Lost in the mountains

Some of you may know of Herbert Brutus Ehrmann. A Harvard-educated attorney born in Louisville, Kentucky, he is most known for serving on the defense team for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants convicted of (and later executed for) murdering a paymaster at a shoe company during an armed robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1930. The JHC has a collection of his materials.

His wife Sara Rosenfeld Ehrmann was equally well-known in the Boston community. Also born in Kentucky, she was raised in Rochester, New York, and married her husband in 1917. Partially in response to the injustice she saw in the case against Sacco and Vanzetti, she devoted her life to fight against capital punishment.

But did you know that Herbert’s father, Hilmar Ehrmann, was a Life Member of NEHGS? When looking through his son’s collection here at the JHC, we were surprised to find Volume 93 of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, from April 1939, and the page folded down in the book led to Hilmar’s obituary, which identified him as a Life Member. It was one of those serendipitous moments archivists live for!

According to his memoir in the Register, Hilmar was born in Tarnow, Austria (today Tarnów, Poland) on 18 April 1862 to Akiba Ehrmann, a bookbinder, and Eva (Behren) Ehrmann. At the age of 13, Hilmar began an apprenticeship in Germany, and he later became a master compounder of cordials and liqueurs in Breslau, Germany (today Wrocław, Poland). In 1887, Hilmar emigrated to the United States, where he settled in Louisville. He established Hilmar Ehrmann & Company, a whiskey distilling, wholesale, and importing business. The company produced several brands of whiskey, including Barony, Cream of Nelson, Beechmont, and Germania. Hilmar also began to invest in the F.G. Walker Distilling Company, also in Louisville, of which, by 1905, he became sole owner and president.[i] As the prohibition movement became more popular, he began to pull away from the liquor trade, selling some shares of his businesses to other investors, and by 1919–20 he had closed Hilmar Ehrmann & Company.[ii]

Eva [Ehrmann]’s son from her first marriage, Edward Melcarth, was a gay Communist artist who in 1950 was named as one of Time magazine’s 19 young American artists to watch.

Hilmar married Ernestine (known as Erna) Heissmann, of Lobau, Prussia (today Lubawa, Poland) in April 1888, and together they had three children: Eva, Herbert, and Amy. Eva, after her first husband died, married Sir Reginald Mitchell-Banks, a member of the British Parliament. Eva’s son from her first marriage, Edward Melcarth, was a gay Communist artist who in 1950 was named as one of Time magazine’s 19 young American artists to watch. The Lexington Herald Leader noted that he “might be the most famous Kentucky artist you’ve never heard of.”[iii] Hilmar later married for a second time, to Blanche Kahn of Louisville in 1930.

Hilmar’s NEHGS membership questionnaire, which was likely filled out by Herbert, reports more about his life. It claims that, starting in August 1914, he was lost for months in the Carpathian Mountains, trapped between the Austrian and Russian armies. It also notes that, according to family tradition, Hilmar was a direct descendant of Hillel the Elder, a famous Jewish leader and sage who was said to have been born circa 110 BCE. In addition to these tidbits, Herbert writes of his father that “in Louisville he was widely loved as a broadminded and kindly man.” Hilmar died on 8 December 1936 and is buried at the Temple Cemetery in Louisville.


[i] Harold Clarke Durrell, “Memoirs of Deceased Members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 93 [1939]: 180.

[ii] Jack Sullivan, “Hilmar Ehrmann Hit the Blue Grass — Running,” 19 April 2016, Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men!, http://pre-prowhiskeymen.blogspot.com/2016/04/hilmar-ehrmann-hit-blue-grass-running_19.html

[iii] Tom Elben, “The rich and famous collected his work. Then he became Kentucky’s forgotten artist,” 11 January 2018, Lexington Herald Leader, https://www.kentucky.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/tom-eblen/article194180314.html.

Lindsay Murphy

About Lindsay Murphy

Lindsay Murphy began her work at Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in October 2014 as an intern and joined the staff in August 2015. As Collections Archivist, Lindsay manages all processing projects and is responsible for reviewing and encoding finding aids. She received a B.A. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.S. in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives Management from Simmons College. She is a member of the Society of American Archivists and the New England Archivists.View all posts by Lindsay Murphy