Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Beastly Drunk and Strolling on High

In 1900, there were 300,000 saloons in the United States. Oshkosh was certainly doing her part to contribute to the count. With a population of just over 28,000, the city had 130 saloons and a loudening rumble of discontent rising from a minority of its citizens who wished to see every damned one of those beer halls locked down. And here’s just the sort of story they would point to as reason why the saloons could not be tolerated. This sordid gem appeared on the front page of The Daily Northwestern on Friday, January 12, 1900 under the eye-grabbing headline FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD BOY BEASTLY DRUNK.
Scene of the Crime
If law and justice are satisfied, there will be a saloon keeper in this city who will suffer a revocation of his license or a penalty equally as severe, as a result of his inhuman crime in selling liquor to a fourteen-year-old youth and plying him with the stuff until the boy, a mere lad in fact, staggered out into the street reeling drunk, a sight for hundreds who witnessed the piteous spectacle.  
All this happened in broad daylight at ten o'clock this morning, right in the heart of the business district of Oshkosh. 
A High street saloon keeper is said to be responsible for the condition of the youth — this much at least was obtained from the lad by his brother, who visited him at the police station. 
Assistant Chief of Police Dowling says that he will act and act promptly against the party responsible when the boy has regained his senses sufficiently to tell his story.  
The scene would have disgraced the lowest districts in the large cities, but to have such an affair occur right in broad daylight in the heart of Oshkosh, made the blood of scores of citizens bolt with indignation at the besotted condition of the boy.  
The police took the boy in charge and after he has sobered sufficiently, his story will be learned.  The boy drove a delivery wagon for a merchant. He left the delivery cart on a side street and tried to walk along Waugoo street, across Main and up High street. At the corner of High street he fell down a stairway leading beneath the National Union bank, but was uninjured. Pedestrians assisted him to a side street. He got away, however, and crossed Main street to Washington, ending up in the arms of an officer, who took him to the station, where he has lain in a stupor all day long. For the future welfare of the boy, his name is not given to the public.
The following day, the Northwestern again ran the story on the front page and named the saloon where the deed had gone down. It was the tavern of William Koch, a longtime and well-known Oshkosh resident. Koch had been born in Prussia in 1848 and emigrated to America with his family in 1850. He had run a butcher shop for years near his house at the corner of Bowen and Otter before going into the saloon trade in the latter half of the 1890s. In 1899, he took over the basement saloon under Emma Schmidt’s confectionery at the corner of High and Market (the building and the area way leading down to the former saloon is directly across High Ave. from the Grand Opera House).

Though Koch appears to have been a fairly well-thought of fellow in Oshkosh, his saloons had been a source for mayhem before. But this was just too much. On Saturday morning, after the boy had sobered up enough to tell his story, Koch was arrested and brought to Municipal Court. The Northwestern wrenched all the pathos it could from the drama in the court room.
It was a very touching scene that the few spectators in municipal court witnessed this morning when the mother and sister of the youth, accompanied by the latter, appeared in court. As the poor old mother swore to the complaint that was to bring about the arrest of saloon keeper Koch, she burst into tears. Her sorrow was more than she could bear and she implored the newspaper reporters present to spare further suffering on the part of herself and family by refraining from giving to the public their names.
To a Northwestern reporter the boy charged William Koch with being the person who sold him the liquor. He said that he purchased one drink of whiskey, that Koch treated him to another and that he then went to a table and sat down. He says he ordered more, but how much he does not know, for he remembers nothing more until he recovered last night at the police station, from the drunken sleep in which he had been all day. The boy says that he is not addicted to drink, though he admitted that on previous occasions he has purchased liquor, also at Koch's.
Buried at the end of the piece was the fact the “boy” wasn’t 14. He was 17.

Koch immediately pleaded not guilty, though he admitted that the youth had been in his saloon. "He asked for a beer," said the saloon keeper, "and I refused his request. He was already drunk and I gave him a seltzer and lemon. I have a witness who was in my place at the time who can prove the statement. I always refuse to sell drinks to minors."

Area Way to Koch's Saloon
Nobody bought that line. The city attorney had witnesses lined up and asked the court to hold the trial immediately. Koch said he wasn’t prepared, so the trail was scheduled for the following Wednesday. In the meantime, Koch had a change of heart. On the Monday before the scheduled trial he pleaded guilty to the charge of selling liquor to a minor. Koch probably realized he had little to lose, by admitting guilt. He ponied up the maximum fine of $10 and went back to work. That didn’t please the Northwestern.
He (Koch) decided to plead guilty and pay the fine imposed, in the hopes that that would end the matter and that public criticism would be stilled. Mr. Koch, however, has labored under an incorrect impression if he hoped to escape from further public criticism and possible punishment, for there seems to be a strong sentiment against a saloon keeper who would sell liquor to a youth and permit him to become beastly intoxicated.  
In fact, it worked out just the way Koch hoped it would. He went on running his saloon until his death in 1911. Upon his passing, his sons George and Fred carried on in their father’s footsteps, keeping the underground saloon going at High and Market until 1919, when the tide of Prohibition swept them away.

Looking down that stairway, the other day, to where the old Koch saloon resided I couldn’t help but think of that kid crawling up those stairs and setting out for Main St. on a Friday morning, three sheets to the wind. I wonder if he ever returned to Koch’s dive. Obviously, this kid was no shrinking violet. I wonder if he laughed about it later.

More mayhem at a William Koch joint HERE.

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