The Gustaff Beer-Poisoning Case!

Oh, gentle readers, do I have a story for you. It’s a story of attempted murder, an international manhunt, incompetent criminals—and yes, beer.

The year is 1865; the place, Toronto. Alexander McKinnon runs a bookshop. In July, he decides to advertise for an agent, and eventually hires a man named George Gustaff.

So far, so normal. Until you realize that Gustaff and his pal, known only as “Davis” are passing themselves off as doctors and running practices. They’re often seen around town together and known as “Doctors Gustaff and Davis.” Although it seems Davis might be a slightly more legitimate doctor—there is a listing in the 1865 Toronto City Directory under “Physicians/Surgeons” for an Arthur Davis, living at 41 Adelaide St. East. This is right at the corner of Bay and Adelaide, which tallies with a witness statement later on in this story.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Point is, Gustaff and Davis are using their medical reputations to buy drugs without suspicion.

Also, Davis is apparently a doctor specializing in “private diseases.”

Yeah.

*cough*

So in September 1865, Gustaff invites McKinnon to the London Exhibition. McKinnon says no. Then Gustaff invites McKinnon on a fishing trip, suggesting that “[McKinnon] should bring the eatables and he should bring the drink.” McKinnon declines this invite as well.

Fast-forward to October 3rd. Gustaff and Davis go to Brummel’s druggist on King Street East and purchase some Prussic acid. You may know this chemical better as hydrogen cyanide. It is colourless, smells of almonds, and it is extremely poisonous.

And apparently used in nineteenth century medical practice. Gotta love those Victorians!

This neck of the woods: King Street East, ca. 1856. (Courtesy the City of Toronto Archives.)

Acid in hand, the duo go to McKinnon’s office and check out a family Bible. Davis says he’ll have to ask his wife before buying it. Gustaff then tries to purchase a ten-cent bottle of ink with a ten-dollar bill. McKinnon says, “No worries, it’s not worth making that kind of change. Just pay me next time.”

“No, no,” Gustaff answers. “I’ll—uh, I’ll throw this 25c thermometer in, too!”

(I may be paraphrasing.)

Anyway, McKinnon then opens the safe to make change, and Gustaff says, “Whoa! You got a lot of money in there!”

(Still paraphrasing, but seriously, it was like $200 in bills.)

Taking directly from McKinnon’s eventual statement, he then continued, “As you are so flush, you should treat to a bottle of ale.”

McKinnon says sure, so Gustaff runs off and comes back a short time later with a bottle and a tumbler. The bottle’s cork won’t come out, so they break the bottle’s neck (which was a legit method back then), spilling most of the beer on the floor. “Have a glass,” Gustaff says, twirling his mustache diabolically.

(Okay, okay, I don’t know if he had a mustache, but he ought to have.)

“Why bother?” says McKinnon. “There’s hardly any beer left in the bottle now.”

“No, no, I insist.” Mustache-twirling intensifies.

And so the beer is poured. McKinnon wraps a package; Davis tries out their new ink. Eventually, McKinnon takes a mouthful of beer and realizes, “Whoa, this is bitter!”

Not the good kind of bitter, either.

Immediately, he feels dizzy. Suspecting he’s been drugged, he tries to run down the stairs, but collapses insensate at the bottom. Davis and Gustaff clean out the bottle and then pass directly by him, heading off for a celebratory drink at Gregor’s saloon.

It just occurred to me that nowhere does it say whether Gustaff and Davis actually stole the money after poisoning McKinnon, or if they abandoned their mission.

In any case, McKinnon comes to, his stomach burning. Pretty much everyone assumes he’s drunk, but he manages to drag himself to the Sergeant-Major of Police. There, he explains that he’s been drugged with poisoned beer.

Like this guy, but worse!

A manhunt ensues! Davis remains in the city, but Gustaff flees to the United States, apparently leaving luggage and unpaid hotel bills will-nilly behind him. By the end of the year, he’s arrested by J. Eustacio, of the New York Metropolitan Police. And to top it off, Gustaff has been going under the alias Dr. Swift.

Gustaff might itself be an alias. He’s not in any census records.

