Maurice Coffey – Part III – Maurice and Matthew – Saloon keepers and boarding house operators

Jean Lafitte's Galveston

If you go to Galveston in search of many of the places described in this post you will be disappointed. The old Galveston Daily News building on Mechanic street,  that was in the heart of town,  has gone condo and the present newspaper is perched out on the west end of the island as if to emphasize that it is now the Galveston COUNTY Daily News. The wharves are no longer Kuhn’s, the Palmetto, the Central, the Brick, the Western, the Labadie, the Commercial, and the Merchants (or Hutchings) but are numbers  for  the  six miles of concrete dockage, a six-million-bushel grain elevator and forty-seven miles of railroad track. No longer does the paper report as many as 20 vessel arrivals and departures  a day nor will you hear the patter and chatter of most of the languages from west of Suez – and quite a few from east of that point – from a time when the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico were more or less a contiguous sea, culturally if not geographically.

The island’s geography is different as well. The Medical Branch was a newly opened school headquartered in the now all but obscured “Old Red” main building designed by Nicholas Clayton. St. Mary’s Infirmary and John Sealy Hospital were close by in what has now become a behemoth medical center  that has swallowed whole most of the east end of the island. The port was open to those who had business there, when the ships were working cargo,  and to those who just wanted to see the ships when they were idle – and the ships themselves were everything from barks and schooners to tall ships and steamers that still had masts that came in and out of a harbor dredged to twenty-two feet with five miles of protective jetties. The most remarkable tribute to the port and its people is that they were working cargo two weeks after the 1900 Storm struck.

Galveston Rooming House

Nor would the saloons look like Miss Kitty’s place in Gunsmoke or some of the places around the Strand today that have pretensions to being 19th century pubs with brass and glass where the elite meet to greet and eat. More likely these places were smoke-filled rooms lit by kerosene lamps with sawdust on the floor,  a bar constructed of several two by twelves laid across barrels with beer served in buckets and what passed for whiskey sold by the bottle. There were no ladies and very few women and while you might be able to get a barely digestible meal to be washed down by whatever you could afford to swill you wouldn’t get much more. Interestingly enough many of these places had second stories where the proprietor and his family lived – often in circumstances that belied the nature of what went on below.

Often a frame saloon would have several outbuilding that might be a little bit better than tar paper shacks built with whatever dunnage was available. Seamen waiting for a ship or longshoremen waiting for a hiring call might rent part of a bed or time in a bunk if they had the price and if the weather did not allow them to sleep rough – the term boarding house might literally mean that you had space on a board not that you had a room and shared bathing and dining facilities. The change from transitory structures in the 1850-1900 era started giving way to the more solid structures starting  around 1875 in part as sanitary measures to combat the recurring yellow fever outbreaks became more pronounced. Then too the operators had become political operatives and labor contractors and needed someplace to house their workers and Galveston has become a little less wild west frontier and a little more Southern city. From 1900 to 1950 living in a boarding house was almost respectable and being a boarder in a respectable house was perfectly acceptable. After 1950 the proliferation of cheap apartments put an end to most communal living altogether.

Rooming House Out Building

If you look carefully you can find the remnants of the saloon keeper’s Galveston up around Market and Mechanic in the 27th Street to 29th Street range but look quickly because all you will see today is the frames and they may well be gone tomorrow. Storms and fires have taken their toll as has the growth of the port and the medical center and these final few blocks may fall under the bulldozer’s blade for urban renewal – or worse yet – to serve the cruise and casino industry that is always only a few votes and fewer bribes shy of turning a proud city into one more cesspit of the gaming industry.

Maurice Coffey's Saloon

Our first sighting of Maurice Coffey as a publican in Galveston comes from Heller’s Galveston Directory for 1878-1879 where he is listed as residing at Liberty House on the south side of Market Street between 27th and 28th Streets. On February 17, 1878 we find reported in the Galveston Daily News the proceedings of the United States District Court at Galveston in cause 1627, United States v. Maurice Coffey. Charge – harboring deserting seamen off Swedish bark Hermonie. Trial by jury – verdict guilty. Fine $50.00 – one half for use by the United States and one half for the use of the master of said vessel as informer.

