Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Police Raided a Storefront Still and Bootlegging Operation in a Fifth Avenue Store in 1926

North Pelham, it seems, was excited at the prospect of yet another new business on Fifth Avenue in 1926.  On July 1, 1926, Italian immigrant Joseph Leoni took possession of a storefront with a rear apartment located at 317-319 Fifth Avenue.  He opened what everyone believed was a wholesale business in imported Italian olive oil.  Everyone was wrong.

The business certainly looked convincing.  Empty olive oil cans filled the show windows of the little business.  Any passerby who peered inside through those show windows saw packing cases entirely consistent with a busy little wholesale olive oil import business.  Yes, it looked like Joseph Leoni was building another successful Pelham business during those flapper years of the Roaring Twenties in our little Town.

Leoni had only been in his new digs for two weeks when another tenant on the second floor of the building glanced out of a window at the back of the building and noticed water trickling out of a window on the lower floor.  Worried that a leak might be damaging the stores and living quarters on the first floor, the tenant called landlord Irving J. Wallach, owner of the building at the time.  

Wallach hustled to the site and tried to roust Joseph Leoni.  No one was in the premises, so Wallach used a passkey to open the door and slip inside to inspect the premises.  Nothing seemed amiss in the front rooms of the store -- packing cases and empty olive oil cans were stacked neatly.  When Wallach entered the rear apartment of the building's first floor, however, he was shocked.  A massive still stood on cinder blocks in the center of the room with a gas-fed flame below it, bubbling away as it distilled illegal corn mash whiskey.  Wallach quietly and quickly backed out of the room and exited the building.  He headed straight for the North Pelham Police Department where he alerted Police Captain Michael J. Fitzpatrick.

Storefront at 317-319 Fifth Avenue Where Illegal Still and
Bootlegging Operation Was Raided by North Pelham Police
on July 14, 1926.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

 At 7:30 p.m. that evening -- Wednesday, July 14, 1926 -- Captain Fitzpatrick accompanied Irving J. Wallach to the premises and entered.  Leoni at first refused to allow the pair to enter the rear rooms of the premises protesting that he was "only boiling a little water" in the back.  Captain Fitzpatrick and Irving Wallach forced their way past Leoni.

A mad rush ensued.  Leoni grabbed a five-gallon can filled with alcohol and tried to empty it into a sink.  Captain Fitzpatrick grabbed him, placed him under arrest, and hauled him off to the lockup at police headquarters, together with "three five gallon cans, one two gallon can, and a two gallon bottle, all of which were said to contain alcohol."

Thereafter, closer inspection of the premises revealed an amazing operation.  Inspection of one of the five-gallon cans by Captain Fitzpatrick, North Pelham Village President Thomas J. James, and North Pelham Trustee Harder revealed that it was constructed so that it could be capped within and a small amount of olive oil could be stored within so that the can, filled with alcohol, would appear to be a can of olive oil when inspected. 

There were three rooms at the rear of the premises on the first floor.  In one room was a single bed and a "large wardrobe trunk."  In two adjoining rooms, there were nineteen barrels arranged around the walls filled with corn mash in the process of fermentation.

In the kitchen at the rear of the building was the still.  A two-inch hose had been connected illegally to the building's natural gas supply, circumventing the gas meter, to keep a fire burning beneath the still that was propped up on cement blocks.  Another hose led from the giant cooling vat to the window where water appeared to leak through the window -- prompting the complaint from the tenant above that led to discovery of the still.  Next to the still were two additional fifty-gallon barrels of mash.  All in all it was a very compact and nifty setup.

The following day, Pelham authorities dismantled the still and poured the fermenting corn mash down local sewers.  Joseph Leoni was turned over to Federal Prohibition authorities who indicated that a motion for deportation would be made.

Thereafter the little Town of Pelham would continue its stand against demon rum, battling to enforce the Volstead Act. . . . . . .  

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"Police Capture Bootlegger and Still In Full Blast
Joseph Leoni Was Operating Fifty-Gallon Plant in Fifth Ave. Apartment When Discovered -- Had Occupied Premises Only Two Weeks
Over a Thousand Gallons of Mash Fermenting in Barrels in Back Rooms of a Store

More than two thousand gallons of corn mash in twenty-one barrels, twenty gallons of alleged alcohol, a whiskey still of fifty gallons capacity, and all the accompanying paraphernalia of a distillery were uncovered by the police and the landlord at the store and apartment, Nos. 317-319 Fifth avenue, North Pelham at 7:30 Wednesday evening.

Joseph Leoni, who leased the store from Irving J. Wallach, the owner, was arrested by Police Captain Michael J. Fitzpatrick and after being lodged in jail overnight was turned over to the Federal authorities on Thursday charged with a violation of the Volstead Act.

Leoni had occupied the store just two weeks, taking possession July 1st, ostensibly for the purpose of conducting a wholesale business in imported Italian olive oil.

