Dry agents take a whack at the bootlegging problem in Newark.
|1926: Wet and wild Prohibition days|
|By JON BLACKWELL / Staff Writer|
|Just how hard was it to enforce Prohibition in the Trenton of the '20s? Pretty hard, considering that the police chief gave his personal protection to bootleggers and threatened to arrest a dry agent who came to town to disturb things.
Just how easy was it to have a drink in the Trenton of the '20s? As easy as walking into the darkened speakeasies that dotted Chambersburg and South Broad Street, and State Street. As easy as driving to the Jersey Shore, where cases of whiskey were being unloaded in open air markets at pre Prohibition prices.
|A shocking state of affairs, the good forces of temperance and decency agreed. They demanded that the United States government crack down on the illicit alcohol trade, since local authorities were clearly not up to the job and city after city was flowing in booze.
In the fall of 1926, a ramrod-straight, teetotaling Army colonel named Ira Reeves showed up to take charge of the federal government's New Jerst y district for Prohibition, with headquarters in Newark.
Reeves thought or himself as a "Prohibition St. Patrick" chasing the snakes of demon rum out of New Jersey, and went to work with a vengeance, raiding several booze plants a day.
It took him less than a year to figure out that he was failing -- that he had, in fact, the most impossible job in the world. Keep Jersey sober? Might as well ask Jersey drivers to obey the speed limit.
"There were just as many bootleggers, making bigger profits than before," Reeves would later write. "There were doubtless just as many wildcat stills, cutting plants, breweries, ale plants, roadhouses, saloons and speakeasies as before my ambitious crusade."
”I then realized what all the other administrators in the United States had learned - the Prohibition laws are unenforceable."
The forces on both sides of Prohibition -- "drys" in favor, "wets" against - were arrayed against each other long before the '20s. The Women's ChristianTemperance Union bad been storming against the evils of drink since the 1870s, with broad support from the Protestant church.
The pastor of the Clinton Avenue Baptist Church voiced the WCTU's sentiments in 1891 when he called drink "the nursery of crime, the enemy of domestic happiness, the threshold of the poorhouse, the vestibule of the jail, the portal of hell."
New Jersey, however, was a wet state, and the capital city of Trenton was a melting pot of Italians, Irish, Germans and Poles. They cherished their Old World traditions, traditions that included a lot of social drinking.
Besides, urban sophisticates saw Prohibition as a monstrous joke imposed on them by narrowminded hypocrites. As H.L. Mencken put it, "Prohibition has little behind it, philosophically speaking, other than the resentment of the country lout for the city man."
The governor elected in 1919, Edward Edwards, vowed to make his state "as wet as the Atlantic Ocean." But on Jan. 16, 1920, Prohibition became law of the land as the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. New Jersey was one of only three states not to ratify the amendment, but the feds made it clear they would enforce the law.
Trenton's saloons were left with a tough decision , The could close down, convert to soda fountains or try to make a living selling 0.5 percent beer, stuff that was about as potent as sauerkraut. Or, perhaps, sell the hard stuff illegally - by going into business as speakeasies.
You didn't need to be that secretive to sell drinks on the sly. All you needed was the cooperation of the police department, which saw nothing wrong with the booze trade and turned a blind eye to all but the most flagrant violators.
It helped that the police chief was William Walter, an agreeable fellow who was on the take and whose best friend was Victor Cooper, the "beer baron" of Trenton.
Speakeasies flourished everywhere where thirsty working people lived. By Walter's own admission, there were at least 800 of them - four times the number of legal, pre Prohibition watering holes. Richard Switlik, now president of Switlik Parachute Co., remembers one bustling place at South Broad and Bridge streets, where music and hilarity blared. Another speakeasy, popular with Paul Whiteman's jazz hand, operated on Chancery Lane - across the street from the police station.
Idle factories were put to use as illegal distilleries. At the railyards, cargo holds labeled "Jersey tomatoes" or "produce" were really carrying a different type of commodity.
It was still legal to buy alcohol with a doctor's prescription, which allowed the city's Municipal Colony hospital to stockpile gin and whiskey. Records would later show vast amounts of the stuff being prescribed to "patients" who were quite dead. A city commissioner was tried and acquitted on embezzlement charges.
