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Historical Hot Messes: The Lemps

Updated on December 15, 2017
LaurenSutton12 profile image

Infatuated with the Tudors since reading about Elizabeth I in second grade. She also finds dysfunctional dynasties fascinating.


Who were the Lemps?

The Lemp family had one of the top breweries in the nation during the mid-1800's. Their beer dynasty started at around 1838 when Johann Adam Lemp came to St. Louis. See his story below.

It has been suggested that the Lemps were cursed, as many sad things happened in a short span. Several family members committed suicide, including William Sr., William, Jr., Elsa, and Charles. Frederick died suddenly of either heart issues or mysterious circumstances. William III died of a heart attack. William Sr.'s wife Julia, passed away of cancer. Their brewery and entire brewing facility had to be sold due to Prohibition. (Unfortunately, no notice was given to the workers who showed up for work to find out there was no work.)

There also were plenty of scandals that surrounded the Lemps. Let's start with Great-Grandpa Lemp:

Adam Lemp
Adam Lemp | Source

Johann Adam Lemp: Kind of a Scoundrel

One of the biggest beer barons in American history was born around 1798 in Eschwege, Germany. Johann Adam Lemp's life was plagued with tragedy: his father died when he was thirteen years old, one of his sons died at four years old, and his first wife died suddenly.

Johann, known as "Adam", remarried Justina three months later. Adam owned a restaurant and brewed beer, which were relative failures. Despite his debts, he opted for a fresh start in America. Unfortunately, he also had his second wife and children, which he left behind. Could you imagine your spouse just packing up and leaving to a new country? His wife was understandably shocked and put an advertisement in a German newspaper:

"“Family News: I urge my husband, brewer Johann Adam Lemp, who fled from here in 1836, to return to me at once to resume his marital duties. Eschwege, October 30, 1841, Justine Marie Charlotte Lemp, née Baum."

Justina and Adam divorced, and both remarried.

He sent for his son William back in Germany by paying an acquaintance who happened to be traveling in the area. This acquaintance would later sue Johann for lack of payment. Johann blamed the lack of payment on his ex-wife. Good lord.

After Justina's husband died in 1853, she reportedly went to St. Louis to look for Adam. Nobody knows if she actually found him or not.

Staircase from the attic (now third floor)
Staircase from the attic (now third floor) | Source

The Legend of "Zeke"

No hot mess family can be complete without a possible secret love-child. This would have been scandalous during the early 20th century.

Supposedly, "Zeke" was the mentally handicapped child of Billy Lemp, Jr. and a female servant who was kept in the attic of the mansion. (Coincidentally, the servant quarters' were in the attic.) A love-child would not be completely unusual as Billy was known to be a womanizer. As the story goes, somebody walked by and saw "Zeke" in the window, and thought he had the face of a monkey. Strange, and sad.

Other accounts say that he was the child of William Lemp, Sr. and Julia, or of a female servant, and chose to keep him in the house instead of being institutionalized. Some people visiting the mansion have even claimed that they have spoken to "Zeke" 's ghost.

The truth is that there is no evidence that "Zeke", the possible secret love-child actually existed. Or, maybe that's what they want us to believe...

Billy Lemp
Billy Lemp | Source

"Lavender Lady" and the Womanizer: A Saga

Lillian Handlan, also known as the "Lavender Lady", married known playboy Billy Lemp, Jr. in 1899. Lillian was quite a character. She was outgoing and quite petite; just shy of five feet. She also loved to stand out in church--she wore a lot of lavender--hence, her nickname. By most accounts, Ms. Handlan got along with everyone and had friends from every social class.

Lillian came from another wealthy St. Louis family who made their money selling lamps. Because of this, her family was powerful and she had strong political connections, which would have, in theory, made a pretty decent match for 'ole Billy. Right?

Wrong. Billy's reputation for being a womanizer made the marriage hard on Lillian. She claimed that he had other woman in their house while she was gone, and that he was cruel. He claimed that she wore the color lavender excessively in public (eye roll) and that she used foul language (another eye roll). C'mon! That's just another Tuesday!

The divorce turned into a public charade. When Lillian and Billy came to the courthouse, there was a throng of people. They probably expected Lillian to be wearing lavender, but in dramatic fashion, she wore a white veil.

In the courtroom came out details of their private lives, which were not pretty. Lillian described an instance where Billy came home drunk, hit her and then continued to hit her. He also yelled at her and shoved her head into a wall. Goodness. There were other domestic violence claims, and Lillian maintained that Billy had a drinking problem.

They disagreed on religion; she was Catholic, he was raised Lutheran, but he didn't practice.

He was unpredictable and moody. She also said that Billy wouldn't speak to her for days on end, and sometimes days turned into months. When he did come home, he refused to eat with Lillian. Billy had a gun that he would also take out at any moment to intimidate. Lillian remembered that he threatened to shoot her at times.

Apparently, Billy also had some jealousy issues. When Lillian went on a trip, Billy hired a detective to spy on her. The detective literally rented the hotel room next to hers.

In 1906, Billy deserted her. I think we know who the hot mess was in this relationship!

Luckily, in 1913, the entire city of St. Louis breathed a sigh of relief as Lillian was given custody of their child, Billy III. The saga was finally over.

Lillian Handlan, the "Lavender Lady"
Lillian Handlan, the "Lavender Lady" | Source

A Titanic Connection

Speaking of Lillian, she and their son Billy III were standing at the dock of the Titanic to see it off on just before its' deadly maiden voyage. When it sank the next morning, there were over 20,000 bottles of Lemp beer that went down with it. There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

Interesting, Elsa Lemp--Billy, Jr.'s sister wanted a ticket for the Titanic, but found out there were no first class tickets available. With all of their tragedy and possible family curse, I don't know how she escaped the curse temporarily, but glad she did.



Charles Lemp was another son of William, Sr. He didn't get into the family business, and instead chose finance.

After Billy's suicide, Charles moved back into the mansion, where he became more secluded with only two staff members living there. With the seclusion came more eccentricities. Every morning, he woke everyone (including any guests--including his good friend Vincent Price) up at 5:00am by knocking on their doors until they physically got out of bed. He forbid coffee as he hated the smell. Charles also hated the sound of ice in the glass, so he made staff use round ice cubes.

Unfortunately, the mental anguish caught up with him, and in 1949, he shot himself and his German shepherd Cerva (also the name of their near-beer).

A Lemp Survives!

When son Edwin passed of shockingly natural causes at age 90, he ordered his caretaker to destroy any evidence of his family; including heirlooms, antiques, and his precious art collection. Was he trying to erase the painful past?

Interestingly enough, after all of the Lemp deaths, Edwin became reclusive. Unlike Charles, he refused to be by himself and had a friend with him at all times at his magnificent house he called, Cragwold.

Edwin Lemp
Edwin Lemp | Source

The Lemps get the last laugh.

Although their family was full of tragedy, craziness, and heartache, those pesky Lemps made out after all--their beer is currently being served at the Stevens Point Brewery in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. As for their mansion? It's now a fairly popular bed and breakfast that holds a large costume party around Halloween.

The Lemp brand is successful again. Has the curse been lifted?

Lemp Mansion
Lemp Mansion | Source


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