Sunday, November 10, 2019

Leo Salamandra and the Perils of Bootlegging

When National Prohibition arrived in 1920, Leo Salamandra, a successful and wealthy Trenton, New Jersey, liquor dealer still had thousands of bottles of valuable whiskey on premises — but was forbidden to market it legitimately. For months he anguished about what to do.  Late in 1921 Salamandra determined to sell the stash to a gang of New York bootleggers.  It cost him his life.

Salamandra was born in Menteleone, Spoleto, Central Italy in 1878.  Two older brothers, Louis and Rosato, had immigrated to the United States earlier and apparently already were engaged in the liquor trade in Trenton when Leo, 20 years old, arrived in 1898. He soon met and married Antonette Anna, still in her teens, who also was an Italian immigrant.  They would have a family of four children, two girls and two boys. 

For reasons unknown, Salamandra did not join with his brothers in the whiskey trade but struck out on his own, opening a grocery about 1904 at 611 Roebling Avenue, a store that emphasized liquor sales.  His quick success was evident.  By 1908, according to Trenton business directories,  Leo was operating a wholesale and retail liquor store at 200 Fulton and a bottling plant at 113 Cummings Avenue.

Salamandra was wholesaling whiskey, likely buying product from distilleries in the region by the barrel and decanting it in large ceramic jugs for sale to the many drinking establishments boasted by Trenton.  As shown here, one of Leo’s jugs could hold as much as three gallons of whiskey  The saloon would sell it by the drink over the bar probably as the “house” low cost brand.  A jug like the one shown here would serve up roughly 256 shots.

The marketing strategy adopted by Salamandra involved copious advertising.  Shown above is an ad he placed multiple times in the 1908 Trenton business directory.  He emphasized his sole bottling rights to the beers of F. A. Poth Brewing Corporation of Philadelphia.  He employed glass bottles for beer and house soft drinks with a wire mechanism holding the stopper in place.  Of note is his embossing on the glass. Looking closely one can see that the “S” is actually a snake-like critter, e.g. a salamander.  Leo was using his name as a branding device.

Along the line the Italian immigrant also incorporated.  A 1914 ad that ran in Trenton newspapers claimed that: “You make no mistake in calling on Leo Salamandra & Co. Inc, for beer, wine, whiskies and liquors of all kinds.”
The ad also claimed that: “You not only save money by dealing with us, but get the highest quality as well.”  

Salamandra’s advertising investments also may be responsible for an item in the Trenton Times extolling the musical talent of his two daughters, Theresa and Iola,  both accounted by the newspaper as musical prodigies even at 10 and 11 years old.  In the story the tots’ piano teacher predicted “a bright future for them in the musical world.”   Leo and Anna must have beamed at the publicity.

In 1920, the passage of the Volstead Act and imposition of National Prohibition dealt a blow to Salamandra.  Even though New Jersey never voted for the Constitutional amendment and resistance was strong in the state, the liquor dealer was forced to suspend all sales of alcohol.  Apparently hoping to recoup lost income, he opened a new bottling plant in Trenton, apparently to make soft drinks.  According to trade publications, his plant had the latest in mechanized equipment.  Salamandra also bought a pair of two-ton trucks.

Unable to sell all the whiskey he had on hand when the axe fell, Salamandra fretted over for months over what to do with the stash of liquor still in his warehouse.  Determined to make Prohibition work, federal agents energetically led raids all over New Jersey, shutting down speakeasies, roadhouses, stills, and breweries.  Nevertheless, virtually any resident who wished to could drink with impunity.  Bootlegging operated openly.

Salamandra made a fateful decision.  He would sell his residual whiskey supply to the mob.  Through intermediaries, likely fellow Italians, he made contact with a New York City gang headed by Meyer Lansky, shown here, who in association with “Bugsy" Siegel and “Lucky” Luiciano ran a prominent bootlegging operation.  Leo presumably made a deal to sell 51 cases of whiskey to the gang, valued then at $30,000 and worth in today’s dollar about $600,000.  The conspirators agreed to the handoff near Kingston, New Jersey, about 14 miles north of Trenton when the money would be turned over.   The route is shown on this map.

