By Amie Flanigan, Erie Canal Museum Project Archivist
Every summer for as long as I can remember, my family has spent weekends visiting the flea markets of Oswego County, on a quest for some very personal treasure. The treasure we sought was not gold, but glass… Even as a child I knew that my great-great-grandfather, John Flanigan, had been a bottler in Oswego, NY. Even as a child wandering the cluttered rows of knickknacks, at little flea markets surrounded by rolling farmland, I knew more about antique bottles than the average adult. I could glance at a box full of dusty old bottles and immediately tell whether there might be any Flanigan bottles in the mix. Often, they were the wrong color, the wrong shape, the wrong style or age. Occasionally, we would get lucky—and the excitement of those rare discoveries sticks with me to this day.
That little girl turned into a grown-up archivist who by chance ended up working at the Erie Canal Museum, with no inkling that my great-great-grandfather’s face was likely a familiar one around the old Weighlock Building a hundred years before I was born. All I ever knew about John Flanigan was that he was a bottler—sometimes as an individual, and sometimes as a partner in the firm of Nacey & Flanigan. Due to some early deaths in my family, there were no Flanigan elders left to tell me the stories of generations past. John Flanigan, to me, was always just a name embossed in glass. Everything changed a few years ago when I inherited some long-forgotten family papers, which included portraits of John Flanigan and his wife, Ellen; a photograph of their home in Oswego; and no less than five different obituary clippings for John. He was such a well-known figure in the city of Oswego and beyond, that the news of his death was carried in more papers than just the local Oswego Palladium. Suddenly, John had a face, a family, a home, and a history.
John Flanigan was born March 13, 1847 in Ireland, the third of four children. When he was just four years old, his father died. His mother, Catherine, took John and his three brothers and immigrated to Oswego, NY. Life was difficult for Catherine as an illiterate, widowed single mother and new immigrant. Census data tells the story of her struggle to provide for her boys, but she gave them the chance to improve their lot in life. The family started out very poor, living in a shanty on the East side of the Oswego River very close to the canal. As the boys grew up, they were able to attend school, and the two older boys found work to help provide for the family. Their living situation gradually improved. When John was old enough to work, he started out in a cotton factory, then worked in the lumber industry, until he and his brothers were called to the canal life. By 1880, John’s younger brother, Peter, had been working as a ship carpenter for at least 15 years, and John had been a canal boat captain for about 10 years. His older brother, Patrick, had a flour and feed store, while Peter ran the boats with John for about 20 years. John is said to have owned three boats at one time—two of which were the Thomas W. Diamond (captained by John) and the Peter McGinnis (captained by Peter Flanigan). In the 1880s, they were busy on the Erie and Oswego Canals, carrying loads of wheat, barley, rye, and—most significantly—ashes. Potash was used in the production of glass bottles, and there are records of John’s boats carrying potash from Canada through Little Falls in 1887, during the same period when he was building his fledgling bottling business.
There are also a number of newspaper articles which provide detailed accounts of one fateful trip he took on the Thomas W. Diamond in 1884, just one year before he began to shift his focus to bottling. The Rome Daily Sentinel of Wednesday, May 14, 1884 carried sensational headlines. “Murder, outrages, and incendiary fires have followed each other in quick succession in this section of late. Rome has had her share of fires, and now a case of murder attracts the attention of the people.” John Flanigan had little idea what trouble was awaiting him in Rome, when he set out from home on May 3rd to meet his brother in Troy. Peter Flanigan had left New York City on the Thomas W. Diamond with a full load of fire brick and clay, and John met him in Troy to take over the boat and deliver the cargo to the Merchant Iron Mill on the Erie Canal in Rome. John arrived in Rome on Saturday, May 10, and spent a couple of days visiting with old friends until he could make his delivery. On Tuesday, May 13, John completed his delivery to the mill, and when he was finished unloading, he began to move the Diamond westward up the canal, wanting to get a start towards home. John made numerous stops on his way through Rome, at various grocers (including Corcoran’s grocery near Jay Street) and bars, in order to stock up on supplies for his crew and say farewell to friends who he had probably not seen since the end of the canal season in the previous year. John ended the evening at McLaughlin’s bar (along the towpath near Doxtater Avenue) with his good friend Michael Boylan. Unfortunately, John celebrated a little too hard that day, stayed at McLaughlin’s bar just a little too long, and became entangled in the murder of a young man named Spellicy.
Jack Spellicy had spent the evening picking fights at McLaughlin’s, and he singled out Michael Boylan as the object of his harassment. Boylan tried to mind his own business, and Captain Flanigan attempted to defuse the situation and distract Spellicy with free beer and pleasant conversation. When a fight between the two men broke out in the bar, Flanigan and others separated them. A second fight occurred outside the bar when Boylan tried to leave, and the two men were left to their own devices out on the towpath. Eventually, Spellicy ran off and Boylan was left drunk and dazed on the towpath. He picked himself up, and John walked him most of the way home before returning to his boat, which was tied up near the R. W. & O. Railroad bridge for the night. (In one article, John says that he was so drunk and “rattle-headed” that he could not find the canal, and had to ring someone’s doorbell for directions.) The Thomas W. Diamond left Rome early on the morning of Wednesday, May 14, unaware that the body of Spellicy had been found on Armstrong Avenue, between Clark Street and Doxtater Avenue, where he had collapsed from stab wounds during the night. It did not take long for the police to find witnesses from McLaughlin’s bar, and warrants were issued for both Michael Boylan and John Flanigan. Boylan was arrested at his home on Lock Street in Rome. Flanigan’s boat was caught in Canastota, and he was brought back to Rome on the afternoon train and taken to jail.