This case was by no means unique. In the same issue of the paper we find that Nicholas Duffey, a supplier of groceries and provisions located on the north-east corner of Avenue M and 25th Street, is to face the same charge on the 18th. The federal courts were the last vestige of reconstruction lingering over Galveston – the federal army of occupation having been withdrawn in 1870 – and the presiding judge, Amos Morrill, was a native of Massachusetts whose opposition to secession had forced him to flee the state in 1861 although it was apparently not strong enough to convince him to serve in the Grand Army of the Republic. He had returned to Texas in 1868 and had been installed by bayonet as the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court from whence he was moved to the federal bench in Galveston. Although Coffey had not arrived in the United States until 1868 and had no known ties to those in sympathy with the Confederacy his insistence on a trial by jury may have been an effort to protect himself from the caprice of a jurist who had no love of Texas or Texans regardless of how recently minted.

The problem then was identical to the problem today. There was a shortage of capable and willing workers and there were illegal aliens ready, willing and able to take the jobs given the opportunity – for lower wages. Deserters were commonplace and instead of “coyotes” we had boarding house operators and saloon keepers working as labor contractors. The illegals were not abused, or held as chattel, they were hired out and assimilated into the larger community and “disappeared” into the population. Many a prominent family can probably trace its American origins to a sailor who jumped ship – although if they are prominent enough by now he will have become the fleet commodore who was begged to become a citizen after gallant services rendered to the Republic.

In the 1882-1883 edition of Morrison & Fourmy’s General Directory of the City of Galveston we find brother Matthew listed in bold face type as MATTHEW COFFEY, Proprietor, “First and Last Chance Saloon”, Labadie’s Wharf, north end of 27th Street, residence – same.  Not that the saloon business was without risks as we find from an item in the July 9, 1883 Galveston Daily News where it is reported that, “Since it became generally known that the city authorities had determined to arrest each saloon man for each drink sold on Sunday, none of the saloons have opened side or back doors the past two Sundays, and thirsty citizens and visitors have been compelled today to put up with artesian well water, etc.”

I used to be surprised by the recurrence in early American history of certain families and locations. After I had spent a good deal of time in the northeast I came to realize that the distance from Bunker Hill to Appomattox is less than 500 miles. In an area far smaller than Texas it is much less surprising to keep stumbling over tombstones with the same names on them. While the Texas that won its independence from Mexico may have measured over 360,000 square miles and even today measures over 268,000 square miles the Texas that Galveston was the principal city of was made up in large part of what had been Austin’s Colony and was roughly coincident with what we think of as East Texas today or, for the sake of comparison, just slightly larger than New England. It isn’t too surprising then when we continue to come across names like Labadie.

Labadie's Wharf

Nicholas Descomps Labadie was Canadian by birth. He had studied with Jean Marie Odin, who would become the first Catholic bishop of Texas, at St. Mary’s of the Barrens in Missouri on his way to becoming a priest but had abandoned the vocation in favor of medicine. Becoming both a doctor and a pharmacist by apprenticeship in St. Louis he moved on to Anahuac in 1831 where he was employed as the post surgeon and where he opened a hardware store. In 1836 he joined the Liberty militia of Sam Houston’s Army and served under General Sydney Sherman helping the wounded at San Jacinto. He came to Galveston and practiced medicine, opened another hardware store and traded his rural land holdings to Michael Menard for the rights to build Labadie’s Wharf at the foot of 26th Street. He operated a shipping line importing timber from Florida, continued his medical practice acting as the examining physician for the First Regiment, Texas Militia during the War for Southern Independence and maintaining his retail operation. The wharf was incorporated into the Galveston Wharves, the South was occupied by the North and Labadie died in 1867 but his son-in-law, Ebenezer T. Barstow, continued the business until the 1900 Storm destroyed it.

In the same 1882-1883 edition of Morrison & Fourmy’s General Directory of the City of Galveston immediately below his brother’s listing, in more modest and less costly type we find the unpretentious listing of, Maurice Coffey, saloon and boarding house, north-west corner of Mechanic and 28th, residence – south side of Market between 28th and 29th Streets. By 1886 he was operating the New Wharf Saloon at the foot of 33rd Street where one of the darkest episodes of his life occurred. The Galveston Daily News of December 3, 1886 carried the following story:

Charged with Shooting His Stepson


The New Wharf the Scene of an Affray Yesterday, in which Maurice Coffey and Pete Adams Were Conspicuous