But wait! This is happening in the US now! To face trial in Canada, he must be extradited back to that country!

“Case under the Extradition Treaty,” The Globe, December 1st, 1865.

After a little finagling (the American judge wasn’t wholly convinced of the legal authority of the first batch of papers), Gustaff is extradited on February 6th, 1866. He’s first arraigned on March 22nd, 1866, but two witnesses don’t show (of course), so the trial is postponed until April.

And then –

Oh, and then –

Like, people are pretty sure he did it. Apparently, he went around to several people in the weeks before the poisoning, boasting that if he killed a certain man, he’d get $200. He also bragged about possessing a certain acid, “…one drop of which would kill a dog or cat; two drops, a man.” AND he talked about his failed attempts to lure McKinnon on a fishing trip.

He’s not really very good at this.

Plus, Robert Johnson, barkeeper at Gregor’s saloon, testifies that at 2:00 the afternoon of the attempted murder, Gustaff bought a bottle of ale “tightly corked, without either foil or wire.” (At that time, it was common for beer bottles to have a wire hood to help hold the cork in place, similar to what you see on champagne bottles today. In this specific incident, it’s a historical detail that makes me entirely too happy.) At the same time, he bought a glass tumbler.

Corked ale bottle from Black Creek’s collection. Note the “blob top,” very characteristic for bottles of this time period.

Suspicious much?

So the trial doesn’t really focus on whether he put something in McKinnon’s beer, but rather, what that something was. If it was really hydrogen cyanide, the defense asked, wouldn’t McKinnon have smelled it as soon as he raised the glass to his lips? And if Gustaff really put a full drachm (roughly a teaspoonful) in McKinnon’s beer, wouldn’t that mouthful have proved fatal?

The beer’s alcohol might have impeded the poison’s efficacy, the prosecution argued. Same for the apple McKinnon had eaten shortly before. You know what they say: an apple a day keeps false, murdering doctors away. Or something like that.

Anyway, to the surprise of exactly no one, Gustaff is found guilty and summarily sent to Kingston Pentitentiary.

“York and Peel Assizes,” The Globe, May 1st, 1866.

“It was a thing almost to make one shudder,” writes the Globe, “that they [Gustaff and Davis] came to McKinnon’s to purchase a family Bible, in view of their subsequent proceedings.”

And that, my friends, is such a Victorian response that my vision just turned sepia.

We are quite amused.

So there you have it: a case of attempted murder in 1860s Toronto that centered on a glass of beer. To embark on such crime, Gustaff must have been an… (wait for it, wait for it) Extra-Special Bitter.

BAM.

On a slightly more serious note, this thrilling tale marks my final entry for the Black Creek Growler. Since 2013, it has been a wild ride. We’ve had some good ales, shared some good tales, and I’ve loved every sip of history. Thanks for everything, beer-lovers. You’ve been wonderful companions on this journey.

Also, the specialty brew for December is our Winter Warmer (amber ale, coriander and orange peel notes), and the brewery closes until spring on December 23rd, 2017.

All my best to you. Now, all together, one last time:

To Queen and Country!

– Katie

Advertisements

The Not-So-Humble Hop

It’s mid-September, which means our hops have just passed their peak season. The ripening of our hop flowers is an annual sign that summer is ending, and Ed’s Wet-Hop Ale is just around the corner. Of course, we mostly know hops for their role in flavouring and preserving beer, but Victorians had many other uses for this feisty little plant!

Ed picking hops!

To start, Victorians often wrote about hops’ soporific qualities; many remedy compilations suggest stuffing one’s pillow with hops as a sleep aid. According to The Family Physician (1865), hops are especially useful when “…for any reason the use of opium is considered objectionable.” (The Family Physician, p. 829). All of the calming benefits, none of the narcotic drawbacks! (I bet it smelled pretty strong, though.)

The New Family Herbal goes a step further. If you really want a good night’s sleep, it suggests a teaspoonful of a tincture of hops…made from “six or seven ounces of Hops in two pints of proof spirits” (The New Family Herbal, p. 139). I’m not sure the hops were entirely responsible for any drowsiness!

