The Failure of the “Noble Experiment” in
Reading & Berks County (1920-1933)
By EDWARD A, TAGGERT
Of the Twentieth Century’s many attempts to improve society, Prohibition was our nation’s most notorious failure. And Reading and Berks County played no small part in neutralizing what Herbert Hoover wryly called “the noble experiment.” The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution has been universally blamed for spawning organized crime and fostering political corruption. Now, 64 years after it ended, few can find anything good about it.
Reading, with its blue-collar population, was in league with most of the industrial Northeast regarding Prohibition. The city’s steel, textile workers and railroaders were not anxious to take the cure the anti-drinking forces were trying to impose on them. But it was more than a moral issue in a city that had four breweries, five bottling companies, and 25 liquor and wine wholesalers. And the volunteer fire companies that depended on the sale of alcoholic drinks in their social quarters to finance their operations – how would they support themselves? Would the city have to create a costly paid fire department?
In 1920, Reading was listed in a national study among the top 12 industrial centers of the United States. During the next decade it reached its peak population of more than 111,000. Legitimate companies prospered, but not as much as did businesses operating outside the law.
On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified when Nebraska became the 36th state to do so. Exactly one year later the manufacture, sale, or transportation of all intoxicating beverages were officially prohibited in the United States. In Berks, operators of the county’s 417 hotels and saloons were angry and worried. Spokesmen for those in the liquor and beer trade predicted the loss of 2,500 jobs. They also reminded elected officials that Reading could lose $68,000 in licensing fees, and the county, $72,000. And federal stamps on each brand of beer sold in Berks had earned the federal government almost $700,000 in 1918. The county was known as a million-dollar revenue district.
The temperance forces (the “drys”) and the anti-prohibitionists (the “wets”) had been debating Prohibition for years. Now it was the drys’ turn to gloat. But the local politicians have their fingers on the pulse of the voters. Of the five state House legislators from Berks in 1919, only Reading’s James E. Norton, Republican, had campaigned as a dry. Democrats Walter A. Ringler, the other Reading legislator; Cyrus K. Brendle of Shillington, and Wilson G. Sang of Temple, dodged the issue although all were regarded by the pundits as wets. Only Rep. Daniel A. Rothenberger, Oley, and State Sen. George A. Sassaman, both Democrats, openly opposed the 18th Amendment.
There would be a trial-run, so to speak, of universal Prohibition. When the United States was engaged in World War I the government feared the country’s intemperance and the loss of cereals, grains, and fruit used in the manufacture of liquors and beer could cause a national crisis. Thus, the War Prohibition Act of November 1918 banned the production of alcoholic products until demobilization.
Spokesmen for Reading Brewing Co., P. Barbey and Son, Lauer Brewing Co., and Deppen Brewing Co., all announced they were shutting down. That was mere patriotic rhetoric. The vats never stopped bubbling. The government set July 1, 1919, as “Bone Dry Day.” With no enforcement apparatus, nobody who wanted a drink went dry. Despite the emergency measure, Penn Street saloons were as lively as ever, especially with the influx of soldiers and sailors returning from France.
A Reading Eagle reporter observed: “Saturday night crowds seem to be an institution peculiar to Reading alone, as it is doubtful whether there is another city in the United States which can boast of so large a turnout of residents.” Maybe a bit of unsubstantiated crowing, but certainly capturing the Saturday night festive mood along the city’s main thoroughfare that continued well into the 1960s.
In 1919, to stay on the safe side, the beer companies continued their annual practice of taking out local liquor licenses, in the event Prohibition was postponed or repealed. On April 1, the four brewing companies joined with 392 hotel-men, liquor distributors, and bottlers who were granted liquor licenses by the county. This was a drop of only 22 from the previous year. Also approved for a license was the Muhlenberg Brewing Co., although the plant had been heavily damaged by fire some years before.
