Fenian Overcoats for 10 cents, that’s a bargain not many could pass up.
In the winter of 1869, colorfully printed handbills were plastered around lower Manhattan and along the fences at City Hall Park, advertising this enticing offer that helped drive curiosity and foot traffic to the location listed on the flyer. Even in 1869, these printed handbill followed the long-standing marketing axiom: keep it simple (K.I.S.S.), reading:
Had one followed their inquisitiveness, they wouldn’t have found themselves at a military surplus clothing store but at the doorsteps of “Reagan’s Saloon” at 5 Beekman Street in New York City, a newly furnished elegant tavern with rooms available that also featured a plush parlor, fashionable furnishings, gas lamps, fine liquors and cigars, of course being sold “at the lowest market prices”.
William H. Reagan, who put out these advertisements was a liquor merchant with a knack for marketing published various ads in local New York City newspapers about his liquor dealership and fine cigars, from several of his locations. These ads were usually several lines long and ran in The Irish American Weekly, NY Daily Graphic and the New York Herald. Reagan was also a supporter of the Irish charities and Irish causes.
A Schenectady resident going by the nom de plume “Humanity” and drawn in by the Fenian Overcoat advertisement wrote to the local newspaper: “puzzled at the low price, and made enquires of a Hibernian. He said: “Why sir, it is aisy [easy] enough to understand, them folks wear their overcoats inside; it manes [means] a noggin uv [of] whiskey.”
A Fenian Overcoat was the name for Irish whiskey served straight, a single pour, unmixed, ungarnished and at room temperature. Several newspapers mentioned similar stories throughout the country of Irish whiskey straight now being called “Fenian Overcoats” attributing it to New York City.
The Fenian Overcoats was the hook, which drew in patrons, who knew the inside joke or believing they were getting a deal on winter clothing or maybe even wondering if the Fenian Brotherhood’s military, had accumulated so many overcoats in their quest to uniform their military that they were now selling overcoats at discounted prices, like the US military did right after the Civil War.
How the name came about is not exactly known, it could have been taken from an incident a few years early when thirty five winter overcoats were sent to Fenian prisoners captured in the June 1866 Invasions of Canada (West and East) awaiting trial and sentencing. During that winter, Fenian President William R. Roberts sent all of the Fenian prisoners overcoats, which were held by British customs until the duty tax was paid on them for coming into the county. This riled up the Fenians and caused delay in the much need overcoats reaching the prisoners who were suffering from the cold in British prisons because of their participation in efforts to establish an Irish Republic. Other speculation is the whiskey was Irish and so were the Fenians. It was a natural connection, plus a whiskey straight would warm one up in a cold winter’s day like an overcoat.
Whatever the reason, the “Fenian Overcoat” term for a whiskey straight lived on and seemed to have continued to be used during the height of the Fenian Brotherhood’s existence, well into the early 1880’s.
In November 1879, the Jersey City Evening Journal newspaper used this expression as if it was a common place phrase understood by their readers. It was reported: “a number of hoodlums employed at the Oil Docks Caven Point” went on a drinking spree up Monticello Ave, buying boots and flat topped hats, as well as investing in whiskey and old ale. “After a while they left off enriching their winter wardrobe and turned their entire attention to “Fenian Overcoats”. They got very “full” and correspondingly ugly.”
This was not going to be a good day for John Popka’s Saloon and taproom, where he served his own locally home brewed beer at 158 Monticello Ave in Jersey City. He advertised “selling the largest glass of good beer for the least amount of money”. After refusing to pay for their drinks, the hoodlums destroyed the place, and then wandered outside to other taprooms to eventually get into a fight among themselves. The newspaper pondered what their faces looked like the following morning as well as the oil docks must have been shorthanded the following day.
Then there was Poor Kate. Kate Ferguson was an Irish domestic servant and well known to the Jersey City police, the courts and the readers of the Jersey City Evening Journal. Her name had been mentioned numerous times within the newspaper’s columns over a span of more than 30 years, due to her arrests for her disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and being sent to the county hospital at Snake Hill to dry out. Kate had become a wretched serial tale within the pages of the newspaper because of her frequent antics over so many years as a perpetual nuisance. In another sad story to their readers, the paper chronicled yet one more episode of Kate’s on March 4th 1882:
She Went For Button
“Kate Ferguson, an old pensioner, left the Third Precinct station house yesterday to buy some buttons. At the first saloon she called on the woman who politely informed her that they did not sell buttons there, though they made a specialty of Fenian Overcoats. Kate promptly purchased an overcoat, and donned it paying ten cents for the article. She called at another saloon further up the street and was again astonished to learn that buttons were not to be secured even there. Her astonishment was so great that she was compelled to again secure another overcoat. She bought a number of other garments of the same sort before she secured any buttons – in fact, she didn’t get any at all. She got drunk, however, and created so great a disturbance that Officer Shandley took her into custody. This morning Justice Stilsing sentenced her to ten days’ imprisonment in the cell, which she has used right along as a pensioner.”
The “Fenian Overcoat” expression seemed to die out around the same time the Fenian Brotherhood organization was sputtering out and morphing into other similar Irish Republican groups, and we don’t see this term being used again.
So next time you decide to have an Irish whiskey, remember to make it a straight and raise your glasses to the Fenians and their heartwarming Fenian Overcoats.