But this particular manual lists many more uses for hops: in addition to helping you sleep and making beer taste great, apparently taking powdered hop seed could destroy worms. Hops heated in a flannel bag were touted as a cure for toothache. They also claimed that decoctions of hops cured ulcers, cleansed the blood (thus healing scabs, ringworms, and other ailments), eased jaundice, and even “…destroy[ed] the heat of the liver and stomach” (ibid).

Not to be outdone, The Hop Farmer: or, a Complete Account of Hop Culture (1838) adds animals to the species reaping hops’ benefits. In addition to using hops to cure rheumatism, this book suggests using decoctions of hops to strengthen cattle against severe weather!

From “The Hop Farmer: or, a Complete Account of Hop Culture,” by E.J. Lance (1838).

This all sounds great, but what does 21st-century science say on the matter?

No clinical studies have been done to evaluate hops’ medical benefits. That said, it looks like hops do help with insomnia, anxiety, tension, and irritability. There is also some evidence that they can help with indigestion and poor appetite. And of course, hops’ bitter acids have some antimicrobial qualities – that’s why they preserve beer!

So the next time you drink a hoppy IPA – or try one of the many fine Wet Hop Ales coming out from Ontario craft breweries – you know hops aren’t all bitterness and acid. Well – biologically, they are. But metaphorically, they’re a little sweet as well.

-Katie

 

A Beer for All Seasons

While chatting about people’s beer preferences, I would often hear visitors to the brewery describe themselves as “seasonal beer drinkers.” Fair enough, I am too. Even the most fervent lover of stouts and porters finds them a bit much on a day when the Humidex hits 40. Likewise, a light lager doesn’t always do it on a cold, rainy night.

But then I thought a little more about it, and I realized: the weather isn’t the only factor influencing the beers towards which I gravitate. When you’re selecting a beer to drink, there’s a whole range of things to think about: the setting, the list of available beers, the food, your cravings/mood on that particular day…

And so, I have compiled this list of alternate beer categories. Enjoy!

“The Go-To”

This is the beer that you can find on tap in nearly any pub. Easy-drinking, it’s the sort of beer you can drink throughout the night—and feel pretty pleased about.

For me? Beau’s Lugtread Ale.

“The Back-Up”

Okay, so you’re scanning the beer list…and you’re not seeing anything that grabs your interest. In fact, you’re contemplating getting water instead. Then you see it­—that beer that really isn’t your favourite, but you will still drink it!

For me? Guinness

“That Beer That’s Harder To Find, But You Love It, so When You See It, It’s Yours”

It’s not a common beer, but you fell in love with it long ago. When you spy it on a beer list, there’s no question. It’s yours, right now.

For me? Black Creek’s Ginger Beer, Péché Mortel (Dieu du Ciel).

“The Thirst-Quenching Beer”

You’ve been outside for hours. The sun is beating down. Probably, you’ve been doing physical work or exercise, and you are parched. Sometimes, you just need a beer, and this hits the spot.

For me? Sidelaunch Wheat, Beat the Heat (Black Oak)

The Half Way House Inn: home of the Black Creek Historic Brewery.

“The Sitting By the Fire on a Midwinter’s Night”

It’s the middle of winter. The wind chill is somewhere in the negative-20s. A gale is howling around your house, darkness has fallen, and if you don’t have a blazing fire, you should. It’s just you, a good book, and a beer in a very fancy glass.

For me? Midvinterblot (Sigtuna Brygghus)

“That Beer You’ve Heard Everyone Rave About and then You Randomly Spy it in the LCBO One Day”

Pretty self-explanatory, and it also just happened to me!

For me? Founders Kentucky Breakfast Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout

(Old Bust Head, a craft brewery in Warrenton, VA)

“The Local Brew in a Strange City”

Travelling as often as I do, I’ve made friends with beers and breweries in many different cities. It’s always fun to see what’s on tap elsewhere, and you start to find a few reliable favourites.

For me? Old Bust Head’s Mocha Macchiato Stout, Alewerks’ Old Stitch

“The What IS That, I MUST Try It!”

