A Bullet For Billy

Published July 21, 2021
A Bullet For Billy

On this day in 1922, the owner of what was once one of the greatest brewing empires in St. Louis history, William “Billy” Lemp II, took his own life in the office of what is now best-known today as the Lemp Mansion.

Billy Lemp

The Lemp Brewing Company, and the family that founded it, came to prominence in the middle 1800s as one of the premier brewers of St. Louis. For years, they were a nationally known beer-maker, a fierce rival to Anheuser-Busch and the first brewers of lager beer in the region. Today, the Lemps are largely forgotten, remembered more for the grand and mysterious house in which they once lived than for the beer they brewed.

The Lemp Mansion, as the house is commonly known, is a monument and memorial to decadence, wealth, tragedy and death. Perhaps for this reason, there is a sadness that hangs over the place and an eerie feeling that has remained from its days of horror, disrepair and abandonment. It has since been restored as a restaurant and inn, and yet the sense of sorrow seems to remain. By day, it is a thriving restaurant, filled with people and activity, but at night, after everyone is gone and the doors have been locked tight, something walks the halls of the Lemp Mansion.

Are there ghosts here? Are they the restless spirits of the Lemp family, unable to find rest? Quite possibly, for this unusual clan was as haunted as their house is purported to be. They were once one of the leading families in St. Louis but all that would change and their eccentricities would eventually lead to their ruin.

The Lemp Brewing Company had a long history in St. Louis, dating back to the arrival of German immigrant Adam Lemp, who first introduced the city to lager beer. The company thrived for decades, but the family was marked by tragedy, including the death of Frederick Lemp, who had been groomed to take over the family, the 1904 suicide of patriarch William Lemp, and the 1920 death of Elsa Lemp. Billy Lemp had taken over the running of the company after the suicide of his father, but never had the same interest in it that his father had. He continued to grow the business, however, but then, around the same time that Elsa died, Prohibition came to America, which meant doom for most American brewing companies.

Like most brewers of the time, Billy was stunned by the developments that led to the coming of Prohibition and the passage of the Volstead Act, which gave Prohibition its teeth by making it enforceable by law. Again, like so many others, Billy never really believed that beer could ever become illegal. Thanks to this, he was totally unprepared for the news that came in January 1919 that the sale, consumption and manufacture of alcohol would come to an end in one year.

Some brewers, notably Anheuser-Busch, began to immediately work on other projects, like ice cream, baker’s yeast and soft drinks. Others, like the Lemp Brewery, faltered along for a time with no clear plans for the future. Finally, Billy decided to follow the lead of some of the other breweries and produce a beverage known as “near beer,” which would duplicate the real thing in all aspects except for the alcohol content. Near beer proved somewhat popular at first, but once Prohibition was in full swing, those who continued to drink found it easy to obtain the real thing from their neighborhood bootlegger. Demand for near beer became non-existent and production largely came to a halt.

The Lemp Brewery’s near beer never even lasted until the start of Prohibition. The company’s non-alcoholic malt brew was called Cerva, and it was said to be quite good. While Cerva sold moderately well, revenues from it were never going to be enough to cover the overhead of the entire plant. Production of Cerva was suspended in June 1919. Soon after, Billy closed the doors of the Lemp factory for good.

The Lemps were not in need of money. All of the remaining family members were extravagantly wealthy independent of their brewery profits and they lacked any real incentive to try and keep the company going. Recent years had been tough for the brewing industry. With the backlash against German-American brewers caused by the war, and the propaganda spread by Prohibition advocates, sales had been low. Billy never saw the need to upgrade the brewery facilities and unlike his father, he was not interested in modern techniques that would have made the aging place more efficient. The end had likely been coming for some time before Prohibition, but the new law signed the brewery’s death warrant.

A Recent photograph of the Lemp Brewery. It still stands near the mansion today, although it has not been used to make beer since 1919. 

The brewery was closed without notice. There were no farewell ceremonies and employees only learned of the factory’s closing when they arrived for work one day to find the doors and gates chained and locked. An kala in St. Louis brewing history had come to an end.

While Billy never had the kind of incentive to keep the business going that his father had, he never dreamed that the work of a lifetime would soon become illegal in the land that had embraced his family and allowed them to live the American dream. He was bitter, angry, and most of all he felt betrayed. Prohibition broke his spirit and with this death of his sister, the baby of the family who had always been everyone’s favorite, Billy simply had nothing left.

“We have done nothing since Prohibition. I am tired of seeing all the weeds in the courtyard and the dust upon the windows,” he said in the spring of 1920. “I am out of the brewery business for good. I am 54 years old and it is time to quit.”

The family brewing empire, built by his father and his grandfather before him, had fallen. Now, as the brewery sat idle and neglected, Billy felt that he had no choice but to sell off everything. Beer was likely never coming back, he thought, and if it did, he just wasn’t sure that he cared anymore.

A bottle cap (author’s collection) from a bottle of original Lemp beer. After the logo was sold to Joseph Griesedieck, he replaced the Lemp name with “Falstaff” but kept the familiar shield design. 

