Case of the Disappearing Liquor
On Feb. 11, 1923, John Holman, the Republican sheriff of Ocean County, had overseen the raid on Clam Island that netted a huge cache of expensive imported liquor. The island, in the bay below Barnegat Inlet, was owned by millionaire George J. Gould. On Feb. 16, the New Jersey County Courier reported what county prosecutor Wilfred Jayne told the court.
“With your Honor’s indulgence I would like to employ this opportunity to make a few general remarks with respect to the observance of the Prohibition Enforcement Law in this county. The violations recently detected in this county show a significant disregard of the Prohibition Law and the recent discovery of some 3000 bottles of liquor illegally stored on an island in Barnegat Bay is an additional circumstance which moves me to voice this warning.
“I fear that there may be some who conclude that because of my personal views on the subject of prohibition I will not be as alert in the enforcement of this law.”
Jayne discussed a problem that still faces officials almost 100 years later.
“I am not permitted, however, to allow my opinion of the propriety of this law to control my official duty. I am certain that the people of Ocean County, without regard to their view on this question, understand it to be my official duty as Prosecutor to detect and prosecute the violators of this law. … The Prohibition Enforcement Act is the statutory law of the state and upon the peace officers of the county devolves the duty of its enforcement. The disregard of this law is an indictable offense. …
“While by reason of divided public opinion, this law is difficulty of enforcement, yet I am determined to live up to my official duty and vigorously prosecute those guilty of persistent violations of this law.”
On the 22nd, the Tuckerton Beacon ran an editorial in support of the prosecutor, saying, “It is gratifying to note that at least one public official in the state sees his duty and will undoubtedly have the courage to do it despite his personal feelings. Convictions for violations of the liquor laws are rare, extremely rare in the State of New Jersey and to get right down to the situation in Ocean County, they haven’t been any too numerous either. There is not a particle of use having a dry law if it is not going to be enforced.”
But there were suspicions that not all officials supported enforcement of the law, and almost at once it was announced that 13 cases of liquor had mysteriously fallen off the boat as the seized goods were being transported across Barnegat Bay, to be secured in a jail cell in Toms River.
Then on March 22, the New Egypt Press ran “Officials of Ocean County are exercised over the disappearance of a case of Scotch whiskey used last week before the grand jury as evidence. The case of whiskey, under order of Prosecutor Jayne, was taken into the grand jury room by Under Sheriff Alfred W. Brown, Jr., from the county jail, where it had been since brought from Clam Island in Barnegat Bay. The Prosecutor was presenting evidence. … Late when the officers were instructed to return the whiskey to the jail they discovered that the twelve bottles had been removed from the case and pieces of wood substituted. The Prosecutor has begun an investigation.”
The remainder of the contraband stayed locked in the cell, and the story faded.
In 1924, Sheriff Holman didn’t run for reelection, and on Nov. 6 a Democrat, John Grant, was elected to replace him. It didn’t take long for the story of the Clam Island liquor to return to the front pages, and on Nov. 28 the Wilke-Barre Times reported, “Nearly 100 cases of high grade liquor, valued at $8,500, have disappeared from the Court House at Toms River, N.J., according to an inventory taken by John A.G. Grant, newly elected Sheriff. Prosecutor Wilfred H. Jayne, Jr., of Ocean County, began an investigation yesterday.
“According to the inventory, taken in the presence of fifteen Republicans and Democrats, only 209 cases are left, of which some are empty and other partly filled.
“‘I cannot see but an investigation would be the proper thing,’ Sheriff Grant said yesterday.
“Former Sheriff Holman could not be reached by telephone at his home last night.”
On Dec. 5, the Courier tried to explain.
“City papers in this state and in adjoining cities of Philadelphia and New York this past week played up with flamboyant headlines the Ocean County scandal over the supposed disappearance of perhaps forty cases of scotch whiskey from the county jail, where it was generally supposed to have been not only under lock and key in cells of the unbeatable new jail, but also under watch each night by a watchman.
“One story told at the courthouse this week was that during alterations made at the jail warden’s building, and when the jail was crowded with prisoners, it was necessary to remove the stuff for awhile from the cells and store it in the older building. It is suggested, or hinted, that if this had been done, it might have given an opportunity for some of the stuff to disappear.”
On the 11th, the New Egypt paper covered actions being taken at the courthouse.
“Supreme Court Judge Frank T. Lloyd presided at the opening of the December term of court at Toms River on Tuesday. In charging the Grand Jury he ordered them to thoroughly investigate the reports of the disappearing of seized liquor from the Court House during the past three years.
“Justice Lloyd further cited the case of Andrew Grob of Atlantic City who on July 11, 1921 had 120 cases of liquor taken from him in transit at Barnegat, by Sheriff Chaffey, who later turned the seized goods over to Sheriff Holman. Grob has stated that he saw a copy of a receipt given the sheriff’s office by Federal authorities for 67 cases of liquor seized from him.”
The grand jury met in January 1925, and the Asbury Park Press on the 16th explained.
“The cases were stored where it was supposed no persons without keys could reach them. To get to the whiskey it was necessary, first, to gain entrance to the jail. This required the unlocking of two sets of locks at the outer door; the unlocking of the guarded door just inside the entrance. Even when arriving at this point a person desiring to make way with any of the stuff, was in a strategic position, because the case stuff was stored on the second floor, and to get there required the unlocking of another door at the end of the stairway.
“Arriving at the second floor, the would be robber was faced with another set of steel doors, which required the use of three sets of complicated keys, and unless one was familiar with the keys, it would hardly be possible to manipulate the locks. And after the liquor had been reached, it would have been just as hard to get out, as the doors are self locking and keys must again be operated to get out.”
At the end of the session, Prosecutor Jayne spoke to reporters.
“‘If any citizen in the county or out, thinks he has any information concerning this case, he is invited to appear before the grand jury and present that information.’ he said. ‘It is his duty, whether subpoenaed or not, to appear and present what he knows. There has been considerable talk thruout the county about this mysteriously disappearing liquor, and some rather broad statements have been made about various officers of the county in regards to it. If the persons making these statements are speaking in good faith, they will appear and present the evidence.’”
And the Press noted, “The outcome of this investigation is awaited thruout Ocean County with considerable interest. The defeat of the Republican candidate for sheriff at the recent election, is laid somewhat to the stories told thru the county about disappearance of this liquor. The Democratic candidate ran on a platform declaring he was going to clean out the sheriff’s office.”
On Jan. 17, the grand jury gave its presentment; the Press headline read, “Rum Mystery Too Deep for Jurors.”
It explained, “The alleged disappearance from the Ocean County Court House here of 40 cases of whisky is a closed incident, as far as the grand jury is concerned, it appeared today.
“A presentment advising the court that hereafter all liquor seized in raids be carefully marked and put in a safe place for keeping was handed down by the grand jury at the conclusion of its probe into the alleged disappearance of 40 cases taken at Clam Island last year. The grand jury, it was reported, failed to ascertain where the alleged stolen liquor went.”
With that the story should’ve ended, but in 1927 Holman decided to run again for sheriff. This was too much for Grant, who vowed to clean up the office. Grant again launched an investigation – only this time it would be of Holman.
Next Week: A candidate on trial.