Posts made in July, 2010

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 11

United States of America vs. Hermann J. Kohl

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We want beer!

Source: New York County Lawyer magazine, October 2005

In Chapter 9, we learned that Hermann Kohl and his company, Norda, Inc., had been brought up on bootlegging charges. Another Norda executive, Arthur Henriksen (Vice President), along with secretary, Beatrice Epstein, were also charged. All three of them were arrested in New York City on February 3, 1931 and charged with conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act. They were arraigned and posted bail, along with 17 other men and one other woman. Their hearings were scheduled for the following Monday.

So what happened at that trial on Monday, February 9, 1931? They lost. They were taken into custody and sent to jail. How do I know? Because according to the appellate brief I received last week from the National Archives at New York City, Terence J. McManus, lawyer for Kohl and Henriksen, was appealing the decision from August 7, 1931 which dismissed the writs of habeas corpus for the two men. In a nutshell, that means McManus was trying to get his clients out of jail. He lost the appeal as well. The order was affirmed, and the two defendants remained in jail, awaiting their removal to Chicago where they would stand trial on federal bootlegging and conspiracy charges.

The appellate brief also gives us details about the Norda Company’s specific involvement in this landmark case:

Both appellants have been chemists for many years. Kohl is the president and Henriksen the vice-president of the Norda Essential Oil & Chemical Company, which had obtained a permit for the use of 600 gallons of alcohol, actuallly using only about one-half of it. The Norda Company dealt in essential oils, such as lavendar, geranium, Rose Marie, spike and thyme, and its articles were used mainly by the soap industry.

The total business per annum of the Norda Company was approximately $1,680,000, consisting mainly of essential oils. The business done in alcoholic preparations was approximately $9,000.

In spite of the fact that Norda had a legitimate government-issued permit for the use of alcohol in its perfumes and toilet waters, the problem wasn’t that Norda was selling its perfumes to people who wanted to wear it. The problem was that Norda was selling its perfumes to people who wanted to drink it.

*Sidebar*

I’ve learned a bit about perfume-making while I was writing this post. Surprisingly, perfume-making is pretty simple. First, you come up with a scent you like by combining a variety of essential oils. Next, you add grain alcohol and water to the oil mixture, in the proportions listed below. The stronger the scent, the higher the concentration of essential oils, and the greater the alcohol content. Therefore, perfume smells stronger and stays on the skin longer than “eau de toilette” (toilet water) or cologne.

 % of Total% of Remainder% of Remainder
Oil %Alcohol %Water %
Perfume15-30%90-95%5-10%
Eau de Perfume8-15%80-90%10-20%
Eau de Toilette4-8%80-90%10-20%
Eau de Cologne3-5%70%30%
Cologne Splash1-3%80%20%

*End Sidebar*

Before the Prohibition Act was passed on January 16, 1920, there were approximately 125 legitimate businesses in New York City engaged in the manufacture of essential oils, barber supplies (hair tonics), and perfumes. By the end of 1920, the number of “perfume companies” applying for alcohol permits jumped from 125 to 3,000. (Source: New York Times, December 9, 1920. Read the article…)

So now… we know Hermann Kohl and his wife Hertha moved from their residence at 400 West 148th Street in Manhattan, to 336 Halsted Street in Essex County, New Jersey sometime between 1918 (the year Kohl registered for the draft) and 1920 (the year of the U.S. Census). From his obituary, we also know that Kohl founded Norda in 1924… four years after Prohibition was passed. So, clearly, Norda was not one of the original 125 legitimate perfume businesses operating prior to 1920.

The Damning Evidence
At the center of this national liquor ring was a man by the name of “A. Srebren.” He ran a business called “Srebren & Company” in Chicago. Ironically, the Norda Company shared the same warehouse space as Srebren & Company.

Early in 1930, the Chicago warehouse was raided by Prohibition agents. The following text is taken directly from the appellate brief:

“On the premises, they found a lot of whiskey, alcohol and toilet preparations. A further search of the premises netted a file of correspondence, which showed the name of the Norda Essential Oil Company. An examination of the fifth floor of the building revealed a small room with bottles bearing the label “Norda Essential Oil Company.” On the first floor of the building were found 13 cases of toilet preparations containing ten one-gallon cans each, all bearing the label of Norda Essential Oil Company; also freight bills relating to these 13 cases, showing Srebren & Co. to be the consignee. They also found 35 cases packed in a similar manner to the 13 cases, which bore the label of Srebren & Company, 121 E. 24th Street, New York City. This appears to be the address of the Norda Company, New York City.”

However, the most damning evidence of all comes from a witness by the name of Shorn, a shipping and receiving clerk employed jointly by Srebren and Norda Essential Oil Company. In the appellate brief, Shorn gave the following account to the Prohibition agent:

“The toilet preparations were received there and sold, as they were, to persons in private automobiles, in quantities of from six cans to five cases, together with a quantity of caustic soda. They found sales slips to correspond to such quantities. They also found upon the premises a formula book showing how to clean alcohol of its oils. In connection with this, Shorn told him that when Srebren sold this oil to a customer, he always sold him a formula for cleaning alcohol.”

And so, in the end, Kohl and Henriksen’s appeal was denied, the original order was affirmed, and both men were to be removed to Chicago to stand trial on federal bootlegging charges.

