Today we are exploring the wild and lawless days of Prohibition.
In 1909, a vote to make Greece a “dry” town was narrowly defeated. The agricultural interests of the town clashed with the beach resorts and tourist attractions that catered to a clientele that drank. One newspaper account said, “The grudge of the farmers was that their hired help deserted as soon as they got a month’s pay and bathed in the alcoholic delights of Charlotte and Ontario Beach.” On the other side of the debate were the many town residents of Irish, German, and Italian descent for whom wine and spirits were an everyday part of their culture.
By the time Congress took up the question of national prohibition, 33 of the 48 states were already dry. When Congress sent the eighteenth amendment to the states for ratification, where it needed three-fourths approval, they allowed a generous seven years for its passage, but in just 13 months enough states said yes to the amendment. Drinking liquor was never illegal. People were allowed to drink intoxicating liquor in their own homes or in the home of a friend when they were a bona fide guest. And it was legal to make or consume wine or cider in the home. Buying and selling it was illegal; people were not allowed to carry a hip flask or give or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
Exempted from the law was the use of alcohol in lawful industries, for religious practices such as communion wine, and for scientific and medicinal purposes. Intoxicating liquor could be obtained via a doctor’s prescription; the rate of sales for medicinal alcohol went up 400%.
The poem to the right says it all; ordinary people, probably law-abiding citizens before 1920, were defying the law. And many were living in the town of Greece.
Rumrunners were smuggling liquor from Canada by sea and bootleggers carried it over the roads. With eight miles of shoreline and roads leading to downtown Rochester and points west and east, Greece was a hotbed of prohibition defiance.
Some of these prohibition slang were used during the era of prohibition and speakeasies
*got to see someone about a dog –going out to buy bootleg whiskey
*needle beer –filling a syringe with pure alcohol and piercing the cork on a bottle of “near beer”
*whisper sister, ladylegger –female proprietor of a speakeasy
*white lightning –whiskey
*giggle water –alcoholic beverage
*hooch, bathtub gin –illegal moonshine
*cutting –making counterfeit liquor by mixing it with artificial ingredients to simulate the real thing
*set-up –ginger ale or soda served by speakeasies, to which customers added their own liquor from hip flasks
Canadian Ben Kerr, the self-styled “King of the Rum Runners,” was one of the most successful of the rum smugglers. He made regular trips to the beaches from Greece east to Pultneyville; he refused to land on American shores, customers had to row out to his boat, he frequently changed his drop days, and he wouldn’t travel under a full moon, preferring dark, foggy, or hazy nights. There are used copies available on Amazon via Thriftbooks or you can get it on the kindle https://smile.amazon.com/Whisky-Ice-Canadas-Daring-Rumrunner/dp/1550022490 you can preview the book here on the right.
As of this post there is 1 new copy and 11 used copies available on Amazon
Preview of The Saga of Ben Kerr
Preview of Berine you’re a Bootlegger
Joan Winghart Wilcox Sullivan wrote about her father, Bernie Winghart, her paternal uncle, Ernie, and her aunt, Mamye (who was a Schaller); they were known as the Bootlegging Trio. As of this post, there are 5 new and 2 used paperback copies available on Amazon and it is also available to read on the Kindle. Check out the preview of the book on the left.
Andrew Wiedenmann was born on November 15, 1865, to Michael and Anna (Merdler) Wiedenmann who had eleven children together. His father Michael Wiedenmann was a cooper and worked in that trade just like Tom Toal we talked about in a previous snapshot. Anna (Merdler) Wiedenmann survived until May 1909. Three of the Wiedenmann children served in three different parts of the City of Rochester Government, William served on Detective Force; Frederick was an Attorney of the city and a member of the City Council representing the 15th ward for thirty-two years, and Andrew featured in the picture to the right, his other brother George Wiedenmann died in 1905 and was a Profession Baseball Player for the Detriot Ball Club. Anna and Edward died young. His sisters included Katherine, Julia, Minnie, and Anna (Wiedenmann) Kugler.
