In the United States, the Whiskey Ring was a scandal, exposed in 1875, involving diversion of tax revenues in a conspiracy among government agents, politicians, whiskey distillers, and distributors. The Whiskey Ring began in St. Louis but was also organized in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Peoria.
Before they were caught, a group of mostly Republican politicians were able to siphon off millions of dollars in federal taxes on liquor; the scheme involved an extensive network of bribes involving tax collectors, storekeepers, and others.
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin H. Bristow, working without the knowledge of the President or the Attorney General, broke the tightly connected and politically powerful ring in 1875 using secret agents from outside the Treasury department to conduct a series of raids across the country on May 10, 1875. The trials began at Jefferson City, Mo. in October, 1875. Ultimately, 110 convictions were made and over $3 million in taxes were recovered. President Grant appointed General John Brooks Henderson (a former U.S. Senator from Missouri) to serve as special prosecutor in charge of the indictments and trials, but Grant eventually fired Gen. Henderson for challenging Grant’s interference in the prosecutions.
The Whiskey Ring was seen by many as a sign of corruption under the Republican governments that took power across the nation following the American Civil War. General Orville E. Babcock, the private secretary to the President, was indicted as a member of the ring — for this reason, President Ulysses S. Grant, although not directly involved in the ring, came to be seen as emblematic of Republican corruption, and later scandals involving his Secretary of War William W. Belknap only confirmed that perception. The Whiskey Ring scandal, along with other alleged abuses of power by the Republican party, contributed to national weariness of Reconstruction, which ended after Grant’s presidency with the Compromise of 1877.
Babcock’s indictment as one of the “Whiskey Ring” co-conspirators and his protestation of innocence would inspire Grant to take unprecedented executive action in defense of a man who had been one of his closest associates since the Civil War. And the indictment and subsequent trial would cause the greatest “national excitement” since the fall of Richmond in the war more than a decade earlier. The President, against almost everyone’s advice, would make a mark in history that has yet to be matched.4
This is the story of how far Grant went— and how much further he almost went— to defend his good friend Babcock against criminal charges. It is drawn from long-overlooked records in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration in Kansas City, the accounts of contemporary trial observers, and the work of other historians of the Grant administration.
Republican party operatives formed the Whiskey Ring in 1871 to raise funds for political campaigns in Missouri and other western states. Liberal Republicans, led by Grant foe Senator Carl Schurz, had conquered the Missouri state party, putting Grant’s 1872 reelection plans in jeopardy. Once an admirer of the President, Schurz— a former German revolutionary, Union Army general, and journalist— had grown disappointed with Grant. By early 1871, he was in open rebellion and stated confidently that the “superstition that Grant is the necessary man is rapidly giving way. The spell is broken, and we have only to push through to the breach.”
To keep the Schurz forces in check, Grant sent an ally, Supervisor of Internal Revenue Gen. John McDonald, to hold Missouri Republicans in his camp. “Soon,” wrote historian William Hesseltine, “[McDonald] was unearthing a new source of revenue for Republican campaigns.” Illicit whiskey money began to fill campaign stores and finance partisan newspapers to print articles favorable to the Grant administration.
Complex in detail, but simple in design, the ring made money by selling more whiskey than it reported to the Treasury Department. Its success required collusion at every point of the production, distribution, and taxation process. To pull it off, ring leaders recruited, impressed, and blackmailed distillers, rectifiers, gaugers, storekeepers, revenue agents, and Treasury clerks into the operation. They split the seventy-cents-a-gallon tax money they had stolen a number of ways. U.S. Attorney David P. Dyer, the man who would one day prosecute the whiskey thieves, later explained the arrangements of the ring to congressional investigators:
They kept an account at the distillers of all the illicit whisky that was made, and the gaugers and store-keepers were paid from one to two dollars for each barrel that was turned out . . . and every Saturday reported to the collector of the ring the amount of crooked whisky, and either the distiller or the gauger paid the money over as the case might be. The arrangement between distiller and rectifier was that thirty-five cents . . . was divided between him and the rectifier. That division was made by the distiller selling crooked whisky . . . at seventeen cents a gallon less than the market-price. That is how the rectifier got his share of the amount retained by the distiller. The amount paid to the officers was on each Saturday evening taken to the office of the supervisor of internal revenue and there divided . . . and distributed among them.
