The Lemp Family of St. Louis
Successful Beginnings and Tragic Endings
By Carol Ferring Shepley
|Adam Lemp, no date. Missouri History Museum.|
The name “Lemp” conjures up vivid images: opulence and decay, success and suicide, mansions, caves, ghosts, and beer. Four members of this tortured family committed suicide, all using pistols, three under the same roof. Except for Adam, who rests beneath his own headstone in a separate part of the [Bellefontaine] cemetery, and Charles, whose ashes were buried in an unknown location, they all lie together in Bellefontaine’s Lemp Mausoleum, even the divorced Lillian and Billy, on either side of their son William.
Adam Lemp came to St. Louis in 1838 and established a small grocery store, distilling vinegar and brewing beer for his customers. His beer became so popular that he soon discontinued all of his other businesses. There were several reasons for its popularity. One was the city’s growing German population with a thirst for beer. In 1842, Lemp was among the first in the country, which was flowing with English ales and porters, to produce German lager. St. Louis’s south side is riddled with caves, a necessity for the lager process in the days before factory refrigeration. He called his business, which sat on the site of what is today the Gateway Arch, the Western Brewery. By the time he died in 1862, it had made him a wealthy man: In the census of 1860, his estate was valued at $20,000, quite a bit of money at the time.
|William J. Lemp Sr. Steel engraving by Williams, 1898. Missouri History Museum.|
In the second generation, William J. Lemp Sr. was to take the business to the heights of prosperity and the family to the depths of despair. He was born in Germany in 1836. Twelve years later, his father brought him to St. Louis, and he took full control of the business upon his father’s death. The small brewery no longer fit his plans. Rather than continue to transport the beer from the plant to the caves for fermentation, William moved the brewery to the caves. A brewery of three stories above ground sat atop three more stories below of cellars and caves. Renamed Lemp, the new brewery was built of the handsomest architecture and would eventually fill five blocks and contain the newest equipment, making it “one of the largest and most modern in the world.” William senior built his mansion a block north of his kingdom and connected it by tunnel to the caves.
|The Lemp Brewery in south St. Louis. Photograph by Aaron Segall, 2007.|
While Adam was deemed a success by turning out 26,000 barrels of beer a year in 1862, by 1886 the Lemp Brewery turned out 300,000 barrels annually with sales of over $3 million. By 1895, the brewery employed seven hundred people and was the eighth largest in the country, with Lemp’s Falstaff outselling Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser in St. Louis. Not only was Lemp beer sold across the nation, but it could be bought in Calcutta, the West Indies, London, Paris, and Berlin.
Deciding to go into partial retirement and travel the world with Julia, his wife and the mother of his nine devoted children, William turned over power to his sons, naming William junior, vice president; Louis, superintendent; Charles, treasurer; and Frederick, assistant superintendent. But it was Fred who was “widely known to have been William’s favorite” and his father’s choice to be his successor as leader of the firm. A dedicated worker, twenty-eight-year-old Fred took time off to go to California for his health. His parents thought him recovering nicely on an early December visit only to learn that he had died of heart failure on December 12, 1901.
|Lemp family mausoleum in Bellefontaine Cemetery. Photograph by
Robert Pettus, 2007.
According to the Lemp company secretary, Henry Vahlkamp, “suddenly the grief of the father was most pathetic. He broke down utterly and cried like a child. It was the first death in the family. He took it so seriously that we feared it would completely shatter his health and looked for the worst to happen.” William senior had the Lemp Mausoleum built for his heir apparent in 1902 on Prospect Avenue, the street where the captains of industry built their monuments in Bellefontaine Cemetery. Designed by Frank Henry Kronauge, it is the largest mausoleum in the cemetery and cost $60,000, an amount estimated to be worth $1.6 million in 2005. Like the Lemp company logo, it has the strength and simplicity of modern design, a surprising attribute in an era of artistic excess.
William senior was struck another crushing blow on January 1, 1904, when Milwaukee brewer Frederick Pabst, his best friend and the father-in-law of his daughter Hilda, died. Despondent, on February 13, 1904, William took his revolver and shot himself in the head in the bedroom of his home. His estate, valued at $10 million, would pass in equal shares to his children upon the death of his wife, Julia, in 1906.
|William Lemp Jr. Steel engraving by Williams, 1898. Missouri History Museum.|
The oldest son of the third generation, William J. Lemp Jr., or “Billy,” succeeded his father as president of the brewery, turning the family mansion where his father had shot himself into the company’s offices. He came up with the name Falstaff for the company’s most popular beer, naming it after the rakish friend of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal.
In 1899, Billy married Lillian Handlan at her family home, under two interlocking hearts of white roses with “Lemp” spelled out in purple violets. He had captured the belle of St. Louis society, daughter of a wealthy manufacturer of railroad supplies. She became known as the “Lavender Lady,” for she not only wore this color exclusively, employing a staff of full-time seamstresses, but even kept seven carriages, one for each day of the week, all leather-upholstered in her signature color. She created a sensation wherever she went.
|Lillian Lemp, no date.