Andrew Wiedenmann was Collector of the Port of Rochester for much of Prohibition and as such he supervised many of the sorties against rumrunners on both lake and land throughout his district. This area covered 178 miles from the western end of Orleans County east to Oswego County. He was diligent, aggressive, and resourceful in his quest for Prohibition scofflaws.
But before he became the Customs Collector at the Port of Rochester, he attended the Whitney school as a boy later he attended the Rochester Free Academy. From 1886 to 1890 he was a Professional Baseball player for Rochester, Buffalo, Hamilton, Ontario, and Portland, Maine clubs. He went on to hold his first public office as the deputy collector for the Internal Revenue Service for his district from 1897 to 1901, then made a police court investigator for sixteen years, and then in 1917 he was elected sheriff of Monroe County and held that role until December 31, 1920, and in 1924 President Calvin Coolidge appointed Andrew Wiedenmann as the Collector of the Port of Rochester.
His keen eyes and his investigative skills came in handy as well he was the Collector of the port of Rochester when he was the Head Sheriff of Monroe County he knew places where he would watch for people to sneak stuff into town and where to spring traps to collect the crooks. He once walked the beach from Charlotte to Manitou investigating rumors of liquor shipments being off-loaded in obscure spots. On the walk, he came across a group of people hiding under a tarp with contraband alcohol.
As the Customs Collector at the Port of Rochester, Wiedenmann often accompanied the Coast Guard (U.S.C.G.S) in their pursuit of rumrunners in the darkest hours of the night. He would shout: “We are United States Customs Officers. I order you to halt.”
On July 12, 1924, he and his agents chased a truck laden with 1200 bottles of ale 18 miles along Ridge Road. Bullets flew as gunfire was exchanged.
Andrew Wiedenmann caught both Ben Kerr and the Bootlegging Trio. But his biggest challenge was the notorious Staud brothers from the town of Greece. By the way, all three of the books mentioned here today are in the museum’s reference library. You can at least get the first two books on a Kindle by Amazon but the book Booze, Barns, Boats, and Brothers which is about the Staud brothers is only in the museum reference library and can be viewed when the museum is open or by making an appointment to look at the book.
On July 8, 1930, the Democrat & Chronicle wrote this about the Staud brothers: they are “The most dangerous and intrepid gang of rum runners in Western New York.” Local newspapers also characterized the brothers as the “most daring,” “most powerful,” and “notorious” of smugglers. The gang operated out of a home on Grand View Heights Road (today, South Drive).
Look pretty innocent, don’t they? But they were ruthless thugs when they grew up. From right to left, Karl, George, Edward, and Milton, called Midge.
They were the sons of George C. and Ida Staud (the couple also had three daughters); their father was the postmaster of Rochester from 1917-1921 while Andrew Wiedenmann was the Sheriff from 1917-1920. He had plenty of trouble with them as teenagers, but did not live to see their Prohibition notoriety. Their mother had also died, but their stepmother was living. Between Andrew Wiedenmann and his brothers, William who served on Detective Force; and his brother Frederick who served as an attorney for the City of Rochester may have had other run-ins with the Staud Brothers. Before the Staud Brothers went into the bootlegging business during prohibition.
Karl was the eldest, born about 1895. His nickname was “K-the Bishop.” He had a muscle infirmity and walked with a limp. He acted as the gang’s accountant, keeping the books for shipments and payments, and also for Midge’s speakeasies. He also frequently provided bail for George and Eddie. George was born in early 1900. He was described as a “scrapper,” tall and lean. Eddie, born also in 1900, “did most of the dirty work.” “Midge” was born in 1901. He was broad-shouldered and tall at 6’3”. Although the youngest, he was the boss and brains of the gang. The newspaper called him the “‘Little Caesar’ of Rochester’s rum-running hierarchy.” The reference of course being to the Edward G. Robinson movie.
The brothers quickly established the lakefront from Sodus Point to Oak Orchard as their “domain” and were ruthless in enforcing the boundaries.
Midge Staud had a fleet of large cars, Pierce-Arrows, and Studebakers, which he altered so they could stash up to 500-quart bottles of whiskey “in the seats, in backs of the seats, false floors and even false side panels in the doors.” The Stauds’ uncle, Fred, owned a shoe store and they would hide whiskey bottles in shoeboxes at the rear of the store until they could sell or transport them.
