Showing posts with label bootlegger. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bootlegger. Show all posts

04 December 2017

Old Dogs and New Sticks

by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, a woman who has acted in five or six plays with my wife (I directed one of them) invited me to her home because she had "something to show me." She mentioned "corruption," "graft," bootlegging" and murder, too. Your typical date, right? Naturally, I accepted.

A week later, I followed my GPS down a series of twisting back roads through woods and dales to her house, where I found her dining room table sagging under legal pads, file folders, photographs, and her laptop, which looked exhausted.

"Check this out." She showed me a Hartford Courant front page from 1921 (below) featuring FIVE different stories, all continued later in the paper, about Andrew J. Richardson and his son Andrew F. Richardson, who were arrested for bootlegging, auto theft, possible murder and a variety of other charges. some of the headlines were priceless. My personal favorite (bottom of upper right cluster) is "Mom Sobs While Sons Nabbed." They don't write 'em like that anymore.

Reading farther, I learned that Richardson pere and fils were detectives on the New Britain, Connecticut police force. In fact, Dad was the Chief of Detectives. Oops. And it gets even better. I looked up at my friend, Nancy Richardson Cardone.

"That's my great-grandfather," she said. "You think there's a book in here?"

"How much material do you have?" I congratulated myself for not drooling.

She held up a flash drive. "About 200 files."

She gave me a copy of that flash drive and we discussed options. Eventually, I convinced her that the best bet is to find a traditional publisher because she has pictures and other documents from the side of the family her relatives never discussed when she was growing up. She went to Ancestry.com and it turns out she is a brilliant researcher. If Robert Mueller needs someone to flesh out his investigation team, I know where he should look.

I've looked through the files. A lot of them have family value--birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and an autopsy report (yes, really!)--but most of them provide little or no narrative. Nancy knew a few great anecdotes, but they may not even be relevant. I told her that if we can find enough material to produce a coherent story, it's probably going to take three to five years. Since it looks like I would do the writing, I told her I've never tried nonfiction and this could take away two of my few strengths: dialogue and interviewing people. After all, the events took place nearly a century ago, so none of the major players will sit down to chat.

Another downside is that I've never put together a nonfiction proposal. I've started researching that, too, and it looks like a cross between a marketing plan and my Master's thesis. Fortunately, I can write within rigid constraints. As an English teacher, I could sling jargon with the worst of them and still be somewhat coherent (yes, I know that's a sin). I've also written grant proposals, the literary equivalent of jumping through progressively smaller flaming hoops while pounding nails into your forehead. I never want to write another one.

The project has some bright spots, too. I taught in New Britain, scene of the crime, for over thirty years and have former students in city government and on the police force. Maybe someone will remember what a brilliant, funny, and generous guy I was and open a few doors. The gang operated out of several sites, but one was a farm in Newington (where I now live), between New Britain and Hartford. Without even knowing it, I drove past that farm on my way to New Britain High School for years. If we need more pictures, that farm is still there.

New Britain was one of the most prosperous towns in the Northeast a century ago (ever heard of Stanley Hardware or Fafnir Bearing?) and has an industrial museum that I highly recommend if you're ever in the area. They have fascinating exhibits and even more fascinating people who can tell you all about them.

Last week, I tracked down a former colleague who used to do genealogy for clients back before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. He suggested several other possible sources of information.

I know, I could use whatever we find as the basis for a novel, but I'd still have to research the story anyway, and there's more competition (Dennis Lehane's The Given Day comes to mind instantly). If the information is there, nonfiction seems like a better choice even if it does feel like learning to play guitar again...left-handed.

What do you think? Does this sound like a good story? Would you read it? And how old do you have to be before you can learn new tricks?

30 October 2011

My Uncle the Bootlegger


by Louis Willis

My uncle, the younger of my mother’s two brothers, nicknamed “Belly,” was a bootlegger. He sold moonshine in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. He bought the moonshine in half gallon jars from the men who made it back in the hills and hollows of East Tennessee and brought it to the city where he sold it by the pint and half pint. To my uncle and the other Black bootleggers, bootlegging was a business, and they considered themselves businessmen, not criminals. 

The police, who admired my uncle for his ability to evade capture when other bootleggers were often caught, gave my uncle the nickname of “Whiskers” because he wore a large beard. He was tall, lean, handsome, medium brown skin and spoke in a low voice, even when angry. I think the fact that, at six feet, two inches, he was the tallest member in our family makes him stand out in my memory. 

I have no direct memory of the family story of how the police used my uncle to test the rookies. Two officers in a patrol car would bring the rookie into the neighborhood, wait until they spotted my uncle, then let the rookie out of the patrol car, and the foot race was on. My uncle never had moonshine or a gun on him, which made me think, in later years, the situation was prearranged. None of the rookies ever caught him because my uncle had the advantage of knowing the neighborhood. For me, the story shows how the White policemen used my uncle like the mechanical rabbit employed to get racing dogs to run. The police, however, respected my uncle and tried to get him to join the force. He refused because he didn’t want to arrest his friends, and especially his brother.

I remember a funny incident involving one of the Black policemen’s  attempt to catch my uncle, not by chasing him, but by outsmarting him, because I saw it happen. Only 3 or 4 Black men were on the city police force. One of them, I’ll call him GV, was a mean SOB and would arrest anyone he thought was breaking the law.

The part of the GV story I know from other family members suggests he didn’t like my uncle and considered him an embarrassment to the Black community. He decided he was the man to catch him. He didn’t know that the Black beat patrolman had warned my grandmother, and she had warned my uncle, who was watching for GV, as was others in the neighborhood. 

Looking across our backyard from our kitchen window, I could see the back of Doll Flats and the outdoor toilets attached to each flat. The doors of the toilets could be locked with latches on the inside and the outside. The toilets could be approached from the north through the space between our house and the house on the east side of ours, and from south through the space between Doll Flats and the back of the flats that were perpendicular to Doll Flats.
On the day the incident, I watched from the kitchen window as GV, who was not in uniform, approached from the south, entered the first toilet, and locked the door. From inside the toilet, you could see the back of our house through the cracks between the door and the door frame. Just before GV entered the toilet, I saw my uncle tiptoeing between Doll Flats and the back of the house next door to ours. He stopped, peeked around the corner of the flats, and saw GV enter the toilet. 

He left, and I next saw him ease around the south corner of the flats and throw the outside latch of the toilet GV was in. He strolled pass the toilet, looked back when he heard GV trying to open the door, smiled, and kept walking.

I never learned how GV got out of the toilet. He was fired from the police force for doing the unthinkable: he started arresting White folks.

My uncle went legit when the county became wet in the late 1960s or early 1970s. He already had a business selling kindling wood. He opened a store from which he sold sodas, candy, cookies, and beer. Strangely, he did not sell whiskey. He died of a heart attack in 1988 after discovering someone had broken into the store. I always thought he died of a broken heart because he believed no one would ever rob him since if anyone wanted something he would give it to them on credit. He was not aware that the new, drug dealing, drug using generation didn’t ask; they took.