Sunday, February 5, 2023

Main Street Vice

The Oshkosh saloon war of 1900 was a fight for the city’s future. The outcome was decisive.

I: Cozy Corners
The lines were drawn in 1898. Oshkosh was whipped into a moral panic after a lurid incident drew attention to the hugger-mugger sex trade taking place in saloons on North Main Street. The transactional humping was happening behind the partitions, called stalls, that were found in many downtown saloons.

After a nasty political fight, the Oshkosh Common Council passed an ordinance banning the stalls. The saloon keepers resisted. So the cops went around and saw to it that the stalls were ripped out. And that was supposed to be the end of all that.

But Billy Grady would not let it die.

A business card for Billy Grady's Cabinet saloon, where a free lunch was served daily.

Billy Grady and his Cabinet were among the targets of the 1898 tantrum. Grady was forced to remove his stall, and he'd been angry about it ever since. His resentment got the best of him in the spring of 1900. Grady built a new stall, a "cozy corner" he called it. It was a fancy thing made of quartered oak, and it fully shielded its occupants from public gaze

Word got around. Other saloon keepers reinstalled their stalls. In April, the cops came by The Cabinet and told Grady to remove his stall. Grady told them to go to hell.

Not many could talk to an Oshkosh cop like that without having a club laid across their skull. Grady was one of the few. He was well-connected and made sure everyone knew it. He couldn’t stomach these uppity cops telling him what to do. It wasn’t like this back in ‘96 when he opened the Cabinet.

The long, cozy relationship between the Oshkosh police and the city's saloon keepers was ruptured by the events of 1898. The cops had always given the saloons a wide berth so long as what took place in the saloons didn’t spill into the streets.

But the stall-saloon scandal created a public outcry that forced Oshkosh Police Chief Rudolph Weisbrod to choose sides. Weisbrod turned against the saloon operators. Weisbrod promised he'd run all of them out if they didn't follow his orders. In the Fall of 1900, the tension boiled over. Grady’s place was the kettle.

The bar room at The Cabinet Buffet on Main Street.

II: Nightsticks
The trouble started around 1:30 am on Friday, September 14, 1900. William Grady was at The Cabinet pouring drinks for his pals Frank Larie and Geroge Church. Larie was a 60-year-old Prussian immigrant and a fellow saloon keeper. He had come to Oshkosh in the 1850s. His long career made him one of the most recognized people in the city. George Church had similar renown. He was 30 years old and co-owner of Church Brothers Fair, an opulent department store in the 100 block of Main Street.

George Church.

Larie and Church were well into their cups when they got around to boasting at one another about the wrestling prowess each had obtained in their youth. Before long, the two gentlemen in suits were on the floor grappling. Grady egged them on.

The scuffling caught the attention of a passing patrolman named John Lucey. At 67, Lucey was the oldest cop on the beat and despised by the sporting class inhabiting the Main Street saloons. The cop had a reputation for being eager with his nightstick.
John Lucey

When Lucey barged into the saloon, Grady told him to get out. But Lucey went straight for Larie and Church and pulled them apart. Larie got up swearing at the cop. Lucey cracked him with his nightstick and then took Larie by the throat. That did it.

Grady and Church set upon Lucey. Grady pinned his arms. Larie took away the nightstick and clobbered Lucey with it. When Lucey crashed to the floor, Church delivered a kick that fractured a rib. They pulled the groaning Lucey roughly off the floor, his hair matting with blood. They pushed him out the door and back onto the street.

Two days later, there was a similar scene involving a cop named Mike Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was a 38-year-old bully who lived in his mom’s house on Bowen Street. His zeal for busting skulls led him to a spot on the Oshkosh police force in 1882. By 1900, he’d settled into an easy groove prowling the saloons in what is now called the Stevens Park neighborhood. He was up to his usual on the Sunday afternoon of September 16.

The on-duty Fitzpatrick was loafing, and allegedly drunk when he dropped into the Robert Voss saloon at the corner of Rosalia and Ceape. Fitzpatrick leaned against a wall and paged through a newspaper while a neighborhood laborer named Fernie Pagenkopf scrutinized him. Pagenkopf was spending his day off in hot pursuit of getting shit-faced. But his buzz was being ruined by the sight of the reviled Fitzpatrick.
Mike Fitzpatrick

“You’re no man,” Pagenkopf barked at Fitzpatrick. “You’re not fit to be a policeman.” Pagenkopf then called the cop a “slurring name.” Fitzpatrick put aside his newspaper and delivered two hard shots with his nightstick to Pagenkopf’s cranium. He then announced that Pagenkopf was under arrest for using abusive language.