If you want to learn more about Pierce-Arrow cars you can visit the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum before you go to their museum check out their website to view their current museum hours at https://pierce-arrow.com/.
The Stauds altered this car so that poisonous mustard gas was emitted from the exhaust pipe. It was registered under a false name or now it is referred to As Known As or AKA or an alias which would allow someone to hide their identity or business from either the government, local authorities, or other gangs that were in the business of rum running, but there was enough evidence that proved that the car was owned by Midge. George was arrested wearing only his underwear trying to escape capture after the car was stopped by agents. This same car was involved in a Christmas Eve raid led by Andrew Wiedenmann.
The Stauds would find a cooperative farmer who would let them hide the liquor in a barn. Some had underground tunnels linking the shore to barn basements. Late at night, the beer, whiskey, ale, and wine would be transported in modified cars to speakeasies all around the area including the many that populated Greece.
This photo shows 200 cases of assorted liquor which was seized by border patrolmen Monday, December 24. Midge and George Staud along with four other men in their gang were arrested in connection with the raid. The liquor, which was composed of whisky and champagne, was intended for the Rochester holiday trade. Tire tracks in the snow alerted agents to this cache in a farmer’s barn.
George served some jail time on a few occasions, but nothing major. Authorities could never get a conviction against Midge. Later in life, Midge ran the Towne Tavern (Left) on Gibbs Street in Rochester and for many years he, George, and Eddie had an interest in the Grove House in Greece. Their career as rumrunners and bootleggers was mostly forgotten.
So where was all that booze going? Quite a bit of it was staying right here in Greece. And that’s the subject of our next Snapshot.
Thank you for joining us today. Next week we take a look at Greece speakeasies.
Today we look back at the horrific fire at the Holiday Inn in Greece in which ten people lost their lives while staying at the Holiday Inn. Every year goes by when the generation of people who were are the scene of the horrific fire and the temperature was a balmy chilly 20°F (-6.7°C) temperature and winds out of the north around 10mph. Remember when we told you about the town of Greece didn’t join the 9-1-1 call center and operations until around 1986, before that time you would have to call the station directly or if the business had an alarm system properly wired up to the fire company’s alarm system to alert the firefighters that there was a fire at certain places of business, this also played a roll in the case of this tragic hotel fire that took the lives of ten people.
Even though the Ridge Road Fire District and North Greece Fire Department are celebrating their centennials this year there is one fire that has effect everyone at both. Every fire district in the town has battled large and small fires, auto accidents, attend training, practiced at the fire training grounds, routine fire inspections, community programs, and outreach, but never prepared them for what would become Ridge Road’s most unique fire they had to deal with in the companies first 100 years of service.
Ridge Road Fire Department has battled many fires,
But never anything like the Holiday Inn Fire on November 26, 1978.
On Sunday, November 26, 1978, there were about 200 people staying at the Holiday Inn in Greece. According to the report Fire command, Volume 46. National Fire Protection Association, 1979 in that publishing it states there were 91 guest rooms at the hotel, but the exact number of guest rooms on November 28, 1978, is unknown due to the owner of the hotel began changing some of the guest rooms were converted into conference rooms. Among the guests were visitors from an Ontario, Canada bus tour here to take advantage of Thanksgiving weekend shopping specials, members of two wedding parties, a John Marshall alumna in town for her reunion, and attendees at the hotel’s Saturday night singles party.
Around 2:30 am that frosty Sunday morning, a fire started among the paper products and towels stored in a closet area tucked under a first-floor stairway and that metal door for the closet area was not fire-rated or UL-labeled. The blaze spread quickly up the stairs where the fire doors had been propped open, raced down corridors, ignited the ceilings, and invaded the roof. And with strong winds from out of the north-north-west, and the temperature was hovering around 24.2°F (-4.333 °C) but with a wind chill, it would make it feel like 16.1°F (-8.333°C).
