History is littered with the wreckage of women who took their lives in their own hands and attempted to wrest some form of an income or stability from their world. History, of course, is written by the victors (and by the columnists) and these women are sometimes celebrated for their gumption but they’re very often made the fodder for melodrama and more. I bet you’re thinking of some of them right now, aren’t you? We have a few in Cincinnati. Today, we’re going to talk about one who is also a Beer Baroness from the Kauffman family.
Dear Reader, welcome back to our Beer Baroness series. I’m happy to introduce you to Blanche Beekman Kauffman. Hers is another patchwork story that begins to pick up steam in the summer of 1894. Born in France, she eventually immigrated to the United States where she began to work as a concert hall singer. She found herself in the midst of Over-the-Rhine’s famed atmosphere and became a favorite amongst the gentlemen. There was one, however, who caught her eye: John R. Kauffman, Marianne’s son. Though the family was embroiled in economic turmoil, John began to see Blanche and they fell madly in love with one another. It’s this love that inspires the blood and the gunsmoke to follow.
Though we do not have the reasons why the Kauffman family disapproved of Blanche, there are several possible reasons. As a well-off brewing family with business and familial ties across the country, it can be assumed that young John was expected to make an advantageous match. He could choose from within the brewery world and make another tie to another brewing family, much the same as his mother and his sister. He could even choose to marry someone with a name. Blanche was none of these things. She was diminutive, seemingly poor, and a theatre performer. Per the newspaper articles it was also clear that she was bold, effusive and strong-willed. All of this added up to a match made in hell for the Kauffmans, who needed good press like they needed a quick influx of cash. Nevertheless, John married Blanche.
While the brewery was in receivership and Marianne negotiated to save the business, John’s brother-in-law Emil Schmidt, made it clear that Blanche was a liability. He pressured John to end it with his wife. Blanche, who was aware of the family’s disapproval, was made tacitly aware that John was given explicit instruction to break it off with her. Intending to remove the impediment to their wedded bliss, Blanche boarded a streetcar with malice in her heart. She disembarked the streetcar near the John Kauffman Brewhouse off of Vine Street and strode across the street, dressed all in white. Emil was just leaving for lunch with his young son and it was Blanche’s intent to end him permanently. She drew her weapon and aimed for the back of Emil’s head. From behind Emil, his little boy’s eyes grew wide with fear. Blanche pulled the trigger but the gun was jammed and before she could cause further damage, the screams of the son brought many to the steps and she was taken into custody.
There was, of course, a matter of jewels. Using them as collateral, Blanche won her bail and had her day in court. The newspaper made it clear that she was not viewed as a credible threat, focusing instead on her desire for whiskey, her accent, and flourishes of melodrama. Needless to say, she found herself back on the streets in Cincinnati and had enough gentlemen callers to keep her busy for quite some time. All the while, John was stressed. His mom got the family business out of hot water, but there was the matter of brewing enough beer to cover costs all while growing the business. Let’s not forget that it was likely very stressful that his estranged wife – who refused divorce – was still in town. He decided to take a respite in (what was then), the bucolic agriculture of Glendale. The family owned property called the Stone Jug; he could check on that and have a few quiet pints, too. What he didn’t realize was that, in the back of the train car, the angel of death waited for him.
Dressed entirely in black, Blanche waited for the train to come to a halt. She walked up the aisle and aimed a pistol at the back of John’s head, deciding that this man who had asked her to love him and leave him was indecisive and needed to leave her permanently so that she could live well again. In a fit of passion, she closed her eyes and squeezed the trigger. The gun didn’t jam this time, but her aim was thrown off. It saved John’s life. He was hit in the jaw and before she could deliver another shot, was wrestled by John as well as a brakeman. While she was hustled off to prison, he and his family (including Marianne) spent several tense days at the Stone Jug. But he survived. Blanche survived, too.
She spent a scant few months in jail with fines covered by a theatre promoter and when she was again free, Kauffman sued for divorce. He cited her volatile nature, alleged alcoholism, as well as not fulfilling the duties of a wife. She accepted this, at last, and they were divorced. But it was Blanche who, from her prison cell, ran advertisements in Brooklyn papers announcing that she would be free and on the stage again. Her trail continued to the New York City area where she spent some time singing and performing before continuing west. One story found indicates that a Kansas theatre-owner was not thrilled with her performance (or working with the waiters to ply nickels from the patrons) but when he refused to pay her, she took him to court for fees and won them. When called to the stand, she produced a bag and proceeded to pour the nickels out for the judge’s inspection.
It’s there that we leave Blanche, whose very nature suggests survival. From the fields of Lyon to the jail cells of Cincinnati, this theatre actress used what nature gave her in an era that wasn’t kind to women, immigrants or working people. She used it and attempted to make a comfortable life. Of course, she was just as adept at dismantling that life. But we can’t all aim high and hit our mark every time.
It’s Blanche’s dogged determinism that I celebrate; this woman, in spite of odds stacked quite against her, chose to seek out a new life. She wanted independence, romance, and economic stability. And can’t we all relate to her there? Minus the melodrama, of course.
Follow in Blanche’s Footsteps
- Have lunch at Venice on Vine, what’s left of Heubert Heuck’s People’s Theatre. It was at concert halls like this that Blanche would have sang that summer in 1894. Make sure to poke around Panino and Union Hall, as well. This building houses what’s left of the Cosmopolitan Theatre. (We love the 1300 block of Vine for all the echoes of theatre, singing, and good food!)
- Pour one out for the Kauffman’s at Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, where you can find good food and many fans of beer. Stop by and talk to Over-the-Rhine Brewery District while you’re at it. You can even take a tour with American Legacy Tours and hear all about the good times that rang out on Vine in the 19th century.
- Michael Morgan’s Cincinnati Beer
- Cincinnati Enquirer
This page was written by Chelsie Hoskins