Temperance sentiment was boosted with Congress’s passage of the Volstead Act, the enforcement vehicle of Prohibition, over President Wilson’s veto in October 1919. The official starting date of Prohibition was January 16, 1920, but by then Berks County’s pattern of resistance was entrenched for the duration.
As Prohibition’s official starting date approached, Reading’s naive ministers and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union local chapter were ecstatic. The city’s churches were alive with anticipation on January 10, 1920. That Sunday was declared National Constitutional Prohibition Day to celebrate the death of John Barleycorn. The sermon of First Baptist’s Rev. Max Wiant, “A Clean Bath in Dirty Water,” compared Prohibition to cleansing a leper. Churches were crowded that Sunday, indicating Reading was not without strong advocates of the 18th Amendment. It was indeed a time of dry good humor and wet dry humor.
Reading Eagle readers were greeted the day after Prohibition Eve with a whimsical headline and flowery story:
DEATH BLOW FOR JOHN BARLEYCORN WHO WAS ONCE A GREAT SPORT
“Unconscious since the first of July and failing each time to derive and benefit from numerous injunction applications and other ‘restoratives’ brought into play by those who caught up in the last minute to bring him back to the full vigor of life, John Barleycorn, alias King Alcohol, after putting up a game but always a losing fight, passed away at 12:01 o’clock this morning. War-time prohibition delivered the blow which sent the mighty monarch staggering blindly to the ropes, and the knockout punch was administered by the 18th amendment.”
“While outward indications in Reading gave little or no hint of fact that Friday night was any different from any other night, there were numerous places throughout the city which sheltered hilarious parties assembled for the purpose of taking advantage to the limit of their last opportunity to quaff in public of the cup that cheers and inebriates.”
“Penn Street, glistening under its blanket of snow, bore practically no testimony to the joy of the drys and the sorrow of the wets. There appeared to be nothing unusual about the crowds that negotiated its snow-covered surface during the course of the evening. As they plodded through the snow, collars up and heads down to protect themselves from the driving flakes, there was nothing to be observed which might have indicated that John Barleycorn was about to breathe his last.”
The celebration was carefree. Reading police reported only one man was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. That distinction went to 23-year-old James Heckman, who paid a $21.15 fine rather than spend 30 days in jail. Sgt. John Maloney, who arrested him on North Sixth Street, claimed his prisoner became abusive and called him “every hard name on the calendar.”
A crash in the brewery job market never happened. The barrels didn’t stop rolling, and the hotels and saloons in the city and county continued to sell alcoholic beverages, under the table, over the table, and through rubber tubes running from well-supplied stocks upstairs. A few hotel proprietors quit the business, others closed their bars and depended only on the food trade. Before Prohibition, 200 hotels and saloons had liquor licenses in Reading. By 1924, there were 146 hotels and saloons still advertising, and dozens of speakeasies using peepholes to admit customers.
In the early weeks of prohibition many former saloon patrons became law abiding, not willing to take the risk of being caught in a raid. A canvass of 17 Penn street bars by a reporter revealed that morning business was way down in the early weeks of Prohibition. But most saloon operators, at least for the first few years, showed little concern about enforcement.
Under the Volstead Act, breweries with specific licenses could still produce beer with an alcoholic content of one-half of one percent. It was called “near beer.” But its low charge of alcohol was inadequate for beer drinkers accustomed to 2.75 percent amber. And instead of getting a watered-down product, the beer bellies were often treated to illegal suds sometimes exceeding 4 percent in alcoholic content. So most of the beer produced in Reading during the Roarin’ Twenties was high-voltage.
Many Berks elected officials marketed the idea that a big majority of the populace opposed Prohibition. The city’s many churchmen and WCTU members decried that claim as ridiculous. But Reading was not in the Bible Belt. The wets had far more political clout than the drys. Few Democrats or Republicans spoke out for or against Prohibition for many years, preferring to ignore it. Socialists offered lukewarm opposition at first, but by 1928 they became openly anti- 18th.