On the night of February 13, 1921, with Salamandra and a brother following in their automobile, his truck carrying the whiskey set out from Trenton for the rendezvous.  The liquor dealer apparently was apprehensive about the deal as he and associates were armed with pistols.  As they neared Kingston about 3 a.m. suddenly a Cadillac touring car with four men in it — hired by Lansky — pulled up beside them, guns drawn, and forced both the truck and Salamandra’s car off the road.

The New York Times story the next day is imprecise but it appears Salamandra and the others in his party were then escorted to a nearby New Jersey village called Rocky Hill.  Apparently the hijackers did not disarm Salamandra’s party and during a dispute a gun battle broke out. The leader of the bootleggers, a notorious gunman named Frank Walsh, was wounded with a gunshot to the eye.  Leo Salamandra was shot five times at close range and died on the spot.  A painting by W. H. Koerner (1878-1938) called “Bootleggers” captures a similar scene.

Carrying the dying Walsh with them, gang members started north toward Brunswick, New Jersey, at a high rate of speed in Salamandra’s loaded truck and wrecked.  When police quickly arrived at the scene they found Walsh dead.  Two of the bootleggers were captured and taken to the Middlesex County jail in Brunswick.  Investigation revealed they were from gang members from the Newark area with New York City connections.

At first the incident was treated as a hijacking but as evidence mounted it began to look like an illicit liquor sale gone bad.  It appeared that Walsh previously had drawn $10,000 from a New Brunswick bank, apparently to pay for the liquor.  Since that amount was only one-third of the value of Salamandra’s stash, and likely less than previously agreed, Leo and his brother may have argued with Walsh’s gang and gunfire resulted.

The dots connected back to Meyer Lansky.   Brazenly, Lansky himself drove down from New York City to New Brunswick with the cash to bail out the two incarcerated gang members.  The official investigation into the events that fatal night has been characterized by one observer:  “There was lots of lying…by both sides and the truth was never fully determined.”  As for Salamandra’s whiskey stash, federal agents confiscated and destroyed it.

None of this obviously meant anything to Leo Salamandra. At 42 years of age, he was buried in Trenton’s Our Lady of Lourdes Cemetery and a large monument, symbolic of family wealth, raised in his memory.  In addition to his widow, Anna, Leo left behind four minor children.  Iola and Theresa were in their late teens, sons Leo V. was 13 and Anthony was 10.

Perhaps to have a father for her boys, Anna remarried.  Her husband was Tito Salamandra, Leo’s brother, possibly the one accompanying him during the botched liquor sale. The 1940 census found all the Salamandras living in a large home at 736 Greenwood Avenue in Trenton, shown here as it looks today.  Anna, at 59, was head of the household.  With her was husband Tito and her two unmarried sons, Leo V. and Anthony, a lawyer.  Apparently with musical careers forgotten both girls had married and with husbands were living with the family.  Iola was wed to an undertaker and had two daughters;  Theresa was married to an insurance salesman, no children listed.

Importantly, the family was back in the whisky business.  After Repeal in 1934 Leo V. Salamandra almost immediately reopened the liquor store his father had founded.  A 1935 Trenton directory contained an ad for the firm, now located at 133 Morris Avenue, off Chestnut Street, claiming a 1904 origin.  Tito appears to have been working for his nephew/stepson as a salesman.  Despite the violent end of their “founding father,” the Salamandras had moved on from the tragic events of 1921 and crafted their lives into a close-knit family.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Frisco’s Rothenbergs Ran with “The Old Judge”

When Shakespeare has Juliet intone to Romeo, “What’s in a name?,”  he was blissfully unaware of the confusions, collisions, and conflicts that would characterize the pre-Prohibition liquor trade over the name of a whiskey.  Among brands, the history of the “The Old Judge,” is among the most convoluted.   That background failed to bothered the Rothenbergs of San Francisco:   When the family acquired rights to “The Old Judge,” they ran with the name and never looked back.  

