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, March 13, 2018

House Fire in Chester Park Revealed Bootleg Still in 1935, Nearly Two Years After the End of Prohibition


Regular readers of Historic Pelham know by now that Pelham was a hotbed of illegal stills, speakeasies that sold illegal liquor, and bootleggers during Prohibition.  Regular readers may not know, however, that even after Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, the little Town of Pelham remained a hotbed of bootlegged whiskey as today's Historic Pelham article shows. . . .

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The fire alarm was turned in from an emergency alarm box located at Pelhamdale and Pine Avenues, two blocks away from a raging fire in the basement of the residence of James J. Regno and Mary M. Regno at 56 Maple Avenue in Chester Park, Village of North Pelham.  The firemen raced to the alarm box on that Friday night, October 25, 1935.  They found no one there.

Pelham's Bravest did their job admirably that night.  They quickly located the fire burning in the basement of the Regno home.  

The volunteer firemen had to break into the cellar to get to the fire.  There they discovered not only a raging fire, but also seventy six cans of illegally-distilled grain and denatured alcohol dangerously at risk of exploding in the conflagration.  They also found the massive, illegal 250-gallon still used to distill the alcohol and a rather amazing heating plant, cooling system, bottling plant and counterfeit labeling system that allowed production of bogus liquor to be "passed off for many well known brands."

Police later concluded that an unidentified person was running the illegal still when the fire began in the heating plant of the still and quickly burned out of control.  That person fled the house, turned in the fire alarm, and reportedly never returned and never was identified.

Police searched the home.  In addition to the distillery and the seventy six containers of alcohol, they found and seized a fifty gallon barrel half full of rye whiskey and another twenty gallon barrel full of aging rye whiskey.  When tested, the whiskey proved to be 98 proof.  Police also found an account book maintained by Regno that listed amounts paid for trucking, sugar, grain, etc. as well as a Colt .32 caliber handgun with twenty three rounds of ammunition.  

Later that night, Mary M. Regno was arrested when she returned to the house.  Her husband, however, could not be found.  It was not until Sunday evening, October 27, 1935, when James J. Regno was found by police in New York City, arrested, and charged with violation of the Sullivan Act (a New York State gun control law requiring a license for possession of a firearm small enough to be concealed).  Regno later was charged with with violating three federal laws:  possession of an unregistered still; possession of a distillery in a dwelling house; and failure to file a bond to insure payment of taxes.

Incredibly, this was neither the first fire, nor the first illegal still discovered in the Regno home.  Eight years before that, on November 1, 1926 (one report says 1927), Pelham firemen extinguished a fire at the home and discovered an illegal still.  Regno was arrested on a Prohibition charge.  He eventually paid a fine, although his thirty day prison sentence was suspended. 


Chester Park Home Located at 56 Maple Avenue, Built in 1922.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.


James J. Regno and Mary M. Regno lived in Pelham during the 1920s and 1930s.  In about 1926 they seem to have been in some form of financial distress.  A pair of men named Abraham Cohen and Barnet Stone obtained a judgment of foreclosure and sale against Mr. and Mrs. Regno for their home in Chester Park (entered on March 6, 1926).  See NOTICE OF SALE [Legal Notice], The Pelham Sun, Apr. 9, 1926, Vol. 17, No. 6, p. 2, col. 4.  It is not yet known how the matter was resolved, but Mr. and Mrs. Regno seem to have come up with a way to make a little extra money -- hence the illegal still discovered during their first house fire on November 1, 1926.

The second time authorities discovered an illegal still in the Regno home, they tried to come down hard on James J. Regno.  On November 7, 1935, only eleven days after his arrest, Regno was hauled before a grand jury who heard evidence regarding the Sullivan Act charge.  Although it is not clear precisely what happened, as soon as North Pelham Police Patrolman Edwin Pickard testified before the grand jury regarding discovery of the .32 caliber Colt pistol in the Regno home, the gun charge was dropped.  This left only the federal charges against Rego (who was out on bail of $1,000 on those charges).  

Regno tried to avoid the federal charges by claiming denying that he owned the still and claiming that he had not lived in the home for a full six months leading up to the fire and his arrest.  A criminal jury rejected his defenses and on March 18, 1936 found him guilty on all three charges.  The judge quickly sentenced him as follows:  "On the first count a three-month sentence was imposed, a fine of $100 and a penalty of $500.  The payment of the penalty was suspended.  On the second count the sentence was six months and the fine $1,000.  Both were suspended.  On the third count another three months' sentence and a $100 fine was imposed.  The two sentences are to run concurrently."


Although Regno attempted to gain an extension of his time to appeal, the Court rejected that request.  It appears that Regno was forced to serve his time on this second occasion.

As a postscript (and as the foregoing might suggest), Regno seems to have been a very bad guy.  He is written about as a smuggling partner of Charles Levy of New York City.  He was arrested at one point in Havana during one such smuggling episode.  Lawson, Ellen NicKenzie, Smugglers, Bootleggers and Scofflaws:  Prohibition and New York City, p. 56 (Albany, NY:  Excelsior Editions - State University of New York Press, 2013) (stating "James Regno, Levy's New York partner, was also arrested in Havana and his letters likewise seized.  Regno wrote a lady friend, 'I haven't much to say because everything looks bad. . . . They have either double-crossed us or done something wrong . . . I am losing money and nother to show [for it] but there is no use to worry if I come back I will get my boat and come right back here, for there is plenty of work here.'").

