Chapter 9: 1934 Hammondsport, New York

John Francis Williams, Jr.

After my resignation had been accepted and receiving the "good luck" and hand shakes from the laboratory and main office staff I departed by rail to Bath, New York where I was met by Mr. Andrew Jackson, who had some difficulty understanding why he was being replaced. I told him he would be my assistant. He drove me to a hotel in Hammondsport, then to the distillery. It was the middle of February and the temperature 14 below zero, a near record. Hammondsport is a beautiful town in the ringer Lake region of New York. It is located at the foot of Keuka Lake whose northern terminal is Penn Yan, twenty miles away. The lake area contains thousands of acres of vineyards, and many wineries.

The distillery, consisting of several buildings, was located in a ravine between two hills with a small creek flowing down to the lake. A concrete block building was newly constructed to house the brandy after it had been gauged and put into used sherry casks. An expert cooper was on hand to adjust, rebuild, and close the bung after the casks were filled. The U.S. gauger had to place the required data marks (gallons, proof, etc.) on the wooden cask near the bung hole. After this the casks were taken to the bonded warehouse and placed on racks to age. Only the U.S. gauger--storekeeper could open or close the warehouse. When barrels (casks) were withdrawn for bottling, the brandy had to be regauged and tax paid. By mailing a check to the Internal Revenue Collector for the district we received the "tax paid" stamp. Brandy, like other spirits, whisky, rum, etc. could only be sold in bottles, properly labeled showing the amount, the proof, and bearing the tax paid stamp affixed over the bottle closure. Our salesman sold the brandy in cases to the retailers. The flavor of the brandy was very important. The brandy was distilled from fermented liquids. Large vats (each 10,000 gal.) contained the juice of grapes, hulls, and some added sugar. This mixture was activated by the use of cultured yeast. Fermentation required daily attention. Each vat was in a different stage of fermentation. Completion of the process took about ten days depending on temperature and other factors. Grape mash, as it was called, when completed, was pumped into the giant, multi-layered copper still, about two stories high. After the alcohol and aroma had been slowly distilled, the dealcoholized remainder of the mash, called slop, was put down the waste (sewer) which flowed into a nearby creek and then into the lake one half mile away. Later I received complaints from citizens about this discharge. A successful day's run produced 1,000 gallons of brandy. Brandy was distilled at about 130 proof (65% alcohol). It was reduced in strength to about 110 proof when put in storage casks. At the time of bottling it was further reduced to 80 proof, as shown on the bottle label. However, the u.s. tax was assessed on the basis of 100 proof, easily computed.

Max Denby, a Jew born in England, was our office manager; a fine person. I later recommended him for a U.S. government job as an auditor in which he did an outstanding job. Both Jackson and Denby remained my friends for many years.

One thing I learned about operating a distillery was when brandy in casks was stored in a warehouse at about 110 proof, the proof increased during storage. Sometimes it reached 125 proof, but at the same time the number of gallons in the casks was reduced. Why? The casks were tightly closed. Water, H20, a small molecule, can move through the multi-cell layer structure of wooden staves of a barrel and slowly evaporate into the air surrounding the cask. Alcohol, C2H50H, a larger molecule, moves more slowly through the wood cell structure of the staves. The process is well-known in science as osmosis. Just the reverse in an open vessel. In an open pan, containing a mixture of alcohol and water, the alcohol being more volatile, leaves the open vessel faster than the water. A leaking cask was rare, one in a thousand, and easily corrected.

Mr. Feldman was our plant foreman. He hired the labor force, mechanics, other craftsmen, and day laborers. We had some difficulty with labor. Pay day was 12 noon Saturdays. A check would arrive at the plant from New York City at 11 a.m. that day. Mr. Denby had to go to the local bank, wait in line, then return with the cash and pay all the help. The men objected to having to wait long after 12 noon for their pay. My phone calls to Mr. Roth in New York City were of no avail. Another complaint was that some men who lived miles from the plant, arrived on time at 8 a.m. only to be told there was not work that day. I told Feldman to inform these men the day before if there was no work the next day. He did. A laborer's pay was 40 per hour.

We used any variety of grapes. Wineries, after light pressing of grapes to obtain white juice, gave us the grape hulls free if we hauled it away. Half of the grape flavor remained in the hulls plus some juice. We bought raw sugar, 97% sucrose, imported from Cuba, at about 2 per pound in railroad freight car lots. This was better for our purposes than refined sugar, and less expensive. I visited several of the big wineries in the area and saw their operations. Both of the Taylor Brothers winery owners were friendly. I believe they would have given me a job as a chemist if I had only asked. Then and now they produce, to my taste, the best wine available anywhere.

