The day after Christmas in 1919, 28-year-old Bartois Stempkr enjoyed what he thought was whiskey in Hartford. It was only days before Prohibition went into effect and many that week were toasting the holiday, unsure how much longer they’d be able to drink. But shortly after having his whiskey, Stempkr started to feel ill and was admitted to a hospital. There his vision blurred and he went blind. Ten minutes later he died.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one.
Starting on Christmas Eve, people in the city were reporting similar symptoms and showing up at hospitals blind and dying. By the end of the day on Dec. 26, 10 people in the Hartford area were dead and others were gravely ill. The strange ailment which had first been noticed and reported in Hartford was not limited to the city. In Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, there had also been multiple deaths and reports of similar illnesses. The total number of deaths from the bad whiskey is unknown, but it is believed that about 100 died, if not more. Many others were sickened, but did not die.
But the Hartford cases gave authorities something they lacked elsewhere — a lead.
As hospital staff members spoke with the dying men in Hartford, they learned that many had drunk whiskey purchased at a Hartford saloon owned by Frank Rose. The “whiskey” was in fact wood alcohol, or what we today call methanol, which can cause blindness and be fatal when consumed in significant quantities by humans. Rose and another bar owner in Hartford had bought the alcohol from a supplier in New York City. The Connecticut men distributed it to Massachusetts and other parts of Connecticut including New Haven. Eventually, they learned the source of the wood alcohol was New York City mobster John Romanelli.
A Brooklyn undertaker, Romanelli was called “King John” or the “Mayor of Brooklyn’s Little Italy.” He’d already seemingly gotten away with murder. In 1915 he’d instigated a bloody street brawl after the body of a recently drowned 8-year-old was given to a rival undertaker. Romanelli suffered a bullet wound in the fight, but fared better than his rival, who was shot and stabbed multiple times and is thought to have died of his wounds.
Romanelli was arrested in connection with the wood alcohol cases. He claimed he was innocent. Others involved said he was the kingpin of the operation.
As an undertaker, Romanelli worked with wood alcohol, which is used for embalming, and he had learned of a large shipment passing through New York City en route to New London. Romanelli and accomplices stole 10 drums of the alcohol and sold it to Carmine Lizenziata, who colored it to make it look like whiskey. The poison liquor was then sold to the Hartford bar owners and was distributed up the Connecticut River Valley.
While several involved with the sale of the wood alcohol in Connecticut were convicted of manslaughter, the New York instigators of the operation mostly escaped justice. The harshest sentence went to Lizenziata, who was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and given 18½ years jail time. But Lizenziata fled to Italy while on bail. (He was caught nine years later while living in Montreal.)
Romanelli was only charged with grand larceny, and when convicted was given a three-year minimum sentence. After two years at Sing Sing he was released, apparently for good behavior. When news of Romanelli’s early release broke, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote a story that teemed with indignation. Though Romanelli helped supply the wood alcohol, there was no evidence linking him to its sale and distribution. The case was further complicated by weak extradition laws, which prevented Romanelli from being brought to Massachusetts or Connecticut, where he likely would have stood trial for murder.
Herbert N. Warbasse, the New York prosecutor for the case, lamented the law after hearing of Romanelli’s early release. “A man may stand within the confines of one State and fire a cannon into another, killing a thousand persons, without laying himself liable to extradition to the State in which the deaths actually occur,” he told The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “This is exactly what happened in the Romanelli case, except that the Brooklyn killers used wood alcohol instead of a cannon.”
Sadly, 100 years ago this month, bad booze was served in Connecticut, but justice for Stempkr and other victims was not.