The Old Judge brand is said to have originated on whiskey in 1857, a product of M.T. Mitchell distillery of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.  Another source claims that the name had been used since 1866 by Emil Stern's Son & Co. of New York City. On the West Coast a short-lived San Francisco liquor house named Kane, O’Leary & Company in 1881 were granted a federal trademark for “The Old Judge.”  Perhaps as part of a bankruptcy,  that company apparently transferred ownership of the brand to another Frisco liquor house, Newmark, Gruenberg & Co., that trademarked the label again a year later under its own name.  Subsequently those partners split and Max Gruenberg became sole proprietor.

Throughout this period a facility was operating near Frankfort, at Benson Creek, Kentucky, known in federal parlance as Distillery No. 11, 7th District, and popularly as “The Old Judge Distillery.”  It was acquired in 1899 by S.C. Herbst, a Milwaukee liquor wholesaler who then issued an Old Judge bourbon.  Just a short time later the Rothenbergs come on the scene.

The confusion carries forward with this family.  An article in “Bottles and Extras” in 2005 claimed that Sara Rothenberg with a son, Samual (sic), opened a liquor store in Oakland, California, in 1887 and a year later bought out Gruenberg at 525 Front Street in San Francisco.  My research indicates a considerably different story.  Sara was the wife of Louis Rothenberg who founded the Oakland operation under his wife’s name as “S.B. Rothenberg & Co.”  She was active in the firm as a director and trademarks were applied for in her name, but husband Louis was running the liquor house.  Nor did the Rothenbergs buy out Max Gruenberg who continued to operate at the Front St. address until at least 1896.  What the family apparently bought from Max was the The Old Judge brand name.

Once owning the rights to the name, the Rothenbergs made it their flagship and in 1902 trademarked it in their own name.   While featuring other labels, including “Quaker Club” and “Rosemond,” the company’s full attention was given to advertising and marketing Old Judge.   Key to the Rothenbergs’ merchandising were giveaway items to customers like saloons, restaurants and hotels featuring their whiskey, particularly gifting colorful serving and tip trays.  Tray bottoms were clear about the source.

Back-of-the-bar bottles were also a favorite giveaway item.  They came to the customer filled and after being empty, expectation was they would be refilled with Old Judge.  Far too often, however, bartenders would refill them with substandard, cheap whiskey and charge premium prices.  That practice caused them to be banned from bar shelves in 1934 as part of Repeal legislation.

The company also advertised through shot glasses.  Less costly to produce than the lithographed trays and back-of-the-bar bottles, these items also might be handed out to retail customers to remind them to buy Old Judge.  The lithographed cardboard sign below indicates that the Rothenbergs were capable of catching popular scenes of the times to aid Old Judge sales. It is a 17 and 1/8th by 12 and 1/2 inch saloon sign.  On hefty 7/8th of an inch thick cardboard, a color lithograph celebrates May 1, 1898 when Admiral Dewey caught the antiquated Spanish fleet at anchor in Manila Bay and destroyed it in the ensuing battle.

Clearly the most unusual item given away by the Rothenbergs was a heavy black iron daschund foot scraper.  Many streets in San Francisco remained unpaved in the late 1800s, exposing what locals call “Bay mud,” consisting of thick deposits of soft, water-saturated clay.  When it rained, this soil stuck insistently to shoes and might be tracked by customers into local drinking establishments.  An Old Judge foot scraper might have been a welcome addition to any Frisco saloon.