For the first two years, for whatever reason, Charles Marks, the local federal enforcement officer didn’t do much enforcing. Most taverns operated with impunity as the grapevine kept proprietors well-informed concerning the agent’s whereabouts. But after the Harding administration set up its Philadelphia enforcement office in 1921, federal agents began nosing around Reading because of its reputation as a wide-open town.
The reality of Prohibition finally dawned on Reading the morning of February 18, 1922. It was barely daylight when a P & R passenger train arrived at the Franklin Street Station from Philadelphia. Twenty enforcement agents ~ headed by Supervisor W.A. Kelton, stepped off the train and immediately went into action. In teams of three they headed for specific hotels and saloons around the city. Kelton, accompanied by Charles Mallet, director of personnel for the Department of Justice, went directly to City hall to seek local police assistance.
By 6:45 a.m. the first raiders, armed with search warrants, began knocking on doors – and knocking down a few. When Mayor John K. Stauffer was notified the feds were in town he immediately ordered full cooperation by the city police force. As liquor was located by the raiding parties, cops were sent to guard and inventory the confiscated stock before it was hauled by car and truck to City Hall, then at South Fifth and Franklin streets.
By noon, the accumulation of booze filled City Hall to overflow. The excess then was shipped to a city building across Franklin Street at No.518. Early estimates placed the total cache at more than a thousand gallons of bonded and bootlegged whisky, gin, wines, cordials and other wet goods with a counter value of $50,000. That estimate was based on current prices: fifty cents for a mixed drink in the speakeasies. No beer was seized.
The armed raiders met with resistance only at a 10th and Court saloon operated by M. Belicki. He and two other occupants tried to prevent the agents from entering. Belicki, Peter Miller, and Paul Woski were arrested for disorderly conduct; an agents coat was torn and another agent was bitten on a finger.
As soon as word spread that enforcement officers were on the loose, phones began ringing in bars all over town warning proprietors to “clean up the stock.” At several locations agents answered the phone, took heed to the caller’s alarm, and offered a reassuring, “Don’t worry, we’ll clean up.”
The wife of a hotelman claimed the jug of whiskey found in her kitchen was used to make mince pies. “You make a great many pies, I’m sure,” Supervisor Kelton told the woman, then had the jug confiscated. Mallet, the Justice Department man, said, “This raid was made because up to this time there has been very little actual enforcement of the Prohibition Act in Reading.”
The feds “cleaned up” but didn’t close up the saloons of Reading. All the places raided were open that Saturday night. Many could serve beer only, but all replaced their liquor stocks within hours or days.
Charles Marks, the local enforcement officer, had not been invited to the party. He was awakened Saturday morning by a hotel proprietor who thought he had an arrangement with Marks. Charlie was as surprised as was the hotelman. He rushed to the fellow’s place of business, and sure enough, a flying squadron was clearing out the barman’s booze.
Neighbors in the 3rd and Walnut area recalled seeing Charlie always looking the other way when a Lauer’s or Deppen’s beer truck drove by. This was the same sentiment expressed by the Rev. W.C. Dunlap, pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, in his sermon the day after the big booze bust: “Think of a high-salaried man being in bed while these raids were conducted. The good people ought to cry out against it. They might just as well make a little wooden man who stands in front of a cigar store the enforcement officer and give the salary to someone else.”
Apparently John T. Davis, director of Pennsylvania enforcement, agreed. He immediately suspended Marks for negligence and incompetence. However, six months later David lifted the suspension – too late. By August, Charlie had been pulling strings in Washington and won Senate confirmation as a U.S. Customs officer in Philadelphia. Marks had been an aide to Berks County Republican Chairman Thomas Seidel. The Customs job paid $2,500 a year, the same as he had made in “enforcement.” True to form, he sued for the pay he lost while suspended.
Hotelmen claimed the February 18 raid was timed to scare them off on the eve of Berks County Licensing Court hearings. Kelton denied this, claiming he knew nothing about local hearings scheduled for the following Monday. He said his office had received complaints for several months. “I finally decided upon Reading because of the many reports which have been received about this city, indicating it was a wide-open town.