From November 1871 to November 1872, the five principal members of the Ring received between $45,000 and $60,000 each. Four participating distilleries received the same amount. It was a profitable venture. Coincidentally, perhaps, Grant won reelection in 1872.
Although the Whiskey Ring could rejoice in Grant’s victory for a second term, the conspirators would soon find themselves on the defensive— from a source within the very administration they had helped keep in office.
The ring survived its humble slush fund origins to become by 1873 a purely criminal enterprise, defrauding the federal treasury of an estimated million and a half dollars a year. It operated as long as Treasury Department officials ignored it. The thievery might have continued had Grant not appointed Benjamin H. Bristow as secretary of the treasury in June 1874. An aspiring reformer with an eye on the White House himself, Bristow, in the words of Grant biographer William S. McFeely, “possessed that sticky double commodity, principle and ambition, and he was in the uncommon position of being able to rise to the first while advancing to the second.”
Bristow made the destruction of the whiskey rings (rings for the scheme operated in a number of different cities) his personal and political crusade, but early efforts to unravel the corruption failed. He later recounted, “Although I did receive further evidences of the existence of combination and conspiracies to defraud the Government, in which there was reason to believe that certain officers of the Government were participants, I still was unable through the medium of the Internal Revenue office to a get hold of a thread by which we could be enabled to follow it to the end.”
On January 26, 1875, in an attempt to end the fraud, Bristow ordered the transfer of Internal Revenue supervisors, an act he believed would catch crooked officers off guard and uncover their misdeeds. Grant initially supported the order but forced its suspension within a week. Grant opposed the transfers because, he reasoned, it gave the crooked distillers and agents too much time to redress their accounts and erase evidence of fraud. Furthermore, it would remove trusted political allies like the able McDonald. Why give Schurz and the Liberal Republicans an inexperienced man to abuse in Missouri? Grant’s decision would appear suspicious in the light of subsequent revelations, but it made good political sense.
Bristow blamed Grant’s change of mind on high-level interference. The investigation might have foundered in the aftermath of Grant’s order, but opportunity— and opportunists— soon arrived, bringing new life to the inquiry. George W. Fishback, owner of the St. Louis Democrat, wrote to Bristow, “There has been much talk of late of the fraudulent whisky traffic in the west. If the Secretary wants to break up the powerful ring which exists here, I can give him the name of a man who, if he receives the necessary authority and is assured of absolute secrecy about the matter, will undertake to do it, and I will guarantee success.”
Frustrated with the course of his department’s investigation and the revoked transfer order, Bristow welcomed the offer of private assistance. Democrat commercial editor and Cotton Exchange secretary Myron Colony became Bristow’s secret investigator in early March of 1875.
Well known in St. Louis business circles, Colony was a familiar, innocuous presence who routinely collected business information and statistics. The local business community was used to seeing Colony ask questions and write things down as the Democrat’s commercial editor, so his “investigation” did not arouse any suspicions. He and his small group of spies began recording the quantity of grain arriving at each distillery, the amount of liquor arriving at the rectifiers, as well as illegal night distilling. Colony compared the records of the distillers and rectifiers with what he and his men had seen, what the producers and refiners reported, and what the shipping and tax records revealed. The discrepancies showed the fraud in bright relief. In just four weeks, Colony and his men had collected the information Bristow needed to arrest the whiskey thieves.
Armed with the reports from Colony and other informers in principal distilling cities across the country, Bristow struck in May 1875. Federal lawmen arrested more than three hundred ring members and seized distilleries and rectifiers. U.S. Marshals in St. Louis arrested, among many others, Supervisor McDonald, Revenue Agent John A. Joyce, and Collector Constantine Maguire, as well as Fishback’s competitor, William McKee, proprietor of the rival St. Louis Globe. Bristow had finally exposed the St. Louis Whiskey Ring.