Fitzpatrick tried dragging Pagenkopf out the door. Pagenkopf resisted. Fitzpatrick clubbed him again. And again. After the fifth or sixth shot, Pagenkopf’s father, who had been drinking with his boy, tried to stop the beating. “Don’t kill my son,” he pleaded, “I will take care of him.” Fitzpatrick dismissed the elder Pagenkopf with a blast from his club.

Amid the chaos, Fitzpatrick demanded assistance from the onlookers at the bar. He shouted at saloon keeper Voss to pull the crank on the police patrol box. Voss refused. Nobody there would help. Fitzpatrick clubbed Fernie Pagenkopf at least 10 times before gaining control and calling in support. A reporter who later saw Pagenkopf at the police station said the blood streamed down his face and clothes, that he was “a gory object to look upon.”

All hell was breaking loose in Oshkosh.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, September 14, 1900.

III: Mob Rule
Chief Rudolph Weisbrod spewed blame at city hall. “A certain gang of saloon men and gamblers has apparently a hold even upon certain mayors to such an extent that orders from the police department have been countermanded,” he said. “Within the past month or six weeks lawlessness has reigned. It’s time that these outrages are stopped. I will clean them all out. I am under obligation to no one”
Police Chief Rudolph Weisbrod

The chief revealed that William Grady was in possession of a letter signed by Mayor John Mulva granting the saloon keeper immunity from police interference. But that letter didn’t help when the cops dropped by after the Lucey beating.

Grady, Church, and Larie were arrested and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. Over on Rosalia, Robert Voss was arrested for refusing to assist a police officer who called for his aid. The four of them were back on the street within a matter of hours.

Weisbrod’s complaints amounted to whispers compared to the explosion of disgust issued by a coalition of Oshkosh ministers. Over the past year, a group of local church leaders had taken to carping from the pulpit about the sinful ways of Sawdust City. The leading light of the faction was a rock-ribbed Prohibitionist named George D. Lindsay, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Lindsay had come to Oshkosh two years earlier. He said he had been delivered here by Divine Providence. To hear Lindsay tell it, he'd been dumped at hell's gate.

George D. Lindsay

In the wake of the violent weekend, Lindsay and his cohorts held a “mass meeting of citizens” to protest the “heathenism, mob rule, and worship of the god Bacchus in Oshkosh.”

The assembled heard seven Oshkosh ministers deliver searing attacks on the “wickedness” of the city. Lindsay took the podium and blamed the mayor and chief of police for allowing sin to flourish. He claimed that a decent person couldn’t pass down Main Street without being “subjected to insulating and insinuating remarks from the loafers in front of the saloons.” One gets the impression that the severe Reverend Lindsay may have attracted a few such remarks himself.

Their catalog of grievances came with a list of demands. The ministers called for the revocation of Billy Grady’s liquor license. And they wanted a law making it illegal for an alderman to own a saloon. There wasn’t a chance in hell that would come to pass. The aldermen would see to that.

There were 26 aldermen on the Oshkosh Common Council. Eight of them were either saloon keepers or directly involved in the liquor trade. They voted in concert on most issues involving saloons.

While the reverends stoked public anger, the saloon keepers leaned on their common-council comrades. Billy Grady, free on bond, spent the week visiting his political allies urging them to tell the clergymen to fuck off.

Five of Oshkosh’s saloon-owning aldermen.
Top row from left: Joseph Kloeckner, Eber Simpson, Joseph J Nigl.
Bottom row from left: Albert Gunz, the old City Hall, Adam Lichtenberger.

It was like the saloonists were itching for this fight. In the middle of the uproar, a saloon keeper named William Gerth said he would open a saloon on Church Avenue. The new bar would be the first on a street that was considered off-limits.

There were seven active churches flanking Church Avenue. Gerth’s place would be across the street from the church where George Lindsay had been warning his flock of the encroaching horror of saloons. To the utter dismay of the clergy, the common council granted Gerth a new liquor license, clearing the way for his Church Avenue bar. Lindsay and his pals were having their noses rubbed in it.

Home base for Rev. George Lindsay in Oshkosh, the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Church and Division streets.

IV: Let’s Have a War
Now it was war. The Church Avenue clergymen formed a battalion called the Committee of One Hundred. They enlisted anyone willing to fight on behalf of the church leaders and their parochial vision for the future of Oshkosh. They called it a crusade for morality and purity. Nothing less than the abolition of gambling, prostitution, and saloon lawlessness would be acceptable. Reverend Lindsay was their spokesman. In one of his many spasms of righteousness, Lindsay favorably compared their crusade to the fight to end slavery.

Among the committee’s far-reaching demands was a ban on women in saloons and an eight o’clock curfew for all children 16 and under. It appeared to be of no concern that their want list called for violating certain civil rights. “Never mind their rights,” one of the crusaders parried, “look out for their wrongs.”

