The Life and Passions of Victor V. Morris, Creator of the Pisco Sour

[Re-print of original article published in Dionisos Magazine, Lima, Perú – February, 2008]

Guillermo L. Toro-Lira

Author in ResearchGate

I presume the least I say of it the better, as were I to express my feelings as they really are it will not look well in print.

Victor V. Morris, March, 1900.

Victor Vaughen Morris was born on August 5, 1873 in Salt Lake City, Utah, United States, from a large and well reputed Mormon family. His father, Richard Vaughan Morris, was born in Abergele, Wales, in 1830, and emigrated to Salt Lake City in 1855, where he was a member of the Nauvoo Legion. He came to Utah with his recent wife, Hannah Phillips, also born in Wales. In the 1860s he built an Adobe house, which is currently registered as an historical monument by the State of Utah. Richard V. Morris had five children with Mrs. Phillips, of which the oldest, Richard P. Morris, born in 1855 in Salt Lake City, was major of that city in 1904.

After Mrs. Phillips’ death in 1864, Richard V. Morris marries Harriet Jones, mother of our personage and born in Nishnabotna, Missouri, in 1848. Victor V. Morris was the fifth of nine children and the second oldest of the three boys. Little is known about his childhood, other that he received a proper middle school education and that, according to a 1900 census, he knew how to read, write and speak English. The same census shows that his profession was a florist. In 1899, he worked in the flower shop of his oldest brother, Burton C. Morris, along with his youngest brother, Sidney H. Morris. Since 1900, Victor became the manager of the shop after his brother Burton was murdered in 1899.

The murder of Burton C. Morris can be summarized as a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened and that occurred because of the charms of a beautiful young lady and some Mint Julep cocktails badly prepared. In the afternoon of the 17th of July of 1899, Burton C. Morris was walking through Salt Lake City downtown with Miss Leda Stromberg, a lady that was the object of his attention for the last four months. They decided to go to the Vienna cafe, where Morris ordered two Mint Juleps. Morris didn’t like them and sends them back. This rejection occurs three times and thereafter an exasperated Morris approached the bartender and teaches him how to prepare them correctly. Immediately, Morris proposes for them to go to the Merchant restaurant instead. Without showing her anger, Miss Stromberg agrees to meet him there in an hour because she had some errands to run.

After arriving at the restaurant, Leda Stromberg stumbles on John H. Benbrook, a married man and owner of a popular gambling house. She had known him for some years. They decide to have a couple of Mint Juleps and dinner. A few minutes after being served, Burton Morris shows up in the room and gets enraged after seeing the object of his love dinning with another man, and worse of all, with two Mint Julep on the table. He throws a punch on Benbrook’s face, who then leaves to an adjoining room and asks the owner of the place to bring him a gun. A few minutes later, with the weapon in Benbrook’s hand, Morris arrives in the room and quickly approaches his opponent apparently without realizing that he had a gun. Benbrook shoots three times, Burton Morris falls to the floor and dies after a few minutes with two holes in his aorta.

Because of this tragedy, the State of Utah begins a trial against John H. Benbrook for the murder of Burton C. Morris. The trial lasts from the 19th of February of 1900 until the 9th of March of the same year. The details of the trial were front page news in Salt Lake City’s newspapers and it was one of the greatest events of the city in those days. Victor V. Morris was present in all the trial sessions, except in the last one, when the Jury gives its verdict. The Jury declares Benbrook not guilty because they ruled that he acted in self defense.

The City’s public opinion became outraged with the Jury’s decision, but not the gambling houses, which were jubilant. The chief of police declared that he will not permit any type of celebration in those establishments. After the trial, Victor Morris declared in an outrage:

I presume the least I say of it the better, as were I to express my feelings as they really are it will not look well in print. I think however, that when the Legislature meets again, that it should immediately repeal the law making murder an offense in Utah and thus save the State the expense of going to trial with cases the outcome of which is little more than a farse.

The sudden death of Victor Morris’ brother was the third tragedy that occurs to the Morris’ family. The first is the murder of Fred Jones, the uncle of Victor, which happened nineteen years before and perpetrated by a “drunken loafer” named Halloran in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The second, was when a cousin named John Burton is murdered in Salt Lake City twelve years before by the owner of a saloon and gambling house, named Martin. In all cases the slayers escaped punishment.