Every so often, you come across a beer that you just have to try. Maybe the description is particularly intriguing. Maybe it boasts your exact favourite flavours. Or maybe your favourite brewmaster is trying a new recipe. 😉

For me? Black Creek’s Gingerbread Stout, Hypnopompa (Omnipollo), Earl Grey Porter (Royal City Brewing)

*

What about you? What are your beers for all seasons? Maybe you’ll find your next one down at the Black Creek Historic Brewery!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

 

“They Drank Beer Because the Water Wasn’t Safe” …OR DID THEY?!

Beer-Lovers, let’s have a chat.

When I was in the Black Creek Brewery, I often received the question, “Did Victorians drink beer because the water was unsafe?” I’d like to spend some time answering that question.

The short answer is, “In Toronto, the water was often unsafe, but that didn’t actually link to beer consumption very much.”

Let’s start at the beginning.

Toronto, 1850s-1860s. Yes, indeed, the water is not terribly safe to drink. Until the 1870s, the drinking water supply was handled by private companies. As you can imagine, they were mostly concerned with profits, and so sometimes let matters of safety slide. Most drinking water came from private wells, which was fine unless they got contaminated. Animals were slaughtered throughout the city streets, and their offal tossed in the sewers. Animals’ manure ended up in the sewers as well. So did untreated human waste. And where did these sewers empty?

Into the bay.

Toronto, 1851. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

An article from The Globe, simply entitled, “The Cholera,” describes Toronto’s water situation thusly:

“The water used in Toronto is a byword through the Province. Thick and cloudy with feculence, it is unfit for human use until purified. No one who can possibly afford it should be without a filter to strain the impurities they are compelled to drink. Crystal clearness instead of yellow decoction of dead plants and animals, must be a blessing to any one”

The Globe, November 2, 1857.

Well, then.

So, yes. In 1860s Toronto, the water was not always safe to drink.

However.

Remember that germ theory was still developing at this time. In England, Dr. John Snow had established a connection between cholera and contaminated water in 1848, but his work wasn’t entirely accepted until later in the century. Louis Pasteur’s experiments in killing bacteria through heat (i.e. pasteurization) didn’t get rolling until the early 1860s. Obviously, Victorians linked filth and sickness. They knew the water wasn’t safe. They likely didn’t entirely realize the mechanism of why.

In fact, The Globe provides helpful tips on cholera prevention:

“Make a city clean; purge it from every foul smell, bury its reeking corruption, cleanse its drains permit no stagnant cess-pools; make it in fact what decency and common comfort demand, and cholera will pass along our streets harmless…”

The Globe, November 2, 1857.

Get rid of the ick; you won’t get sick!

An 1866 article is still preoccupied with the water quality—it suggests that allowing a more abundant supply might help flush the city’s pipes and keep everything cleaner. However, it also has good advice for disinfecting water.

Namely, these include solutions of hypochlorite of soda, lime, and “Condy’s fluid” (solution of alkaline manganates and permanganates—you could drink it, or use it like Windex!). These solutions could be poured into cess-pools and chamber-pots. Cooking/drinking water ought to be filtered through charcoal; you could burn a little wood in your hearth at night to encourage air flow.

Still sick? Placing iodine in a box or “in the ornamental cases on the mantle or shelf of a room” was thought to disinfect it. They suggest taking 8-10 grains of sulphite of magnesia when cholera is rampant. And most importantly, protecting one’s self from waterborne diseases by practicing “perfect sobriety” and avoiding all employments which “exhaust nervous energy.”

In other words…no one is suggesting an alternative to water. They’re trying to find ways to make it as safe as possible. In fact, the exhortation for sobriety (immorality = disease, obviously) directly contradicts any notion of drinking beer in place of water.

Indeed, there are calls from this time period for more drinking water. See these letters to the Editor talking about the joys of public drinking fountains—so people can have an alternative to beer.

The Globe, July 6, 1863

 

The Globe, October 24, 1862

 

Look, beer tastes nice. It has calories. Small beer gives a mild buzz (which Victorians assumed was a stimulant effect). Given the choice—without my modern knowledge of health and the effects of alcohol—I’d probably choose the beer too.

So the water in mid-Victorian Toronto wasn’t always safe. But the response does not seem to have been, “Break out the beer.” Rather, the city seems to have reacted by trying to make the water supply safer. Their beer consumptions seems driven by reasons other than health concerns. As they say in the sciences, “Correlation does not equal causation.”

