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

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The Most Interesting Man in the World

Over the years, we have covered many interesting historical personalities on this blog: from the indomitable Susannah Oland to the lyrical John Ross Robertson. But, oh, readers: I have found the most interesting beer-related man in the world. And his name is—Jerry Thomas.

Jeremiah P. Thomas was born in Sacket’s Harbor, New York in 1830. He learned bartending as a young man—and then took off to the west coast to join the California Gold Rush (1848-1855). There, he continued bartending while searching for gold, and eventually returned back east to New York City. There, he opened his own bar under PT Barnum’s American Museum. Because of course he did.

But even that was not cool enough. Thomas then hit the road, working as head bartender at hotels across the United States and Europe. As he travelled, he developed a distinctly flashy style: pulling tricks and juggling while making his drinks. In fact, his signature drink—the Blue Blazer—was a hot toddy set aflame, and then tossed from cup to cup to create  “a blazing stream of liquid fire.”

Jerry Thomas demonstrating his famous Blue Blazer.
“How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion” New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers, 1862. pg. 77.

But wait, there’s more!

He travelled with solid silver bar tools. He wore jewellery as ostentatious as his showmanship.

At one point, he made more money each week than the Vice-President of the United States.

He returned to New York City and in 1866 (so, right at our time period), opened his own bar again. But we’re not done. His favourite things included kid gloves, a gold Parisian watch, and collecting art.

And there’s still more.

Dear readers-

Dear readers, in the 1870s this man was president of The Gourd Club, for he had produced its largest specimen.

To recap:

Virtuoso bartender, fashionista, and gourd enthusiast.

At this point, I think his legacy is probably pretty self-evident, but let’s go into it anyway. Among all these other highlights, Thomas was the first to put forth the notion of bartender as creative professional: he is the original bartender personality. His book, How to Mix Drinks: Or, the Bon-Vivant’s Companion (1862) was the first book on mixing drinks published in the United States.  It’s no wonder the foreword to his book says, “His very name is synonymous in the lexicon of mixed drinks with all that is rare and original.” For indeed, he was one of the cornerstones of the mixed-drink culture we still see today.

And he’s really, really cool.

Some recipes!

Ale Punch

A quart of mild ale, a glass of white wine, one of brandy, one of capillaire [syrup flavoured with orange flowers or fruit], the juice of a lemon, a roll of the peel pared thin, nutmeg grated on the top, and a bit of toasted bread.

 

Ale Sangaree

(Use large bar glass)

1 teaspoonful of sugar, dissolved in a tablespoonful of water.

Fill the tumbler with ale, and grate nutmeg on top.

 

Porter Cup

Mix in a tankard or covered jug a bottle of porter, and an equal quantity of table-ale; pour in a glass of brandy, a dessert-spoonful of syrup of ginger, add three or four lumps of sugar, and half a nutmeg grated; cover it down, and expose it to the cold for half an hour; just before sending it to the table, stir in a teaspoonful of carbonate of soda. Add the fresh-cut rind of a cucumber.

 

Arf and Arf

(use large bar glass)

In London this drink is made by mixing half porter and half ale, in America it is made by mixing half new and half old ale.

All recipes from How to Mix Drinks1862. Check it out, maybe you’ll find a new favourite!

-Katie

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

 

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

The Many Vices of Sir John A. Macdonald

Quick—what’s an interesting fact about Sir John A. Macdonald?

Well—he was Canada’s first Prime Minister.

And he really, really liked his drink.

He’s probably one of Canada’s most famous drunkards, which is a fact that seems to get bandied about a lot. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Sir John A. wasn’t perpetually drunk. No, he went on binges. Sometimes, he was quick, calculating, and stone-cold sober—and sometimes, the Governor-General was writing letters explaining that they weren’t entirely sure where the erstwhile politician was.

There are a few anecdotes that always get retold. In one, Macdonald is notably…ah, “unwell” on the campaign trail (likely a by-election). During the debate, he vomits. When his opponent points this out, he responds, ““I get sick…not because of drink [but because] I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent.”

In June 1866, the Fenian Brotherhood launched an invasion into Canada from Buffalo. The Battle of Ridgeway was the first battle fought on Canadian soil, led by Canadian officers, and also marks the last foreign invasion in Ontario. At the time, Sir John A. was the Minister of Militia and Defence. So of course, news of the attack went straight to him.

And…he was passed out drunk.

Bills failed and languished. Telegrams went unanswered. International relations could be embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst—during the London Conference that sought final British approval before Confederation, Sir John A. nearly set himself and his hotel room on fire when a candle tipped over while he slept.

(In fairness, he might not have been drunk that time—but his fondness for the Athenaeum Club and its libations is well-known.)

The Globe attacked his habit viciously. In fact, one article was so eloquent, I wanted to show a larger extract:

“The truth is that the prime minister has again yielded to the temptation of drink, and has again rendered himself incapable of attending to his duties at a most critical period of affairs. It would almost seem that Sir John A. Macdonald choose those seasons when his vice is calculated to bring the greatest disgrace upon himself and upon the country.

His pitiable condition during the Fenian raid when telegram after telegram was left unanswered because he was in such a state of intoxication that he could not comprehend them, was a matter which would have brought severe retribution upon a Minister in England; his disgraceful condition during the visit of Prince Arthur will long be remembered to the discredit of Canada; and now when every energy should be devoted to the affairs of the North-West…Sir John A. Macdonald again flies to the bottle.