Though claiming not to be a political group, the Committee of One Hundred pressed a decidedly political agenda. The group’s authoritarian rigidity cemented its minority status, so their only route to success was through direct political action. “We are going to go at this thing in the right manner,” Lindsay said. “You will see what a lot of fun we will have with the officials.”

Chief Weisbrod, who by this time had lost the backing of practically everybody, saw the taunt as a lifeline. He grabbed it by unilaterally banning women from entering saloons in Oshkosh. Weisbrod’s desperate and illegal action backfired fabulously. Mayor John Mulva said he would undertake a campaign to remove Weisbrod from office. And the Committee of One Hundred quickly lost whatever soft support it once had outside its own limited circle.

Headline in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, February 27, 1901.

The headline in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern was typical of the paper’s coverage of the saloon war. The Northwestern used Lindsay and his fellow crusaders to promote the Republican candidates that the newspaper would endorse for the city council elections in April of 1901. For months, the Northwestern provided a soapbox for the hectoring voices of the anti-saloon crowd. Opposing opinions were absent from Oshkosh’s “paper of record.”

Facing mounting criticism, the Northwestern admitted that their reporting had been one-sided. The publishers blamed the saloon keepers and the Democratic alderman for the bias, suggesting that their opinions were inappropriate for publication in a "reputable journal."

But as the spring elections drew near, the partisans at the Northwestern realized that they had backed the wrong horse. A March 25th editorial admitted as much: “The ministers who have been waging this law and order crusade, and some of whom have gone to unreasonable extremes in denouncing saloons and saloon men, are not republicans... They are Prohibitionists, every last one of them.” Most folks in Oshkosh had figured that out months earlier. And as everybody knew, Prohibitionists never win in Oshkosh.

V: Main Street Vice
Oshkosh voters went to the polls on April 2nd and rejected the “law and order” candidates endorsed by the Committee of One Hundred. Lindsay said the defeat wasn’t their fault. He blamed the candidates for not being extreme enough. “They did not come out with a ringing declaration in favor of a reasonable and just reform of the evils existing in the city,” Lindsay said.

The voters re-elected all but one of the saloon keepers running for common council. The lone loser was the “Old Roman,” Thomas Getchius, from the Twelfth Ward on the north side of town. Getchius made the mistake of supporting Weisbrod’s order banning women from saloons. His constituents repaid him by giving Getchius the boot. The Old Roman promptly reversed himself on the issue and in 1903 was re-elected as Twelfth Ward Alderman.

The Committee of One Hundred shriveled into nonexistence. George Lindsay knew he was beaten. "We may abominate the saloon," he said, "but the majority of the people want it and it is therefore going to remain." Lindsay moved away from Oshkosh in 1902.

Billy Grady, George Church, and Frank Larie eventually went on trial for assaulting Officer John Lucey. The jury found Grady and Church not guilty. Larie was convicted on a lesser charge and fined $50.

Billy Grady kept on kicking against the pricks. He hung a large, electric sign out front of his saloon that flashed “Cabinet” all night long. At least it wasn’t a sign flashing “Stalls.”

The former home of Billy Grady's Cabinet at 206 N. Main Street,

The charges were dropped against Robert Voss, who had refused to assist Officer Mike Fitzpatrick during the beating of Fernie Pagenkopf. The old Voss saloon is still in operation at the northeast corner of Rosalia and Ceape. It’s now known as Mick & Sue’s.

Mick & Sue's Tavern, 1300 Ceape Ave.

The saloon William Gerth launched on Church Avenue failed less than a year after its opening. Church Avenue was free of saloons once more. And it still is. The former Gerth Saloon was most recently known as Hot Dog Charlies. It is now being remodeled and will soon open as Sweet Jules Bakes.

The former home of the short-lived Gerth Saloon at 9 Church Avenue.

Mayor John Mulva’s campaign to remove Police Chief Rudolph Weisbrod ended when Weisbrod died in May of 1902. By then, women had already returned to the bars. And a couple of years later, a new set of scandals emerged from the cauldrons of Main Street vice and the “amoral saloons” of Oshkosh. But that’s a story for another day.

A couple of notes…
This story is sort of a sequel to a story I posted last March about the moral panic that swept Oshkosh when the stall saloons first attracted public notice in the 1890s.

I was pretty rough on Rev. George Lindsay in this one. I’m actually thankful that he spent a couple of years in Oshkosh. His constant complaining was peppered with some real information about the Oshkosh saloon scene at the turn of the century. Here’s an example.


  1. Ok….sounds like a seven part series on Netflix!!! I’m calling Hollywood!

  2. Kinda makes one want to build a "Time Machine and Go back to Oshkosh and do a little bar hopping.