That night, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish recorded in his diary, “Bristow tells me that Babcock is as deep as any in the Whiskey Ring; that he has most positive evidence, he will not say of actual fraud, but of intimate relations and confidential correspondence with the very worst of them.” Would Babcock prove to be the “high-level” interloper whom Bristow suspected to be meddling behind the scenes in Washington? Would his exposure of the insider be enough to carry Bristow to the White House in the 1876 election?
The law, in the form of Bristow, was now at Grant’s door, poised to apprehend the President’s closest and most trusted aide— if not the President himself.
grand jury examined the evidence throughout the summer of 1875. Indictments of the “very worst of them”— including McDonald and Joyce— came in June. U.S. attorneys found cryptic telegrams traced to Babcock, which indicated his role in obstructing the early Bristow investigations. “I succeeded. They will not go. I will write you. Sylph,” read one particularly suspicious dispatch. But Babcock remained free, at least for the time being.
In July, Attorney General Edward Pierrepont and Secretary Fish traveled to Grant’s summer home in Long Branch, New Jersey, to discuss the evidence that linked Babcock to the scandal. Despite his affection for and confidence in his aide, Grant endorsed the work of the grand jury: “Let no guilty man escape if it can be avoided.”
By August, however, as the evidence drifted higher and higher around Babcock, Grant’s attitude toward the investigation changed from overt approval to tacit disapproval. Confronted with the incriminating telegrams, Babcock denied wrongdoing. Grant believed him and even corroborated his absurd and risible explanation that the telegram in question referred to a past event that had not yet occurred at the time that Babcock wrote the message.
If the trail led to Babcock, it entered the White House. Friends and advisers encouraged the President to believe the worst about the political ambitions of Bristow and the political agenda of the Whiskey Ring prosecutors. Grant’s St. Louis associates also warned him that his enemies would not stop until they indicted the entire administration. “Grant,” wrote one historian, “quickly imbibed these suspicions.” Alarmed, he assigned C. S. Bell, a former postal department special agent, to spy on the government prosecutors. Back in St. Louis, jurors convicted McDonald and Joyce. The court sentenced them to three years in the state penitentiary, and fined them thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, the grand jury moved closer to Babcock.
The political battle simmering beneath the surface of the Whiskey Ring trials intensified with the conviction of W. O. Avery, the former chief clerk of the Treasury Department. In his closing argument, prosecutor John B. Henderson, a former U.S. senator from Missouri who had voted to acquit President Andrew Johnson, accused Babcock of obstructing justice. More important, he attacked Grant when he likened the position of a minor Treasury official allegedly pressured by Babcock and the President to call off his investigation of whiskey fraud to that of a slave. Attorney General Pierrepont fired the impolitic Henderson without pay.
Although he would claim otherwise, Babcock strenuously avoided the opportunity to answer the charges raised by Henderson. He waited until the Avery trial was closed to the introduction of new evidence before demanding the right to explain the material against him.
Allan Nevins, one of the more insightful students of the Grant administration, described Babcock as “quick, alert, impetuous, daring, with the mien of a dashing soldier and the manners of a gentleman . . . dexterous at turning a compliment or launching a sarcastic shaft, he was a formidable foeman. He was full of resource; defeated at one point, he would spring to another.” On the day of Avery’s conviction, Babcock, who still held a Regular Army commission, requested a military court of inquiry. Babcock would do anything, and could do anything, his critics charged, to avoid a criminal trial in St. Louis.
But U.S. Attorney Dyer steadfastly refused to surrender the court’s evidence to the military board, which was convening in Chicago. With no evidence, the court adjourned. Babcock would not face a military court packed with personal friends and advisers; he would not avoid a civil trial. On December 9, 1875, the grand jury issued the dreaded indictment largely on the basis of the “Sylph” telegram. The court set his trial for February 7, 1876. In the interim, a St. Louis jury convicted Globe-Democrat proprietor McKee. Thus far, every man charged in the whiskey frauds had been convicted. Was there nothing to be done to save the President’s secretary?