There was also home brewing. 'Burg native Maurice Perilli, now president of Roma Federal Savings Bank, helped his family cook malt in a jug and siphon it into bottles. "Once the yeast settled, it was pretty good beer," Perilli said. "Of course, my dad always diluted it for me so it wasn’t much more than water.”
To get an idea of how nutty the times were, consider these news items from a single year in the Prohibition era, 1926:
* Federal agents, keeping a close watch on moonshine and applejack in the Pine Barrens, said they would follow up every sighting of the Jersey Devil and find out what the witnesses had been drinking.
* Hard?drinking 17-year-old Margaret Denston earned the nickname of the "Flapper Bandit" for holding up a Camden saloon.
* All charges were dropped against a dozen rum?runners caught red-handed unloading whiskey from a camouflaged barge in the
Rancocas Creek. Prosecutors said there was a lack of evidence.
* A Jersey City bartender arrested for selling whiskey to an undercover dry agent asked to go free because the cop tricked him by saying lie needed the drink to help his indigestion. A federal judge in Trenton laughed and fined the barkeep $200.
* Thousands of bottles, flasks and kegs of booze, accumulated over the years in various seizures, were finally smashed to pieces in the basement of the Mercer County Courthouse -- sending a strong odor of alcohol wafting through the halls of justice.
By year’s end, there were a mere 19 dry agents and administrators doing the entire work of Prohibition in New Jersey. It was impossible even to bring to court all 2,117 cases lodged in 1926 against bootleggers and liquor dealers.
Enter Ira Reeves, the Prohibition chief who was supposed to clean up this mess. One of his first actions after he took charge that November was to ask for the resignation of the ineffective Mercer County dry
administrator. Another was to concentrate on raiding giant stills and big shipments of drinks, not padlocking the small-time speakeasies.
At a party, Reeves was taunted by a friend who openly drank what he thought was authentic Black Horse Ale. Subsequently, on a raid on a Jersey farm, Reeves found a pile of Counterfeit "Black Horse Ale" labels along with a vat of beer with a dead rat floating on top. He sent both the labels and rat to his friend.
Mostly, however, Reeves encountered only frustration. The Coast Guard obstructed him from nabbing the speedy skiffs running rum off the Jersey Shore. Local police departments refused their cooperation.
On the night of Jan. 20, 1927, Reeves dispatched three of his best men to check out a report of a beer warehouse at Market and Broad streets in Trenton.
The dry agents had no sooner showed up when a mob of angry citizens surrounded them outside the warehouse and threatened to beat them up. One of the agents fired into the air to disperse the crowd; that alerted a nearby patrol cop.
The cop's reaction was immediate: to arrest the federal agents for carrying guns without licenses!
"If Col. Reeves can employ none other than gun-toting operatives, he had better keep them in Newark," Chief Walter went on to explain. "We don't want them here."
Frustrated, Reeves quit four months later and wrote a memoir, "Ol' Rum River," blasting the whole Prohibition movement.
Soon, it became clear even to the most ardent dry crusader that Prohibition was a flop. Worse than that, it was handing control of the Jersey liquor trade to shady gangsters like "Legs" Diamond and Dutch Schultz, and small-time, homicidal hoods like Trenton's "Little Joe" Marrazzo and Joe Pantieri.
On Sept. 26, 1929, Marrazzo and Pantieri ambushed a truck full of bootleg liquor and shot two rivals to death at Lyndale and Enimett avenues. The duo went to the electric chair for their crime, snarling defiance all the way. "Let's go, boys, let's go," Marrazzo said, smoking a cigar on his way to the death seat.
More Prohibition violence would follow. In 1930, a 19-year-old bootlegger was shotgunned to death in a battle with a rival gang in Hamilton. In 1931 came the worst atrocity of all -- a bomb went off at a distillery in Lawrence, killing a neighbor, injuring five dry agents who were inspecting the place, and sending the township police chief to the hospital for months.
Prohibition came to an end with repeal of the 18th Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933. Toasts were drunk once again in the open, wine was sold in the groceries, real beer replaced near beer. The governor, A. Harry Moore, vetoed a bill for alcohol beverage control, which delayed legal liquor for a few days. Not to worry, he told everyone.
"Liquor has been sold illegally for 13 years in New Jersey,” Moore said, "and it will not hurt if this is done for a few days more."