To Queen and Country!

Katie

Victorian Root Beer

In the past, I was occasionally asked if common drinks like “root beer” and “ginger ale” were ever alcoholic—this question usually arose when Ed rolled out our Ginger Beer in June. The short answer is…yes! Several popular modern sodas like root beer, ginger ale, and birch beer (okay, maybe that one’s less common) had their origins in Victorian beers!

Since we’ve talked about ginger ale a while back, I wanted to explore root beer a little.

Root beer is a beverage traditionally made with sassafras roots and/or sarsaparilla as its main flavouring agent. The Indigenous populations of North America were making sassafras-based beverages long before European contact, using it to treat various ailments from wounds to fevers. Unsurprisingly, then, when “root beer” began to be sold through the mid-nineteenth century, it was touted as a healthful drink.

The sassafras tree grows from southern Ontario right to the southern United States! (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

(Point of interest: sassafras does contain an oil called safrole that can lead to liver damage and cancer. It’s been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration since 1960—root beer today is sometimes made with sassafras extract that’s had the safrole removed, but more commonly with extracts from wintergreen and black birch bark.)

Pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires was the first person to make a commercial brand of root beer—though being a teetotaller, he really would’ve preferred to call it “root tea.” And he wouldn’t have been far off the mark, either—though root beer can be fermented, most traditional recipes barely get to 2% ABV. However, when he debuted his drink at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, he wanted to attract customers among the local coal miners.

Thus, with (I’m sure) some regret, he sold his product as “root beer.” But not to worry—I’m equally sure he would’ve been cheered by a proliferation of non-alcoholic root beers. Indeed, they were very popular during the United States’ Prohibition years.

Poking around, I did find a recipe for traditional root beer in a lovely book called A Thousand and One Receipts Useful to Families (1883).

Looking this over, it’s not surprising root beer had such a low alcohol content. Remember, alcohol is what happens when yeast metabolizes fermentable sugars. With only a little bran (hard to break down) and molasses, there’s just not much to work with in this recipe!

But I was intrigued by a) the lack of sassafras, and b) the mention of “Indigenous bitters.” A little more digging unearthed this advertisement in the May 2, 1890 edition of The Québec Daily Telegraph.

Given the description of “a combination…of a large number of roots and barks,” and the assertion that “INDIGENOUS BITTERS never fail to afford prompt relief, and most frequently a perfect cure,” I think we’ve found our star player! Clearly, this was another incarnation of root beer as a health drink.

(I was also delighted to see that—sure enough—these “Indigenous bitters” are sold in “25cts boxes only.” Just like the recipe says!)

Obviously, root beer today is very different—in ingredients, method, and purpose. But as you raise a frosty mug, you can contemplate its Victorian predecessors!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

Black Creek Test Kitchen: Beer-Braised Pork Chops

Hello Beer-Lovers,

And we’re back with another recipe! This one is mostly from Taste of Home, except then I changed it as I am wont to do. While I’m very precise about most things in life, cooking is not one of them.

Anyway.

Beer-Braised Pork Chops: Ingredients

  • Pork Chops
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Oil
  • 3 Tbsp ketchup
  • Scant 1/2 Tbsp white sugar
  • Drizzle molasses
  • 3/4 cup of beer

What beer to use, you ask? Well, pork pairs really nicely with sweet things, so I was thinking a brown ale—caramel/chocolate sweetness. Something like Black Creek Brewery’s Rifleman’s Ration. But alas, my local LCBO’s stock was unhelpful.

Until I spotted the Griffin Maple Butter Tart Ale from Sawdust. I’ve had this beer before: it’s a very mild, very sweet beer. If I recall, my exact thoughts at first tasting were, Well, it tastes like a butter tart, but I’m not sure what that’s meant to accomplish.

 

“But…” quoth I, standing in the LCBO, “I bet it would go well with the pork.”

So I picked up a can, went home, and assembled my ingredients:

 

STEP THE FIRST:

Season pork chops with salt and pepper. Heat up oil in a large skillet and brown meat.