Two off-duty firefighters, one from the Greece Road fire department, the other an Albion FD fire chief, each driving on Ridge Road on the way home from a different workplace, spotted the orange glow of the flames approximately eight minutes after the fire started. The Greece firefighter radioed in the fire from his car and they both entered the building to start evacuating guests. Other people were calling from nearby payphones to report the fire. 911 wasn’t instituted until 1986 in Rochester (even later in Greece) and of course cell phones hadn’t been invented yet.
Greece Ridge put in the call for mutual aid to help with the scene unfolding at the Holiday Inn on Ridge Road next to Corona Road. The companies that came to assist Greece Ridge were Barnard, North Greece, and the City of Rochester, who fought the blaze for two hours with more than 125 firefighters. Ten ambulances were needed at the scene. Gene Preston who was a member of Kodak Fire at the time, remembers that Kodak Fire did offer to lend assistance by connecting Greece Ridge trucks to Kodak’s water source on the ground of the Latona Road Complex, but Greece Ridge turned down Kodak Fire Department’s offer to hook up to their water source.
Rescue crews piloted 170 guests, most of them still in their night clothes and many barefoot, outside into the 16-degree cold.
As you can see on this map where (Greece Ridge) Ridge Ridge had command of the scene and the Greece Ridge chief became the incident commander, he issued the call to request mutual aid as Barnard, North Greece, and City of Rochester companies arrived at the scene, Greece Ridge fire chief began assigning the assisting companies where to deploy their firefighting equipment at the scene. The blue lines on this map are hoses that ran to the water from the fire hydrants to the trucks and from truck to truck. The green lines on this map of the scene represent the hoses that were in the firefighter’s hands. A large contingent of the firefighting efforts was coming from pumper 253 on the west side of where the origin of the fire started. The red arrows represent the direction of where the fire was traveling outward from the origin to the shaded reddish, orangish zone was where the fire able to be stopped from consuming the rest of the structure.
What is a Squrt™️ fire truck? The Squrt™️ fire truck is a brand of fire truck Trademarked by SNORKEL FIRE EQUIPMENT COMPANY CORPORATION on November 4, 1969, as you can see in the Trademark filing on the USPTO website https://tmsearch.uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4810:yri038.2.3 and licensed to different manufacturers that built these kinds of fire trucks like the one in service in North Greece was built by Young Fire Equipment Corporation in Buffalo, New York.
Here is a list of the abbreviations of each of the different trucks at the scene means after each of the different fire fighting apparatuses is the number of that engine.
E – Engine
L – Ladder
M – Medic
R – Rescue Engine
P – Pumper
T – Truck
By 4:30 the fire was out, but the building was a total loss. A few guests leaped from second and third-story windows to save themselves. Thirty-five people were injured. Tragically, ten people perished in the fire from smoke inhalation.
We Remember the guest that perished that early morning on November 26th, 1978
List of Canadian citizens who died in the Holiday Inn Fire
They were: Rubina “Ruth” Cushinan, age 81, and her daughter Ruby Cushinan, age 61, from York, Ontario, Canada; four people from Etobicoke, Ontario, Maguerrette Duncan, age 57, 67-year-old Edward Farley and his 62-year-old wife, Lorene, and Pamela Sagriff, age 30, and from Bramalea, Ontario, Huguette Sundude, age 30.
Names of the remaining three people who died
Joyce Plumb age 42 from Arlington Virginia who had attended her 25th high school reunion from John Marshall High School the day before; Stephen Gregory Ford, age 29, from Ypsilanti, Michigan who was in Rochester for his best friend’s wedding, and from Pompano Beach, Florida, Nancy Garrett, age 26.
Results of the Fire Investigation
The hotel had a host of structural faults that contributed to the easy spread of the conflagration: The “primary factors that led to the fatalities in this incident were the combination of the highly combustible interior finish, [and] unprotected openings that existed in the stairway,” there was only one vertical firewall between the two wings and the firewalls in the buildings did not extend to the roof, allowing the fire to rip through the top floor of each wing.
The hotel was equipped with a fire alarm system that included manual-pull stations and combination rate-of-rise, fixed-temperature thermal detectors as initiating devices yet it failed to do what it was intended to do to prevent the loss of life. It lacked a sprinkler system and Emergency Lighting. The alarm system wasn’t connected to the Greece-Ridge Fire Department or any other security agency.
