Nicholas Longworth is best remembered, insofar as he is remembered at all, as the father of American winemaking. Longworth popularized the Catawba grape and created a widespread, if short-lived, enthusiasm for the sparkling wines of the Ohio River Valley. He was also a well-regarded attorney, a massively successful real estate investor, and a tireless philanthropist who dedicated his enormous fortune to those whom he affectionately called “the devil’s poor.”
Longworth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1783, the son of a once-prominent merchant. Unfortunately for the family, his father had been a stalwart Loyalist during the American Revolution. After the war, virtually all of the family’s property was confiscated. Nicholas spent his boyhood in poverty, bearing the stigma of his father’s loyalty to the Crown. He learned hard work from an early age. For a while, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker; later, he was sent to clerk for a relative in South Carolina.
When he was 19 years old, he moved west, eager to distance himself from the shame and poverty of his youth. In 1804, he arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he began to study law. His mentor was Jacob Burnet, a leading figure in Ohio politics—often called the “Father of Ohio’s Constitution”—and one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest men. In short order, Longworth passed the bar and began an energetic law practice. What money he made he used to buy real estate.
The investments proved immensely profitable. As Cincinnati boomed, the value of Longworth’s property exploded. By 1819, he retired from his legal practice; his properties demanded his full attention. In 1850, Longworth paid more than $17,000 in taxes, the second-highest tax bill in the nation. By one estimate, at the peak of his fortune, Longworth’s net worth as a percentage of GDP places him among the 40 wealthiest Americans of all time.
Retired from active business, Longworth was able to devote decades to his favorite pastime: experimental horticulture. His greatest success was the Catawba grape. In 1828, his friend John Adlum sent him specimens from Washington, D.C. They flourished along the banks of the Ohio River. Longworth pulled down his other vines, replacing them with the late-ripening, purplish-red grapes.
He dedicated his enormous fortune to those whom he affectionately called "the devil’s poor," the "wretched vagabonds that everyone else turns away."
With bumper crops of Catawba, Longworth began to make wine, employing armies of German immigrants and introducing the first large-scale winemaking operation in the New World. When a sparkling variant was discovered by accident, wine enthusiasts from San Francisco to Paris toasted the pink bubblies from Ohio. (In 1858, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an ode to “Catawba Wine” and dedicated the poem to Longworth.) By the time of his death, Longworth’s vineyards were producing 150,000 bottles annually.
The great bulk of Longworth’s wealth went to his idiosyncratic program of philanthropy. Longworth, explained an 1863 obituary in Harper’s Weekly, “had a whimsical theory that those whom everybody will help were not entitled to any aid from him, and that he would confine his donations to the worthless and wretched vagabonds that everyone else turns away from.” These, he would explain, were “the devil’s poor.” They were the beneficiaries of virtually all of his charitable giving.
Much about Longworth’s giving is anecdotal, but the stories that remain are revealing. “A committee of Mormons, on a begging expedition, was once sent to him by a friend,” noted the Harper’s Weekly obituary, “with a note intimating that, as these people were not Christians, and seemed to be abandoned by everybody that professed to be, they probably came within his rule, and he could consistently assist them. He did so without hesitation.”
Every Monday morning Longworth was known to give away 10-cent loaves of bread to anyone who would ask for one; most weeks he reportedly gave away between 300 and 800 loaves. He built a four-story brick boarding house over his wine cellars, with 56 neatly appointed apartments that he rented below cost to poor laborers and their families. If a man could not afford the rent, Longworth would often allow him to stay, free of charge, for months and sometimes even years.
Unsurprisingly, “the devil’s poor” often failed to reciprocate Longworth’s good will. At one of his Monday morning distributions of bread, riots nearly broke out when the crowds realized that the loaves had been topped off with rye. (Told that the wheat “was running high”—meaning that the loaves were baking with large air pockets—Longworth had ordered the bakers to plump the bread with grain.) As for the boarding house, one of Longworth’s biographers noted that the tenants were “most ungrateful and troublesome” and that they “used to annoy him incessantly, and frequently broke into the wine-vaults below and stole his choicest wine.”
Despite the frustration, despite the ingratitude, Longworth persisted in his course of charitable giving. “Vagabonds, drunkards, fallen women, those who had gone far into the depths of misery and wretchedness, and from whom respectable people shrank in disgust, never appealed to him in vain,” wrote James Dabney McCabe. “He would listen to them patiently, moved to the depths of his soul by their sad stories, and would send them away rejoicing that they were not utterly friendless. ‘Decent paupers will always find a plenty to help them,’ he would say, ‘but no one cares for these poor wretches. Everybody damns them, and as no one else will help them, I must.’”
Longworth also made some more conventional philanthropic efforts. In 1842, he donated the land on which the Cincinnati Observatory was built. A 77-year-old John Quincy Adams traveled to Cincinnati to lay the cornerstone in his last public appearance. When the institution opened in 1845, it was one of the finest facilities in the world. This project was unusual for Longworth, though; he preferred to help the poor—especially those who could not, or would not, help themselves.
Longworth died in February 1863 at 81 years old. Tributes poured forth, praising and honoring the son of a disgraced Loyalist. None, it seems likely, would have moved Longworth so much as the sight of his funeral procession, with thousands of outcasts—drunkards and prostitutes, beggars and criminals—sobbing at the loss of this, their one true friend.
- Clara Longworth Chambrun, The Making of Nicholas Longworth: Annals of an American Family (R. Long & R.R. Smith, 1933)
- Erica Hannickel, “A Fortune in Fruit: Nicholas Longworth and Grape Speculation in Antebellum Ohio,” American Studies, Spring/Summer 2010
- “The Late Nicholas Longworth,” Harper’s Weekly (March 7, 1863)