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.