Billy sold off the Lemp beer logo and the company’s most popular name merk, Falstaff, to Joseph “Papa Joe” Griesedieck, who was sure that someday, perhaps soon, the American people would realize that Prohibition would never work and it would be repealed. Eventually, he was right and “Falstaff” endures to this day with the Lemp name gone from the famous shield logo and “Falstaff” in its place.

But Billy Lemp no longer shared his friend’s enthusiasm for the brewing business. He told his secretary and friend, Henry Vahlkamp, on several occasions that even if beer production ever resumed, the business would never be the same. He saw no point in hanging onto the aging hulk of a brewery that was down the street from the Lemp offices and decided to put it up for sale. In 1919, the brewery had been valued at $7 million, but three years later, when it came time to auction it off, it was worth only half that amount.

Billy hired the Joseph P. Day auctioneering company to handle the sale, which went to great lengths to advertise that fact that one of the world’s great manufacturing plants would be sold, in parts or as a whole, to the highest bidder. The company prepared a detailed 12-page booklet that described the huge complex and praised it as a first-rate facility that could be adapted to many industrial uses. The booklet contained many photographs and detailed drawings of the brewery’s eighteen buildings. A map was also included, which covered what were the plant’s fourteen acres in 1922.

The brewery had been almost self-sufficient during its heyday, with full-time carpentry, masonry and painting shops. All of these were highlighted in the booklet, as well as the benefits of other structures, some containing more than one million square feet of space. Others boasted twenty-five foot ceilings and the proximity to railroad spurs and the Mississippi River.

The Lemp Brewery had stopped production in 1919, but the factory itself had been built to last forever with heavy stone foundations, solid brick walls, cast-iron columns and steel girders. Some of the buildings stood six stories high and modern electric elevators had been installed throughout the property, including in the eighteen gigantic grain storage bins. Even after sitting unused and nearly abandoned for several years, the brewery was still better equipped and more advanced than many that were still in use in St. Louis and across the Midwest.

The auction was held at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, June 28, 1922. On that day, the magnificent brewery was sold off in parts to five companies, with the bulk of it going to the International Shoe Company (whose name remains on one of the old brewery smokestacks today) for the disappointing sum of only $585,000. Even though he didn’t need the money, Billy had planned to recoup at least twenty-five or thirty percent of the brewery’s worth from the sale. He was stunned to receive such a paltry amount. “How would anybody feel to get eight cents on the dollar for a great plant like that?” Billy questioned. “They told us that when Prohibition came that we could make something out of our plants, but look what happened.”

The months that followed the sale of the brewery were difficult ones for Billy. He had watched his family’s company crumble before his eyes and with the sale of the famed Lemp logo and Falstaff name, followed by the auctioning off of the brewery; he had managed to destroy everything that his father and grandfather had worked so hard to build. Billy knew that he would never want for anything for the rest of his life and that his fortune would remain intact, but the responsibility that he felt for the brewery’s loss weighed heavy on his shoulders. He became depressed and his friends and employees began to speak of his erratic behavior. He often complained of poor health and feeling nervous.

Then, in the late fall of 1922, Billy seemed to rally and began feeling better. He began making plans to rid himself of the last vestiges of the Lemp brewing business once and for all. He told friends that he intended to liquidate the corporation and sell off the corner saloon sites and the rest of the real estate associated with the brewery. After that, he would sell some of his other property holdings and just “take it easy for a while.” Billy decided to put his country house on the market for $175,000, stating that he planned to take an extended trip to Europe with his wife.

Billy was still having days of illness during the holiday season of 1922, but he seemed better than he had been. His plans for shedding some of his business concerns had reinvigorated him and he began making preparations to be away from the office during his upcoming trip. His employees noticed Billy was smiling again as he walked into the office in the morning – which made what happened on December 29 both tragic and inexplicable.

When company secretary Henry Vahlkamp arrived at the brewery offices, located in the former Lemp family home, at 9:00 a.m. on December 29, 1922, he found Billy was already there. The two of them were joined shortly after by Olivia Berchek, a stenographer for the brewery and Billy’s personal secretary.
Vahlkamp later recalled that Billy’s face was flushed that morning and that when he entered his employer’s office, Billy had an elbow on the desk and was resting his forehead on his hand. He asked Billy how he was feeling and the other man replied that he felt quite bad.

“I think you are looking better today that you did yesterday,” Vahlkamp noted in an effort to cheer him up.

“You may think so,” Billy said glumly, “but I am feeling worse.”

Vahlkamp left and went to his own office on the second floor of the converted mansion. Moments after this exchange, Miss Berchek telephoned Billy’s second wife, Ellie, about instructions for the day’s mail and as she was speaking to her, Billy picked up the other line and spoke to his wife himself. The secretary recalled that he spoke very quietly and she did not hear what turned out to be his last words to his wife. After he finished the conversation, Bercheck asked him a question about some copying that she was doing from a blueprint. He first told her that what she had was fine and then he changed his mind and suggested that she go down to the basement and speak to the brewery’s architect, Guy Norton.