Or if you’re me, forget about the salt and pepper until after the meat is sizzling, and throw them in late, hoping it won’t affect anything (it didn’t).

STEP THE SECOND:

Mix beer, ketchup, sugar, and molasses. Pour over pork chops.

STEP THE THIRD:

Bring liquid to boil and then reduce heat. Cover and simmer until pork chops have reached an internal temperature of 145 F/ 63 C.

This is when I realized two things:

  • This is the first time I have knowingly braised meat: i.e. searing it and then stewing in a covered pot.
  • I have lost my meat thermometer.

So I kind of let the meat do its thing for 30 minutes and then cut the end from one of the chops. It looked done, and nothing happened when I ate it, so off we went:

The sweetness of this particular beer complimented the pork really well. I wasn’t sure how the ketchup would blend, but it gave things a nice savoury edge. There is definitely a buttery character to the beer I used – I’d be interested to see how the recipe works with other styles.

This recipe would work really well with our Brown Ale or Best Bitter: anything sweet, but not overpowering. A delicious summer dish!

To Queen and Country!

Katie

 

150 Years of Beer Facts

We’re celebrating a very special birthday this weekend! That’s right, Canada’s 150th anniversary is this Saturday! And to celebrate, Black Creek Pioneer Village is putting on one heck of a party!

Whoo!

 

(As a point of interest, it was my birthday yesterday, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Our Canada Day celebrations last from Saturday, July 1st until Monday, July 3rd. On July 1st, 2017— free admission for all! That’s right! Everyone! Marvel at magicians, tumblers, and jugglers, learn what was trending in 1867 (#Spiritualism? #PteriodomaniacLife?), and of course, experience the life as it was on that first day under the Constitution Act.

Learn more about our Canada Day celebrations here!

And of course, the Black Creek Brewery is celebrating as well! Drop by to taste a special birthday brew. Can’t wait until Saturday? Well, in honour of our 150th anniversary, here are 15 Interesting Facts about Beer from the last 150 Years

  1. The first brewery in Canada was Québec City’s La Brasseries due Roy, established in 1668 by New France Intendant Jean Talon.
  2. At the time of Confederation, Toronto had about 300 taverns and a population of ~45,000. That’s nearly 150 people per tavern! Today, Toronto has ~950 bars and a population of 2,615,000. That’s over 2750 people per bar! (It gets a little better when you factor in 6980 establishments recorded by DineSafe as “restaurants” or “cocktail bars”—more like 310 people per “establishment where one could theoretically order a drink”).
  3. Today, the only Canadian-owned major brewery is Moosehead, established in 1867.
  4. Canada’s northernmost microbrewery is NWT Brewing Co., in Yellowknife, NT.
  5. Ontario’s smallest microbrewery is…the Black Creek Brewery!
  6. The 1864 Dunkin Act gave townships in Ontario an option to vote on going dry. Toronto didn’t get around to holding a vote until 1877. It voted to stay wet.
  7. The Canada Malting Silos down by Harbourfront were built in 1928. According to Wikipedia, their “stark functionalism…was an early influence on modernist architecture.”
  8. In 1934, John Sackville Labatt (yes, son of that John Labatt) became an early Canadian kidnapping victim. His kidnappers held him captive for three days, demanding $150,000. They eventually panicked and released him, but sadly, Labatt remained a recluse for the rest of his life.
  9. In the 1880s, a hop picker was paid around 30 cents per box of hops (about 13 lbs of hops). A really good picker could harvest two boxes each day.
  10. Much early planning for the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion was done in John Doel’s brewery.
  11. The first free school in Toronto was built in 1848—by brewer Enoch Turner. You can still visit it today!
  12. At Confederation, roughly 10% of Toronto’s licensed tavern-keepers were female.
  13. The Industry Standard Bottle—also known as the “stubby”—was first adopted in 1962 and finally faded from use in 1984.
  14. There was no real legal drinking age in the 1800s. By the 1960s, it was 21 in Ontario. Then in 1971, it dropped to 18, before settling at 19 years of age in 1979.
  15. From 1867 to now, beer’s main ingredients have not changed: barley, hops, water, and yeast!

To Queen and Country!

Katie