After his brother’s death, Victor became the manager of the flower shop (named The Burton C. Morris Floral Company), where his brother Sidney also worked. In May of the same year, Victor is in charge of preparing a train wagon full of flowers in honor of the miners that died in an explosion of a coal mine in the near city of Scofield, which left 107 widows and 270 children without a father. This was the largest mining disaster in the history of the United States at the time, and the fifth largest today. The wagon where the flowers were transported, was offered by A.E. Welby, the general superintendent of the Utah branch of the the railroad company Rio Grande Western. Victor traveled to Scofield in private wagon along with the event organizers, including A.E. Welby.

Victor Morris worked in his flower shop for a couple of more years, sometimes participating in important events of the city, such as for example, a banquet in honor of a Mormon delegation that was to travel to Europe and Japan in may 1901. Morris was in charge of decorating a large table for one hundred people, which included roses, carnations and violets, in addition to palm trees spread around the room and a large quantity of electric lights, giving the place a “picture of rare brilliance” according to a witness.

Our personage was a member of the Elk’s Lodge, an association similar to the Masons, having him serve as a member of the Resources Commission of Utah during the Carnival of August of the same year. He also was a candidate for the position of Secretary in March of 1902, but he lost the election. In August of the same year, he is one of the assistants in charge of decorating Salt Lake City in honor of the visit of an important person.

Two of the passions of Victor Morris were fishing and hunting. He used to take several weeks vacations during summer to visit several remote locations such as the Weber River, situated north of Salt Lake City or Jackson Hole located 300 miles away in the State of Wyoming. During a trip to the last place in August of 1901, he started to feel sick and decided to return to Salt Lake City where he was diagnosed with typhoid fever, sickness that, thank God for all us lovers of Pisco Sour, he was able to overcome in one month.

In September of 1902, an event occurs that will change Victor Morris’ life forever and that could be considered to be the first link of a chain that concludes with the creation of the delicious Peruvian cocktail. The already mentioned A.E. Welby, resigns to his position as general superintendent of the Utah branch of the Rio Grande Western, to accept the position of manager of the newly created Cerro de Pasco Railway Company, located in Cerro de Pasco, Peru. His mission was to manage the construction of the railway that will connect the Andean mining center of Cerro de Pasco with the city of La Oroya, where the railroad reaching the port of Callao was finished in 1893.

Cerro de Pasco, located high in the Andes at an altitude of 14,000 feet, was an important mining center since the days of the Spanish Viceroyalty. It was very rich in silver and copper, but the last metal was largely ignored because of the high costs of transporting it to the Peruvian coast. Since 1887, an American syndicate based in New York started to evaluate the copper reserves in Cerro de Pasco. James B. Haggin, a mining promoter born in Kentucky, and A.W. McCunne, a miner from Salt Lake City, in representation of the syndicate, decide to send a mining engineer named James McFarlane to Cerro de Pasco to evaluate the mining potential of the area. After receiving a very favorable report, the syndicate forms the Cerro de Pasco Investment Company in 1902, which through his Peruvian subsidiary, the Cerro de Pasco Mining Company, buys the majority of the mining concessions of the area. The same year they buy railroad rights and form the Cerro de Pasco Railway Company, which was put in charge of constructing the 82 miles long railroad connecting La Oroya with Cerro de Pasco.

Salt Lake City was also created through mining. The discovery of lead and silver in Bingham Canyon in 1863 led to the mining development of the area. Hundreds of copper, silver, gold and lead mines were opened in neighboring canyons. By 1905, there were build 1,500 miles of railroads. Gigantic smelters were constructed to refine the ore. Several miners constructed large houses along the principal avenues of Salt Lake City. Victor Morris did not leave himself behind, he owned stock in at least two mining companies.

The Cerro de Pasco project caused commotion in Salt Lake City, specially because one of its “own,” A.W. McCunne, was one of the principals of the enterprise. In January 2nd of 1902, tens of expert miners of the city and neighboring areas left for Cerro de Pasco.

A short time after A.E. Welby leaves for Peru, Victor Morris decides to sell, transfer or close his flower shop. He finds work in the auditing department of the Oregon Short Line railroad, which served Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. He worked in that position until June 3rd, 1903, when A.E. Welby hires him as a clerk in the Cerro de Pasco Railway Company, in Cerro de Pasco.

On the 8th of June of the same year, he takes the train to San Francisco, California, where he stays for a couple of weeks before sailing in a steamship to Peru.