The alarm system consisted only of one bell in the middle of each of the two wings’ five floors. The alarm didn’t have a distinctive sound nor was it loud enough. Guests didn’t recognize it as a fire alarm; they thought it was a phone in the room or an alarm clock. Furthermore, when hotel employees realized the alarms were ringing, they rushed to get people out, but no one remembered to call the fire department.
As news of the fire spread, the police department was flooded with calls. One volunteer Doug Worboys, recalls that after the fire he arrived home at 10:30 am, grabbed a little sleep, and returned to work the noon to 11 pm shift at the police dispatch office desk with fellow dispatchers Ron Timmons and Jim Leary. “We had callers from throughout the US and Canada; the farthest away, I think, was Puerto Rico. We referred most of the Holiday Inn inquiry calls to the front desk officer who was assigned to take all those types of calls. The next day they had a special line set up for further calls. You hear things like that happening in other places, but you never expect one like that in your own town. That day was a very busy day with all those calls along with calls for normal situations that occur day to day. That day was a very somber day for us dispatchers and all people involved in this fire.”
Although at first it was said that the fire was accidental, Police Chief Gerald Phelan, when speaking to reporters at the time, said that “his gut told him the fire was nonetheless suspicious due to its speed and intensity.”
John Stickever joins the case
John Stickever joined the FDNY in 1959 and was assigned to Engine Co. 231 in Brooklyn. He became a fire marshal six years later. Durning Stickevers first 37 years as a fire marshall where he investigated numerous fire scenes where some were arson, and some were just accidents. In 1978, John Stickever, a New York City Fire Firefighter was just promoted to the rank of Supervising Fire Marshall in July 1978 and was an Investigator who specialized in arson and “essentially wrote the book on fire investigation training,” which is linked below. Mid-week following the fire on November 26, 1978, is when then Greece Police Chief Gerald Phelan contacted Commission Augustus Anthony Beekman of the New York City Fire Department to see if the City could send someone to help the Greece Police and Greece Ridge Fire Department to examine the Holiday Inn fire scene. It was Commissioner Augustus Anthony Beekman who called Stickever at home and the commissioner said he was the one who was selected to head to upstate New York to help with a case in Greece, NY.
When Stickever arrived he started to have firefighters clear the floor and in front of doors and other areas in the hotel, he began to notice things that the Greece Police and Greece Ridge did not see at the time of the fire which stood out to him. Stickever concluded that an accelerant of some kind had been used in starting the fire and declared it arson and the ten deaths were now ten murders. Stickever with his knowledge found burn patterns, and damage to the kickplate on the fire doors, and when the results came back from the labs, they found traces of Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK) otherwise known as Butanone was used as an accelerant which made the fire grow quickly in the stairwell, and with the winds at 2 A.M. were at about 10 miles an hour out of the North which help spread the fire quickly through the hotel, with that information both Stickever and then Assistant Monroe County District Attorney Crane, during in 1978 knew it had to be someone with the knowledge of MEK. In 1978 Stickever and then ADA Crane believe that someone would have to have knowledge of MEK and firefighting skills to know that MEK according to ilo.org a website that has information on all different types of hazmat chemicals notes under PHYSICAL & CHEMICAL INFORMATION that the Physical State and Appearance is a colorless liquid with a characteristic odor from ILO and WHO 2021. The other types of accelerants would have been easily found but because MEK was used as the accelerant it made it more difficult for the firefighters to fight the fire. If the chief of Greece Ridge had requested the airport chemical fire truck from the airport which was a carbon dioxide, dry agents, or alcohol-resistant foam-based fire suppression agent in its tank would have halved the time for the first responders that day, but no one knew what accelerant was used to start it.
