THE DEATH OF WILLIAM LEMP
The First Suicide in the Tragic Beer-Brewing Family
On this date, February 13, 1904, William Lemp, the patriarch of one of America’s greatest beer-brewing families, committed suicide in his home, which was located just down the street from his magnificent brewery.
Just a dozen years before, the Lemp brewing empire had reached the summit of its greatness. The size, growth and phenomenal wealth of the business had the family looking with great anticipation toward the new century. They believed, for good reason, that only greater success was coming their way in the 1900s. New construction and renovation were constantly being carried out at the brewery. By the turn of the century, William Lemp had installed a pipeline between the stockhouse and the bottling plant that was unlike anything else in the industry. Fellow brewers, and general tourists, came from around the country to see the pipeline, which had been encased and insulated so that beer could be transported to the bottling machines without any loss of quality or flavor. The new conveyance system was just one of many of William’s modern marvels.
By this time, the brewery covered eleven city blocks if the count included the extensive shipping yards that were located along the Mississippi River. It was producing over five hundred thousand barrels of beer every year with annual sales of more than $3.5 million. The Lemps employed 550 men, with another 650 men working in other departments. The brewery was producing six brands of beer, many of them award-winning, including Tip Top, Standard, Extra Pale, Tally, Culmbacher and, of course, Falstaff. They used more than 600 refrigerated railcars to get the beer to the marketplace and shipped it throughout America and to ports around the world.
The future certainly looked bright for the company and for the Lemps themselves as the new century dawned – but in truth, their future was anything but bright. One December 12, 1901, Frederick Lemp, the heir apparent to the Lemp throne, died of heart failure at the age of 28. His father learned of the news by telegram and while the family was shocked, William was devastated. Brewery secretary Henry Vahlkamp later wrote, “…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 Lemp was never the same after the loss of his favorite son. The events that followed Frederick’s death became the first indication that the once-mighty empire was beginning to fall apart.
William Lemp had always been a volatile and passionate man, even though, as a good German, he kept most of those feelings bottled up inside. Those hidden feelings were what made him a good businessmen and his drive for success was what changed the Lemp Brewery from a small, moderately successful local company into a giant national business that had become a force to be reckoned with in the brewing industry. He was a man of great passion, capable of excitable highs, and as his family and friends soon discovered, horrific lows, as well.
When Frederick died in December 1901, William plunged into an abyss of despair. His family and close associate Henry Vahlkamp feared that he might never come out of it. William’s friends and even his employees at the brewery said that he was never the same after Frederick died. It was obvious to all of them that he was not coping well and he began to slowly withdraw from the world. He was rarely seen in public and chose to walk to the brewery each day by using the cave system beneath the house. Before his son’s death, William had taken pleasure in personally paying the men each week. He also would join the workers in any department and work alongside them in their daily activities or go among them and discuss any problems or questions they had. He took great pleasure in teasing the chiefs of the various departments at the brewery, asking them questions that seemingly had no connection to the business of the day. In order to answer, his men had to not only keep the immediate record on their minds, but they also had to know something about the entire history of their department. After Frederick died, these playful practices ceased almost completely. When he did visit the different departments, it was apparent that he was just there to pass the time. William was distracted and disinterested and his joking manner and quick smile were absent.
The Lemp family mausoleum at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis
This went on for nearly two years. William had ordered the construction of a grand mausoleum for his family on Propsect Avenue in Bellefontaine Cemetery, where the city’s captains of industry were buried. It was the largest in the cemetery and cost $60,000, an amount worth over $1.6 million today. Frederick had been laid to rest there and William frequently visited the tomb. Eventually, he seemed to find a little peace and hints of a return to his former self began to appear in his manner. He finally seemed to be coping with the death of his favorite son, but it was not meant to last.
By February 13, 1904, his suffering had become unbearable.
That morning seemed to be an ordinary one for William Lemp. He arose at his customary hour of 7:00 a.m. and took his time in his personal bathroom, which included a barber’s chair, a marble tub and a massive glass-enclosed marble shower stall that was the first of its kind in St. Louis, which William had imported from an Italian hotel for his own use. After dressing, he ate breakfast but remarked to one of his staff that he was not feeling well. Rather than go to the brewery, he excused himself and went back upstairs to his bedroom.
At 9:30 a.m., William shot himself in the head with a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. There was no one else in the house at the time except for the servants. Julia had gone downtown to do some shopping and Billy and Edwin, the only children in St. Louis at the time, were already at work at the brewery.
A servant girl, upon hearing the sound of the gunshot, rushed to the door but she found it locked. She immediately ran to the brewery office and summoned Billy and Edwin. They hurried back to the house and broke down the bedroom door. Inside, they found their father lying on the bed in a pool of blood, a bloody wound in his right temple and the revolver still gripped in his right hand. At that point, William was still breathing but unconscious.
One of the boys telephoned the family physician, Dr. Henry J. Harnisch, who came at once. He was soon followed by Dr. Henry Schulz, Dr. Andrew Harscher and Dr. Herman L. Nietert, the former head of the city hospital. They quickly examined William but they knew there was nothing that could be done for him. Dr. Nietert pronounced the wound fatal and waited next to William’s bed until death came to claim him.
