Post by Graveyardbride on Dec 25, 2019 0:43:02 GMT -5
The ‘Whiskey Horror’ of Christmas 1919
During the 1919 Christmas season, numerous people – primarily men – in Connecticut and western Massachusetts fell deathly ill. Hospital emergency rooms were crowded with patients in agonizing pain and others who were pronounced dead on arrival, having died en route to the hospital. In cities, towns and rural locations, doctors rushed from one house to the next, attempting to treat patients, who were vomiting, delusional, paralyzed and blind.
According to newspapers of the day, by December 27, 69 people had died of what journalists dubbed the “Whiskey Horror” or “Blind Death,” and scores of others were hospitalized. By the 29th, the number had increased by 10. The deceased in Connecticut included 13 in Hartford and two each in Meriden and Thompsonville. The toll was much higher in Massachusetts with 45 dead in Chicopee, one in Greenfield, three in Hadley and 10 in Holyoke. The remaining three deaths occurred in remote rural locations.
On January 1, 1920, newspapers across the nation were reporting as many as 146 dead of alcohol poisoning in the eastern United States.
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Joseph Kania, a husband and father of two, lived at 82 Grove Street in Chicopee Falls, Mass. On Christmas Eve, he finished his shift at the tire plant and on his way home, stopped for a drink at the American House. One of the results of World War I restrictions was booze with an extremely low alcohol-content and word had spread of a good batch of whiskey from France. With Prohibition looming, Kania was just one among hundreds lured into local taverns for a snort – possibly the last before the government outlawed alcohol. But what the hardworking men thought was fancy French liquor was actually wood alcohol sold to distributors by a gang of New York mobsters in the Italian section of Brooklyn.
John Romanelli, the “king” or “mayor” of Brooklyn’s Little Italy, was an undertaker by trade with connections throughout the community. Police had long suspected he was the “go to” guy when a gang killed an enemy and needed someone to discreetly dispose of the body. For the most part, Romanelli managed to maintain a low profile, however, he had drawn attention to himself back in 1915 when he and another undertaker argued over who would bury an 8-year-old boy who had drowned in a canal. The disagreement culminated in a turf war in which Romanelli suffered a gunshot wound. Police broke up the brawl and Romanelli was fined for illegally carrying a weapon – the rival undertaker ended up dead.
Fast forward to 1919 and Romanelli, realizing there was money to be made in bootleg liquor once Prohibition was enacted, decided no one was better qualified for the job than an undertaker with access to wood alcohol, an ingredient of embalming fluid.
Romanelli had a knack for knowing what was going on in Little Italy and learned of a shipment of wood alcohol in a New York warehouse destined for Europe. On December 20, he and some of his cohorts sneaked into the warehouse and hauled off a substantial amount of the product, drained the barrels into casks, refilled them with water and returned them to the warehouse. Then they added water, burnt sugar, flavor extracts and coloring to the wood alcohol and sold the batch for $23,000. The “whiskey” was originally shipped to Hartford, Conn., and from there, it was distributed to retailers in the Connecticut River Valley.
Wood alcohol (methanol) is chemically similar to grain alcohol, but with an important difference: People drink grain alcohol in spirits – wood alcohol is poisonous. To be fair, in 1919, the effects of wood alcohol weren’t fully understood and while there had been an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association the previous February listing some of the adverse effects of wood alcohol consumption, it would be imprudent to assume Romanelli had any inkling he was about to commit mass murder.
No one knows how many drinks Kania consumed on Christmas Eve, but it was certainly more than one. When he got home, he didn’t eat supper, instead going directly to bed and to sleep. The following morning – Christmas Day – he was able to attend church, although his wife Annie recalled he had complained of pain in his stomach.
