Interior of Abel Laigneau’s store. The coffee grinder is pictured in the left foreground.

A Victorian melodrama

The Comstock’s first coffee roaster.

The story has all the makings of a melodrama: kidnapping, seduction, mistaken identity, murder, hanging, coffee.

Coffee, you wonder? How does this perennially popular drink get tied up with a lurid story of the early days in Virginia City?

It all goes back to Abel Laigneau, the first coffee roaster on the Comstock and his store, Virginia Coffee and Spice Mills.

Laigneau is kidnapped

Laigneau was born in France and opened his shop at 142 S. C St. in Virginia City in 1869, calling it a “pioneer” store in Nevada. The business got off to a rocky start. According to some accounts, Laigneau was kidnapped in 1870 — a bag was thrown over his head, his hands were tied, and he was mounted on a horse. He was found a day later at a ranch near Steamboat Springs. Laigneau apparently had been mistaken for a man who’d seduced a young girl in San Francisco two years before — a story he denied.

In 1875, the store was called Laigneau & Lillie’s and advertised “to all epicures and good livers” with “Java coffee, fresh ground every day. We import direct from the largest houses in San Francisco.” One year later, Lillie’s name was gone from the business. Laigneau expanded the business with “a new and powerful steam machine for the manufacture of ground coffee, chocolate, spices, etc.” He packaged his beans in tins for miners and townsfolk during this Virginia City boom time.

The business hit another snag on June 9, 1884, when a fire gutted the establishment. The interior was completely charred, but the loss of $2,000 worth of stock was fully insured. Laigneau didn’t fare as well with the uninsured building. The business reopened, and Laigneau continued to offer quality products such as Japan Purity Tea, Mexican chocolate, and pure ground spices. He proudly offered Mocha, Java, Costa Rican, and Rio coffees.

Tragedy on the Comstock

These stories pale when compared to the murder of Laigneau’s brother-in-law, August Bouhaben. Bouhaben was born in Lasseube, France, and clerked in the coffee store. He was described as “quiet and inoffensive and well-liked by all who knew him.”

Enter the villain, Jerry (Jeremiah) Barry. He worked at the Yellow Jacket Mine in Gold Hill and was known as a drunkard and gambler. Only months before, he was arrested twice, once for drawing a pistol on a police officer and again for disturbing the peace.

On March 31, 1892, Barry rushed into Virginia Coffee and Spice Mills demanding $50 at gunpoint from Laigneau. The mine company had put Barry’s salary in trust at the store to ensure Barry’s family had funds for food and rent; Barry received a $5 daily allowance. Laigneau refused to give the additional funds, and Barry pulled his pistol. Witness accounts say that Bouhaben ran to help Laigneau reach the safety of their office while Barry yelled, “Take that, you damn foreigner” and fired. Barry missed Laigneau but struck Bouhaben with a fatal wound to the brain.

Barry dropped the pistol and fled. The sheriff found him hiding under his bed and dragged Barry out kicking and screaming that he was innocent while his wife and children looked on. During his trial, he used the excuse that he was drunk, but the jury wasn’t swayed. Barry was convicted and hanged on July 19, 1892.

The story has one last tragic footnote. Leaving behind the misfortune on the Comstock, the following year, Laigneau headed to San Francisco with plans to visit his native France. En route, he died of illness on July 15, 1893. His body was returned to Virginia City, where Laigneau and Bouhaben were reunited in the city’s Silver Terrace Cemetery. Bouhaben’s headstone, erected by his sister and brother-in-law, is marked with the large letters “MURDERED.”

Sharon Honig-Bear was the longtime restaurant writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal. She is a tour leader with Historic Reno Preservation Society and founder of the annual Reno Harvest of Homes Tour. She can be reached at Sharonbear@sbcglobal.net.

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