ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Saloon Patron Bites The Bullet



06 29       Item Written by Ben Feld, based on article in Watertown Democrat, 06 29 1876

In the 1870’s the area around Watertown Junction, the area in which the east-west and north-south railroads crossed, had the reputation of being not exactly the very best part of town.


It was a small community all of its own, made up of a few small hotels catering to the railroad travelers, many of them salesmen, or “drummers “ as they were sometimes called, working their territory and dwelling, temporarily, finding lodging in the hotel facilities at the Junction.  In addition to food and lodging, the area provided entertainment to occupy their free time; entertainment such as well-stoked saloons and some other houses not frequented by the more gentile class of people.  It was generally agreed by the solid citizens of Watertown that “something should be done about “the Junction” but little was ever done, in reality.


Although a shooting in that part of town was not anything unusual, and only rarely did a shooting result in the loss of a life, the people of Watertown sat up and took notice of what was going on out there at “the Junction” when, on July 23, 1876, while the all-absorbing topic of concern was still the purchase of a new fire engine. 


Strangely, the shooting incidence did not involve any of the bored transients but, rather two individuals who were owner-operators in two separate businesses in the areas; the one, William Cummings, the keeper of a boarding house in the area was also one of the better customers of Lee Whalen’s saloon, directly across the street.  For quite some time, Mr. Cummings had followed a routine of appearing at Whalen’s salon in early evening, asking for a drink of whisky paying for it, and then returning to his place of business. 


On July 23 his routine varied just a bit.  On entering his favorite watering spot, Cummings demanded a drink of whisky, which was promptly served him, and, after gulping down that drink, which, according to some reports seemed to have been taken from a decanter holding several shots, he demanded another


Since Cummings had on many occasions asked for more than one shot of whisky and had never caused any kind of disturbance, never had become argumentative or obnoxious in any way, Whalen, without any hesitation, served up the requested drink, which Cummings drank quickly, as he always did.  But at that point Cummings departed from his familiar routine and, uncharacteristically, told Whalen to “chalk it down” -- put it on the charge tab, to be paid later.


However, having had considerable experience with transient salesmen, deadbeats and rascals, it was Whalen’s policy to operate on a cash only basis; once you had consumed your drink, you didn’t depart the premises until the uttermost farthing had been paid.  Surely Cummings, being a more or less permanent resident of the area, knew about that policy, perhaps even having adhered to the same code in his eating establishment.


In any event, Whalen informed Cummings all drinks must be paid for on the spot; no charges were allowed.  Cummings took exception to the rule and, after pondering the situation for a moment, reacted by requesting yet another drink -- which was refused him.  Whereupon Cummings became a bit more obstreperous. He seized Whalen by the throat, forcing him against the bar, and a serious struggle ensued.


It very soon became apparent to Whalen that Cummins was the stronger of the two, and, rather than risk losing the match and being put in an untenable situation, Whalen grabbed the revolver he always kept in a convenient place should it be needed for just such an occasion as this, and with gun in hand, warned Cummings to cease the struggle or he, Whalen would shoot.


The recently consumed alcohol having kicked in to bolster his courage and dim his good judgment, Cummings struggled all the harder while Whalen tried to get his firearm into an advantageous position, which was such, as the Watertown Democrat reported, that when Whalen pulled the trigger, “landed a ball plump into his opponent’s mouth”.


One would think that such a shot would certainly produce a fatality; but it didn’t.  The intended victim, very much alive, merely released his hold on Whalen, shook his head and spat upon the floor a number of broken teeth along with the now shapeless piece of lead which had been the slug fired from the pistol.


Not surprisingly, witnesses gave conflicting accounts of the fray; some claimed one shot had been fired, others reported more than one; some said the shooting took place inside the saloon, some said outside.  But all seemed to agree that Whalen left the saloon almost immediately, commandeered a horse and buggy, and proceeded at top speed, fleeing, not from the law, but to report the incident to the proper authorities.  If that truly was his intention, he apparently had second thoughts, for he made a stop at the saloon run by J. C. Cordes for some liquid courage, and maybe some advice from the friendly bartender there. While refortifying his courage and receiving legal advice from his fellow-saloon operator, Marshal Cunningham walked in and arrested Whalen.