Reporters flocked to the jail to record every detail about the physical appearance of the suspects, and every detail of their stories. John was described as well-dressed and gentlemanly in appearance, with brown hair and a long, sandy mustache. He spoke with a slight touch of the brogue. He was very broken up about what happened to Spellicy, sorry that he was in any way connected with the affair, “deeply deplored” (in his own words) the fact that he had been drunk, and was ashamed that all who knew him would read about his involvement in the paper. His brother Patrick, who came to Rome to keep John company while he awaited the conclusion of the coroner’s inquest, was shocked when he learned of John’s arrest. He told reporters that John “has always been very peaceable and has borne an excellent reputation,” and had not drank anything in the 8 months before that dreadful night. The Rome Daily Sentinel of May 15, 1884 states, “He is spoken by all as an honest, sober, and hard-working man. When it was learned that he was connected with the killing of the man Spellicy, expressions of regret were heard on all sides, and it was the general opinion that he would be proven innocent.” This was indeed the case; John was released after a couple of days because none of the evidence implicated him in the bar fight or the stabbing. Once he was in the clear, he expressed sympathy for the families of Spellicy and Boylan (Boylan was charged with the murder). John told a reporter, “A man will get into trouble when he least expects it. I never was mixed up in an affair of this kind before, and don’t want to be again.” Perhaps this sentiment contributed to his withdrawing from canal life. His brother Peter continued captaining the boats while, a year after his ordeal, John began the transition from boat captain to bottler.
As the pieces of his life story began to fall into place, I realized the bottles my family had accumulated over the years, when viewed in the collective, had their own story to tell. Due to changes in the manufacturing processes of glass bottles between the years of 1885-1910, this collection of artifacts could provide clues to when John Flanigan was in the bottling business, for how long, and with whom. In 1885, he partnered with John Nacey to establish the bottling company of Nacey & Flanigan, originally located on East Second Street. In 1891, the business expanded and moved to 14 East Cayuga Street. A few years later, John and his wife, Ellen, moved with their four children into the home at 81 East Oneida St., which remained in the family for a few generations.
Nacey & Flanigan were in business until at least 1905 and became very popular with the residents of Oswego, as evidenced by the recognition they received in the following two sources—one contemporary, and one written decades after the business dissolved.
“Nacey & Flanigan, 14 East Cayuga Street, are manufacturers of ginger ale, birch beer, sarsaparilla, lemon soda, lemon sour, cream soda, strawberry soda, etc. They organized in April, 1885, on East Second Street, but in 1891 removed to the above number, where they do an extensive business. They manufacture every kind of bottled liquor, their bottling all being done by machinery, for which they have the best facilities and the latest improved works.” –Landmarks of Oswego County, edited by John C. Churchill, 1895, p. 251
“Back in the early years of the soda “pop” Oswego was noted for the quality of this brand of beverage better known as “soft drink.”One firm in particular […] was known in the business life of this city as Nacey & Flanigan. Their bottling establishment was located at 14 East Cayuga street in [the] block between First and Second streets. At one time, this old-timer told us, the Nacey & Flanigan soft drinks were the biggest kind of seller. It was bottled in more flavors than he could recall and it tasted so nice that anyone who treated himself to a glass, was just like Oliver Twist–he always wanted more. It kept two or three delivery rigs on the jump each working day to keep their customers supplied and, well it had to be good for this firm was in business for a long, long time. It is a safe estimate, to quote the old timer, that the amount of bottles sold by this concern would more than go around the city’s edges if placed end to end.” — Jay Knox. “Do You Remember?” Oswego Palladium Times, 25 May 1933
Sometime around 1908, John Flanigan struck out on his own. For about a year, he was the senior partner in the firm of Flanigan & Murphy, manufacturers of ginger beer in Syracuse, NY. This partnership ended in disagreement and a lawsuit brought by Flanigan, who had invested much more time and money into the business than Cornelius Murphy, and could no longer tolerate the situation. The partnership was dissolved, the business was sold, and Flanigan returned to Oswego. He continued to manufacture soda under his own name, until his death from pneumonia in April 1911 at the age of 64. John’s wife tried to sell his facilities at 14 East Cayuga Street and his bottling equipment (including a Weiss beer plant) by placing advertisements in the newspaper in October 1911. She may have been unsuccessful, because John and Ellen’s eldest son was still listed as a bottler in the 1920 Census.
John’s obituaries speak as highly of him as did the articles about his involvement in the Spellicy murder case. He is touted as one of the best-known and highly respected businessmen in the city of Oswego. He is described as a sincere man with a great number of friends and acquaintances. He was active in politics and even mentioned as a candidate for the office of Canal Superintendent, but the only office he ever held was Commissioner for the Department of Charity. His transformation from impoverished immigrant to prominent citizen of Oswego was entirely the result of hard work, and his ability to take advantage of the resources which were available to him—the State canals, in particular. First, the canals were his business, and then they became the building blocks for his next business endeavor. He used the canals to transport materials, to gain standing in his community, and to fund a series of bottling businesses which left a tangible legacy.
To see bottles manufactured by Flanigan and learn more about how the Erie Canal is connected to the way we eat, visit the Museum to view our Erie Eats exhibit on display at the Museum through October 31, 2021.