The courtroom was crowded Monday morning when Judges Endlich and Wagner presided at the hearings. Many in the pews were WCTU members offering silent protest against the court and the hotel landlords and saloon men. Why, these drys asked, could the city and county sell liquor licenses in defiance to federal and state prohibition laws? But that was the mood of local officials who wanted the license revenue. From the beginning they had ignored Washington’s pleas to municipal and county leaders to enforce the Volstead Act.
It took all of seventy-five minutes for the judges to ask perfunctory questions of the 306 applicants. The applications of hotel and saloon proprietors who had been raided were withheld, pending the outcome of their cases. On April 1, when the new licenses became effective, the number granted was 260. Two days later the county courts received a petition from the Berks County Christian Endeavor Union. The petition, signed by 5,000 frustrated drys, pleaded with the judges to stop issuing liquor licenses. Public opinion finally prevailed as the annual licensing practice was terminated in 1923.
Nine saloon operators and five bartenders were charged with selling and possessing liquor at the time of the big raid: In order to avoid jail sentences they all pleaded guilty in federal court. The proprietors were fined $1,000 each and had to furnish bonds of$ 1,500 to $2,000 which they would lose if arrested on liquor violations again. The bartenders got off with fines of $200 or $250. They, too, had to enter surety bonds to keep the peace.
After that, only three Penn Street saloons were granted liquor licenses, meaning the only alcoholic beverage they could sell was “near beer.” Before Prohibition, thirty-five licensed saloons -six in the 500 block – lined the city’s main street.
Six months later local barmen were dealt a double blow from both the local police and a return visit by the feds. On August 6, District Attorney H. Robert Mays took out warrants to raid four city taverns. At the same time, county detectives seized liquor at two Womelsdorf hotels. This was but a prelude to a federal raid on August 25 when 20 Reading saloons took a hit. Again a large quantity of wet goods was seized but all the liquor stands, as they were called in those days, were open for business that night. Enforcing the Volstead Act was proving to be little more than an inconvenience to Reading’s boozers.
In a galaxy of Prohibition racketeers in Reading, Abe Minker was something of a shooting star. His career as a bootlegger was short and violent. Unlike beer baron Max Hassel, who would become something of a Reading folklore icon, Abe Minker resorted to force and deception to establish his reputation.
By the time he was 23, Abe had a thriving illegal liquor business going but he couldn’t play by the “rules.” Instead of paying for four barrels of alcohol being trucked from Philadelphia, he paid $350 to have the delivery hijacked before it reached Reading. Two days later-April 24, 1922 – a Jordan carrying four men arrived in front of his home at 818 Elm Street. They had come from Philly to settle accounts. Shots were fired as Abe fled. The gunmen drove around the corner to the Minker wholesale produce store on 8th Street, firing shots that almost hit Abe’s 50-year-old father and a younger brother, Alexander.
Witnesses gave police a description of the Jordan auto and the quartet riding in It. The gunmen were caught by an intrepid Pottstown policeman and returned to Reading. Abe Minker then tried to recruit the same local fellows who hijacked the wet goods on the previous Saturday. But they refused to avenge the shooting. They felt Abe had shortchanged them for the earlier job – paying them only $50 apiece.
In addition to disorderly charges entered by the police against the Philly gang, Minker took out warrants charging them with more serious violations.
Later, after the big city mob put more pressure on him, Abe withdrew his charges. That’s when District Attorney Mays charged him with perjury. With all parties involved in trying to even the score, the original hijackers turned the tables on Minker.
The South Seventh Street gang, which had split the original $350 seven ways, was headed by two sets of brothers: Dewey and Charlie Eyrich and Clayton and Otto “Buck” Wentzel. Minker’s North Eight Street crowd included his three brothers, Isadore, Alexander and William. And that summer that feud erupted into a chase scene right out of a Mack Sennett comedy.