About 7 o’clock last night it was reported that Mr. Maurice Coffey, who conducts a bar-room on New Wharf, had seriously shot his stepson, Pete Adams, arising out of a difficulty between the two. The report was telephoned to the police station and officers Bird and Dave Jordan were dispatched to the scene. They returned and brought Maurice and Matt Coffey with them, after have sent Pete Adams to the hospital, who was injured about the head. From Mr. Maurice Coffey a NEWS reporter learned the particulars of the trouble. According to Mr. Coffey’s statement, Pete Adams has of late been in the habit of becoming intoxicated and making matters disagreeable in the family. His troublesome habits dated from the death of his mother, which occurred just after the last election, since which event it is alleged he has become excessively intemperata. Mr. Coffey had just returned from taking his little daughter driving. Before he reached the bar room he was informed that his stepson was cutting up high didoes, and had left a note on the counter stating that he, Pete Adams, intended to lick his stepfather. When Mr. Coffey reached the bar room he found his stepson quite boisterous, apparently determined to clean out the establishment and take possession of the premises. Failing to subdue the tumult in any other way, Mr. Coffey the seized a revolver, which he fired up into the air, merely, he said, to intimidate Pete. After the shot Pete disappeared but immediately returned, remarking that he had a “gun” too, when Mr. Coffey fired a second time in the air. Pete then either stumbled or threw himself beneath the railroad cars, which run very close to the front door, and sustained severe injuries upon the back of his head. Before being taken to the hospital he insisted to an officer that he had been shot by both Maurice and Matt Coffey, which however was not substantiated. Officer Roberts, who conveyed Adams to the hospital, said that the physician examined the wound but failed to state of what character it was. Officer Roberts was of the opinion that Adams was too drunk to make anything like a clear or intelligible statement as to how he received the wound. At all events Maurice Coffey was arrested on a charge of assault with intent to murder his stepson and will have a hearing before Recorder Fontaine this morning. He gave bond in the sum of $100.00 for his appearance, with Pat Whelden as surety. No charge was preferred against Matt Coffey.

We know Pete survived and Maurice stayed out of jail because, although there is no further reporting of the incident or any proceedings arising therefrom, there is a very pedestrian notice in the Galveston Daily News of May 21, 1887 where Maurice Coffey has paid ad-litem fees to attorneys appointed to represent both of his children  in conjunction with his wife’s estate – not all history is sensational and while you may not know how a particular episode closed you at least know that all of the characters moved on.

In the 1891-1896 edition of Morrison & Fourmy’s General Directory of the City of Galveston we find brother Matthew listed in less costly type style as Matthew Coffey, proprietor Emerald Saloon and boarding house, pier 20, north end of 20th Street, residence – same. While still maintaining the modesty of type style – if not of description –  Maurice Coffey has now become a contractor and is the president and general manager of the Lone Star Athletic Club and saloon, 2715 Market Street, residence – same. This would remain Maurice Coffey’s principal base of political operations, source of labor for dispensing patronage jobs and residence for the rest of his days.

Horse Race at Hitchcock

He was a well-known character in Galveston and his establishment is often referred to simply as Maurice Coffey’s place. For July 4, 1892 we find him in the papers again involved in the sport of kings:

Races At Hitchcock

There was a running race yesterday morning at Hitchcock between Maurice Coffey’s light bay horse and R. Helwig’s buckskin.

A large crowd was present and much interest was manifested in the outcome of the contest.

Stuart Wheeler rode Coffey’s Horse and Jack Tacquard was in the saddle for Helwig.

Five hundred and fifty yards was the distance and $100.00 a side the purse.

Mr. Wheeler brought the bay horse under the wire a winner by half a length.

A pony race followed between the ponies of Mr. Bishop Tacquard and Mr. Nichols of Alvin, the latter winning.

Elsewhere on the same page we find that the Galveston Sand Crabs had lost to Houston 10-5 due to a let down in pitching but have returned to their home field for a game. “This being a holiday the regular admission prices will prevail, but ladies will be charged. In honor of the occasion Berry’s Band will give a concert before the game and during the contest will render “Ta-ra-ra , Boom deay,” “Annie Rooney,” “Maggie Murphy” and other selections from the old masters. Umpire Bailey, a new hand in the business, will manipulate the indicator.”

Smiling George delivering a curveball.

The fans might have seen right hander  Smiling George Blackburn in his pitching debut – he had a 17 year career including one  season in the majors  with the Baltimore Orioles of which the only remarkable thing was that on July 16, 1897, Cap Anson of the Chicago Cubs became the first player in major league history to reach 3,000 hits when he singled off Blackburn. Dallas lost to Fort Worth and with modest understatement a game that was called in the 20th inning between Cincinnati and Chicago was described as “the greatest game of ball ever played in the National League.”

