Posts made in July 26th, 2010

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 11

United States of America vs. Hermann J. Kohl

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

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.


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 %
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…)

Read Chapter 12…

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