The microfilm whirred through the reader, a monochrome blur on the screen. I overshot my mark and spun back.
The old Washington city directories are arranged alphabetically, first by name, then by address. I was looking for Madison Street NW, No. 1671. Who lived there in 1938?
I ran my finger along the screen: “Vacant.” Hmm.
I hit the button that rolled the film back. My next stop: Chevy Chase Parkway NW, No. 5201.
Not exactly. When D.C. cops burst into 1671 Madison St. — a six-bedroom mansion at the edge of Rock Creek Park — in January of 1938, they found the biggest illegal liquor operation since the end of Prohibition. In the basement were two stills holding 400 gallons of whiskey. There was a half-ton of sugar and yeast and enough mash to drown a draft horse.
A raid on 5201 Chevy Chase Pkwy. NW — at the intersection with Connecticut Avenue — yielded similar intoxicating treasures.
At Madison Street police nabbed a 16-year-old youth driving a truck full of booze and a man: Mazzaraino Magnaterra. Over the coming weeks, more members of the liquor gang would be arrested: Ralph Marcantoni, known as the “bootleg king” for his Prohibition-era exploits in Philly and Baltimore, Constance Marcantoni, Giulio Q. Quatrini, John Della Gatta . . .
Don’t think they were all Italians. There list included Irving Rosenberg, Nathan Cosman, Thomas Levine, Helen Jeanette Levine, and more besides.
A few names would have been familiar to newspaper readers who had a fondness for tales from the District’s dirty underbelly, a demimonde that included numbers rackets, prostitution, crooked cops and the occasional eruption of violence.
Take Harry Behrle — alias Spike Behrle, alias Harry Burke — another tough fingered as part of the conspiracy. Two years earlier, he had run afoul of the Warring gang, an aptly named mob run by Georgetown’s Emmitt “Little Man” Warring and his brother, Charles “Rags” Warring. Behrle was standing on Second Street SE with his buddy Joseph E. O’Brien when two cars sped past and bullets perforated O’Brien’s legs, shattering a kneecap. Cops said the shooting was ordered by “Rags” Warring, who thought O’Brien was muscling in on his territory.
Warring would slip that charge, just like he escaped a murder charge against him in 1933, after the homicide of Joseph F. Nalley, a small-time gambler and racketeer who took a bullet to the heart at the Wunder Bar Club at 10th and U streets NW. Quoth The Post: “Nalley was reported to have hit Warring with an ice pick in a dispute over a woman.”
These, then, were the sort of people allegedly involved in the production of untaxed liquor in the basements of two rented houses in two of the District’s nicer precincts. Fine single-malt scotch, it was not. The whiskey was poured into bottles and sold in D.C. alleys.
The Chevy Chase Parkway house is gone. An apartment building stands on the spot today. The Madison Street house is still around, though, and not long ago Bill Duggan and his wife, Mercedes Bien, moved in.
“Only I could be proud that I’m living in a house that got busted for bootlegging,” said Bill, the colorful owner of Madam’s Organ, a popular Adams Morgan bar.
For 28 years, Bill and Mercedes lived a block away. They’d long admired the house and jumped at the chance to buy it. It needed quite a bit of work. In the 1960s, it was the property of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and was used as the headquarters of the Women Volunteers Association. That was a Peace Corps-type program that was run by the Archdiocese of Washington and trained women for service in African countries.
The space that once held whiskey stills had been sanctified for Mass. When Bill and Mercedes moved in there was a chapel in the basement, complete with pipe organ.
When I visited Madison Street recently, I stood in the driveway and tried to imagine the sweet smell of mash, fedora-wearing goons, a fleet of idling trucks waiting to fill up with another load of rotgut . . .
I asked Bill if his new home might inspire a new hobby. “No,” he said. “I think I’ll stick to selling booze, not making it.”
On Monday, I kicked off the annual Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising drive. Between now and Jan. 8, I’ll be sharing stories of three remarkable D.C.-area charities: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Community of Hope and Homestretch. Each works with homeless families or teens, getting them out of shelters, into stable homes and onto the path of self-sufficiency.
Last year, Post readers donated a total of $213,262.82 to the three groups. I’ve set this year’s goal at $250,000. I hope you will help us get there. For more information, and to donate, visit posthelpinghand.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.