A fiery moonshine bust in Wellesley

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on July 21, 2016.

This isn’t really a story about Prohibition. You can read about that in a U.S. history textbook. No, this article is just about one example of those who broke the law.

There’s not a whole lot of background needed here. It was 1923. The Eighteenth Amendment that prohibited the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States was just three years old. But we all know that didn’t stop people — including those in Wellesley — from manufacturing and selling booze.

The event described below was just one of a handful of busts carried out in town during the 14 years that Prohibition was in effect.

It began when federal agents, led by Massachusetts Chief Prohibition Officer James P. Roberts and Wellesley Police Chief Harry M. Kingsbury, carried out a surprise raid on a barn at 646 Worcester Street (between Kingsbury and Donizetti Streets) after securing a federal warrant following two months of surveillance by the Wellesley Police force.

What did they find on the second floor of the barn? Only a professional distillery consisting of three 150-gallon stills, one 75-gallon still, and one 50-gallon still, fueled by eight oil stoves of eight burners each! The product? Redistilled rubbing alcohol. In other words, moonshine.

The feds also found three distillers hard at work: Morris Wyman, Israel Cohen, and Louis Greenberg. Two from Malden, one from Boston. Little is known about these men, although census reports indicate that they were all Russian immigrants, their native language being Yiddish, and that Wyman was a tinsmith, an occupation that certainly would have been handy when operating a distillery.

Apparently the distillers attempted to escape but to no avail; they were quickly captured by the police. Then the real action happened. While the federal agents were examining the homemade distillery, they failed to turn off the burners that fueled the distilling process. Oops. Fumes from the heated alcohol quickly began to fill the barn, eventually reaching a small lantern in the corner. Within a split second, a blazing trail of alcohol shot through the barn and reached the boilers. The resultant explosion produced a huge fireball, sending one of the stills through the roof. A federal agent even found himself on fire, forced to discard his coat and run for safety. Amazingly, no one was seriously injured. Even the attached house was spared from destruction, thanks to the prompt arrival of the Wellesley and Newton Fire Departments. (The dwelling still stands in 2016.)

Wyman, Cohen, and Greenberg were eventually brought to the Wellesley lockup in the basement of Town Hall. Also arrested were two occupants of the house — longtime residents of Wellesley who would continue to live in the area until their deaths in the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. They were accused of aiding and abetting in the illicit production of alcohol. According to the authorities, how would it have been possible for these residents not to have known what was going on in the barn despite passing through its lower floor each day to get to a chicken coop at the rear of the lot? Alas, they maintained their innocence, claiming that they rented the barn to the three men for $10 per month and didn’t inquire about what went on inside. Charges against the two locals were therefore dropped.

The three out-of-towners appear to have been less fortunate. One week after the raid, Wyman, Cohen, and Greenberg were brought before a federal commissioner and accused of illegal production and possession of alcohol, further action pending a decision by a federal grand jury.

The story, however, pretty much ends there as no additional reporting on the case can be found. Presumably, they were convicted — the evidence appears quite overwhelming — and they were fined and/or given modest prison sentences. Indeed, the 1930 Census shows Wyman still living in Malden and running his own wholesale egg business.

Was this the last moonshine bust in Wellesley during the Prohibition Era? No, but it was probably the largest.

Of course, as we all know, Wellesley remained a dry town for decades following the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933. And thus there are surely many stories of illegal activity involving alcohol. But it’s difficult to imagine that any of them could compare to that fiery raid on a distillery in a barn on Worcester Street in 1923.