Although I was born in the city (at Garfield Hospital), we moved to Suitland, Md., in 1954. I never bothered to look too closely at the neighborhood’s history. Imagine my surprise all these years later when I stumbled across a whiskey jug from Suitland at an auction house in Delaware. What can you tell me about the man who bottled it, S.T. Suit?
— J. Charles Riseling, Washington
Samuel Taylor Suit was born in Bladensburg, Md., in 1832. Like many young men, Suit went west to seek his fortune. Unlike most, he found it.
It was in Louisville. There, Suit got into the whiskey business and became one of America’s whiskey barons.
“Many were very wealthy,” said Jack Sullivan, a whiskey historian in Alexandria, Va. “They became prominent and decided they were going to put their money into developing their communities. He’s typical in that way. They were very public spirited.”
Spirited Suit was. An ad in a Washington newspaper in 1872 listed these copyrighted Suit brands: National Bourbon, Capitol Bourbon, Congress Bourbon, Senate Bourbon, Suit’s Private Stock Bourbon, Cabinet Bourbon, Breckinridge Rye and White Wheat. Noted the ad: “Remember that in buying our goods you buy no mixed or flavored article, but pure, straight Whiskies, changed only from the original state by time.”
Sullivan suspects that may not have been the case.
“The truth is never really upfront with whiskey makers,” he said. Many purveyors of the spirit claimed that their product was something other than the eye-watering blend that it was.
It’s not entirely clear that Suit even had his own distillery in Maryland, the District or Kentucky, though that state conferred upon him the honorary “Colonel.” Suit did have a five-story warehouse in Louisville filled top to bottom with whiskey from no fewer than 18 distilleries.
A news story from 1872 recounts how Suit and a partner bought up the country’s entire stock of “old whiskies,” about 3 million gallons. “These purchases embrace nearly all the valuable old whiskies in market, and will probably affect the price of all other grades,” the story noted.
He was the Nelson Bunker Hunt of whiskey.
Not content to stay in Louisville, Suit returned to the East Coast. He had a house on New Jersey Avenue and established a 400-acre country estate just over the District line in Prince George’s County. This he dubbed “Suitland.”
Suit planted orchards there and imported exotic animals, including English pheasants, California and South Pacific quail, white swans, carrier pigeons, booby birds and canaries.
He also brought in rare cattle and deer. This came with certain risks. Some areas of Suit’s private zoo were behind 12-foot fences, accessible only when accompanied by a keeper. But in 1870, Suit’s son and two of his friends — a girl, 12, and a boy, 10 — entered an enclosure without an adult.
“They had not been there long before a stag ran down upon them and began to jump on the little Smith boy,” wrote a reporter.
While Suit’s son ran for help, the Smith girl beat the stag back with a piece of wood. When the keeper arrived, he shot the stag. By then, “The clothing and flesh of the boy were torn to tatters, his face and body being shredded from head to foot, and his bones broken in several places.”
He seems to have recovered.
Suit invested in real estate around Washington. He sold building lots in Suitland, touting it as the perfect escape from the city. “Chills and fevers are not known in our region,” claimed one ad.
Suit served a term in the Maryland legislature and was instrumental in building Suitland Road, constructing a railroad from Washington to Point Lookout in Maryland, and in getting a new bridge erected to carry Pennsylvania Avenue over the Anacostia.
Suit was married three times. His first wife died. He was divorced from his second wife. For his third — Rosa, 28 years his junior — he ordered the construction of a castle in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
Though Suit’s Suitland mansion — a place where he entertained such figures as President Ulysses S. Grant — was to burn down, that castle is still standing.
Suit died in 1888. Though his whiskey business made Suit rich and famous, Answer Man found an accomplishment that’s even more endearing. In 1873, Suit built a school for black children on his land in Prince George’s.
Suit was the son of a slaveholder — and as a child was, in the words of one observer, “imbued with prejudice” — but his wealth had allowed him to tour the world.
That experience, a reporter wrote, “taught him that a man is a man, and with this belief he sets himself to work to make good citizens of the hitherto despised and ignorant ex-slaves found in his immediate neighborhood, though his white neighbors are loud in their opposition to the blacks being taught to read and write.”
Samuel Taylor Suit the whiskey baron believed that to be a good and useful citizen, a person had to be educated. He believed that was the case whether a person was white or black.
Answer Man will drink to that.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.