As they prospered, the Rothenberg household grew.  The 1900 Census found them living at 2421 Washington Street in San Francisco.  Louis was 44 years old, born in Germany.   Sara was 12 years younger, born in England of German parentage.  The couple had been married for 14 years.  Their children were two:  Sanford, age thirteen and Madeline, nine.  Also in the household was an Irish maid and Henry Rothenberg, Louis’ younger brother, who was working as a traveling salesman for the liquor house.  When the company incorporated the same year at $150,000 (roughly equivalent to $3.3. million today), Louis, Sara and Henry were principals.

Son Sanford  grew to maturity and was brought into the liquor house initially as a clerk.  The young man, however, had other ideas and hankered for a life on the stage.  He made his vaudeville debut in 1910 to audience acclaim and by 1916, using “Sandy Roth” as his stage name, had joined the movie industry where he was playing bit parts in films as well as serving in production roles.  “Sandy” has earned a brief biography on Wikipedia.

Symbolic of the wealth that sales of Old Judge were bringing the family was the purchase by Louis of an obsolete Navy tender, called “Prairie,” built during the Spanish-American War.  He paid $22,666.66 (equivalent today to almost a half million dollars) for the ship, a vessel large enough to hold dozens of Rothenberg relatives and friends on joy rides around San Francisco Bay.  

As prohibitionary laws mounted in localities and states where Old Judge had been a best seller, the Rothenbergs began to experience financial difficulties.  When a creditor pressed to collect a loan, Louis, ignoring California law, dissolved the corporation without seeking a vote of all stockholders.  Instead he transferred the entire assets of the business to his own account and continued to operate.  A California appeals court took a dim view of this gambit and found for the creditor.

With the coming of National Prohibition, the Rothenbergs were forced to shut the doors on their liquor business.  The 1920 census lists Louis, now sixty years old, as “retired,” living with Sara and Sanford.  There the trail ends as I have been unable to track the family further.  It is my hope that some sharp-eyed relative will stumble on this vignette and help fill in the blanks.  The many Old Judge artifacts the Rodenbergs have given to posterity deserve nothing less than to know how the story ends.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Three Pundits on Whiskey and Prohibition

Foreword:  Dictionary definitions of a “pundit” suggest an individual who provides opinions on a subject or subjects to the public, usually through the media.  That definition suits the three men featured here, all of whom began their careers as print journalists and moved on to more literary forms.  Two grew up in smaller towns but all three developed national audiences by commenting from large cities, namely Baltimore, New York and Chicago.  All three at length addressed whiskey and prohibition.

Known widely as the “Sage of Baltimore,”  Henry Louis (“H.L.”) Mencken was the most influential American commentator of the first third of the Twentieth Century and a man of strong opinions on almost everything. One of his positive views was of Maryland rye whiskey.  Mencken contended that a friend “always ate rye bread instead of wheat because rye was the bone and sinew of Maryland whiskey -- the most healthful appetizer yet discovered by man.” According to Mencken, the family doctor “believed and taught that a shot of Maryland whiskey was the best preventive of pneumonia in the R months.”  

When Maryland distilling came to a screeching halt with the coming of Prohibition in 1920, Mencken abhorred it. “The chief argument against Prohibition is that it doesn’t prohibit,”  he commented. “This is also the chief argument in favor of it.” 
In a more serious mode in 1925 Mencken wrote:  “There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. Not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”

The author personally responded to the “Great Experiment” by selling his car and using the proceeds to purchase a large stock of “the best wines and liquors I could find.” Maryland rye was among them. Mencken stored them in a basement vault in his home whose locked door bore a custom-painted sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. The sign said: “This vault is protected by a device releasing chorine gas under 200 pound pressure. Enter at your own risk.” 

No one celebrated the end of Prohibition with more gusto than Mencken.  A photograph on the front page of the Baltimore Sun showed him downing the first beer to be poured at Baltimore’s Rennert’s Hotel bar in 13 years. “Pretty good. Not bad at all,”  said the Sage.

