Monday, October 15, 2018

Briggs Brewery: The Last Raid

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

On April 12, 1933, New Jersey mobster Waxey Gordon, aka Irving Wexel, received troubling phone call at his office in Elizabeth, New Jersey and left. Minutes later, a business rival murdered his two lieutenants, Max Hassell and Max Greenburg, who were waiting in his office for his return. The investigation into their murders kicked off the biggest Prohibition bust in New York State and shown a spotlight onto the corruption which ran deep in Elmira.

Irving Wexel, aka Waxey Gordon, aka George Pierson
In 1932, Gordon, operating under the alias “George Pierson,” purchased the old Briggs Brewery in Elmira on the corner of State and Second Street from Frank Teitelbaum. Founded in 1868 by brew master Thomas Briggs and his financial backer John Arnot, Jr., T. Briggs & Co. was owned by the Rathbone Corporation at the start of Prohibition in 1920. Although officially closed for business, it was raided several times for illegal production of alcohol from 1925 to 1931. See The Cereal Beverage and “High-Powered Beer” Scandal for details of a raid in 1927.

Those other raids would be nothing compared to what was coming. During the course of their murder investigation, New Jersey police uncovered a safe full of documents relating to Gordon’s operation in Elmira. On April 22, 1933, federal agents from Bureau of Prohibition raided the Briggs Brewery. They discovered that the brewery was connected to several adjacent buildings by a series of rubber pipelines which ran through the sewers. One line ran mash from the Rice Storage Warehouse on Canal Street to the distillery at Briggs. A second line ran the finished product back to the warehouse. A third line ran fuel oil. Divers from the New York City Police Department were brought in to help search the sewers for additional evidence. They discovered a stone chamber under the Acme Products Company, located in the old Lehigh Valley Railroad Station at the corner of 5th and Baldwin which was being used as some sort of workroom too. There was also a dedicated railroad spur from the station which the bootleggers were using to transport the alcohol down to New York City.

Raid on Briggs Brewery, April 22, 1933

The raid netted the largest haul in New York State since the start of prohibition. Agents seized 10,000 gallons finished alcohol; 500,000 gallons of alcohol mash; tank-car of molasses; two 20,000-gallon stills which the federal government had seized in an earlier raid but where forced to return; and a train car’s worth of assorted equipment.  Twelve men were arrested at the scene including 11 people who were working the still.  Supposedly the foreman said “We’re too busy now to monkey with a raid.  Can’t you see we’ve got a big shipment to get out?”
Inspecting the sewers for additional evidence
Sewer inspection
 A review of Gordon’s books showed just how profitable the Elmira operation was, or rather wasn’t. They produced 5,000 gallons of alcohol a day. Between October 1932 and March 1933, they sold 124,935 gallons of black market booze. It should have been insanely profitable, and yet, Gordon was $55,860.50 in the hole. Why? Graft. He paid approximately $6,700 a month in protection money to keep law enforcement off his back. The Elmira police were almost certainly on the take. They detained federal officer Raymond Keith when he attempted to investigate a delivery of molasses on December 8, 1932.  In another instance, an Elmira Police flashed its lights into the brewery office just before a raid was set to occur. 
On August 15th, federal agents complied a report for the U.S. District Attorney in Buffalo with evidence against 37 individuals and 5 corporations. Seven of those 37 individuals were Elmirans. Of those, three were well-known Elmira businessmen. They were able to arrange a plea deal which kept their names out of the papers.
Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933. In 1934, the Supreme Court ruled that all pending cases related to prohibition violations which had not yet been brought to trial should be dropped. Gordon eventually ended up going down for tax evasion, but,
in the end, no one served any jail time related to the final Briggs Brewery raid.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Monuments in Wisner Park

by Erin Doane, Curator

For generations, people have been going to Wisner Park to meet with friends, gather for celebrations, speak out about various causes, shop for summer produce, and simply sit and enjoy the green space. In 1875, the Elmira Daily Advertiser declared the spot “one of the pleasantest in this city and hardly equaled in any place in the state or country." It is also a spot to commemorate local heroes. The park is dotted with nearly a dozen statues and memorials.

View of the eastern half of Wisner Park from above, c. 1950s

Thomas K. Beecher Statue, 1901
The first statue erected in Wisner Park was dedicated to Thomas K. Beecher. In 1854, Beecher came to Elmira to preach at the Independent Congregational Church, now known as Park Church. He served as minister there for 46 years. Just two days after his funeral in 1900, Col. William C. Buck called for a suitable monument to be erected in Wisner Park to honor Beecher. Eminent sculptor Jonathan Scott Hartley was hired to create the statue and it was dedicated in 1901.

