A Killing at the Beer Garden

John Tischer, whose purchase of a license to sell beer on Sundays led to murder. (Image: Zenith City Press)

On Monday February 27, 2017, the Minnesota State Senate voted to repeal the 1856 law banning the sale of liquor on Sundays, an issue former senator Roger Reinert of Duluth championed for years. Mr. Reinert’s efforts certainly weren’t the first examples of Duluthians objecting to the ban. In fact, Duluth has had a long history of ignoring the state law—and in 1880, Sunday beer sales left one Duluthian facing murder charges.

It seems Duluth Township ignored the law before Duluth became a city in March, 1870. On July 24, 1870, “Professor” F. E. McBain—owner of the Zenith Bowling Saloon on Superior Street—wrote a letter to the Duluth Minnesotian complaining about a new Duluth law that forbid holders of liquor licenses from selling liquor on Sundays. “After granting said license for one year,” McBain wrote, “they then pass an ordinance forbidding us to sell any liquor on 52 days of said year.”

McBain must have had support, for Duluth’s liquor dealers were selling on Sunday again by the spring of 1872—and not everyone was happy about it. Outgoing Duluth Mayor Clinton Markell ordered Sunday sales stopped in April, 1872, as this item in the Minnesotian explains:

On Sunday last quite a number of individuals appeared on our streets in a state of intoxication, with indecent exposure in one instance. Upon this, Mayor Markell immediately determined that liquor selling on Sunday must be stopped, and his proclamation or order in reference thereto in our advertising columns will be strictly enforced tomorrow.

The paper went on to say that incoming mayor Sidney Luce would undoubtedly uphold the new ordinance as well. Luce knew a thing or two about liquor sales: he financed Duluth’s first brewery in 1859. Four years after the Markell-imposed ban, liquor dealers petitioned the city council for “the privilege of selling liquor on Sunday.” The newspaper failed to follow-up on the issue, and there is no indication that the liquor dealers won the day.

If they did, the ban had been reinstated before 1880, when St. Louis County began issuing licenses for Sunday beer gardens as a way to raise money. By then the Financial Panic of 1873 had cost Duluth its city charter, and it reorganized as a village in 1877.  The 1880 county ordinance restricted Sunday liquor sales to outside the borders of the Village of Duluth, which extended to about Twenty-first Avenue East, though few people lived east of Chester Creek at the time.

One of those who did live further east was John Tischer, son of Urs and Elizabeth Tischer, the namesakes Tischer Creek. The pioneer Tischer family had established a farm at the mouth of Tischer Creek near Thirty-third Avenue east, home today to Glensheen, the historic Congdon estate. John Fischer purchased one of those special Sunday licenses, and on one Sunday in late June many Duluthians, particularly those of German extraction, headed to Tischer’s Beer Garden. Among those in attendance were Michael Fink, owner of the brewery Luce had helped build in 1859, Fink’s wife Mary, and Nicholas Decker Jr., whose late father had owned the brewery before Fink. Decker and Fink supplied Tischer with the beer he sold that day.

Also in attendance was twenty-three-year-old Herman Oppel, one of eleven children of German immigrants Christian H. and Christina Oppel, who opened a grocery and dry goods store in Duluth when they first arrived in 1870. By 1880, C. H. Oppel ran a highly-successful store in Duluth and would later open a similar operation in Tower, Minnesota. At the end of 1881, Oppel boasted that he did $80,000 worth of business that year, a value of over $2 million today.

Tischer also hosted some out-of-town visitors that Sunday afternoon, James and Edward Brennan, described as “Irishmen from St. Paul.” According to one witness, “there was a good deal of drinking going on there.” James Brennan, an official with the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad, quarreled with Alexander McGinnis. According to the Lake Superior News, Edward Brennan tried to break up the feuding pair when Oppel, “partially under the influence of liquor and apparently desirous to have the fight go on, followed up a threat against the separation by striking [Edward Brennan] behind the ear with a loaded cane just as he was passing inside the door…. He fell and three minutes later was dead.” Oppel, on the advice of a witness, fled.