Meanwhile, one of the staff had managed to reach Julia Lemp at a downtown department store and her driver rushed her home. She arrived only moments before her husband’s succumbed to his wound. He was pronounced dead at 10:15 a.m.
William had been dressed for work when he ended his life and there was nothing to suggest that he had made any preparations for suicide, or that he had even contemplated it. There were rumors that he had written a letter detailing his plans and bidding farewell to his family, but this was not the case. There was no suicide note. While it is likely that William took his own life in a fit of depression, there is no way that we will ever know for sure. The motives that he hid deep in his heart will always remain a mystery.
A short time after the shooting, the Lemp home was closed to everyone but relatives and those who had been summoned by the family. Brewery employees were posted at the front of the house to intercept callers and newspaper reporters, who flocked to the scene when word spread of the tragedy. All of the curtains were drawn and the mirrors were draped in black. A dark silence settled on the house, which might have appeared vacant if not for the grim-faced brewery workers who were stationed outside.
Billy and Edwin refused to speak to the newspapermen who had gathered. Edwin returned to the brewery office for a short time in the afternoon but he turned away everyone who came to offer condolences. He did confirm through his assistant that his father had committed suicide and the only explanation that he could give was that he was despondent over the deaths of his son and his friend, Frederick Pabst. Henry Vahlkamp agreed with Edwin and added:
Mr. Lemp had been looking extremely bad for some time. When he came back from the funeral of Captain Pabst, he was a changed man. They were lifelong friends and the relations between them were very close – so much so that Mr. Lemp felt the death of Captain Pabst as keenly as that of his own son three years ago.
I remember when he received word of Fred’s death how he went into street and paced up and down. I walked with him and tried to console him, but it was useless. The death of Captain Pabst brought the former trouble back on his mind. He brooded over these matters constantly. I exchanged greetings with him yesterday and noticed that his condition was the same as it had been ever since his return.
Funeral arrangements began to be made the following day and family members had to be tracked down from all corners of the world. Charles was in Chicago and bought a ticket on the first train returning home. Annie was on a tour of the Orient and her husband, Alexander, was in Europe. Hilda and Gustav rushed to St. Louis from Milwaukee when the news reached them. They were accompanied by Elsa, who was in Milwaukee for a visit. Louis was on his way back from a trip to Japan and his steamship was due to arrive in San Francisco on February 16. He finally arrived home, along with Annie, after the funeral had already taken place.
The Lemp Mansion
Services were held in the Lemp mansion on February 14. The body was placed on display in the south parlor, next to the conservatory, which was filled with plants and flowers. Before the funeral took place, more than one thousand Lemp employees filed through the house to view the body and pay their last respects. The brewery had been closed for the day. Once the long stream of men, some openly weeping, had departed, family members and friends gathered for a simple memorial service conducted by Dr. Max Hemple of the German Ethical Society.
After the service, a cortege of forty carriages traveled to Bellefontaine Cemetery. Julia, Elsa and Hilda were too grief-stricken to go to the burial ground. Eight men who had worked for William for more than thirty years served as pallbearers and honorary pallbearers included many notable St. Louis residents, including Adolphus Busch, the owner of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, who had liked and respected his principal competitor. William was placed inside the family mausoleum next to his beloved son, Frederick.
There is no question that William J. Lemp left an indelible mark on the city of St. Louis and the history of American brewing. He was well liked, admired and praised by not only his friends and the people of St. Louis but by his competitors, as well. He was a modest and unpretentious man who did business fairly and honestly. He could dine with the cream of St. Louis society and drink a beer with the lowliest worker on his payroll and get along famously with both. His employees saw him as not only a good boss but as a man that they knew they could go to for aid and advice. Even though most people didn’t know it – because it was not his way to speak of his own virtues – William gave away immense sums to charity each year and never thought of his generosity as anything special. He was a fine man but one who allowed his grief and pain to get the better of him, ending a good life before its time.
According to his will, dated February 1, 1904, William left his entire fortune to Julia. The will read:
I, William J. Lemp, hereby make, publish and declare this to be my last will and testament, hereby revoking all previous wills. I direct the payment of my debts and the closing of administration on my estate as rapidly as the law will permit.
I give, bequeath and devise to my wife, Julia, all my property, real and personal or mixed, wheresoever situate or whatsoever title held, absolutely.
I make no gift her to my children, Annie L. Konta, William J. Lemp, Louis F. Lemp, Charles A. Lemp, Hilda L. Pabst, Edwin A. Lemp, and Elsa J. Lemp, and I make no gift here to my grandchild, Marion Lemp, having perfect confidence that my wife will without any request on my part, and none such is here made, will do best for them.
I hereby appoint William J. Lemp, Jr., Louis F, Lemp, Charles A. Lemp, Edwin A. Lemp or either or any of them that may accept and qualify my executor or executors without bond.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this 1st day of February, 1904.
[signed] William J. Lemp
At the time of his death, the brewery was estimated to have been worth about $6 million and William’s personal estate was valued at $10 million.
The complete, true story of the Lemp family, their brewing empire and the ghost stories that have surrounded the family mansion in St. Louis, see my book SUICIDE & SPIRITS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE RISE AND FALL OF THE LEMP EMPIRE. You can get autographed editions from thewebsite and it’s also available as a Kindle edition.