A short time after the arrival of Morris to Cerro de Pasco, A.E. Welby resigns to his position after one year of work, indicating he could not adapt himself to the place. Welby returns to Salt Lake City, where he re-assumes his position of general superintendent of Rio Grande Western. Three years later, Welby is promoted to Denver, Colorado, where he takes charge of the Denver & Rio Grande railroad.

In March of 1904, Morris is in Cerro de Pasco working as a railroad agent.

On the 7th of July that year, the railroad finally reaches Cerro de Pasco. It’s inaugurated at 3:00PM of the 28th of July –date that coincided with the 83rd anniversary of the Peruvian independence– when with great pomp the first train arrives to Cerro de Pasco. There were 5,000 people in attendance. Stands were built for the important people, among them the consul agents, councillors, mining delegates, lawyers, doctors, priests, and many other members of the society. The ladies of the city manufactured two large flags, one American and one Peruvian, made of silk, gold and silver. These were located in the front of the engine which proudly carried the number 100. There were hundreds of smaller Peruvian and American flags placed in the first three first class cars. Victor Morris attended the ceremony and very probably participated in the decorations of the event. After several speeches and hurrahs the event concluded late in the afternoon.

In August of 1904, when Victor Morris was the cashier of the recently inaugurated railroad, he received the good news that his brother Sidney was hired as an engineer in the same company and that he sails to Peru via New York. The length of his contract is undefined but there was the possibility of it being temporary.

On the 28th of September of 1905, Victor Morris marries Maria Isabel Vargas, born in Lima (or Callao, according to one source), in Cerro de Pasco on May 17th, 1887. This legal wedding makes Maria a U.S. citizen. Victor and Maria Morris have three children: Richard P. Morris born in Cerro de Pasco on October 23rd, 1906; Robert V. born in Callao on April 29th, 1910 and Juana Rebecca born in Cerro de Pasco on February 2nd, 1913. The three children are registered as U.S. citizens. Little is known about this part of the Morris family, which could have included several trips to Lima and Callao.

In 1907, Victor’s youngest sister, Rebecca V,. gets married in the city of Pacific Grove, California. The newlyweds decide to live in the city of Berkeley, located a short distance from San Francisco, where Rebecca works in real state.

Victor Morris worked in the Cerro de Pasco Railroad Company until 1915, when the company is merged with the Cerro de Pasco Mining Company to form the Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation.

From the year 1915, the Morris family resides in Lima, where Victor opens the Morris Bar on the same year.*

Nothing is known of the life of Sidney H. Morris, other that he sailed from Callao to New York in May of 1922, presumably going back to visit Utah. Sidney H. Morris is found residing in the city of San Francisco, California, in January of 1930.

In August of 1923, Victor, Maria and two of their three children, Robert and Juana Rebecca, sailed from Callao to San Francisco, California. They stayed in the nearby city of Berkeley. The trip is apparently for a vacation and to visit his sister Rebecca V., who resided in that city for over fifteen years. They repeat the visit in 1924 and in 1925, at the same time of the year. All these trips are aboard the steamship S.S. Colusa, owned by the Grace Line, a steamship company with Peruvian roots and with some interests in the Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation. The address of the Morris’ at Berkeley is 2612 Regent St.

In 1927, the Morris Bar published an advertisement in Lima where Pisco Sour is announced, among many other cocktails that were very popular in the U.S. in the days prior to the Prohibition Act of 1919.* It was the first time that a cocktail with the word “pisco” in its name is advertised in Peru. It was also the second cocktail created in the world with that first name, after Pisco Punch, a cocktail created in San Francisco, California, and advertised since the 1880s. Victor Morris never offered Mint Juleps in his bar (a cocktail very similar to today’s Mojito but prepared with bourbon whiskey instead of rum).

Victor Morris dies on June 11th, 1929. In January of 1930, Maria Morris sails from Callao to San Francisco with her three children (Richard, Robert and Rebecca) on board the steamship S.S. Charcas, six months after the death of Victor. They reside in a new address in Berkeley: 2328 Warren St. and visit Sidney H. Morris, Victor’s brother, who resided in San Francisco at that time. In the middle of the same year, Maria and her three children reside in San Francisco.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: All the historical data presented in this article comes from public repositories located in the U.S., with the exception of the information related to the opening of Morris Bar in 1915 (Schiaffino, 2006) and the Morris Bar advertisement published in 1927 (Laos, 1927)(Balbi, 2004)(Schiaffino, 2006)].