In a Galveston where Jack Johnson would become famous – and infamous – as a heavyweight, Coffey also had a hand in the fight game, as noted in the NEWS on December 14, 1894:


Articles of agreement for a finish fight between Billy Dwyer of Chicago and Harry O’Neill, the “Baker Boy”, were signed in Houston yesterday. The fight is to take place in the Lone Star Athletic Club on December 24. The purse is $500.00. $400.00 of which goes to the winner and $100.00 to the loser. Each man put up a $50.00 guarantee for his appearance in the ring on the night of the fight. The fight will b e catch weights. W. P. Siebert of Houston and Maurice Coffey of Galveston were witnesses to the articles.

Dwyer and O'Neill Boxing

On the day of the fight the whole thing was overshadowed by the arrival of Gentleman Jim Corbett which was reported in the NEWS on December 14, 1894 is the awestruck tones, “Corbett is a marvel in many respects. Persons who see him for the first time wonder if it is really true that this is the man that bested the mighty Sullivan and is today the fistic champion of the world. There are today in Galveston many men with bigger biceps, wider chests and bigger girths than the man who has been the surprise of the century in athletics, but as soon as they get to know the man they appreciate his surprising ability.” The two most surprising abilities he demonstrated in Galveston were knocking news of the fight at Coffey’s clear out of the paper and knocking out sold out audiences at the Tremont in his dramatic presentation of “Gentleman Jack” where he collected a huge purse without anyone ever laying a glove on him.

Jenny Bland Beauchamp

Being a saloon keeper in Galveston May have been a profitable business but it was by no means an easy one. Galveston was also – as the leading city in the state – a focal point for temperance movements and suffragettes. In the 1880s the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union united women who favored prohibition as a solution to the poverty and domestic violence. WCTU members Jenny Bland Beauchamp and Mary M. Clardy served on the platform committee of the Texas Prohibition party at the 1886 and 1890 conventions, respectively, and Beauchamp was a delegate to the national convention in 1887. In Galveston the Women’s Health Protective Association was more active than the city health department in demanding enforcement of sanitation ordinances and taking violators to court.

In 1886 the Prohibition party offered candidates for office in Texas. The new Constitution of 1876 had required the legislature to enact a local-option law where each precinct could declare itself “dry” if it chose to do so. In 1887 the drys engineered a state prohibition referendum, which they lost by more than 90,000 votes. Nevertheless, dry sentiment was widespread. In 1895, fifty-three of the 239 counties were dry, and another seventy-nine counties were partly dry under local option.

Galveston was not immune to dry sentiment although with the predominant voter base being immigrant it was not possible to “dry out” the island through the ballot box. Old maids of both sexes and parties sought to prove that morality could be legislated and it may have been in reaction against that which caused Galveston to back William McKinley for president in 1896 against that pious gas bag William Jennings Bryan – you can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of times Galveston has gone Republican but this was the first.

Combining public morality with political expediency the decision was taken to permit sin – except on the sabbath – but to tax it. The Legislature meeting in 1893 placed a tax of $400.00 per year on wholesale liquor dealers, $300.00 per year on retailers and $50.00 per year on operators of beer only saloons. Druggists who were involved in the selling of medicinal whiskey – a very big business in dry counties – were included in the tax. The liquor dealers refused to pay the tax and were indicted by a special grand jury. On December 29, 1893 there was an extensive story in the Galveston Daily News [which had been criticized as a “wet” paper] about the problem – from the saloon keepers point of view:




Pursuant to a notice which appeared in yesterday’s NEWS, asking those liquor dealers who had been indicted by the recent grand jury to meet at &:30 p.m. Thursday at the corner of Twentieth and Post Office streets, some 200 or more representatives met to discuss the cases now pending in courts. So large was the assemblage that the hallway and stairs leading to the main room were crowded almost to suffocation.

Mr. Maurice Coffey was unanimously elected president, Mr. C. Hackenjus secretary and Frank D. Hahn sergeant-at-arms. The preliminaries have been gone through, Mr. Coffey explained very tersely the object of the meeting, stating among other things that the retailers of whiskey were always looked upon as violators of the law, when in fact they were striving in a legitimate way to uphold its dignity, but it seemed when everything else  failed they were pounced upon, which was entirely uncalled for. His remarks were roundly applauded.

A motion was made by Mr. Moffat that the wholesale liquor dealers ought to assist. This was promptly answered by Mr. Coffey, who stated “that a consultation had already been had between them and this body,” which was satisfactory to those present.