The discovery of the still came about when Wallach was notified by a resident of one of the apartments over the store that water was running from a window of one of the back rooms on the lower floor.  The landlord entered with the aid of a passkey, and on finding evidence of a still being in operation quietly withdrew and notified the police.  Police Cap-

(Continued on page 8)

Police Capture Bootlegger and Liquor Still
(Continued from page 1)

tain Michael Fitzpatrick entered the store with Wallach.  Leoni at first refused them entry to the rear rooms, claiming that he was only boiling a little water.  When the police captain and Wallach forced their way, Leoni attempted to empty a five gallon can of alleged alcohol into the sink.  

He was placed under arrest, and taken to headquarters together with three five gallon cans one two gallon can and a two gallon bottle, all of which were said to contain alcohol.

One of the five-gallon cans had a capped tube in it.  Thus when the can was filled with alcohol and sealed the tube could be filled with olive oil and capped.  Anyone inspecting the can would remove the cap and be misled into thinking that the can contained only olive oil.

Following the arrest, Village President Thomas J. James, and Trustee Harder inspected the premises where the still was in operation.  The store was vacant save for some packing cases.  Empty olive oil cans filled both the show windows.  In a room behind the store was a single bed and a large wardrobe trunk.  In the two rooms adjoining, nineteen barrels, all filled with corn mash in process of fermentation, were ranged around the walls.  In the kitchen at the rear of the building the still was found, propped up on cement blocks.  A two inch hose had been connected to the gas supply, so that the gas being consumed did not register through the meter.  It was the hose leading from the cooling vat which was responsible for the leaking of water through the window and caused the complaint to be made to the landlord.  Beside the still, two more fifty gallon barrels of mash were found in the kitchen.

Police Captain Fitzpatrick would not hazard a guess as to the value of the liquor and still, but it is believed to be worth many thousand dollars.

Investigation by the Federal Prohibition department revealed that Leone under the alias Natale Rosa, was arrested in New Rochelle, on July 7 and charged with transporting and selling alcoholic liquor.  The case is still pending.  Leone was released under bail.  It is believed that he made the liquor in North Pelham and sold it through New Rochelle.

The still was dismantled yesterday and the mash dumped into the sewer.  

Leone left in custody of the Federal officers yesterday.  It is believed that a motion will be made for his deportation."

Source:  Police Capture Bootlegger and Still In Full Blast -- Joseph Leoni Was Operating Fifty-Gallon Plant in Fifth Ave. Apartment When Discovered -- Had Occupied Premises Only Two Weeks -- Over a Thousand Gallons of Mash Fermenting in Barrels in Back Rooms of a Store, The Pelham Sun, Jul. 16, 1926, Vol. 17, No. 20, p. 1, col. 1 & p. 8, col. 5.

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I have written extensively about Pelham's struggles with Prohibition and the enforcement of the unpopular laws that it spawned. See: 

Wed., Feb. 21, 2018:  Massive Prohibition Raid in 1927 Netted Four Bootleggers and 225 Kegs of Beer.

Tue., Jan. 30, 2018:  Visit to the Wrong House Uncovered Massive Pelham Manor Bootlegging During Prohibition.

Wed., Jan. 03, 2018:  The Massive Illegal Still Discovered at 137 Corlies Avenue During Prohibition in 1932.

Wed., Jun. 21, 2017:  The Infamous Ash Tree Inn of Pelham Manor and its Prohibition Violations During the 1920s.

Thu., Feb. 02, 2017:  Bootleggers Began to Feel the Heat in Pelham in 1922.

Mon., Dec. 26, 2016:  Pelham Stood Alone in Westchester When It Voted to Go Dry in 1896

Mon., Aug. 22, 2016:  Pelham, It Seems, Became a Hotbed of Bootlegging and Illegal Stills During Prohibition.

Mon., Jul. 06, 2015:  Police Raided a Massive 300-Gallon Illegal Liquor Still on Corlies Avenue in 1932.  

Fri., Jun. 19, 2015:  More Liquor Raids in Pelham During Prohibition in the 1920s.

Wed., Jun. 17, 2015:   Prohibition Rum-Runners Delivering A Boatload of Booze Were Foiled in Pelham in 1925.

Fri., Apr. 24, 2015:  The North Pelham "Speakeasy Section" Created Quite a Stir During Prohibition.

Tue., Nov. 18, 2014:  More Bootleggers and Speakeasies Raided in Pelham in 1929 During Prohibition.

Fri., May 23, 2014:  How Dry I Am -- Early Prohibition Efforts Succeed in Pelham in 1896.

Thu., Apr. 03, 2014:  The Prohibition Era in Pelham:  Another Speakeasy Raided.

Tue., Feb. 18, 2014:  Pelham Speakeasies and Moonshiners - Prohibition in Pelham: The Feds Raid the Moreau.

Thu., Feb. 07, 2008:  Village Elections in Pelham in 1900 - New York Athletic Club Members Campaign Against the Prohibition Ticket in Pelham Manor.

Thu., Jan. 12, 2006:  The Beer Battle of 1933.

Thu., Aug. 11, 2005:  How Dry I Am: Pelham Goes Dry in the 1890s and Travers Island Is At the Center of a Storm

Bell, Blake A., The Prohibition Era in Pelham, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 25, June 18, 2004, p. 12, col. 2.

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