Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
Lakewood Tranquillo Incident
By Allan May
The 1920s earned a variety of nicknames: the Jazz Age, the Lawless Decade, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, the Get Rich-Quick Era, to name a few. It was supposed to be known as the Dry Decade. Needless to say, the Roaring 20s was anything but “dry.” The Volsted Act, commonly known as Prohibition began on January 16, 1920. Cleveland, the fifth largest city at the time, had already been a dry state for eight months, it’s prohibition laws beginning in May 1919. Cleveland would have its share of rum running, bootlegging and, of course, its famous corn sugar wars. However, one of the more bizarre incidents of this tumultuous decade occurred in Lakewood, Cleveland’s neighbor to the west, in 1921.
On June 10th, a Canadian rum-running boat named the Tranquillo sailed into the Rocky River lagoon and anchored near the foot of Clifton Park Hill. The initial estimate of illegal whiskey hidden aboard the craft was 2,000 to 2,400 quart bottles of “Johnny DeWar Scotch.” Three days later, after a tip from a boat owner at the lagoon, Lakewood Police officers went out to inspect the suspicious craft.
After a cursory search of the boat revealed nothing more than a few empty liquor bottles, the two officers returned to shore where they encountered three shadowy figures in the darkness. When the officers called out the three men ran, shooting back at the policemen as they fled. Later that night, four officers returned to the lagoon to keep the boat under surveillance. By 3:00 a.m. none of the smugglers had returned and the officers boarded the Tranquillo where another search revealed the hidden alcohol. The whiskey was hidden in sacks containing twelve bottles each wrapped in straw containers.
At 4:00 a.m. Patrolman Floyd Wright was about to go off duty. He drove out to the lagoon to offer some of the officers who had been there most of the night a ride home. When he arrived he found Detective Lieutenant Howard Amstus, the officer in charge, and other officers, beginning to divvy up part of the cache. Wright, who was driving his own automobile, was called into service to haul away some of the liquor.
The crafty Amstus called out in a voice loud enough for the bystanders to hear, “Load your machine and take it to the police station.”
Ironically, a half-hour later, Amstus was berating Wright for doing just that. Apparently along the way Wright ran into fellow officer Charles Baum and got spooked thinking that Baum might be suspicious of Wright’s actions. On returning to the Tranquillo, Wright told Amstus what happened.
“Oh, to hell with Baum,” Amstus exploded.
He then had the car reloaded and ordered Wright to take it home and not to stop “regardless of who he ran into along the way!”
Meanwhile, other Lakewood policemen, as well as members of the fire department were soon making visits to the boat. The Cleveland News, the first newspaper to report the incident, stated in a front page story that, “A wild orgy of drunkenness on seized bootleg whiskey, and the theft of dozens of cases of booze by members of the Lakewood Police department has been revealed.” They reported that, “A riot of boozing on the seized Canadian yacht left the wharf littered and the water covered with straw wrappings from the looted bottles of Scotch. Drunken firemen were seen falling into the river and drunken policemen were guzzling the booze and passing out on the boat and in neighboring boathouses. Still, other policemen were seen staggering to their automobiles with armloads of liquor to take home or share with fellow officers.
One officer stated, “It was some party. There were drunks to the left of me and drunks to the right.” Another told the story of a ranking officer who passed out in the back of a police car. The car was needed for a call and the officer could not be awakened, so he was taken “along as excess baggage,” but returned in “good order.”
The partying apparently was not confined to the lagoon. An officer who witnessed Wright bringing some of the bootleg scotch into the station “sampled it” to the extent that a fellow patrolman felt obliged to “carry him out to the garage, so that in his cerebral and physical collapse he might escape the eye of Mayor Louis E. Hill,” who had stopped by the station.
Over the next two weeks, officers sold liquor from the sacks they had helped themselves to. But word soon leaked that the “News was on the trail.” At this point the paper reported that a modern day “Paul Revere,” on a motorcycle, was sent tearing through the suburb’s streets at 3:00 a.m. warning guilty police officers to return whatever booze they had to the station house.
Lakewood Police Chief Peter Christensen at first denied any knowledge of the pilfering or the drunken escapades. After exposing the scandal in front page headlines on July 5th, the News came back the following day with “An Open Letter to Mayor Hill.” In the article they attacked the mayor for not acknowledging the scandal. Police Chief Christensen soon made a tearful confession that he had tried to hush up the whole affair. He also stated that, “Mrs. Christensen objected to alcohol in the house.” He admitted that he dispatched a Lakewood lieutenant to make the now famous “Paul Revere” ride through the city during the early hours of June 25 ordering what was left of the stolen booze back to the station. The chief had issued the order after being tipped off by a Cleveland police detective at 2:00 in the morning.