At Grant’s command, Attorney General Pierrepont issued an order to prosecutors forbidding them to grant immunity to convicted criminals who turned states evidence. The Grant administration’s “No Deal” policy, coming just ten days before Babcock’s trial, circumscribed the evidence available to its own prosecutors. Babcock defense attorney Emory Storrs obtained a copy of the confidential circular and leaked it to newspapers in Chicago, site of other important administration-connected whiskey fraud cases. The next day, a young St. Louis reporter approached Dyer with a copy of the order translated from a German-language Chicago paper. Although Dyer refused to confirm it, the reporter, who was also publisher of the German-language Westliche Post, Joseph Pulitzer, nevertheless published the circular, thereby announcing to St. Louis witnesses they had nothing to gain by testifying against the President’s secretary.
In Washington, Secretary Fish feared that the President had undermined his own prosecutors’ case on behalf of his aide, an ethically questionable if technically legal act. With help from his friends, perhaps Babcock could survive.
The trial generated controversy before it began— or at least the intense press interest uncovered what passed for controversy— when Dyer accused marshals of attempting to load the jury with safe Republican men. “In this way,” explained a New York Times reporter, “all the new jurors would be on the same political side, and the rebel element . . . eliminated.” This would not mark the last appearance of the Bloody Shirt in the trial.
Nor would it be the last time a controversial criminal trial became a form of mass entertainment. The attention transformed Babcock into an object of popular interest, a celebrity. The New York Times reported that “the Lindell Hotel, where General Babcock and his friends are stopping, is thronged with people eager to a get a glimpse of the defendant.” And what did successful trial fans find? A reporter friendly to Babcock described him as “a man under the middle height, probably not more than five feet seven. His blue eyes shine from a ruddy, handsome countenance, which, itself, bespeaks the goodwill of all who behold it. His hair is dark, and a reddish military moustache and goatee adorn his lips and chin.” But Babcock also betrayed “a certain nervousness as he passes his marvelously white hand over his lip. . . . This,” the reporter continued, “arises from the effect of tremendous consequences of the accusation to which he has to answer.”
Babcock’s trial would be a major event in St. Louis, then the nation’s fourth largest city. “Except for the trial of Aaron Burr and the impeachment of President Johnson, no more important trial has been held in the United States,” boasted the St Louis Globe-Democrat.
A regional manufacturing and commercial capital, St. Louis had grown rapidly in the forty years prior to the Whiskey Ring trials. From a population of 20,000 in 1837, the city grew to 160,000 by the time of the Civil War. St. Louis survived the war unscathed, and from this foundation, the population more than doubled by 1880, as it developed from fur trader village to steamboat city to railroad metropolis. St. Louis had arrived. It deserved a trial of historic proportions. It deserved the undivided, if troubled, attention of its most important former resident, Ulysses S. Grant.
The nation’s major newspapers responded to the Babcock trial by dispatching so many reporters to St. Louis that the courtroom had to be enlarged to accommodate them all. “Prominent civil and military dignitaries” and “leading business men of St. Louis” filled most of the courtroom, while outside the doors a crowd five times the room’s capacity fought for the remaining few seats. “The majority of them,” wrote a reporter critical of the proceedings, “showed neither traces of intelligence or comprehension beyond what might be seen any day in the gallery of a variety theater, and the wonder arose . . . why they should possibly take the trouble to be there.” But try they did, and the court erected partitions in an attempt to keep them and the noise they made out. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to be in that St. Louis courtroom.
The case they flocked to see hinged on the interpretation of telegrams alleged to have passed between General Babcock and the St. Louis conspirators, chiefly Supervisor of Internal Revenue McDonald and Revenue Agent Joyce. The correspondence began, prosecutors charged, at the death of Revenue Collector Charles W. Ford and the ring’s effort to fill the vacancy with a man agreeable to the confines and rewards of their scheme.