By the following day, Kania was desperately ill and his wife sent for Dr. Louis E. Mannix, who arrived at approximately 11 a.m. “I found this man lying on the bed in a semi-conscious condition,” Mannix later testified. “By that, I mean I was unable to get much information from him. He was rolling from one side of the bed to the other and had his hands gripped up. I made a physical examination of him at that time and found that the eye reflexes were very sluggish, the pupils of the eyes were wide open. An examination of his heart showed a very rapid pulse, ... the nerve reflexes from his hips down were practically paralyzed. ... The room had the odor of vomit and near the bed was a wet spot as though it had been washed. ... His lips and skin were a bluish color, an indication his heart was weakening. ... Shined a light into his eyes, which, under normal conditions would have contracted, but did not, an indication the man was blind.”
There was nothing the doctor could do except advise Mrs. Kania to make her husband as comfortable as possible until he returned – he had other patients to see. When Mannix got back to the house around 3 p.m., Kania was dead.
When he initially saw Kania’s bloated, discolored corpse at the postmortem, Mannix didn’t recognize the man who had been his longtime patient. When the skull was opened, the brain tissue was congested and red and upon cross-section, the inflammatory condition was evident. The lungs were highly inflamed and the liver engorged and on cross-section, both organs exuded dark, black blood. The bladder contained approximately 16 ounces of urine.
The first symptom of wood alcohol poisoning is persistent viscous vomiting and severe pain in the epigastrium (upper part of the abdomen directly above the stomach). The patient then quickly loses his vision, begins breathing heavily and quickly, his pulse weakens and the extremities grow exceedingly cold as death approaches.
People were incensed and threatening to lynch those responsible for the mayhem. When the police caught up with one of Romanelli’s accomplices, they were shocked when the man begged them to arrest him. “I’m glad you got me,” he admitted. “For God’s sake don’t send me to Connecticut. I am an innocent man ... it would mean certain death.”
The authorities arrested Romanelli in New York, catching him red-handed with some of the wood alcohol he had stolen from the warehouse. He was charged and held for grand larceny while investigators waited for a case of poisoning to surface in New York so that he could be charged with murder. However, all victims of the lethal brew – the dead and those left permanently impaired – were in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
It is unclear how many died from drinking the phony booze. Some accounts indicate there were 97 deaths, while others claim there were well over a hundred. An even greater number suffered illness and permanent impairment, but survived. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, prosecutors brought charges of murder against Romanelli, but because of weak extradition laws among the states, he remained in a New York jail where he complained bitterly to all and sundry that he had been framed by the police for the wood alcohol poisonings and in the process, his undertaking business was ruined. Nonetheless, his grievances fell on deaf ears and he was sentenced to three to seven years at Sing Sing on the larceny charge.
Although Romanelli could not be brought to justice in New York for deaths that occurred in other states, Carmine Lizenziata, the associate who transported the poisonous substance across the state line, was charged, convicted and sentenced to 18 years. Unfortunately, he fled the country for Italy and never served a day of his sentence.
One of the prosecutors who had done all in his power to charge Romanelli reluctantly admitted there was nothing he could do. “A man may stand within the confines of one state and fire a cannon into another, killing a thousand persons, without laying himself liable to extradition to the state in which the deaths actually occurred,” he lamented. “This is exactly what happened in the Romanelli case, except that the Brooklyn killers used alcohol instead of a cannon.”
Just two years after he arrived at Sing Sing, the wily mobster-undertaker was released to return to the funeral business he claimed the authorities had ruined. In 1928, Romanelli conducted the spectacular funeral of his gangster nephew, Michael Abbatemarco, a bootlegger gunned down in a mob war.
Sources: The New England Historical Society; Eric Ofgang, Connecticut Magazine, November 19, 2019; Hoosier State Chronicles, The Rotgut Record, August 6, 2015; The People of the State of New York v. Carmine Lizenziata; The People of the State of New York v. Otto Hutzel; The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 21, 1920; New York Medical Journal, January to June 1920; The Middletown Press, December 17 and 29, 1919; and Journal of the American Medical Association, February 1, 1919.