A “loaded” cane was a normal walking stick topped with a head made from lead, which turned the cane into an often-lethal weapon. Wielding such a device alone made Oppel look guilty, and fleeing didn’t help. Oppel was arrested the next day. Fink and Decker were compelled to testify at the inquest, and Oppel was charged with murder and sent to St. Paul for incarceration—the structure that served as Duluth’s county jail was deemed unfit for human habitation. The trial was delayed for over a year, and Oppel was released by Christmas 1880. The Sunday liquor license experiment was not renewed in 1881.

Daniel Cash and J. D. Ensign, both respected pioneers of St. Louis County’s judicial system, defended Oppel at his January 1882 trial, arguing that the killing was a matter of self defense. Witnesses said the Brennan had taken off his coat and unlinked the cuffs on his shirt, preparing himself for a fight. He approached Oppel, who was much smaller than the Irishman and was backing up in retreat. Oppel then warned Brennan to keep back, but he kept coming. Using one hand, Oppel struck Brennan a blow to the left side of the head, close to the ear. Brennan stumbled backward and fell; three minutes later he was dead. Other evidence presented showed that the blow had only caused a bruise—since there were no lacerations or broken bones it was highly doubtful the blow could have killed Brennan. (We know much more about head injuries today than we did in 1882.)

The jury, made up of land-owning males—many of whom had done a great deal of business with Christian Oppel and had known Herman since he was a boy—found Oppel not guilty on January 14. Six days later the Tribune announced that Oppel had married Mary Mannheim, daughter of the mason who had recently helped build Fink’s Lake Superior Brewery—where August Fitger began brewing about the same time as Oppel was acquitted. The couple had been engaged for over two years, but had delayed their marriage until they knew whether Herman would be found innocent or guilty: a guilty verdict could have meant Herman’s death by public hanging, and he didn’t want to leave behind a widow.

While Brennan’s death ended Sunday liquor sales, it didn’t change Michael Fink’s mind about the business of Sunday liquor sales. In 1884, Fink, an alderman on the village’s common council, was quoted as saying that Sunday was “day of all the week, the best” for selling beer. That summer he introduced an amendment to the liquor ordinance “providing that on Sundays front doors of the saloons shall be closed, but implying that the back or side doors may be kept wide open.” The Tribune, which added the italics, reminded its audience that Fink made his living selling beer and asked, “does the moral element of this community desire the passage of Alderman Fink’s ordinance?” It didn’t, and the amendment failed, as did Fink’s reelection bid the following year—shortly after he handed his brewery over to Fitger and Percy Anneke.

Despite Fink’s failed efforts, there is more evidence Duluth later ignored the Sunday liquor laws. Between 1890 and 1892, Mayor Marcus Davis and alderman and future Duluth mayor Trevanion Hugo worked together “to purge the city of many of its former handicaps. They crusaded against all loose practices, brothels, and other places of bad repute and established what was then an early-closing ordinance, compelling saloons to close at 11:00 o’clock…Davis was “the first mayor of Duluth to close the saloons on Sunday.” Of course, that honor goes to Clinton Markell—but it does imply that in 1890 saloons were selling on Sundays.

And so it seems Duluth’s record of ignoring the state ban Sunday liquor sales is woven into its history. Thus, the change in state law ushers in a new era in Duluth: No more need to take the bridge to Superior’s Hammond or Keyport just to restock the beer fridge on the Christian Sabbath.

Coincidentally, the murder at Tischer’s Farm occurred on June 27, 1880. On June 27, 1977, the bodies of Elisabeth Congdon and Velma Pietila were found at Glensheen, the Congdon estate located on the former Tischer Farm site. Like Oppel, suspect Marjorie Congdon Caldwell—adoptive daughter of Elisabeth Congdon—was acquitted of the crime. (Her husband Roger Caldwell however, was convicted; due to Marjorie’s acquittal, he was released following a controversial plea bargain designed to get to the truth and avoid an expensive retrial.)

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.