The government accused Babcock of alerting Joyce to the arrival of Treasury Department investigators in the spring of 1874 in order to give him time to fix affairs in St. Louis. Prosecutors alleged that this sort of advice flowed copiously from Babcock to Joyce and McDonald over the course of the Bristow investigations, culminating with the now-famous December 13, 1874, dispatch heralding Babcock’s triumph over the Treasury inspectors: “I succeeded. They will not go. I will write you. Sylph.” The New York Times would later describe this message as Babcock’s “crowning blunder.” Additionally, the government presented this telegram, sent from Joyce to Babcock following the cancellation of the supervisor transfer order: “We have official information that the enemy weakens. Push things. Sylph.” As The Nation’s E. L. Godkin explained, “All of this was eminently natural if Babcock was guilty, but otherwise not.”
Although they objected “in a most extravagant manner” to the admission of Babcock’s correspondence with the ring as evidence, the defense team, which included former Attorney General George H. Williams, offered jurors an innocent explanation. “Babcock felt safe in complying with almost any request they [McDonald and Joyce] made to him, being confident that to grant it was good for the public service and the Republican Party.” Little did Babcock know, his defense team averred, that McDonald was the “keystone of the iniquitous arch” that formed the Whiskey Ring. Testimony to Babcock’s good character and fidelity would prove his innocence.
Grant knew the day would come when Babcock would have to face the charges against him in court, but the reality of that first day’s proceedings both angered and moved the President to take unprecedented executive action.
He called a special cabinet meeting where he bitterly denounced the Babcock prosecution as being “aimed at himself.” They are putting me on trial, Grant told his lieutenants. They already “had taken from him his secretaries and clerks, his messengers and doorkeepers,” Hamilton Fish recorded in his diary. Now they threatened to take his beloved private secretary, the man who had been at his side at Vicksburg, at Appomattox, through the dark years of the Johnson administration, and the highs and lows of two rough terms in the White House. Now they wanted Babcock, and that was too much.
Babcock is innocent, the President insisted. Of this, he said, he was as “confident as he lived.”
Next, Grant, a man with a flair for the successful desperate measure, took one. He would testify for Babcock, he told his cabinet. He would get him out of trouble.
And he did.
A sitting President had never before— and has not since— testified voluntarily as a defense witness in a criminal trial. For Grant to do so, in person no less, was more than his Cabinet would bear. Secretary Fish warned Grant that “should the President go [to St. Louis], it would be a voluntary offering of himself as a witness for the defense in a criminal prosecution instituted by the government, of which the President is the representative and embodiment; that it would therefore place him in the attitude of volunteering as a witness to defeat the prosecution, which the law made it his duty to enforce.”
Fish prevailed, to a point. Grant would testify for Babcock, but there would be no trip to St. Louis, no crowds in the street, no dramatic courtroom entrance— just a deposition taken in the quiet, controllable confines of the White House.
Even a deposition warranted excitement in trial-crazy St. Louis. When defense counsel Emory Storrs broke the news of Grant’s impending testimony, “the courtroom [became] like a Quaker meeting, and every man present, whether engaged in the suit as counsel, witness or juror, held his breath.” The Globe-Democrat reported that “the possibility of this thing had been hinted for some days, but this fact, when presented in its naked certainty seemed to make an impression altogether unlooked for.”
Little is known of the atmosphere in the Executive Mansion on Saturday morning, February 12, 1876, as Chief Justice of the United States Morrison R. Waite swore the President to tell the truth. A few days before, defense and prosecuting attorneys had agreed to a list of questions for the President and mailed it to the White House. Maj. Lucien Eaton represented the government and William A. Cook, the defense. Treasury Secretary Bristow and Attorney General Pierrepont were also present to witness the President’s signature. Two government stenographers recorded the event.