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"FIRE DISCLOSES BOOTLEG STILL IN CHESTER PARK
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'Alcohol Cooking' Plant Found in Regno House; Man and Wife are Held.
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Fire again proved to be the nemesis of those who were operating an alcohol distilling plant in the residence of James Regno at Maple and Pine avenues, in Chester Park on Friday night.  Volunteer firemen of the First District broke into the cellar of the house and extinguished a blaze burning dangerously close to 76 containers of newly distilled alcohol.  The house proved to be but living quarters which shielded a 250 gallon still, a cooling system and a labeling and bottling plant which appeared to be able to produce bogus liquor to be passed off for many well known brands.  Mrs. Regno who was arrested at her home on Friday night, was released under $250.00 bail on a Federal charge.  Her husband who was arrested in New York City on Sunday on a charge of violating the Sullivan Law was detained awaiting the action of the grand jury.

The incidents of the fire duplicated a visit of volunteer firemen to the Regno home, on November 1st, 1927, when another still was found.  Regno was arrested on a prohibition charge and paid a fine.

The fire is believed to have started near the heating plant of the still.  The alarm was turned in at a box at Pelhamdale and Pine avenues, two blocks away from the Regno residence.  According to belief the unidentified operator of the still quit his post and ran to the alarm box as the flames burst out near the alcohol containers.  He has failed to make an appearance since the fire.  

Among the effects found in his home was a Colt .32 calibre pistol with 23 rounds of ammunition.

Together with the cans of stored grain and denatured alcohol was a 50 gallon barrel half full of aging rye whiskey and a full 20-gallon barrel.  When tested the whiskey proved to be 98 proof.

One of the most important discoveries made was an account book supposedly kept by Regno in which was listed amounts paid for trucking, sugar, caustic soda, etc."

Source:  FIRE DISCLOSES BOOTLEG STILL IN CHESTER PARK -- "Alcohol Cooking" Plant Found in Regno House; Man and Wife are Held, The Pelham Sun, Nov. 1, 1935, Vol. 26, No. 30, p. 1, col. 4.

"Gun Charge Against Regno Dismissed
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Charged with violating the Sullivan Law, when a fire in his home at No. 16 [sic] Maple avenue, October 25th led to an investigation and a pistol was discovered, James J. Regno was dismissed by the grand jury, yesterday.

The charges were dismissed after the jury heard the testimony of Patrolman Edwin Pickard, of the North Pelham police.  The Pelhamite is still under $1,000 bond in the federal courts for operating an unlicensed still."

Source:  Gun Charge Against Regno Dismissed, The Pelham Sun, Nov. 8, 1935, Vol. 26, No. 31, p. 1, col. 6

"THREE MONTHS $200 FINE IS REGNO SENTENCE
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Chester Park Man Found Guilty of Possessing an Unregistered Still; Liquor Plant Disclosed by Fire.
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[sic] to an incident which began on the night of Oct. 25, 1935, when firemen who responded to an alarm from No. 56 Maple avenue found a still going full blast.

James Regno, 41, the owner of the house, was on Wednesday sentenced to serve three months in the Federal House of Detention in New York City and to pay a fine of $200  On Monday a jury brought a guilty verdict, Federal Judge Francis G. Caffey imposed the sentence.  The indictment contained three charges:  Possession of an unregistered still, possession of a distillery in a dwelling house; and failure to file a bond to insure payment of taxes.

On the first count a three-month sentence was imposed, a fine of $100 and a penalty of $500.  The payment of the penalty was suspended.  On the second count the sentence was six months and the fine $1,000.  Both were suspended.  On the third count another three months' sentence and a $100 fine was imposed.  The two sentences are to run concurrently.

Regno denied ownership of the still stating that he did not live in the Chester Park house for more than six months before the still was discovered.

In November, 1926, when a still was previously found at the Regno home, a $300 fine was imposed and a 30-day sentence suspended."

Source:  THREE MONTHS $200 FINE IS REGNO SENTENCE -- Chester Park Man Found Guilty of Possessing an Unregistered Still; Liquor Plant Disclosed by Fire, The Pelham Sun, Mar. 20, 1936, Vol. 26, No. 50, p. 1, col. 5

"No Extension For Appeal By Regno
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Federal Judge Francis G. Caffey on Wednesday refused to grant a 30-day extension in time for appeal of the conviction of James J. Regno, on a charge of operating an illegal still at No. 56 Maple avenue, Chester Park.  Regno is at liberty under bail of $1,000 pending the appeal."

Source:  No Extension For Appeal By Regno, The Pelham Sun, Apr. 24, 1936, Vol. 27, No. 3, p. 1, col. 4.

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I have written extensively about Pelham's struggles with Prohibition and the enforcement of the unpopular laws that it spawned as well as illegal stills, bootleggers, and speakeasies in Pelham. See: 

Tue., Feb. 27, 2018:  Police Raided a Storefront Still and Bootlegging Operation in a Fifth Avenue Store in 1926.

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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