Saturday, November 23, 2013

Alfred Norris: Eastern Aristocrat -- and the Bootlegger

Alfred E. Norris was a certified “blue blood,”  born to well-to-do parents, well educated, a member of Philadelphia’s most exclusive clubs, and listed in the city’s high society “Blue Book.”  He lived in a mansion home where he and family were waited on by four live-in servants.   What then was Norris doing consorting with the likes of Joel D. Kerper, one of Philadelphia’s most notorious bootleggers?  The answer, as will be seen, might be found in National Prohibition.

Alfred was born in 1960, to a well established Pennsylvania family.  Apparently receiving some advanced education, while still in his early 20s he apparently went to work with a successful Baltimore wholesale liquor dealer named Edward B. Bruce.  After a relatively short time, possibly with the help of family money, he went into the whiskey trade on his own behalf, establishing an Philadelphia enterprise he called “Alfred E. Norris & Company.”  It was located at 209 South Front Street .

Meanwhile Norris was having a personal life.  In the 1900 U.S. Census he was living with his 36-year-old wife, Marie, one child three years old, and four servants in a fancy Philadelphia neighborhood.  Now age 40, Alfred’s occupation was given as “liquor merchant.”  In the meantime his business had grown significantly.   Needing larger quarters Norris moved to 118 Walnut Street in 1893.  For a time he maintained a store at 13 Granite Street and a branch office in Boston, located in the Tremont Building.

In addition to being a liquor merchant Norris was a rectifier, that is blending and compounding his own whiskeys, bottling them with his own labels, and selling them to saloons and restaurants as well as to the retail pubic.  The need for a constant supply of raw liquor from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Kentucky distilleries put him in constant contact with producers.  Unlike other dealers of his time, Norris concentrated his brands on a handful of labels.   Most prominent among them were “Trooper” and “Trooper Old Blend Rye,” which he registered with the Patent and Trademark Office in 1898 and 1905, respectively.  Additionally, in 1912 he registered his own name as a brand.  His flagship label, however, was “Garrick Club,” a rye whiskey.  As an aristocrat might do, Norris named it after one of the oldest and most prestigious men’s clubs in London.  He registered the trademark in 1897.

The Philadelphian advertised Garrick Club vigorously in local and regional media.  Often his ads showed a well-dressed gent -- coat, vest and tie -- grinning in pleasure as he poured from a bottle of the whiskey into a small glass.  The character seems to be mouthing:  “The Best in the House.”  Lest the reader miss the message that this was a drink for the “carriage trade,”  the ad reminded that it could be asked for “at all good places.”

To make sure that those “good places” were stocking his liquor,  Norris provided an array of advertising giveaway items to saloons and other establishments.  Among them were wall signs and mirrors that featured the Garrick Club grinning drinker and the familiar slogan.  Nor could any whiskey wholesaler ignore the man behind the bar, a figure who was able to steer customers to a particular brand. To the “mixologists” Norris gifted an attractive pen knife with a tools of the bartender’s trade, as well as a advertising. corkscrew. A fairly unusual giveaway was a round box holding dice that could be set on the bar to roll for drinks.

Most impressive of all were the several back-of-the-bar bottles Norris provided to his favored customers.  Four are shown here.  The most eye-catching was a Garrick Club label-under-glass bottle that also bore the Norris trademark,  a regal crown hovering over a monogram of the owner’s name.  Other Garrick Club bottles were shaped as decanters and had fancy stoppers, some with etched gold labels. A fourth bore the name of the company.

