George and his associates
17 Wadsworth, Buffalo, circa 1926
Photo courtesy Uncle Jerry
During Prohibition (1920-1933), residents were allowed to keep all of the liquor that they stockpiled, but once that was gone, that was it. Saloons and the 20 Buffalo breweries were closed and this resulted in the illegal manufacturing and distribution of liquor.
Because Buffalo was so close to the Canadian border, it was tempting for people to smuggle liquor to sell on the black market. Canada had its own temperance movement in the late 1880s, but that was repealed. Smugglers were called “rumrunners”. And, they often employed boats across Lake Erie to deliver the goods to drop off points along Lake Shore Road outside of Buffalo. The liquor was then distributed to local illegal taverns or “speakeasies”, which were often fronted by “soda shops”. According to the Buffalo Mayor’s 1922 Annual State of the City Address, there were 8,000 soda shops inside Buffalo.
There were also microbreweries established during this period. Many bakeries had the connections to obtain the needed large quantities yeast and grain and would set up breweries in their back rooms and cellars.
Amateurs would also produce “bathtub gin” where grain alcohol was diluted with water and juniper berry juice in a bathtub; gin being the preferred drink in the late 1920s. The government even had a program in which toxic chemicals were added to industrial alcohols to prohibit their use in this activity. Over 10,000 people died and it is suspected that George’s death in 1941 from aplastic anemia may have been a result of ingesting tainted liquor.
Both the manufacturers and traders of illegal liquor were known as “bootleggers”; a word that dates back to colonial times when traders hid liquor in their tall boots to sneak it into dry colonies.
From the following news article, we know that John W. SIM owned the “soda shop” at 17 Wadsworth as early as May 1926 (Buffalo Courier). He also purchased a fire arm in January 1927 after George was stabbed (Buffalo Evening News).
George SIM’s stabbing occurred in December 1927 (Read the 10/18/16 post). It is suspicious that the attacker was let go with no penalties.
George's stabbing put 17 Wadsworth on the police radar. On February 3, 1928, John W.’s bail was set at $1,000.00 after the saloon was raided (Buffalo Courier Express). More liquor was seized on the 7th (Buffalo Courier Express) and John W. was arrested again on the 8th (Buffalo Evening News). He was held for further reading on the 18th (Buffalo Evening News).
George and his brother-in-law, Fred OTWELL, were summoned for liquor law charges in May 1928 and it was established that George had sold the speakeasy to Fred by that date.
In October 1928, Fred is raided (Buffalo Courier Express). He is fined $200.00 in November (Buffalo Evening News).
Soon after, Fred sold the fixtures from the bar according to this advertisement. (Buffalo Evening News)
John W. went on to establish another speak-easy on Grant Street. It appears there were no raids at that location.
The next owner turned the location into a furniture store and later, it became a children’s dance studio. Today, it is an apartment.
Patrick B., 17 Wadsworth, Buffalo, 2013
Photo courtesy cousin Patrick B.