And there in Chicago, at the office of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), stands a box with over 1500 legal sheets of paper, just waiting for me to comb through it.

Hoo-ahh… I can’t wait.

(Incidentally, Kohl and Henriksen’s lawyer, Terence J. McManus, was one of NYC’s best criminal defense lawyers and also a strong supporter in the movement to repeal the national Prohibition Act. Here’s a link to a 2005 article from New York County Lawyer magazine that quotes McManus and gives a very detailed account of life during that era. Download the article…)

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Villa Am Meer, Chapter 10

A tour of the Benedict Estate in Harrison, New York

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First of all, if you’ve been following from Chapter 9, I should let you know that I received my appellate brief from the National Archives this week. More on that in the next chapter, but first… I must tell you about my phone conversation this morning.

I received a comment on my blog this week from someone named Rosanna who lives in Harrison, New York. She mentioned that she’d happened upon my blog after researching the Benedict family. It turns out, Elena Duke Benedict’s home is for sale in Harrison, and Rosanna, her husband, and her parents just toured the property this week. She wanted to know more about the family who had lived there, and… jackpot… she found my blog.

It turns out, Rosanna and her family have three young children and are thinking about moving. They found the Benedict property intriguing, mostly because of the price… a mere $999,000. She said that any other property in Harrison with 6,000 square feet on 3.85 acres would go for at least four times as much. They wanted to know why it was such a good deal.

First, click this link to view a satellite photo of the property on Google Maps.

4400 Purchase Street, Harrison, New York

A satellite view of the Benedict Estate from Google Maps

As you can see, it’s a grand old estate, built in 1925, with a caretaker’s cottage, greenhouse, and tennis court. It has 10 bedrooms and 6 baths, a living room with a fireplace, a den, porch, formal dining room (with fireplace), sunroom, butler’s pantry, breakfast room, kitchen, and of course, a staff kitchen.

Truly, a grand old estate.

So, why the low price? Rosanna filled me in.

First of all, it seems the Benedicts encountered two strokes of incredibly bad luck when it comes to “location, location, location.”

If you go back to the Google Maps link and zoom out a bit (upper left corner, minus button), you’ll notice that I-684 goes right through the northwest side of their property. Prior to 1964, Rosanna mentioned that this was the quietest, most beautiful spot in town. However, in 1964 construction began on the new bypass, which took motorists from Armonk (headquarters of IBM) to Harrison right through the Benedict property. Rosanna mentioned that the noise from I-684 was very noticeable. Strike one.

Now, if you zoom out a bit more, you’ll notice another whammy to the Benedict’s quiet rural neighborhood. Just to the right of the Benedict’s property, along the New York-Connecticut border, lies the Westchester County Airport. Built during World War II, the airport originally served as a home base for an Air National Guard Unit so they could guard nearby Rye Lake, a major source of drinking water for New York City. In 1947, the airport began offering regular passenger service, and now serves seven major airlines, the largest being Jet Blue. According to Rosanna’s husband, the airport was so close to the estate, “it felt like the helicopters were blowing my hair.” Bummer. Strike two.

However, the ultimate blow came from the realtor showing the house. Strike three? Radon. Strike four? Asbestos. Strike five? Termites. No wonder Sothebys’ listing says the home is being sold “as is.”

But despite the strikes against it, Rosanna was fascinated by the house and its vintage charm. “”Walking around, you could almost picture it in the 50s and 60s, with teenagers running around from room to room.”

She said everything was still in tact, as if the family had just picked up and left. There were high school yearbooks left behind, photos on the walls, and three shelves full of antique, leather bound magazines. Rosanna mentioned that her father was a professor of Italian literature and stumbled across an Italian magazine cover and article, which had been framed and hung on the wall. Mr. Edward Benedict was featured on the cover, and had written the article himself… in fluent Italian. “His Italian was very good,” her father said.

I wanted to know more about the photos on the wall. Rosanna told me there was a photo of Elena and Edward, taken during the 1930s or 40s. She also said there was a funny picture of Elena, sitting in a wheelchair, laughing, with one of her grandsons (or great grandsons) vaulting over the top of her.

What I wouldn’t give to see those photos.

Outside, to the right of the house, Rosanna mentioned there was a small circular drive and grassy area, with six small statues of polo jockeys. Each of the jockeys had the name of a Benedict daughter on it. According to the realtor, this is where the girls would tie their horses whenever they went riding.

Now, why in the world would the family leave those statues behind? Or the photos? Or the Italian magazine article? What the heck?

Rosanna mentioned that all the proceeds from the sale of the house and its contents were going to charity. All of it. I asked Rosanna if Ms. Benedict had been living in the house right up until her death last spring. She said she had not; that she’d been living in a nursing home at the time of her death. The house had actually been on the market since April of 2009.

I wish I had known the house was for sale when I was in New York last month. At the risk of sounding like a stalker, I sure would have loved to have seen it. For whatever reason, I’ve become completely enamored with Elena Duke Benedict and her incredible life story. She seems to me a classy lady who rode a fast moving roller coaster through life… from rags to riches and back again. I don’t even know what she looks like, but I like her. And I miss her. And I hope she has found peace.

View all the photos

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