A litany of disremembrances familiar to any student of modern presidential testimony characterized Grant’s deposition. The President applied his ignorance and poor memory to more than thirty-five questions regarding Babcock’s relationship with the Whiskey Ring conspirators. The following exchange is typical of Grant’s testimony:
Eaton, for the prosecution: Did General Babcock on or about April 23, 1875, show you a dispatch in these words: “St. Louis, April 23, 1875. Gen. O.E. Babcock, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C. Tell Mack to see Parker of Colorado; & telegram to Commissioner. Crush out St. Louis enemies. [Signed] Grit.”
[Objected to by counsel for the defendant, and overruled.]
Grant: I did not remember about these dispatches at all until since the conspiracy trials have commenced. I have heard General Babcock’s explanation of most, or all of them since that. Many of the dispatches may have been shown to me at the time, and explained, but I do not remember it.
The temperature in the Executive Mansion surely dropped during the following encounter, which captures the deteriorated relationship of the President and the prosecutors he appointed to represent the interests of his government in the case.
Eaton: Perhaps you are aware, General, that the Whiskey Ring have persistently tried to fix the origins of that ring in the necessity for funds to carry on political campaigns. Did you ever have intimation from General Babcock, or anyone else in any manner, directly or indirectly, that any funds for political purposes were being raised by any improper methods?
[Objected to by counsel for the defendant, and overruled.]
Grant: I never did. I have seen since these trials intimations of that sort in the newspapers, but never before.
Eaton: Then let me ask you if the prosecuting officers have not been entirely correct in repelling all insinuations that you ever had tolerated any such means for raising funds.
[Objected to by counsel for the defendant, and overruled.]
Grant: I was not aware that they had ever attempted to repel any insinuations.
Grant’s legendary photographic memory consistently failed him throughout most of the deposition, but it did not fail him when it came to Babcock. The President had no trouble remembering his aide’s fidelity and efficiency nor in testifying to his universally good reputation among men of affairs.
A New York Times correspondent noticed that on cross-examination the prosecutors “emphasized the fact that if Gen. Babcock had been engaged in any wrong transactions the president had no knowledge of it, and he did not believe it.”
Documents in Record Group 118, Records of U.S. Attorneys and Marshals, confirm what the perspicacious Times reporter deduced from the President’s testimony. On the morning of Grant’s deposition, U.S. Attorney Dyer wired Solicitor of the Treasury Bluford Wilson to “tell Eaton that he must show on cross-examination that the President had no knowledge of the secret correspondence of Babcock with Joyce and McDonald.”
The “hands off Grant” strategy marked the triumph of the defense team and signaled the effective end of the prosecution. Months of political intimidation in the wake of the Avery trial and Senator Henderson’s “attack” on Grant had forced the prosecutors to the President’s defense. Thus, on the morning of February 12, 1876, instead of pursuing the evidence wherever it led, instead of pressing the sort of question made famous by Senator Howard Baker during the Senate Watergate Hearings a century later— “What did the President know and when did he know it?”— the attorneys representing the United States of America were reduced to little more than gathering character references on behalf of their opponents.
The defense read the President’s deposition into the record in St. Louis on February 17, the second day of its presentation. The courtroom drama still exerted its arresting effect on the nervous system of its observers as they listened to defense counsel Judge J. K. Porter read the President’s deposition with “breathless attention.” The trial watchers “strained” their ears to “catch the lightest accent” of Grant’s words. “The solemnity of the occasion,” said one reporter, “was felt by all present, for all understood that on these depositions depended the conclusion as to whether the defendant was guilty of using his influence with the President . . . in any corrupt manner.”
Judge John F. Dillon ruled on the objections noted at the time the President testified and recorded them in the deposition while the court was adjourned for lunch.
Other character witnesses followed that afternoon, notably General Sherman. “I have known him since 1861,” Sherman said of Babcock, “but my better knowledge of him dates from the time he brought me a dispatch from General Grant at Savannah.” Sherman said that he had “seen Gen. Babcock a hundred times in the Executive Mansion, next to the President’s room…those who go to see the President see Babcock first. He is a kind of intermediator between the people and the President.” Sherman added, “His reputation has always been good. I never heard it questioned until these troubles.”