Once Irvin S. Cobb was among America’s top celebrities: author of 60 books, he was America’s highest paid journalist with the New York World; a national celebrity of radio, motion pictures;and a high paid speaker on the lecture circuit.  As native Kentuckian, Cobb was steeped in the taste and lore of whiskey. At the height of his popularity in 1920 National Prohibition was enacted. At first Cobb dealt with it humorously, writing that: “Since Prohibition came in and a hiccup became a mark of affluence instead of a social error as formally, and a loaded flank is a sign of hospitality rather than of menace, things may have changed.”

That jocular attitude had vanished by 1929 when Cobb wrote the only American novel devoted to the American whiskey industry. Entitled “Red Likker” and featuring a map of Kentucky on the cover, the book tells the story of a family that founded a distillery called Bird and Son right after the Civil War. It traces the history of the business to Prohibition when, like most distilleries, it was forced to close. Ultimately the distillery is destroyed by fire and the family is reduced to to running a crossroads grocery store.  

Not only did Cobb inveigh against Prohibition in his literary works, he made it a personal crusade. Joining a national organization called the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, he became chairman of the Authors and Artists Committee. Under his vigorous leadership the committee ultimately boasted 361 members, including some of the nation’s best known figures. As chairman, he blamed Prohibition for increased crime, alcoholism, and disrespect for law. “If Prohibition is a a noble experiment,” he said, “then the San Francisco fire and the Galveston flood should be listed among the noble experiments of our national history.”  

When Prohibition finally ended in 1934, Cobb was recognized nationally for his personal contribution to Repeal. The first night liquor became legal, he reportedly went to a hotel bar that once again had begun pouring, pulled out a $20 bill and hollered: “Drinks for everyone.”

A more nuanced approach to Prohibition was taken by George Ade, a favorite author of Mencken (who conversely did not like Cobb).  Ade, from rural Newton County, Indiana, began his career as a newspaper reporter in Layfayette, Indiana, before moving to Illinois to work for the Chicago Daily News.  His newspaper columns, short stories, and Broadway plays brought him national attention during the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

As many journalists, Ade was fond of strong drink and once wrote:  “Do not give alms promiscuously.  Select the unworthy poor and make them happy.  To give to the deserving is a duty, but to help the improvident, drinking class is clear generosity, so that the donor has a right to be warmed by a selfish pride and count on a most flattering obituary.”

Breaking with his “dry” fellow Republicans, the writer supported the movement to end Prohibition.  Ade was equally concerned. however, about bringing to the fore what he saw as the abuses involved in the pre-Prohibition liquor trade and saloon life.  The result was a short book Ade called “The Old Time Saloon,” with a subtitle, “Not Wet, Not Dry, But History.”  

Ade’s book has been republished several times, most recently in 2016, annotated by Chicago author Bill Savage.  Noting that in 1931 most Americans had never been in a saloon, Savage notes:Ade takes the liquor industry and saloon owners to task for flouting the law and bringing on their own demise, but he also brings to life the political, economic, and sentimental reality of this American institution.”  The book is notable for its use of saloon-based cartoons of the “wet” era.

In a late chapter,  Ade takes aim at what National Prohibition had done to America:  “Whether the reader of these lines happens to be a die-in-the-last-ditch Prohi, or as I am, a member of the Association Against the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, he or she will admit that the drinking habits of…youngsters who have come from the cradle and up from the nursery since 1920, are pretty deplorable.”

Eventually each of these pundits observed the end of National Prohibition and celebrated.   Ade would see the 1934 Repeal legislation from Congress require many of the saloon reforms he had advocated.  Cobb would author a drink recipe booklet for Paul Jones distillery of Paducah, Kentucky.  Although exalting, Mencken complained about paying higher prices for liquor after Repeal. Now, he contended, his favorite Maryland rye cost $3 to $3.50 a quart -- not the $4.00 per gallon he had paid in 1919.