Mr. George Smith made a motion, seconded by Mr. Grelling, that a recess of ten minutes be allowed to allow all present to the sign the roll, which was carried unanimously. After recess it was found that some 300 signed the roll, embracing men of all nationalities – American, German, Irish, French, Italian, Spanish and other nations. It was about as unique a meeting as Galveston ever saw. The secretary was somewhat puzzled to pronounce the names of those enrolled.

Major F. M. Spencer, Mr. John Lovejoy and Senator Miles Crowley were invited to the meeting by a committee which had been appointed to hunt them up. These gentlemen were met with a hearty reception, and will conduct the defense of the indicted dealers in the courts. In response to an inquiry Major Spencer outlined to those present that they need not worry themselves as the law was made for rich and poor, no class legislation would hold good, as the founders of the government meant to ensure equal right to all; that they should hold together in unity, as by this means they gained the respect of the community and also the makers of the law. His remarks were loudly cheered.

A motion being made that each on present pay the allotted assessment by 3 p.m. Saturday, which was carried, and upon motion Mr. Grelling was appointed collector. This seemed a very popular selection, there being not a dissenting voice. President Coffey stated that it was essentially necessary the munitions of war should be promptly on hand and entreated all those present to have the cash ready when the collector came round. After these remarks the meeting adjourned.

During the proceedings some members of the association objected to a NEWS reporter being present, but this was voted down by the crown, which seemed unanimous in the sentiment that THE NEWS would do what was proper. The attorneys favored the presence of the reporter and the scribe was permitted to remain and witness the proceedings. Frank D. Hahn as sergeant-at-arms looked after the crown admirably. Sommers of the West End was so enthusiastic he wanted to pay in advance. Grelling says he wants a guard to protect him when he makes his calls to collect the assessments to be put up by the respective dealers in the association.

The attorneys engaged by the association to conduct the fight in the courts are Major F. M. Spencer, Hon. Miles Crowley, Mr. John Lovejoy and Mr. James B. Stubbs. The fight will be made on the constitutionality of the law and the courts of last resort will be called upon to finally determine the case.

As late as May of 1896 the case was still dragging through the courts and this was neither the first nor the last controversy for the Coffey’s as saloon keepers in Galveston as Matthew had been on a list of 44 cited by the chief of police for selling liquor without a city license as early as May 21, 1886. Eventually they would find it was just one more office they could hold and Maurice would be president of the retailer’s association while Matthew is reported in the News of January 29, 1893, “Captain Frank D. Hahn, Marcus Hammer, James Prendergast and Matthew Coffey left this morning for Dallas to attend the convention of the grand lodge of the liquor dealer’s protective association of Texas.”

We know from a NEWS story dated December 6, 1900 that Maurice Coffey had received $250.00 from the 1900 Storm relief fund – along with hundreds of others this being the maximum grant from the publicly administered but privately endowed fund. On January 8, 1902 in what can only be viewed with humorous irony he is listed as a member of a grand jury, “instructed to investigate particularly the matter of violations of the laws against prize fights, policy shops, slot machines and other forms of gambling and other breaches of the law.” Always willing to work for Galveston we have our last News report of Maurice on June 7, 1905:


There was a session of the directors of the Business League last night, at which a program was outlined for the general meeting of members to be held at the Auditorium at 8:15 o’clock Thursday evening.

It was decided that five among the best speakers in the city will be invited to make brief addresses upon the general subject, “Benefits of Galveston.” Reports of officers will also be read. The evening will conclude with a free entertainment of a comic nature.

Three accessions to the league were reported last night, the following being elected in membership: Maurice Coffey, W. C. Semme and George E. Robinson.

Action was also take relative to having printed and distributed folders setting forth the various features of entertainment afforded by Galveston. Secretary Gardner was authorized to compile and publish the data in the same manner as last year.

A Waterfront Scene

Authors Note: Most of my blog entries are illustrated with period photographs of the participants that have survived fires and storms. Many are illustrated with the post cards received by Margaret Edythe Young during her all too brief life. The regrettable fact is that there are too many words and too few pictures about this period. The Galveston Daily News was a newspaper that actually printed news. Prior to 1900 illustrations were rarities. What we have tried with this episode is going beyond the paper to other sources for public domain illustrations and working them in to the text and our other illustration sources to give the eye something to relieve itself from the sea of words needed to tell the story.


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