Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Filling the Gaps with Story

Every so often, I encounter something unexpected when I am doing genealogy. A puzzle beckons. It is then that I step in with a bit of imagination coupled with some research. It helps to have read a lot of fiction. I try to contemplate the human dimension as I fill the gaps with conjecture, an imagined story that becomes my hypothesis. I consider the period of time in which the event occurred and how larger events may have had an impact.

Over the years I have accessed many naturalization records. They require the person to go through a series of different filings, meeting a residency requirement before they can reach the final stage of citizenship. Generally, it occurs about seven years after arrival, but I’ve seen a few filed later in life. I have always assumed that it was driven by a desire to collect social security. I’ve never seen one turned down, until recently. 

Sam was 52 and had been in the United States for twenty years. His wife had become naturalized while they were married, but the naturalization of a wife was distinct from her husband after 1922 so it didn’t affect his alien status. After his first wife had passed away, Sam remarried in 1947, something I discovered from the naturalization papers. I learned that he had filed a petition in 1942 and at the bottom it indicated that his petition was denied because he “ failed to establish good moral character.”  What was that about? I wondered.  

With that tantalizing clue, I began to search for something in his history to explain that statement. My hunch was that it had something to do with bootlegging so I began a deeper dive into Prohibition history which ran from 1920-1933. I soon found an article from 1927 noting an arrest of someone with his name at a nearby farm with a still and 500 gallons of mash. Was this the same person?

As I explored bootlegging in Minnesota, I learned that Stearns County was the hotbed of it.The German Catholic farmers began to grow the Minnesota 13 strain of corn to make what was a premium whiskey to save the family farm during the Depression. Most of the population was involved in some fashion in the business. The biggest still was run and owned by the monks at St. John's Abbey where praying became an effective cover when the Feds came to visit.  Whiskey needed distribution and this was an ecumenical business. Isadore Blumenfeld, better known as Kid Cann, a well-known Jewish gangster, was involved with a bootlegging operation known as the Minneapolis Combination or the Syndicate. Sam’s brother-in-law was arrested hauling 119 gallons of pure grain alcohol as part of the smuggling ring between Chicago and Minneapolis. And Sam was living in Stearns County in the 1930s.

After Prohibition ended, a relationship with that world continued through the relationships of his second wife. In the late 1940s Kid Cann was unable to get a liquor license because of a Prohibition era conviction for bootlegging. it was charged that he was acting as an undisclosed owner in a local bar. When it was incorporated in 1937 it listed three owners, Sam’s future wife, her sister and brother. So, three siblings were fronting ownership for Kid Cann. I imagine it was difficult to say no to him.

We don’t know for sure whether Sam was involved with bootlegging although these articles indicate that his relationships would have put him close to it. That would have been a plausible reason for the response to his petition for citizenship. 

In 1949 he took another run at citizenship, disclosing the prior denial. This time he received citizenship. Perhaps the view of bootlegging had changed with the distance of time.