by Rachel Dworkin
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.
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.
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?”
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.
Rachel Dworkin is the archivist at the Chemung County Historical Society. For more information about the museum and to see more of their blog, click here.