The defense team’s “Bloody Shirt Revue” continued with the testimony of Gen. A. A. Humphreys, Chief of the Engineer Corps and a divisional commander at the battles of Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The soldier-explorer Gen. James H. Simpson testified for Babcock, as did Gen. S. D. Sturgis, another Antietam veteran. The Honorable A. E. Borie, Grant’s former secretary of the navy also appeared. Gen. W. S. Harney was an interesting choice for a witness. Harney had left the Federal army in 1863 amid charges of Southern sympathy. Perhaps he was included as a sop to the “rebel elements” remaining on the jury. As promised, all witnesses testified to Babcock’s honesty, fidelity, and efficiency.
In addition to the star Civil War character witnesses, the defense brought a former mail carrier, James Magill, to the stand to answer a charge that Babcock received five hundred dollars in the mail from the Whiskey Ring. Magill’s testimony provided the trial’s comic relief. His improbable story of removing envelopes addressed to Babcock from the mailbox and his highly excited state on the witness stand forced the defense to admit that Magill, “while undoubtedly truthful . . . afforded just ground for the suspicion that he had been trained for the occasion.”
Defense attorneys denounced the Babcock telegrams as “wretched, purposeless, meaningless.” They dismissed the most incriminating evidence— the December 13, 1874, “Sylph” dispatch— as a “mere act of thoughtlessness or playfulness, of which all of us are guilty at some time or another.” Babcock’s defenders described him as “warm-hearted, confiding, generous man, who did not give up a friendship once cemented for the whispers of calumny.” Was he wrong to continue his “meaningless” correspondence with Joyce and McDonald even after their indictment and conviction? Well, perhaps, they admitted, but this was merely a “weakness of judgment, to which everyone was liable,” not evidence of guilt.
The closing arguments brought the politics of the trial to the foreground. Defense attorney Emory Storrs moved the jurors to tears with his defense of his preferred defendant, Ulysses S. Grant. “The President, who remained silent to the last moment, and who only spoke in obedience to the law whose majesty he recognizes, now stands fully vindicated. There were no more flowers of rhetoric in his deposition than in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Grant was no volunteer witness,” Storrs said, disingenuously, “but was fortunately called by the exigencies of the case.”
Defense co-counsel Porter continued the assault on Grant’s putative attackers the next day. “They evidently felt that every stab they gave this defendant is really thrust through him at the President himself. Why they should strike at Gen. Grant we don’t know.” U.S. Attorney Dyer, obliged to respond to the charges, said, “When a gentleman, for the purpose of his own, represents the President as on trial, I don’t intend that the red flag shall be followed to battle.” Dyer promised to “bring this defendant from behind the back of the President.”
He got no help from the court. Judge Dillon instructed the jury that “evidence of persons of good character has more scope than in cases where the proof of offense is positive and direct.” Conversely, “the testimony of conspirators is always to be received with extreme caution and weighed and scrutinized with great care by the jury, who should not rely upon it unsupported unless it produced in their minds, the fullest and most positive conviction of its truth.” Circumstantial evidence made up the case against Babcock. The message to the jury was clear: Believe Grant.
Judge Dillon cleared the room and sent the jurors out to decide Babcock’s fate. “The crowd inside joined the multitude outside, and the sidewalks jammed with excited people, eagerly discussing and wagering upon the result,” one observer wrote. They did not have long to wait. Two hours after receiving their instructions, the “plain, honest, farmer-looking” members of the jury reentered the courtroom where they delivered a verdict of “not guilty.”
The jurors then proceeded to the Lindell Hotel, where along with General Sherman and other dignitaries, they celebrated Babcock’s acquittal and serenaded him with song. Babcock supporters hailed his acquittal as more “evidence of the closing of the gap between North and South, and the restoration of peace and fraternal feelings.” This is no little irony given the purported efforts of the Babcock forces to pack the jury with loyal Republicans, to protect the administration from the “rebel element” still loose in Missouri. The hotel band played “Dixie” in tribute to the Yankee Babcock’s fair trial and the symbolic healing it conferred on the nation.
