me of the metre of Jackson’s writing. O’Brien signed the article, too, thus disclaiming the veil of anonymity.

Here is a taste:


[Beer] finds patrons where a dealer in the necessaries of life would drop into bankruptcy. It has dethroned ale and weaned from whisky many a victim who had lingered dangerously near its throne. As a consequence, there has arisen all over the land a species of massive structures of peculiar shape and design in which it is brewed, and there have also sprung into existence edifices of less magnitude, but proportionately as valuable, in which, amidst elegant surroundings, this amber fluid is dispensed to thirsty mortals….

The beer saloon is a thing of exceeding life and interest. It is a babel of many tongues. It is a mixture of many races. It is a collection of thirsty souls, fatigued frames, weary minds and convivial spirits. There are sweltering bartenders, rushing waiters and the clinking of glasses together with an eagerness to supply a demand which seems to exist at the same time in all quarters.

The bar is lined with hasty mortals who imbibe the fluid and again rush into the sunshine and the heat. But the tables are surrounded by more leisurely mortals who drink, think, rest, or discuss such subjects as may to them be of interest and importance. The heat without is forgotten, as the temperature of the frame is reduced by the beautiful, milk-white, transparent drink which, though brought only from vaults beneath, is as cool as if conducted from the Arctic seas.

What can be more beautiful than this glowing, delightful beverage, temporarily crested with a creamy, snowy substance, which gradually, and in countless thousands of tiny globules resolves itsclf not into the nectar of the gods but the refreshing, invigorating, motive-inspiring libation of weary mortals! … It circulates through the frame, producing an indescribable feeling as if rejuvenation were being affected by its rational indulgence.

There have been poets who have sung of wine, as there have been and are those who have sung and still sing of beer; but no greater tribute has ever been paid to the latter than the grateful appreciation accorded it by the rational drinkers of this vast country.

How could such a lavish tribute to the very work of the devil, according to the swelling Prohibition voices in the country, have been written? Was it down solely to the grit and gumption of O’Brien?

There was more to it than that. We need to know the man (pictured below) who owned the Omaha Bee, Edward Rosewater. He was a Jewish-Bohemian immigrant who founded the Bee. Bohemia. Europe. Beer. Get it? (The Jewish part probably didn’t hurt, as Jews have always used wine in the rites and have had a number of connections with the alcohol industries).

Rosewater, still remembered in Nebraska, was a Union Army veteran who was generally a progressive: anti-slavery, pro-education and school board, anti-Temperance. His one blind spot seems to have been opposing the woman’s vote, but I suspect the association of many suffragettes with temperance soured him on the voting issue.

Rosewater was taken aback by the pursed-lip attitude to drink of the motley that formed the anti-alcohol lobby: ministers; suffragettes; many businessmen; many senior educators. He was a Bohemian, beer was used every day in his homeland as a birthright and he wasn’t going to take any guff from the Carrie Nations. (Not that the crusade against drink didn’t have a certain logic, but it got out of hand once the idea of alcohol prohibition – t-totalism – gained traction).

In fact in the 1890s Rosewater ended up in court against a nationally known Temperance campaigner, Helen Gougar. She had him charged with disturbing a lecture she gave in Omaha. He had asked her, after letting her intone for 30 minutes, if he could ask a question. She called the cops. Rosewater had the charges thrown out although it took an appellate court to do it.  See this excellent, recent article by Pat Gaster for the full background.

O’Brien was a Vermont-born Irishman (see this informative account of his career in the context of other issues and personalities). Probably he saw alcohol his employer’s way: the piece is too impassioned and candid to think it had been contrived in any way. It appears O’Brien passed away around 1910 after a second career in California. Perhaps just as well, as the Volstead era would have been anathema for him. Rosewater died somewhat earlier, in 1906.

Read the O’Brien article, he offers a connoisseur’s perspective on American and imported brews, and notes the peculiarities of sliders and jerks in the saloon, which meant something different than today. There are numerous tidbits of interest. O’Brien writes that Kulmbacher beer (from Franconia, Germany) was similar to porter except that when the Kulmbacher was fresh, it differed in not being “hard”. This shows that the porter available then, at least in Omaha, was on the sour side. (Things later changed for porter in America, as I’ll show soon in another context).

There were people in the country then who weren’t intimidated by those who claim a near-divine right to truth and rectitude. There still are.