Postcard showing children posing near the statue of Thomas K. Beecher, c. 1910s

Exedra, 1924
In 1919, at the end of World War I, a Victory Arch was built across Main Street near Wisner Park. People gathered there to welcome home the soldiers of Company L. A temporary honor roll inscribed with 96 names of local soldiers who died in the war was erected there as well. On Memorial Day 1924, a permanent monument to those who served in the war was dedicated . Exedra stands “in honor of the heroes” and “in memory of those who gave their lives.” In 1936, Harry B. Bentley Post 443 of the American Legion added an eternal light in front of the monument.

Postcard showing the temporary honor roll, 1919
Postcard showing permanent Exedra monument, c. 1920s

The Hiker, 1929
In 1929, a second war monument was added to the park. “The Hiker” statue honors those who fought in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Philippine-American War. Elmira’s statue is one of at least 50 copies throughout the United States. The original statue was created by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson for the University of Minnesota in 1906. The Common Council of Elmira and the Chemung County Board of Supervisors each contributed $2500 to purchase and erect the monument.

A gathering of veterans at The Hiker statue, date unknown

World War II Monument, 1949
During World War II, a temporary marker was placed in Wisner Park in memory of local soldiers who gave their lives in service. In 1949, the Harry B. Bentley Post erected a permanent monument honoring the 292 people who died and the 12,000 who served from Chemung County.

World War II monument, 2018

Korean and Vietnam Wars Monument, 1987
A monument honoring Chemung County men and women who served their country and gave their lives in Korea and Vietnam was dedicated on Memorial Day in 1987.

Korean and Vietnam Wars monument, 2018

Fallen Officers Memorial, 2000
On November 11, 2000, the Elmira Police Department unveiled a monument dedicated to fallen officers. It lists four men – Chief John J. Finnell, Sergeant Charles Gradwell, Officer August R. Michalke, and Sergeant John C. Hawley – who gave their lives in the line of duty.

Fallen Officers Memorial, 2018

Other Monuments
While walking around Wisner Park last week, I noticed there were several other smaller monuments that I had not noticed before. Near the Exedra monument are two black stone monuments carved to look like books. They are dedicated to two local Medal of Honor recipients, Thomas P. Gere and John Denny.

Medal of Honor monuments, 2018
Also, in the center of the eastern half of the park is a flag pole. Its base is a monument “In tribute to the honorable men and women who gallantly serve our country as we strive to preserve freedom throughout the world and establish a just and lasting peace.” It was erected by Chemung County AFL-CIO labor assembly.
Flagpole monument, 2018

Monday, October 1, 2018

Eclipse and Rebirth

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In the spring of 1942, with World War II raging, Elmira’s factories were all hands on deck. Or at least, they would have been if not for American’s oldest and most persistent foe—racism.

During the war, the Eclipse Machine Division of the Bendix Aviation Corps of Elmira Heights was involved in crucial war production. They made, among other things, airplane parts, starters for tanks, and mechanical delayed bomb fuses. With their male workers headed for the military, they found themselves dangerously short staffed. In January 1942, they began hiring every woman who filled out an application. Every white woman that is. Black applicants, on the other hand, were given the run around. They were given applications upon request, but never called back.
Call for more workers from Elmira Star-Gazette, December 5, 1944

A group of women from the Negro Women’s Progressive Club took a course in defense training at Elmira Free Academy and applied in mass to work at Eclipse. The company initially told them they would be hired if they found 25 Black women to work an all-Black shift. When the group showed up for their interview with twice that many though, they were told that there was “no place for Negroes” at the company.

The ladies of the Negro Women’s Progressive Club didn’t take it lying down. In June, shortly after the meeting with Eclipse, club president Grace Mann wrote to the legal department of the NAACP asking for advice. They were told to have each woman write an affidavit describing what happened to be submitted as evidence and to form a local branch of the NAACP. There had already been a branch here in Elmira back in the late 1910s and 1920s, but it had ceased operation sometime after 1927. The new Elmira branch of the NAACP was officially chartered on September 14, 1942 with Grace Mann as president. It continues to this day. 

The problem of anti-Black discrimination in war production was not isolated to Eclipse. Repeated complaints from across the state forced the New York War Council to launch an investigation of the problem in the spring of 1942. They found that Blacks were consistently barred from employment and that this posed a huge problem for war production, especially in upstate areas where there was a shortage of white laborers. In September 1942, New York state established a special unit of the State Labor Department for prosecuting employers who discriminated in hiring based on race, creed, color, or nation of origin. 

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out what happened to affidavits submitted by the Negro Women’s Progressive Club or what, if any, legal action was taken against Eclipse. What I can tell you is that shortly after the complaint was filed, Eclipse started hiring Black men for positions on mixed-race shifts. No word though on whether anyone from the Negro Women’s Progressive Club was ever hired. 
Eclipse gun range crew (r-l):
 William Pint, Earl Palmer, Erwin Wasson, Richard G. Weeks, Alfred Spellman, Fred Jones, &  Wesley Fretz