Charlie Eyrich and his crew, intent again on a bit of hijacking, were waiting at the end of Norristown as a Minker Brothers truck approached on the old Benjamin Franklin Highway. Two cars of hijackers tried to block the westbound truck. But Roy Weidman, the driver, swerved around them and stomped on the accelerator. His only passenger was Edwin Carr. Riding shotgun in a Buick driven by Stanley Kozak were several Minker confederates.
As the chase developed, the hijackers’ lead car a Stevens driven by Adolph DeCarlo – soon was traveling west in the eastbound lane to the left of the truck. Charlie Eyrich, a 31-year-old father of four, was by now standing on the running-board, reaching for a hold on the truck. Dodging oncoming cars and occasionally making contact with the truck, the Stevens finally nudged the truck to a stop in Collegeville. With Eyrich waving a knife, the pair in the truck leaped out, fleeing into a nearby Masonic hall.
Eyrich climbed into the truck and took off, veering right on Swamp Pike at Limerick. Kozak, the Minker wheelman in the Buick, stopped to pick up Weidman and Carr, who peered out of the lodge building. Already having roared by was the second hijacker car, a Haynes Roadster, driven by Rocco Curro, with Clayton Wentzel and others as passengers.
The careening caravan was terminated in Gilbertsville by a flat tire on the truck. As more than a dozen hoods piled out of four vehicles, customers inside and outside of Henry Fry’s general store gaped. Several of the Minker crowd waved hand guns, convincing the Seventh Streeters to relinquish their booty. Nobody was hurt as Kozak and his buddies loaded several cases of alcohol into the Buick and set off for Reading. But the overloaded touring car also developed a flat tire. While repairs were underway at a Boyertown garage, the Eyrich-Wentzel bunch rode by, cheering and waving as if they were victors in a football game. But they, along with Abe Minker, ended up losers.
September 12, 1922, was not a good day for the Minker family. That afternoon, Abe and Alex were found guilty of perjury. During their trial they had claimed they didn’t know the men who had shot at them the previous May. It was the testimony of Charlie Eyrich and Clayton Wentzel that put Abe behind bars for almost two years.
The same night, federal agents arrested Isadore Minker at the gang’s warehouse on Front Street near Spruce. Confiscated were 280 gallons of distilled alcohol on a truck. Another 300 gallons of alcohol in cases and drums were found in the warehouse along with boilers, coils, gauges, and other distillery equipment.
Two days later at a Norristown trial, five of the Seventh Streeters were found guilty of hijacking. Otto Wentzel and Charlie Eyrich received the stiffest sentences, six-and four-year terms respectively.
Strangely, it wasn’t until the fourth year of Prohibition that federal agents made a concerted effort to investigate Reading breweries. In September 1923 a couple of drys were snooping around the Deppen Brewery at 3rd and Buttonwood. They saw a Schwartz truck being loaded with kegs. As it was being driven away, the agents halted it on Rose Street. Three men on the truck escaped, but 11 half-barrels of high powered beer were seized.
The federal men were about to enter the plant when they spied another beer truck traveling north on Third Street. In a second seizure, they confiscated another load of strong beer. The driver, John Mancuso, and his helper were arrested. Although it was not proven, the agents suspected the beer had originated at the Lauer brewery just a short distance south on the west side of 3rd Street.
Deppen employees were belligerent when the feds entered the brewery to test the beer in their vats. The confrontation reached the point where a city cop had to be called in before the agents could carry out their duties. Deppen’s was licensed to produce “near beer,” as was Lauer’s, but barrels of husky beer were The owners of Deppen Manufacturing were charged with the manufacture, sale and transportation of illegal beer. Company lawyers stalled the case with appeals and postponements, and local courts eventually dismissed it.