But was it a fair trial?
Grant did nothing illegal by testifying for Babcock. But was his deposition offered in the interest of justice, his secretary’s personal interest, or his own political interest? Did he intend for his deposition to stonewall deeper probes into the administration’s relations with the Whiskey Ring conspirators? On what grounds can the armchair historian impeach or reproach Grant— the suspension of the supervisor transfers, his corroboration of Babcock’s ridiculous explanation of the Sylph telegram, or his timely prohibition of immunity to witnesses who turned states evidence? On this evidence, the case against Grant is as circumstantial as that which failed to convict his secretary. Nevertheless . . .
Secretary of State Fish raised the question of propriety when Grant announced his plan to testify. Did Grant “faithfully execute the laws”? Did he comport himself as the nation’s “prosecutor in chief” should? Grant did nothing illegal by testifying for Babcock. Grant the fighter and loyal friend could do no less. Fair or unfair, historians agree: Grant saved Babcock. Of all the major St. Louis Whiskey Ring defendants, Babcock alone received acquittal.
Although Babcock won the battle, he lost the war.
Forced from Grant’s side by cabinet officers concerned with the propriety of his presence in the White House following the controversial trial, Babcock was indicted just ten days later for his alleged role in yet another administration-related scandal, the Safe Burglary Conspiracy. Acquitted once more, he was appointed Chief Inspector of Lighthouses by the doggedly faithful Grant. In 1884, Babcock drowned near the coast of Mosquito Inlet, Florida, in the line of duty.
Gen. John McDonald, the “key to the iniquitous arch,” the man who saved Missouri from the Liberal Republicans in 1872, left prison in January 1877, when he was unconditionally pardoned by Grant. In 1880, the illiterate and apparently ungrateful McDonald produced an account of the Whiskey Ring in which he charged that Grant and Babcock were full partners in the enterprise. Serialized in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the appearance of McDonald’s story established publisher Joseph Pulitzer as a national force in journalism. McDonald’s sensational claim of Grant’s connivance in the whiskey frauds is almost universally dismissed as unreliable.
Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin H. Bristow, the man who hoped to win election to the White House on a record as a reformer, found himself labeled the administration’s “detective.” It was not a compliment. He left the cabinet in June 1876 and failed in his effort to win the Republican presidential nomination. Bristow claimed in later years that Grant called him to his deathbed where he “extended his hand and said, ‘General Bristow, I have done you a great wrong and I cannot afford to die without acknowledging it to your face. In the prosecution at St. Louis you were right and I was wrong.’” Like McDonald’s, Bristow’s story suffers from a lack of corroborative evidence. The former Treasury secretary’s eyes reportedly “filled with tears” when he related the story of Grant’s apology to Babcock’s erstwhile prosecutor, David P. Dyer. Dyer, who resigned his position as U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Missouri the week after Babcock’s acquittal, went on to a career as a federal judge that continued until his eighties.
Grant left office and the country in 1877, when he commenced a two-year trip around the world that released him from the pressure of eight contentious years in public office. Upon his return, he became involved with a number of business interests, most of which failed to prosper and which drained his financial resources. He had hoped for a draft for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880— for an unprecedented third term— but it never materialized. Stricken with cancer in 1884, he spent the remaining year of his life writing his memoirs, which eventually proved to be a critical and financial success. Just after finishing them, he died on July 23, 1885.
Although Grant’s place in history as a Civil War general remains prominent and favorable— the hero of Appomattox who humbled Lee— his presidency is remembered most for the scandals created by the friends to whom he was so faithful and loyal.
The cartoon is by Thomas Nast and is from March of 1876 in Harper’s Weekly.
Wikipedia – Whiskey Ring
Grant, Babcock, and the Whiskey Ring
By Timothy Rives