Whalen’s immediate defense was he had acted in self-defense, his life having been threatened by Cummings.  The Justice of the peace charged him with intent to kill, setting his bonds at three hundred dollars.  The case was scheduled to be heard by Justice Krebs the first of July, but for various reasons it was delayed until July 11 when Justice Krebs, after thoroughly questioning both the defendant and the plaintiff, ruled that Mr. Whalen had indeed done the shooting in self defense and, accordingly, he was acquitted.


In this day and age some enterprising individual would have recovered the misshapen slug which Mr. Cummings had spat upon the floor, mounted it in a suitable frame, and hung it in a place where it would be seen by many and would have elicited a recounting of the fracas which took place in Lee Whalen’s saloon, near the Junction on July 23, 1876.


Maybe someone did just that.  Maybe there is a family in Watertown which has been wondering, for years, just what is the significance of an odd blob of lead Grandma and Great-Grandma kept in that bureau drawer all these years.




DEAR EDITOR: —Enclosed I send you a clipping, “They Say” which “hits” many Watertown people just right, and although its refers only to women, it is equally applicable to some of the Watertown men, who with astonishment magnification tell their wife of everything transpiring in the saloon, (being careful not to tell of they said or did) while the wife who listens with eyes and mouth wide open in her eagerness for something to gossip, will set the ball rolling, oft’ times before breakfast the following morning, by “delivering the news over the fence.”


Doing a business trip at Watertown, I went into a saloon and there met as I supposed, and he pretended, a friend, who by “sponging” managed to appease if not quench his 14 karat thirst.  When I departed I was convinced that I was in the company of the “human hog” but was greatly surprised to learn later (for such things will come back) that this self-same hog had referred to me as a spendthrift.  This was only one, there are others. 


Now, the particulars of the case, are these:  My business was with saloon men, my ability in getting orders warranted my firm to allow me a liberal amount above my hotel and railroad expenses, to spend in saloons, as they believed in “live and let live,” and I merely did what I was paid and hired to do, i.e. get orders and spend money, and I always did spend my allowance instead of “knocking down” as this “ hog” probably would have done, for a personal gossip, usually needs watching all around.






The saloon keepers, who attended the State Convention at Oshkosh Wednesday, returned yesterday and were well pleased with the convention.  Several important questions were discussed and suggestions made toward raising the standard of the saloons.


The abolition of stalls in saloons and the exclusion of minors and inebriates were subjects which were discussed at the second annual convention of the State Liquor Protective association, which was called to order at ten o'clock Wednesday.


Notice of the meeting was sent out late last week . . .  no preparations had been made to entertain the visitors, aside from those made by the Oshkosh Retail Liquor Dealers association . . . The number of delegates present was about 100 and various parts of the state were represented . . . The state association was formed at Appleton a year ago . . .




Several saloon men of Watertown recently received letters urging them to attend a meeting at the Anti-Prohibition League of Wisconsin, which is to be held in the Blatz hotel in Milwaukee, Jan. 14 and 15.  The liquor interests of the state seem to be stirred as never before and in the appeal that the interests are sending to the saloon keepers it is evident that a strong effort is to be made to secure some legislation more favorable to saloons at the coming session of the legislature . . . The letter to the saloon men starts out: “Realizing the extreme danger of the coming legislature enacting unjust laws which would prove serious to the liquor interests of Wisconsin and the necessity of prompt action for the protection of our interests, some thirty representative retail liquor dealers from all parts of the state have formed this league.”


Watertown will no doubt be represented at the meeting next week.




A public hearing on whether to permit “spontaneous dancing” in Watertown taverns is to be held next Tuesday night shortly after the common council convenes for the regular session. The meeting is to begin at 7:30 o’clock. An ordinance has been prepared which would set a $5 per year fee for a tavern “spontaneous” dancing permit. At the last council meeting it was decided to defer action on it until a public hearing was held. The hearing was then set for next Tuesday night, May 3. Under the plan, taverns obtaining such permits would be allowed to permit “spontaneous dancing” by up to five couples at any one time.   WDT


05 03       “SPONTANEOUS DANCING” continued

The ordinance to permit “spontaneous dancing” in Watertown taverns which obtain a permit for such diversion at a cost of $5 per year, passed its initial test at last night’s meeting of the common council, with the final vote to come at the next meeting, slated for May 17.  The vote last night was 11 to 2, with one alderman, Charles Yeomans, absent.  The vote came after the ordinance had been introduced by Alderman Harris Fredrich.  It came following a brief “public hearing” at which a group of Protestant clergymen appeared to oppose tavern dancing.  A petition expressing opposition was also introduced at the hearing.  WDT




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