Anecdotal history of the Prohibition era in Reading and Berks abounds:
Each year operators of the Reading Fair would deny any liquor or beer was available on the fairgrounds. And each year something would happen to explode that myth. In 1926, O.G. Markle earned a dubious distinction after being arrested for smuggling a jug of whisky onto the fair’s property. When his “white lightning” was tested by City hall technicians, it was proclaimed absolutely the worst moonshine they had ever tasted. Reading beer baron Max Hassel never spent a day in jail. O.G. Markie, at the other end of the production line, was sentenced to three months in jail and fined $50.
Entertainment options during Prohibition were far removed from today’s TV and video couch-oriented choices. News of a saloon raid or of a still fire, or the disposal of confiscated beer usually drew a crowd. When federal agents in 1924 poured their amber contraband through a sewer grate at 9th and Laurel, the residents were quick to act after the sewer became clogged. Pails and buckets of beer were scooped up from the flooded neighborhood gutters.
On another occasion, Berks County Prison officials in City Park were ordered to get rid of almost 60 confiscated kegs of beer stored there for a year. The barrels were lined up, their bungs removed, and holes hammered into the tops to let the beer flow freely. The good stuff squirted up into the trees, but some had soured and barely foamed as it ran down a gutter to an 11th Street sewer grating. As amber liquid dripped from the trees, Sheriff Esterly remarked, “The saturation was good for the blight.”
Although enforcement of the Volstead Act was now being stepped up against local brewers, sporadic raids of saloons and clubs continued. One such incident was an embarrassment to the GOP in the fall of 1924. Two years earlier, Gifford Pinchot had been elected Pennsylvania’s governor. The leadership of his own Republican Party had not supported Pinchot’s nomination because he was an ardent dry. He felt no strong allegiance to Calvin Coolidge who became President when Warren Harding died in 1923. But the good Republicans in Reading did, so they formed the Coolidge Club, ostensibly to support the President’s campaign in 1924. The club had an interesting location: 730 Franklin Street. The Hassel family lived at 738 Franklin.
William Sharman was in his first year as Reading’s mayor. He and District Attorney David Manger had made overtures to the governor in the spring of 1924 indicating they would enforce the Volstead Act. They did step up local raids to a degree, but certainly didn’t stamp out the “blind pigs” (speakeasies), as Sharman had pledged shortly after being elected. Possibly the meetings the mayor and district attorney had with the governor were instrumental in the State Police raid at the Coolidge Club on September 26, only six weeks before the 1924 Presidential election.
State troopers from the Pottsville barracks entered the club in late afternoon. The club president, J. Addison Patron, was there but escaped notice of the raiders and walked out. Jugs of whiskey and bottles of gin and scotch were seized, along with four quarter and three nickel slot machines.
The club was a meeting place for many local politicians but the Republican leadership denied any official connection. The club had sold more than a thousand $10 memberships, each supplied with a key. The Coolidge had been very active in its year of existence, staging dances, women’s nights, and smokers. Its officers had recently been shopping for a piece of land for a golf course. The raid, however, ended any grandiose plans of expansion. Of course, Coolidge was re-elected but Gov. Pinchot and Mayor Sharman felt they had made a statement.
Although there always was a steady flow of beer and liquor that kept Reading’s drinkers happy, Prohibition had its moments of violence and disaster. In 1928, an estimated 1,145,644 gallons of illegal liquor was produced in Pennsylvania. Some of it was processed in a big Reading still set up by New Jersey bootleggers. Residents in the 1400 block of Mulberry Street were complaining about the odor of mash. Federal agents soon pinpointed the source as the old Gray Iron Foundry in that block. In a pre-dawn raid they entered through an open garage door raised to let a truck out. Among the 10 men eventually rounded up, the only locals were Stanley Kozak, a former Minker driver and by now a Reading tavern owner, and Dr. Julius Goldsmith, who rented the jersey bootleggers rooms at his home on North 10th Street.
