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Case of Missing Whiskey Never Solved

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Feb 22, 2017

During the mid-1920s, the citizens of Ocean County found themselves baffled by a mystery and a possible political scandal. The mystery began in 1924 when Joseph Holman, the Republican sheriff, decided not to run for reelection and was replaced with a Democrat, John Grant. The Trenton Times of Dec. 15, 1924, revealed the basic facts in the case.

“Sheriff Grant of Ocean County reports the disappearance of more than five hundred bottles of high-grade Scotch and rye whiskey – a part of it seized while in the possession of Anthony Groh, of Atlantic City, and the remainder taken from Clam Island, in Barnegat Bay, the shooting ground of the late George J. Gould. The seizures amounted to 251 cases and were turned over by the Coast Guard to the former Sheriff of Ocean County, for safe-keeping. A part of the stuff was removed from the jail, according to stories told by prisoners, the night before the recent election.”

A grand jury was empaneled but, in January 1925, refused to indict anyone, saying there wasn’t enough evidence. Over the next two years, the mystery faded until 1927, when Holman announced a return to politics and said he would run again for sheriff. The New Jersey Courier of July 1 tells of Grant’s reaction.

“Joseph L. Holman, of Lakewood, former Sheriff, and on June 21 again nominated for Sheriff of Ocean County on the Republican ticket, stands indicted by the April grand jury for the embezzlement of forty-two cases of Clam Island whiskey missing from the county jail during his previous term.”

The Courier explained, “It is charged that on November 12, 1924, Joseph L. Holman, then Sheriff, did with force and arms, willfully, maliciously and unlawfully embezzle 42 cases of liquor, valued at $2000, said liquor having been placed in his care for safe keeping.”

One week later the Courier carried this: “Former Sheriff Joseph L. Holman, who is now a candidate for election to that same office on the Republican ticket, pleaded not guilty Wednesday of this week, before County Judge Gallagher, to the indictment found by the April grand jury, charging him with embezzlement of 42 cases of Clam Island rum from a cell or cells in the county Jail. Sheriff Holman was represented by former Prosecutor Wilfred H. Jayne, who was Prosecutor at the time it was learned the whiskey was missing.

“Mr. Jayne, in entering the plea of not guilty, suggested that he would like the privilege of changing the plea later, if it should be found desirable.

“Mr. Holman however, insists to all his friends that he is entirely innocent of this charge – that he did not take any of this liquor out of the jail and that none of it was taken with his consent or connivance.”

Throughout the summer, Holman campaigned while he was under indictment. Then as the election neared, he received bad news, as the Courier reported on Oct. 7, “Judge Gallagher this week announced the trial of the indictment against former Sheriff Joseph L. Holman, of Lakewood, who is also Republican candidate for Sheriff in November election, was set for Thursday next, October 13.

“There are four counts in the indictment against Holman. All of the four ... are based upon the fact that he was Sheriff of Ocean County, an officer of the state. The first charges that he did willfully maliciously and unlawfully embezzle the said 42 cases of whiskey, the property of the state, with intent to defraud the state.”

The next day the Asbury Park Press reported that there might be a technicality that would save Holman from the embarrassment of a trial on the eve of the election.

“There seems now to be good reason to believe that a motion will be entered by M. Jayne for a nolle pro, due to the fact that the indictment charges Sheriff Holman embezzled the liquor from the jail on Nov. 12, when as a matter of fact the sheriff had retired from the office the day before.

“This fact has been known to the Republican leaders for 6 weeks but was not made public until Friday.”

In the Toms River courthouse, the trial began on Oct. 13. According to the Press, “The case has aroused the entire county as no other case has done in recent years, and a capacity crowd was in attendance at the opening. Sheriff Grant called in all the constables of the county and impressed several citizens in as special deputies to see that order is preserved.”

Before the trial even began, the drama started.

“Wilfred H. Jayne, prosecutor at the time Holman was sheriff, and attorney for the defense, moved to have the indictment quashed on the ground that one count was faulty, in that it gives the date of his alleged refusal to turn the whisky over to his successor as the day following that on which the office changed hands.

“Prosecutor James Mercer Davis, however, argued that the case should be tried because the first count in the indictment, that accusing the former sheriff of the actual embezzlement, was perfectly constructed.”

The next day the Press reported, “Judge Gallagher handed down his decision at 10.30, court had convened at 10. The opinion was read by the judge’s stenographer, but not, however, until the jury had been dismissed. It was explained that the court did not wish the jury to hear the opinion. No reason was given for this.”

What was read?

“Judge Arthur Gorman Gallagher in quarter sessions court this morning dismissed an indictment charging embezzlement of liquor against former Sheriff Joseph L. Holman of Ocean County, granting a motion to dismissal made yesterday at the opening of the trial by former Prosecutor Wilfred Jayne, Holman’s counsel, on the grounds that the indictment was faulty in that it specified Holman was sheriff when the liquor was alleged to have been embezzled, whereas his term of office had expired the day before.”

The Tuckerton Beacon of the 20th reported the judge’s words indicated there were bigger issues at play.

“To permit this defendant to stand trial on this indictment, drawn as it is, would deny to the defendant his constitutional rights.

“He can no more be charged with this crime a day after he goes out of office than he could be charged with the crime a day before he goes into it.

“To permit the indictment to be amended would be usurping the power of the Legislature.”

The Beacon then stated, “The announcement was received by the crowd in the Court Room without demonstration, but as soon as Court adjourned, following the reading of the decision, the crowd pushed forward to the rail and showered Sheriff Holman with congratulations. The former Sheriff received the news without the flicker of an eyelash, sitting composedly at the side of his counsel, within the Bar.”

It now would be up to the Ocean County voters to decide if Holman would return to office. The Nov. 15th issue of the Asbury Park Press announced, “Sheriff Elect Joseph L. Holman, Republican, of Lakewood, together with his appointee as under-sheriff, John Goodrich Holman, also of Lakewood, took their respective oaths of office last night at the court house, here. The oaths were administered by County Judge Arthur Gorman Gallagher.

“Sheriff-elect Holman, who was elected on Tuesday of last week, began his second term at midnight, when the retiring sheriff, John A.G. Grant’s term expired.

“The new sheriff recently was indicted by the grand jury on a charge of having embezzled 42 cases of the now famous ‘Clam Island Liquor’ from the Ocean county jail while serving as sheriff from 1921 to 1924. He later escaped trial by succeeding in having his indictment quashed on a technicality.”

As sheriff, Holman never pursued the whereabouts of the missing liquor, and to this day, its fate is still a mystery.

Next Week: Coast Guard vs. Rum Runners.


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