1912 trial: Belleville family sues saloon keepers who 'kept father drunk'

News-DemocratMarch 8, 2014 

It was more than 102 years ago that a trial in St. Clair County Circuit Court explored some of the issues that would lead to Prohibition, that great failed experiment in banning alcohol.

Annie Bour of Belleville, along with two of her children, Oscar and Pearl Bour, had filed suit in September 1911, against 11 saloon keepers for keeping their husband and father, Charles Bour, constantly drunk so that he didn't support them.

The family was asking $5,000 in damages from each saloon keeper.

According to the Belleville Advocate, the trial, which began Jan. 24, 1912, attracted a lot of attention. There was a lot of sentiment building in the nation toward outlawing liquor just because of situations like this.

The Advocate noted, "A number of prohibition advocates were also in the court room taking notes on the trial."

Annie Bour claimed her husband Charles Bour, a barber, "failed to support his family because he spent all the money he earned in buying intoxicating liquors. He earned $60 a month but spent all of it in buying drinks," the newspaper said.

"Mrs. Bour testified that her husband had been in the habit of getting drunk every day for several years and this was corroborated by some of the children who took the stand," the paper said.

His lack of support was backed up by a recent conviction.

"He was recently convicted of failing to support his family and the county court ordered him to pay a stated sum monthly towards their support," the paper said.

The 11 saloon keepers were, Adolph Schirmer, (who was dismissed before the trial began) John Stark, Jacob Stark, C.J. Kuntzmann, Arthur Leiner, Fritz Kunl, Joseph Martin, George Keck, Henry Peters, Andrew Adler and Edward J. Eimer.

After the trial began, lawyers for the plaintiffs also dismissed Kunl, Peters, Eimer and Adler, leaving six defendants.

The liquor people were fighting for their livelihoods with everything they had.

"The Retail Liquor Dealers' Association is backing the defendants," the paper wrote. "The court room was packed with a large crowd of spectators all day. Nearly every saloon keeper in town was in the court room a part of the time."

Clell Melton, a barber, for whom Charles Bour had worked, agreed that he had frequently been drunk.

"The defendants, however, introduced 15 or 20 witnesses who said they had known Bour for many years, but had never seen him intoxicated."

One witness explained that they meant Bour wasn't a drunk. The difference between intoxicated and drunk was the difference between having a few drinks and being down, out and in the gutter.

"It took the jury that heard the evidence in the damage suit of Mrs. Annie Bour against six saloon keepers of this city but ten minutes to find a verdict in favor of the thirst quenchers," the newspaper said. "The jury retired to the jury room late Thursday afternoon with instructions from the court that a sealed verdict should be returned if they agreed on a verdict before court convened Friday morning."

So, right after the testimony ended, the 12 men went out for supper, then returned to vote not guilty on the first ballot.

There is no other word in newspaper files on how the family fared after the trial except in 1919 when a marriage license was listed between Pearl Bour and Clarence Lancaster of Denver, Colo.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a series of occasional columns about Belleville's history in conjunction with the city's bicentennial celebration.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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