Alexander MacPhee, the assistant director of Prohibition enforcement in Philadelphia, claimed the raid had removed a serious threat to the neighborhood. Just the previous week, he reported, an illegal still in Philadelphia had exploded causing $2 million damage. He said the Mulberry Street residential area was indeed a danger zone while the big still was fired up. Removing the potential explosive device, he said, was more important than the ten arrests. Eventually removed from the old foundry building were two 10,000-gallon vats, six 2,000-gallon vats, 2,000 gallons of alcohol, a 2,000-gallon condenser, 2,000 gallons of mash, and several dozen 100-pound bags of corn sugar. It was believed to be the biggest still ever operated in Reading.
MacPhee’s portent of disaster proved prophetic about 14 months later. Once again an outsider relied on Reading’s reputation as an easy town in which to operate. Alexander Kligerman, known in Philadelphia’s underworld as Harold Nathan, bought the old Reading Paper Company building, at Front and Court Streets in the fall of 1929. It originally had been a distillery. Immediately, experts in setting up stills were brought to Reading along with all the necessary equipment.
On a cold Sunday afternoon, February 16, 1930, two Reading men, Jacob H. Labe and Thomas Maggiaro, were walking by Kligerman’s building. A boiler exploded killing the two pedestrians in a shower of bricks. Investigators reported that the still was capable of producing 7,600 gallons of alcohol. Kligerman received a 4-to-6 year sentence for manslaughter.
But that was not Berks County’s most costly still disaster. In the summer of 1927 a group of bootleggers attempted to convert hair tonic into moonshine. The still was on the property of Mark R. Fahr in Bernville. Fahr was severely burned when the still exploded, but his wife and six children died in the fire that destroyed their house. Four men received 10-year sentences for involuntary manslaughter in that bloody chapter of the “noble experiment.” Two of them were Nick Ernesto, whose own home in Mt. Penn had been bombed by rival bootleggers, and Ben Myers, a member of the old South Seventh Street gang. Four years later Myers was killed in a gangland murder.
Prohibition, as it turned out, was the stepping stone for adventurous young men whose life-style created the image that Reading was a haven for racketeers. During the Roarin’ Twenties, the numbers game found a home here, eventually expanding to a profitable industry. Slot machines, introduced shortly before the Coolidge Club raid, grew to become one of the city’s top entertainment attractions. Horse betting rooms arrived in the late Twenties with the advent of a wire service that offered immediate race results.
As Prohibition aged, more and more states were repealing their own laws forbidding the production, sale, and shipment of alcoholic beverages. Even the commander of the Salvation Army, Evangeline Booth, said in 1927 that if the United States was dry in 50 years “it will be the marvel of the world.” In Reading, it was business as usual as the end of Prohibition approached.
On December 5, 1933, delegates to state conventions in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Utah voted to repeal their Prohibition laws and to ratify the 21st Constitutional Amendment, which immediately repealed the hated 18th. Applications for liquor licenses began that same afternoon in Reading. All set and ready to go was Isadore “Jimmy” Kramer.
Kramer had been proprietor of several speakeasies during Prohibition. The best known was the Central Cafe at 405 Penn Street. The front door was always open, a patron didn’t need a key or whisper an ID through an open slot in the door. Then in September of 1927 Alexander MacPhee was back in Reading leading his federal forces on another sweep. Eight speakeasies were knocked off, including Kramer’s Central Cafe. After that, Jimmy more or less went underground with his speakeasies.
But on Tuesday, December 5, 1933, the wets had regained their freedom, and patrons lined up in the Old Central Cafe, which was now located down the 300 block on the south side of Penn Street. Finally a fellow they had all been waiting for rushed in waving a treasured piece of paper, Jimmy Kramer’s legal license to operate a legitimate saloon.
Edie Koenigsberg, Jimmy’s daughter, wistfully recalls that rowdy scene more than 63 years ago as she prepares to close Kramer’s Peanut Bar for the night. Jimmy’s old saloon is one of Reading’s last reminders of that colorful era.
About the author: Edward A. Taggert, retired Editor of the Reading Eagle – Times, is working on a book about organized crime in Berks County. He is the author of ‘His Long Day In Court,’ a book on the long-running Richard Cohen case, published in 1995.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.