The Cleveland News was having a field day. On July 7th the headlines read, “Whiskey-Guzzling Lakewood Police Contributed to Law’s Delinquency.” An editorial blasted the Lakewood Police Department stating, “Lakewood cannot allow its police force to indulge in criminal, scandalous or dishonest practices without harming the reputation of police departments and law officers everywhere.” Indeed the article already pointed out that newspapers around the country had picked up the odious affair under headlines reading, “Cleveland Police Fill Their Cellars,” failing to differentiate Cleveland from the offending suburb.
Mayor Hill, under the gun from the newspaper, not to mention Lakewood City Council, requested letters of resignation from Chief Christensen and eleven other officers involved. By July 8th, he had all but two in hand. Hill told reporters that he would not accept all of them because his already undermanned police force would cause Lakewood to be “overrun with crooks from Cleveland.” However, he soon accepted Chief Christensen’s resignation. By this time the mayor was no longer granting interviews or giving statements to the Cleveland News and he forbid his new police chief to speak to the newspaper also. Before the week was out, ten other officers were relieved of duty.
On July 20, warrants were issued for 16 people connected to the Tranquillo scandal, including George Cavelle, the Lakewood street commissioner. All of the accused were allowed to surrender on their own and provide a $1,000 bond, pending a grand jury review of the incident scheduled for October.
Mayor Hill, who had refused to talk to reporters from the News since July 7, had his first confrontation with the newspaper on July 26. Hill was hearing cases in Lakewood municipal court when a News reporter entered. Hill stopped the proceedings and exchanged words with the reporter and attempted to bar him from the court. Hill called Law Director Robert Curren to find out what legal grounds he had and was informed he had none. Angered and embarrassed, Hill continued on with the reporter present. To make matters worse, when the hearings were over, the reporter demanded to see the records of the cases handled that day. Hill called Curren back and was again rebuffed by his law director and angrily handed over the records.
In August, Coast Guard Captain Hans Hansen reported that curiosity seekers were sneaking onto the Tranquillo, which was anchored at the rear of the Coast Guard lifesaving station, at night in hopes that some of the hidden liquor was still there. As for the scotch itself, Fred Counts, the local Prohibition agent, held a “dumping party” at the Lakewood police station on August 12. A total of 47 cases – 141 gallons or 564 bottles – of the “booze that made Lakewood famous” were released into the city sewer system.
At 3:00 a.m. on the morning of August 18, another rumrunner, the Venice, was raided at the Whiskey Island docks. The vessel, which had been observed by Captain Hansen, was moving back and forth near the harbor apparently waiting for darkness to set in. Sometime after midnight the boat cut its lights and moved toward a wharf owned by the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company. Hansen notified police at the Detroit-West 29th Street station and two flying squads were sent. As officers arrived, seven men were observed carrying sacks from the Venice to a truck which had been backed up to the wharf. When the police were spotted, a bell on the boat sounded an alarm and the Venice began to swing away from the dock. A detail of officers leapt onto the boat, smashed the cabin windows with their revolvers, and arrested the smugglers.
Police soon discovered the captain of the Venice, William L. Curry, was also the owner of the Tranquillo. Under questioning, Curry admitted making four previous rum running trips to Cleveland aboard the Tranquillo, but denied being aboard it during its last ill-fated voyage. A search of Curry’s personal possessions revealed a notebook with the names and telephone numbers of people police believed to be customers of his. In addition, there were names and notes from several area women, some from the “fashionable sections” of the city, which indicated that Curry was quite the playboy.
While the raid was taking place at Whiskey Island, another boat, believed to be the sister ship of the Venice, was spotted on three occasions. Although police were called out each time, the rumrunner seemed to pull away just before they arrived. Agent Counts revealed that he had a theory that a lake freighter was involved in the liquor traffic between Cleveland and Montreal. He stated that the freighter stayed just out of sight of land and that small powerboats, under cover of darkness, would come out and remove a load and head back to shore. On two occasions, Counts searched suspicious freighters only to find that the liquor had been removed or cleverly concealed.
The Lakewood liquor scandal came to an end on January 7, 1922. In Federal Judge D. C. Westenhaver’s courtroom, former chief Peter S. Christensen, Street Commissioner George Cavelle, former lieutenant Howard Amstus, and former patrolman Floyd Wright were all fined between $300 and $500 for transportation and/or possession of liquor. Others received fines and prison terms. William Curry, who piloted the Tranquillo into Rocky River lagoon, was held over on charges of conspiracy to violate the Volstead Act.
Surprisingly though, with all of the negative publicity, Mayor Louis E. Hill was re-elected by Lakewood voters.
Copyright A. R. May 1999