Thursday, October 21, 2004
Edward A. McIlhenny: Businessman, Naturalist, Author...Fibber
By ROGER M. GRACE
It was in 1898, when his brother John rode off to join Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders,” that Edward Avery “Ned” McIlhenny assumed the presidency of the family business that manufactures Tabasco Sauce. His tenure was to last 51 years and, in that time, he was to turn the tongue-blistering brew into a household staple.
Ned McIlhenny was a person of multifold interests and talents—a “Renaissance Man”—but, like others in his family, he had a propensity for sidestepping the truth.
His versatility was noted in a 1993 article in the Washington Post by staff writer Ken Ringle, a nephew of the late Tabasco chief (who died in 1949). Ringle said that “Uncle Ned” had “made equal time for such pursuits as exploring the Arctic, penning poetry, writing the still-definitive natural history of the alligator, saving the snowy egret [a bird] from extinction and becoming a nationally known hunter and horticulturist.”
While known as “Uncle Ned” to Ringle, he was “Mr. Ned” or “M’sieu Ned” to those who worked for him on Avery Island in Louisiana. He often wrote under the name E.A. McIlhenny.
McIlhenny is credited with having set a record in 1890 by shooting the longest alligator measured up to that time in the U.S., said to have been 19-feet, two-inches.
“M’sieu Ned” modernized operations of his family’s business which had been producing Tabasco Sauce since 1869. It had been functioning as “E. McIlhenny’s Son” following the death of founder Edmund McIlhenny in 1890. Ned McIlhenny renamed it the “McIlhenny Company,” the moniker it bears today, incorporating it in 1907 in Maine, which remains its domicile.
McIlhenny’s boast that he introduced nutria—that is, river rats—to Louisiana, having purchased them in Argentina, is simply not so. McIlhenny Company historian Shane Bernard publicly acknowledged that a couple years ago in connection with the announced effort of the Tabasco Sauce maker to debunk fakelore surrounding its product.
The company chief took credit in the mid-1940s for his supposed pioneering efforts at a time when trappers were garnering income based on the value of the rodents’ fur. (More recently, the state established a $4-a-tail-bounty on the rats which are over-running the marshes, creating ecological havoc.)
Setting the record straight, Bernard disclosed that McIlhenny bought 20 of the orange-toothed, web-footed rats in New Orleans in 1938 and that he was not the first in the vicinage to raise them. In an interview in 2002 with the New Orleans newspaper Times-Picayune, Bernard said of the late company president:
“He was well-known on the island for his gift for spinning yarns,” adding:
“I think he saw himself as an entertainer when relating his personal history. He took liberties in a good-natured way, and because the nutria became so successful, I think he was eager to take credit for their success.”
That’s an impressively diplomatic approach to calling someone a liar.
A close friend of McIlhenny was Richard Leche, governor of Louisiana from 1936-39. When charges of self-dealing in office arose, Leche scoffed: “When I took the oath of office, I didn’t take any vow of poverty.”
In the wake of press reports concerning gross irregularities in the financial affairs of Louisiana State University, Leche on June 22, 1939 announced he would resign. Apparently to deflect attention from his own misdeeds, he reported on June 25 that university President James Monroe Smith had pilfered a half million dollars in university funds to invest—without luck—in the wheat market.
Smith wound up in prison, and so did Leche, convicted in 1940 of mail fraud in connection with $31,000 in kickbacks.
The State of Louisiana in 1939 sued McIlhenny and Leche for $27,351.01. That was the sum paid to McIlhenny for landscaping work at Louisiana State University campuses. The no-bid contract for that job purportedly stemmed from arm-twisting by Leche, with the proceeds supposedly split by McIlhenny, Leche and Smith. The state contended the contract was void and moneys paid under it had to be restored. The Louisiana Supreme Court held in 1942 that contracts for professional services entailing great skill do not require competitive bidding and that because the state got $27,351.01 worth of services, well, no harm, no foul.
McIlhenny was among many who were indicted in what might be retroactively dubbed the Bayougate Scandal. Bernard said in an email last week:
“Please note that although E. A. McIlhenny was indicted for his alleged involvement in this scandal, he was never tried, much less was he convicted, for any transgression.”
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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