Missouri History Museum.
It was this sensation, her husband told the court, that caused him to want a divorce in 1909. According to Walker, Billy charged his wife with “the excessive wearing of the color lavender to attract public attention.” In addition, he claimed she used profane language and was unfaithful to him. She charged that he brought women to her apartments and had beaten her up and threatened her with a revolver. Needless to say, the courtroom was a circus, and the newspapers delighted in salacious stories of millionaires at war. The presiding judge awarded the Lavender Lady a divorce with sole custody of their son and alimony of $6,000 a year. Billy was awarded weekly visitation, in effect tying Lillian to him. She sued for a retrial within weeks and took her suit to the Missouri Supreme Court, which awarded her a lump sum alimony of $100,000—“the largest such sum ever awarded in Missouri” up to that point.
Six years later, Billy married a widow, Ellie Limberg, daughter of Caspar Koehler, president of the Columbia Brewing Company. Lillian never remarried and lived to the age of eighty-three. St. Louis author Elizabeth Benoist said, “The Lavender Lady was pitiful after that [divorce]. She still wore lavender, but she never got over the divorce.” Benoist also said, “She was right pretty, but crazy as a coot.”
Billy was not the only Lemp to be divorced. His youngest sister, Elsa, had married Thomas Wright, president of the More-Jones Brass and Metal Company, in 1910. In 1919, Elsa filed for divorce and her petition was granted on the same day. Though it stated that “her husband had destroyed her peace and happiness,” she did not parade the ugly details of the dissolution before the public. The two reconciled and remarried March 8, 1920. Elsa, who suffered from bouts of depression, had a bad night on March 19 and told her husband she wanted to stay in bed the next morning. Her husband described a quiet morning, taking a bath when he heard a “sharp sound.” Thinking his wife was trying to attract his attention, he investigated only to find that she had killed herself with a shot in the heart. Her brothers rushed to the scene, where Billy commented, “That’s the Lemp family for you.”
|Lemp Brewing Company poster. Chromolithograph, ca. 1900. Missouri History Museum.|
But the Lemp family had more trouble ahead. In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, outlawing the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors. The Lemp Brewery tried to keep operating with a nonalcoholic beer called Cerva but found it wasn’t profitable enough to sustain its huge brewery. The plant closed abruptly in June 1919. Billy simply gave up. All of the owners of the plant were family members who did not always see eye to eye, and they were all independently wealthy. None of them had the mettle to make it through Prohibition. Moreover, Billy had never modernized operations; he clung to traditional methods. On June 28, 1922, the buildings were sold at auction, mostly to International Shoe Company. Three years before, they had been estimated to be worth $7 million, but they sold for $585,000.
Despondent over having to dismantle his family’s business, Billy grew increasingly depressed. On December 29, 1922, putting a revolver to his chest, he shot himself through the heart in his office in the mansion where his father had committed suicide. Like his father and sister, he left no suicide note. Within minutes, his son, William J. Lemp III, was kneeling over his body, crying, “I was afraid this was coming.” Two days later, the funeral was held in the company offices where William senior’s services had taken place eighteen years earlier.
William III attempted unsuccessfully to revive Lemp beer after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, even though Falstaff and the Lemp shield had been sold to Joe Griesedieck, who was making a go of it. In 1939, William entered into an agreement with Central Breweries of East St. Louis, Illinois, which changed its name to William J. Lemp Brewing Company. While initial sales figures looked good, a year and a half later the company went bankrupt. William III dropped dead of a heart attack at age forty-three in 1943.
|Lemp family residence at 3322 South Thirteenth Street. Photograph by William Swekosky, 1940s. Missouri History Museum.|
Charles Lemp, Billy’s brother, was the fourth family suicide. While he had been treasurer and later vice president of the brewery, he withdrew from the family business and went into banking. In 1911, he moved out of the family mansion and into the Racquet Club. In 1929, still unmarried, he moved back into the Lemp mansion. He became increasingly reclusive, arthritic, and ill. At age seventy-seven, he, too, took his life. On May 10, 1949, he lay down in bed and put a bullet through his head. He was the only Lemp to leave a suicide note, which read: “In case I am found dead, blame it on no one but me.” He had prepaid for his funeral and requested that his ashes be buried at his farm.
The fortunes of the Lemp mansion have ebbed and flowed similarly to those of the family. The year after Charles died, the once elegant mansion was turned into a boardinghouse. In 1975, Richard D. Pointer and family bought the boardinghouse and renovated it to become a restaurant. In 1980, Life magazine included the Lemp mansion in an article on America’s nine most haunted houses. Almost everyone involved with the house has had an encounter with a ghost, all of them friendly. Elizabeth Benoist imagines “it must be the Lavender Lady and Charlie that haunt it. They were both so unhappy, maybe they’re still down there, looking for the happiness they never found while they were alive.”