Norris advertised vigorously. A trade publication in 1901 remarked that:  “The Garrick Club advertisement...herewith is pronounced even by temperance men to be the strongest whiskey ad that ever appeared in a newspaper.  It was run 100 lines across four columns (400 lines in all) in a recent issues of the Philadelphia Record.” He also was able to obtain endorsements from publications that aimed at doctors and their patients.  In 1886 a magazine called the “Medical Bulletin” opined that they believed Garrick Club “to be the purest whiskey in the market” and noted that its price was almost as low as inferior brands.
Vigorous merchandising and a talent for commerce advanced Norris to the top of the Philadelphia business community.  He became a member of the Philadelphia Club, described as:  “The oldest and most guarded of the city’s old-guard clubs....This is the hardest club in town to join, limited largely to old Philadelphia families."  Further proof of the whiskey man’s elite status included a New York Times report that Norris and his wife were among the guests at a yachting party from Newport, Rhode Island, that had cast anchor off the New York Yacht Club.  The Philadelphia “Blue Book” recorded the Norris family living on Chestnut Hill in a mansion they called “The Elms.”  By this time Alfred and Marie had five children, three boys and two girls.  All were living with them.

Alfred E. Norris & Co and its lucrative business came to a screeching halt in 1919 with the imposition of National Prohibition.  Norris and family then appear to have moved to New York City where one directory has them living on East 72nd Street in Manhattan.  A national directory of the “Best Families in America” listed him as  “New York stock broker and capitalist.”  Despite the loss of his “cash cow” liquor business, Norris was doing all right.

Enter Joel D. Kerper, widely known as the bootlegger who bottled illegal liquor for the Philadelphia elite.  In 1910 Kerper, a native of the city, listed his occupation as “manager - wholesale house.”  It is possible he was working for Norris. During Prohibition, with all alcohol sales banned, Kerper had a clandestine facility on Philadelphia’s Walnut Street that was well known to the city’s upper crust.  He also regularly was sending disguised shipments of liquor to the Maine summer homes of Philadelphia’s rich and powerful.

The bootlegger and Alfred Norris joined into a kind of partnership in which Norris, identified as a “Manhattan broker,” sent Kerper express shipments of high grade liquor masquerading as ink, paint, olive oil and other unremarkable commodities.  This scheme apparently was successful for years until 1929 as Hoover Administration officials began to crack down on illegal booze.  When Prohibition agents raided Kerper's place they found liquor and a customers' list that included the names of many socially prominent individuals.

U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell was the prosecutor in the government crackdown.   Norris and Kerper became opening test cases. In 1929 Norris was charged with conspiring to transport liquor, a federal offense punishable by a long prison sentence and a hefty fine.  It resulted from telephone orders he took from Kerper to initiate liquor shipments.  The story of the New York money man being caught in a scandal made Time Magazine and newspaper headlines around the country.  According to one press account, a Federal District Court in New York City initially quashed the prosecution on the grounds that it had not been established that purchasing liquor was illegal.

But that was not the end of problems for Norris.  A second indictment came from a Federal grand jury for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  This time, apparently fearing conviction, Kerper pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 months in the Federal prison in Atlanta and given a $20,000 fine, ten times that in today’s dollar.  Norris pled “nolo contendre”  and was fined only $200, a much lighter sentence possibly because of his social standing. Subsequently Norris had second thoughts about this plea, perhaps concerned about its effects on his “Best Families” reputation  He appealed to the Circuit Court which agreed with him and reversed the judgment in his favor.

Dogged in pursuit of a conviction, Atty. Gen. Mitchell took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  There in May 1930 the Court let stand the original indictment. It said Norris’s “nolo contendre”  had “all the effect of a plea of guilty” and told him fork over the $200.  On the issue of whether Norris and Kerper were engaged in a “criminal conspiracy” -- Mitchell’s underlying reason for bringing the charges -- the Supremes refused to go along. On that issue the High Court pointedly stated: “...We express no opinion.

At that point both Norris and Kerper fade into the mists of history.  It leaves open speculation about whether, when Prohibition shut down his company, Norris, in a spirit of rebellion or revenge,  quickly had made a deal with Kerper, now possibly unemployed, to keep a liquor business going.  Using his abundant contacts in the whiskey trade and among Philadelphia’s elite, Norris would do the procuring from New York and Kerper would do the selling in Philly.  Criminal or not, were the blue blood and the bootlegger involved in a conspiracy?  Attorney General Mitchell just might have been right.


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