According to an interview Stickerver did with Crime Beat TV’s 16×9 – Lost in the Flames: Legacy of historic Holiday Inn fire and aired April 30, 2012, on Global News a division of Shaw Media Inc., in Canada, he remembers the interview one Greece Ridge firefighter said on the news and the body language of that firefighter on video, it set off some signs that were a sign that Stickever could tell that he was the critical suspect because during that interview that firefighter said he was driving towards the My Apartment Bar when he called the fire in. Stickevers pushed for the state to give marshals “police officer” status so they can enforce just like the police officers but with the ability to issue tickets, fines, fees, and official notices on properties that violate fire codes, fire safety, or other aspects of a building that would make the fire marshals not want to give okay to open the building or had to close the place down until it was brought up to code to ensure that it was safe for the public to enter said structure with that state approved this the bill that created and gave the power to create a program on fire investigation and arson in every municipality in New York State you can read the bill along with the supporters and documentation by reading the New York State bill jackets – L-1979-CH-0225 by clicking the link here to see the full text of that bill https://nysl.ptfs.com/aw-server/rest/product/purl/NYSL/i/f6d59c1f-e1a7-405a-9359-6f4fe1deacd8
Phelan formed a special arson task force, operating a command center out of the Pop-Lar Motel down the road from the fire site. The team of 23 local and state investigators conducted more than 400 interviews in the days after the fire. They settled on five “persons of interest,” but didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges against anyone. The two main suspects were the Greece Ridge firefighter who had radioed in the fire and a man who “had lived in two apartments that had caught fire, then, using insurance coverage, moved temporarily to the Holiday Inn. However, he had a confrontation with a staff member shortly before the fire, and was booted out of the hotel.” Monroe County Assistant District Attorney Crane along with his boss Monroe County District Attorney Lawrence T. Kurlander was given a list of 5 persons of interest and 2 main suspects that the Police gave to them as the possible suspects but without enough evidence from the fire scene and testimonial from guest, hotel employees, and people who lived around the area, it made the District Attorney office hard to pin a person to be held accountable for a change in one count of first-degree arson and ten counts of murder from the fire as well.
Here is what the New York State’s statute says Arson in the first degree from New York Laws › Penal Law › Part 3 › Title I › Article 150 > Section 20:
N.Y. Penal Law § 150.20 Arson in the first degree.
1. A person is guilty of arson in the first degree when he
intentionally damages a building or motor vehicle by causing an
explosion or a fire and when (a) such explosion or fire is caused by an
incendiary device propelled, thrown or placed inside or near such
building or motor vehicle; or when such explosion or fire is caused by
an explosive; or when such explosion or fire either (i) causes serious
physical injury to another person other than a participant, or (ii) the
explosion or fire was caused with the expectation or receipt of
financial advantage or pecuniary profit by the actor; and when (b)
another person who is not a participant in the crime is present in such
building or motor vehicle at the time; and (c) the defendant knows that
fact or the circumstances are such as to render the presence of such
person therein a reasonable possibility.
2. As used in this section, "incendiary device" means a breakable
container designed to explode or produce uncontained combustion upon
impact, containing flammable liquid and having a wick or a similar
device capable of being ignited.
Arson in the first degree is a class A-I felony.
Assemblyman Roger Robach, who represented Greece, co-sponsored a bill in 1980 requiring hotels and motels with more than 30 rooms to have smoke detectors in every room and in hallways. It passed unanimously in the Assembly and after it was passed by the Senate was signed into law by Governor Hugh Carey.
Although an open case, it had laid dormant until 2010 when the Greece Police department, first under Chief Todd Baxter and then under his successor Patrick Phelan, gave new life to the investigation. Everything was reexamined and witnesses were interviewed again. They concluded that the firefighter was the arsonist. The Greece PD submitted its report to the Monroe County District Attorney in 2015. At the same as Cheif Baxter began his investigation, the Canadian Government want more answers from the hotel fire as well because this was an international issue and yet to date, the Canadain Government and the families of the seven Canadians that lost their lives have not gotten any answers and are left in limbo they wish this case could be solved.
The District Attorney’s office, however, was not convinced that there was enough evidence to prosecute anyone. In the years since the 1978 fire, the science of arson has evolved and she didn’t feel that it was still conclusive without a doubt that it was even arson.
So, the families and friends of ten souls lost in that fire may never see anyone brought to account. The Holiday Inn Fire of 1978 was not only the deadliest fire in the history of the Town of Greece but in all of Monroe County.
Thank you for joining us today. Next week we pay tribute to “the greatest generation.”