While she was on her way downstairs, she heard a loud noise. Because there were men working in the basement, she thought nothing of it, assuming that someone had dropped something. But when she came back upstairs, she found Billy lying on the floor in a pool of blood. She told the police, “The porter heard the noise from down in the basement and came upstairs; he was the only one who realized it [the noise] was a shot.”

The porter came into the office to find Billy lying on the floor with his with his feet under the desk. He called for help and men from the office across the hall came in as he was placing a pillow under Billy’s head. Billy was gasping for air when his employees came rushing into the office.

Apparently, just after speaking to Miss Bercheck, Lemp had shot himself in the heart with a .38 caliber revolver. He had unbuttoned his vest and fired the gun through his shirt. Vahlkamp, who hurried into the office when he heard the news, arrived to find Billy barely alive. He sent for the police and the coroner’s physician but by the time the doctor arrived, Billy was dead.

Officer John H. Schramm, one of the first policemen to arrive on the scene, told a reporter for the St. Louis Star that Billy had apparently dragged a heavy chair from its usual place in the office to a space about four feet between his desk and the west wall. Billy evidently sat down in the chair before shooting himself. He was discovered after he slid out of the chair lying on his back with his revolver at his side.

Officers found two bullet wounds in the left side of his chest, about a half-inch apart. Since there were two discharged shells in the gun’s chamber, it was initially thought that a second shot might have been fired by accident as Billy’s hand jerked. However, the inquest later determined that only one of the two shells had been recently fired, indicating that Billy left the other chamber empty as a precaution since he normally carried the gun in his pocket.  Captain William Doyle of the Wyoming Street Police Station, the lead police investigator on the scene, searched Lemp’s pockets and desk for a suicide note, but as with his father and possibly his sister before him, Billy left no indication as to why he had ended his life.
When interviewed by the newspapers, Billy’s close friend, August A. Busch, said he was confused by Billy’s suicide. He noted that had recently decided to sell off many of his real estate assets, including his home, Alswel, and relax for a few months. A week before he shot himself, Billy had dined with Busch, who said that Billy seemed “cheerful” at the time and that he gave no indication that he was worrying about business or anything else. “He was a fine fellow,” Busch added, “and it is hard to believe that he has taken his own life.”
Billy’s son, William Lemp III, however, was not as shocked as everyone else was. He rushed to the office when he heard what had happened and knelt down on the floor next to his father’s body. “You knew I knew it,” he sobbed. “I was afraid this was coming.” He refused to explain his remarks to the police.

Ellie Lemp collapsed when she received the news of her husband’s suicide. She did not go to the Lemp office that day and declined to accept visitors at the Chase Hotel, where the Lemps had been living since placing their home on the market.

When interviewed after the shooting, many of Billy’s friends and employees mentioned Billy’s erratic behavior, dating back many years. Their recollections painted a picture of a man with serious mood swings and often-violent behavior, which seemed to indicate that he suffered from manic-depressive episodes, or what we would consider today to be bipolar disorder. Such a condition, unknown to medicine at the time, would certainly explain the collapse of Billy’s marriage, his sometimes-vicious temper and then the calm, orderly manner in which he would carry out his business. His moods often varied between times of happiness and periods of dark depression. Everyone assumed that his melancholy was caused by the death of his sister Elsa and the loss of the brewing business, but it’s more likely that it was a chemical imbalance (possibly affecting several members of the family) that led to Billy’s unusual behavior and eventual suicide.

In the weeks before his death, Billy had been admitted to the hospital three times, complaining of what he called “gugup chills.” His secretary, Olivia Berchek, said, “….he was very morose… he was always peculiar about things, very precise and for the last three or four weeks he didn’t seem to care. He didn’t fight back at anything. He just let everything go, contrary to his former attitude toward things; and on Thursday afternoon, he said to me, ‘I have had enough doctors, haven’t I?’ Later he said, ‘Don’t you think I have had enough trouble? I have had about enough.’”

The Lemp Mansion on the day of Billy’s funeral in 1922.

Billy’s funeral was held at the family mansion on December 31. The offices were used as the setting for the service for sentimental reasons, staff members said, having been used for the funerals of Billy’s parents years before. He was interred in the family mausoleum at Bellefontaine Cemetery, in the crypt just above that of Elsa’s.

Billy’s bad financial luck followed him to the grave. The house, Alswel, which had been built for $125,000 in 1914, was auctioned off in May 1925 for $118,500 to a Chicago real estate broker. All of the furnishings went with the house, as well as the 192 acres that surrounded it. Billy’s estate, valued at a little less than $1 million in 1923, was divided between his widow and his son. By the end of the 1920s, the Lemp company, once one of the largest breweries in the country and a worldwide purveyor of beer, was largely forgotten.

With the factory sold, Billy gone and his brothers and sisters involved in their own lives and endeavors, the days of the Lemp empire had come to an end at last. His two siblings remaining in St. Louis, Charles and Edwin, had left the family enterprise long before it had breathed its last. Charles worked in banking and finance and Edwin had entered a life in seclusion at his estate in Kirkwood in 1911. The fortune they had amassed was more than enough to keep the surviving members of the family comfortable through the Great Depression and beyond.

But the days of Lemp tragedy were not yet over.


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