Philly Jewish Bootleggers Rose to Prominence in ’20s

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Bootlegger Waxey Irving, left, served prison time in Philadelphia.
Bootlegger Waxey Irving, left, served prison time in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)

Beer, wine and liquor still flowed through American cities 100 years ago after the Volstead Act banned the sale of alcohol and ushered in the era of Prohibition.

While popular culture from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” to HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” portrays New York City as the epicenter of organized crime and speakeasies, Pennsylvania quickly rose to prominence for its lax approach to Prohibition laws during the 1920s.

“Philadelphia rivaled New York and Chicago in terms of Prohibition-fueled crime levels,” said Annie Anderson, manager of research and public programming at Eastern State Penitentiary. “Politicians and writers at the time described Pennsylvania as ‘a bootlegger’s Elysium,’ and claimed every city in the state was ‘as wet as the Atlantic Ocean.’ Philadelphia was singled out as a place full of people willing to turn a blind eye to bootlegging.”

According to Anderson, police estimated there were 8,000 speakeasies in Philadelphia at the height of Prohibition, while journalists estimated 16,000.

“That’s a lot of illegal alcohol for a city of around 1 million people,” she said.

Some of the most prominent bootleggers in Philadelphia were Jewish.

According to Temple University Libraries Urban Archives, Max “Boo Boo” Hoff was born to immigrant Jewish parents in South Philadelphia and owned several businesses involved in the diversion of industrial alcohol, including the Quaker Industrial Alcohol Co. and the Glenwood Industrial Alcohol Co.

Hoff was a boxing promoter and prize fight manager who ran a number of businesses as fronts for his illegal liquor operations. One of his most famous speakeasies was the 21 Club, which was located on Locust and Juniper streets in what is now the Gayborhood. His closest bootlegging allies, Charles Schwartz and Samuel Lazar, were also Jewish.

Hoff faced a grand jury probe in 1928 for liquor and weapons distribution, but he was never prosecuted for bootlegging.

While “Boo Boo” largely controlled the distribution of illegal liquor, Russian Jewish immigrant Max Hassell dominated the distribution of illegal beer, according to the Temple archives. Known as “the millionaire newsboy of Reading, Pennsylvania,” Hassell started out selling newspapers. He took ownership of various small breweries in Reading and Lancaster during Prohibition and set up bootlegging routes throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He disliked firearms and was murdered in a hotel by gunmen associated with his industry rivals.

Hassell frequently partnered with Waxey Gordon, another Jewish bootlegger from New York City. Born Irving Wexler, Gordon got his alias from his pickpocketing prowess — he was allegedly so skilled it seemed like his victims’ wallets were lined with wax. He served prison time in Philadelphia for this crime.

Not all Jewish bootleggers were notorious mobsters. For many, selling alcohol was simply a side hustle.

Mt. Airy resident Amy Cohen, educational director at History Making Productions, is the granddaughter of Gilbert Herbach, a businessman who brought in extra money while studying chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Prohibition had arrived on the scene and all the men in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering did some bootlegging because we could get laboratory alcohol,” Gilbert Herbach wrote in his memoir. “We made gin or cut rye whiskey. We could always make a few bucks selling to guys in the Wharton School or College some of our homemade booze at a profit. Never made much this way. Just an occasional five spot.”

According to a 1920s national sample of known successful bootleggers, 50% were from Eastern European Jewish backgrounds, 25% were Italian and 25% were from other backgrounds, mostly Irish and Polish.

Anderson has a theory about why Jews were so highly represented in these findings.

“If you’re an immigrant in the 1920s, certain industries and career paths are closed to you based on racism and anti-Semitism. When you don’t have a lot of upward mobility, some folks will look for opportunities elsewhere,” she said. “Bootlegging offered the opportunity to be a successful entrepreneur, albeit in a black market industry.”

Her theory about the negative impact of anti-Semitism on upward mobility is also reflected in Herbach’s experiences as a senior in college.

“As you probably know in your last year of college the big firms send representatives to interview the graduates and these interviews are usually set up by the professors who taught you,” he wrote. “Now at that time anti-Semitism was much more common and we got a fine example of it in practice because not one Jewish boy in the class even got an interview.”

Audiences interested in learning more about the era can visit Eastern State Penitentiary to view the permanent exhibit “Beyond Capone,” which features several Prohibition-era figures incarcerated for bootlegging.

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