On Christmas Eve and Christmas day in 1919 a tidal wave of patients began showing up at the hospitals in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut. They were suffering from delusions and blindness, and in some cases they were already dead. Joseph Kania of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, was one of them.
On Christmas Eve Kania finished a shift at the tire plant and, on his way home, stopped into the American House for a drink. In World War I, wartime restrictions on alcohol had stopped the sale of anything but extremely weak booze, and nationwide Prohibition was looming. Word spread through town that a batch of good whiskey imported from France was making its way up the Connecticut River Valley.
Kania, a husband and father of two, was among dozens of people lured into local taverns for a snort – perhaps their last before Prohibition. But what they thought was fancy, French whiskey was actually wood alcohol shipped to the state by a gang of New York mobsters from the Italian section of Brooklyn.
John Romanelli was the “king” of Brooklyn’s Little Italy, or sometimes called the mayor. He was an undertaker and had connections throughout the community. Police suspected that he might be the man to go to if a gang killed an enemy and wanted the body disposed of without too much fuss. He would, in 1928, conduct the spectacular funeral for his nephew Michael Abbatemarco, a gangster and bootlegger who was gunned down in a mob war.
Romanelli generally managed to keep a low profile. The one occasion when he drew attention to himself came in 1915 when he and his gang attacked a rival undertaker. The flash point of the argument was about who would bury an eight-year-old boy who died, drowned in a canal accident. The real issue was more likely turf in the neighborhood.
In the 1915 brawl, which police broke up, Romanelli suffered a bullet wound and was fined for illegally carrying a weapon. His rival undertaker wound up dead.
Step forward to 1919 and Romanelli wanted a piece of the bootleg liquor business that was about to explode. As an undertaker he had access to wood alcohol (it was an ingredient in embalming fluid). He knew of a shipment that was in a New York warehouse, headed to Europe.
Wood alcohol (methanol) is a chemical cousin to grain alcohol, with an important distinction. Grain alcohol is what people drink in spirits. Wood alcohol is poisonous.
Romanelli and a group of accomplices sneaked into the warehouse on December 20 and hauled away two barrels of wood alcohol. Working in a garage with the help of a local druggist they drained the barrels into whiskey casks. They refilled the original barrels with water and replaced them at the warehouse for shipment. Then the men added color to the wood alcohol, to make the clear liquid look like whiskey, and poured it off into bottles with fake labels.
The bottles were then shipped to Hartford and they made their way up the Connecticut River Valley. It didn’t take long before the trouble started. Men who drank the phony whiskey were turning up dead in their beds. Others, who drank less of the stuff, survived but were sickened. The word spread rapidly about where the liquor had come from and who distributed it.
When police caught up with one of Romanelli’s accomplices, he begged them to arrest him. “I’m glad you got me,” he said. “For God’s sake don’t send me to Connecticut. I am an innocent man…it would mean certain death.”
Romanelli was arrested in New York, caught red handed with some of the stolen alcohol, and charged with grand larceny. Police waited for a New York case of poisoning to surface so he could be charged with murder, but it never emerged. All the known victims were in Connecticut or Massachusetts.
It’s not clear how many people died from the phony whiskey. Some accounts said 97, while others said well over a hundred. Many more were injured, but survived. In Massachusetts and Connecticut charges of murder were brought, but the extradition laws at the time were weak and Romanelli cooled his heals in a New York jail.
He complained bitterly that his undertaking business was being destroyed by the police. He was being framed, he insisted. But no one was buying his act, and he was sentenced to three to seven years in Sing Sing prison for larceny.
But what of all the dead men left in the wake of his crimes? He could never be brought to justice from New York. Carmine Lizenziata, the Romanelli associate who actually drove the liquor over the state line, was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison, but he fled the country for Italy.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, claimed Romanelli was beyond their reach for the murders and the mob kingpin was let out of jail after serving just two years for the crimes. The prosecutor described the conundrum. Extradition, he said, was only used for people who committed a crime and then fled the state.
“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,” the prosecutor explained. “This is exactly what happened in the Romanelli case, except that the Brooklyn killers used alcohol instead of a cannon.”