It is really an outrage to the country. The spectacle of the Prime Minister staggering into the refreshment room of the House, and being taken out thence first by one colleague and then by another, or babbling in maudlin intoxication in a hotel bar-room, is a thing to which no other country would submit for an hour. We are not a nation of drunkards, and we have a right to expect that men occupying the most exalted position their country can bestow upon them shall, at least, behave with decorum.”

The Globe: April 30, 1870.

 

The Globe’s editor George Brown was one of Macdonald’s bitterest rivals, which may explain some of the acerbity, but clearly, there was genuine upset at his functional alcoholism. Macdonald himself shrugged off such criticisms: “…the people would prefer John A. drunk to George Brown sober.”

1873 political cartoon. Note the bottle in his back pocket.

Would they, though? The fact that Macdonald managed to accomplish as much as he did in spite of his alcoholism makes one wonder—what if he hadn’t had it? How might Canada look today? Would he have proven a more able leader, or would there simply have been more Pacific Scandals and exclusionary policies towards Asian and Indigenous peoples?

It’s impossible to say, of course. “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” history is probably best left to thought experiments. I’ll end by saying that Macdonald’s second wife Susan Agnes Bernard is largely credited with fighting Macdonald’s demons—biographer Richard J Gwyn claims she literally kept him alive long enough to see the new nation through its formative years.

So—I think John A. has had plenty of glasses raised to him over the years. If you must toast, perhaps consider toasting Susan Bernard.

To Queen, country, and Mrs. Macdonald!

Katie  

 

 

We’re (Almost) Back!

Greetings, Beer-Lovers!

This is just a quick note to remind you all that Black Creek Pioneer Village’s 2017 season begins on Saturday, April 29th, 2017. It’s Canada’s 150th birthday, and we are ready to party like it’s 1867!

Check out the Black Creek website for a whole slew of special events happening this year, and make sure to see our Canada Day event details on Facebook! And of course, we’ll have new programming and activities rolling out throughout the season!

Photo de Black Creek Pioneer Village.
Did someone say, “Historic trades and activities, History Actors, musicians, animals, Discovery Stations, Pioneer Day Camps, and more?” I’m pretty sure someone said ALL of that! 😉

Down in the brewery, Ed has also been preparing. I won’t give too much away right now, but rest assured  – we’ve got the sesquicentennial well in hand!

And if your stocks of historic beer are a little low after the long winter – well, you can always swing by the brewery to pick up more historic brew. Ed will be back brewing on weekends, so feel free to come say, “Hi!”

Getting excited? So are we – so until Saturday, here are some pictures we love.

Coming through the hop garden one summer morning.

 

Our beautiful mill…
Photo de Black Creek Pioneer Village.
Our campers having fun!

 

Hard at work!

 

Our lambs are skipping!

 

And of course…

To Queen and Country!

Katie

Hot Punch: A Victorian Recipe

It’s November now. Here in the Black Creek Brewery, we’re convinced that we were sampling our summer pale ales and best bitters just…what, two weeks ago? But no, autumn is starting to wane further into winter…

We saw frost on the Grain Barn's roof!
We saw frost on the Grain Barn’s roof!

Which means that it’s getting cold outside. A nice rounded stout or porter usually pairs well with these chilly nights, but sometimes, you want something with a little more punch.

Ah, Mrs. Beeton... (courtesy National Portrait Gallery; www.npg.org.uk)
Ah, Mrs. Beeton…
(courtesy National Portrait Gallery; http://www.npg.org.uk)

In fact, sometimes you want a punch – a hot punch! I went to the ever-reliable Mrs. Beeton to find out more about this warming beverage. In her Book of Household Management, she had this to say:

Punch is a beverage made of various spirituous liquors or wine, hot water, the acid juice of fruits, and sugar. It is considered to be very intoxicating; but this is probably because the spirit, being partly sheathed by the mucilaginous juice and the sugar, its strength does not appear to the taste so great as it really is.

So as always, drink responsibly.

Now, onto the recipe!

  • ½ pint rum
  • ½ pint brandy
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 large lemon
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 pint of boiling water

“Rub the sugar over the lemon until it has absorbed all the yellow part of the skin, then put the sugar into a punchbowl; add the lemon-juice (free from pips), and mix these two ingredients well together. Pour over them the boiling water, stir well together, add the rum, brandy, and nutmeg; mix it thoroughly, and the punch will be ready to serve. It is very important in making good punch that all the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated; and, to insure success, the process of mixing must be diligently attended to.”

If you’re thinking, “This is basically a hot toddy, isn’t it?” you’re right! Hot toddies are typically made with whisky, but it’s the same general idea—in fact, Mrs. Beeton notes that the Scots usually substituted whisky in their punch “…and then its insidious properties are more than usually felt.”

Now, if you’re wondering whether a hot toddy will cure a cold…well, I’m afraid there is no science to back it up. That said, warm liquids, spices, and honey can do wonders for a sore throat—as my partner-in-crime Blythe and I discovered when we tested another Victorian recipe! (You can catch that episode of Blythe Tries on the Black Creek page this Tuesday!)

Does it work? Find out on Tuesday!
Does it work? Find out on Tuesday!

No matter what you’re drinking, stay warm out there! And come pay us a visit in the brewery soon!

-Katie