Carole Owens: Local 'wine vaults' tempted thieves



May 13, 1922: in the Saturday Evening Post, a self-styled "liquor peddler" about to "go straight" tells the story of how the liquor business is being run during Prohibition (1920-1933).

First he wants us to know that he is not a "bootlegger." The term bootlegger only applies to the importer of booze. Whether down from Canada in trucks or over from the Bahamas in boats, the importer, a.k.a. bootlegger, brings the "real" stuff into the country. The importers deliver "cases of booze" to American cities. There the brokers arrange the sales to public houses and private homes. The broker gives the "sold" cases to the liquor peddlers to deliver.

Our reporter, the liquor peddler, collects $120 for every case he delivers. Of that he keeps 10 percent or $12. He gives $108 to the broker. (To approximate 2014 value: $120 = $1,320; $12 = $132, and $108 = $1,188). The broker pays the importer out of the $108 and keeps the balance. Our peddler isn't sure what percent the broker keeps or the bootlegger receives, but he is certain, it is "like a staircase." Every step up is a step up in compensation.


To be allowed to stay in business, the importer, broker and peddler all pay the crime bosses, politicians, and "Uncle Sam's regulars" (federal Prohibition agents).

Bootleggers are not to be confused with fakers or brewers. The fakers are foreigners who soak labels off bottles of liquor in Europe before sailing to America. In America, they paste the labels onto bottles of nonalcoholic beverages: for example, scotch labels onto bottles of apple juice. They sell the bottles for top price, and no one is the wiser until the end-user opens and drinks.

Brewers make moonshine, bathtub gin, or white lightening. Brewers establish saloons to distribute their "gin" directly to the drinkers. The saloon owners have "lead pipe mortgages:" pay the brewers or be beaten to death.

What they brew is often laced with wood alcohol, antifreeze, or other poisonous substances. In the worst case, drinkers die; in the best case, drinkers are sick for days.

Given all the fakery and poison foisted on the market to meet the demand, our peddler tells us, "the real stuff can sell for almost any price these days." The trick is to get hold of the real stuff. While the borders and ports may be watched, and shipments confiscated, the back roads from Berkshire to Boston or New York City are not. By this circuitous route we arrive at the role of Lenox and Stockbridge in the Prohibition.

"The fashionable country places store good liquor in burglar-proof wine vaults," the peddler writes. Tantalizing: the vaults do not discourage thieves; with a prize so great, the vaults merely challenge them.

Between 1922 and 1924, in Lenox, attempts are made on the "wine vaults" at the Berkshire cottages of Samuel Frothingham (Overleigh) and Giraud Foster (Bellefontaine). In Stockbridge, a first attempt is made at the Charles Mayer cottage (Eden Hill). At all three places, thieves fail to breach the steel doors and combination locks.

Then at 6 p. m. January 22, 1924 thieves return to Eden Hill in a caravan of trucks and saloon cars with acetylene torches in hand. John Leary, the gatekeeper, William Sanson, the caretaker, and their families are held at gun point while the thieves burn through the steel doors and combination locks, and load the trucks and trunks of cars with liquor.

The gatekeeper and caretaker continue to be held as the cars and trucks drive off allowing them time to get their precious cargo out of Massachusetts and into New York state. Stockbridge police are not informed until after 7 a.m. on the morning of January 23.

Two are caught in Great Barrington and six are arrested outside Bedford, N.Y. Still it is thought that as many as four perpetrators escaped in two trucks and cars with thousands of dollars worth of liquor. The loss is estimated at $100,000. That would be equivalent to more than $1 million today, and if we accept the price quoted by our liquor peddler, it would be more than 1,000 cases.

The amount and value raises questions not about the robbers -- their motives are crystal clear -- but about Charles Mayer and his ability to amass and his intent in amassing the enormous cache. His son, Francis, says all the liquor was purchased before Prohibition. That statement raIses the question: was it bought in anticipation of prohibition?


The greater mystery may be the one surrounding the caretaker. William Sanson, an Englishman, was on vacation when the first attempt was made. His replacement, Mr. Harvey, returned home at 10 p.m., discovered thieves attempting to break into the wine vault, and shot at them. They ran.

Sanson returned and just before Christmas, he states he was offered $15,000 ($165,000 today) if he would assist in the robbery -- lead the way to the vault, open it, and not inform the police for a few hours. According to Sanson, he refused. And yet, 29 days after the bribery offer, Sanson did lead the way to the safe and did not inform the police for 12 hours because he was threatened. He did not open the safe. Why not: if the threat was persuasive enough to force him to lead the way, why not to open the safe?

When the thieves left, they put $75 ($850 today) on Sanson's table. They said it was for the inconvenience, the coffee and biscuits. At the Leary house, for the same inconvenience and the same refreshments, they left no money. The thieves were indicted and tried in New York.

The liquor was moved from Stockbridge to Francis' house on Long Island. Not another word of explanation was written about the Mayer liquor cache or the caretaker.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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