Virginia and I had the three children up for the summer. We rented a large ten room house, for $20 per month. The kids had a great time, boating, swimming, climbing the hills, camping, etc. The people in Hammondsport were honest, friendly country folks. We had many friends from western New York visit us. The plant was doing well. Storage bins were still loaded from the 1933 grape harvest. The bonded warehouse was beginning to fill up with hundreds of casks of brandy.

It was impossible for me to read the minds of the plant owners in New York, whose names were unknown. Only attorney Roth transmitted decisions. These were quick and often unrelated to the proper plant operation at Hammondsport. As I now try to rationalize their views it goes something like this: The casks of brandy are our property. The casks are not earning money stored in a warehouse. Get someone up there who can sell brandy fast, aged or not!

One day in early June a very pompous individual came to the plant and informed me he was the new plant "Manager." I found him interesting and likable. I was glad to have him share or take over my great responsibility. But this was not to be the case. Mr. Blackhurst told me he was from Bristol, England, lately from Canada. He was not a U.S. citizen. His experiences with the liquor trade during the prohibition era were great. The illegal traffic of course. I showed him around the plant. He instructed me to "carryon" as before. His salary, much greater than mine, would come directly to him, not to the plant. He was an interesting person. A biography of this man would undoubtedly be a best seller. He had "sold" himself, as he could to almost everyone, to the plant owners with the proviso that his reference from Canada reach the New York owners.

After a week or two he showed me a copy of one of his references from Quebec, characteristically French. "When M. Blackhurst left this city all his bills had been paid." Period. Another week went by without receiving his salary check as agreed. Being an alien he was "over a barrel." Without any funds to support them he put his two young children in a Catholic orphanage.

In anger he drove away and made a report to the U.S. Food and Drug Office giving information that the Hammondsport plant was making wine from grape hulls and sugar, and not from the pure juice of grapes. The Food and Drug Office apparently took no action. Doubtless they knew that good wines were sold as such and not made into brandy. Good quality brandy can be and is made from unmarketable wines and grapes. The use of sugar is legal. Local merchants complained to me about nonpayment of debts we owed them. Jackson was fired over my objection. The local reputation of the plant fell--the workers got jobs elsewhere. The New York owners reportedly filed for bankruptcy. In New York City attorney Roth told me they were going to put the plant on a stand-by basis with Mr. Feldman, the foreman, in charge. They liked me and were sorry--gave me two weeks salary.

In October Virginia and I put our furniture in storage and drove to Charlotte to decide there what to do next. Sometime after we left Hammondsport lightning struck. It was spring of 1935. I'm glad we were not there. A flash flood (nothing like it was known there before) came down the ravine, struck the concrete bonded warehouse with a head of 10 foot rushing water and ice, completely destroying the building.

The flood continued down the creek and into the lake. An act of God, the insurance companies would say. This is not the end of the, story. Many casks of brandy were destroyed but many others rode the crest of the wave down the flooded creek and out into the middle of the lake. They were dispersed far and wide. After the storm and flood had subsided, many lake cottage owners observed objects afloat. Using a row boat, the cottager came to an object, a 50 gal. cask full of brandy. This he towed to shore and for safe keeping put it in his cottage basement. Some persons, perhaps teetotalers, reported their catches to the plant foreman. Others? Finders, keepers. Good brandy. No tax. The federal tax on each cask of brandy was over $600. Doubtless the legal profession had problems following the debris at Hammondsport. It must have required weeks of investigations, law suits, etc. I was glad to have missed it all.

Sister Genevieve, husband George Fella and kids in Charlotte.

En route to Charlotte we stopped in Washington to see if I could be reinstated as a chemist. Not a chance. Those in the Washington laboratory held on tight to their tenure jobs and did not want to rub elbows with me or anyone else on their work bench. One of the chemists, Dr. Peter Valaer, was a graduate of North Carolina State, class of 1906: On his advice I went to see Herbert Wollner, a consulting chemist to the Secretary of the Treasury. He would let me know later. I should phone in December. We spent two months in North Carolina living on the two weeks' pay given when I left Hammondsport plus money I had to borrow from life insurance policies.

In December Wollner said my application had been approved--report the first of the year. The salary was the same as formerly, $3,200. Virginia and I moved into a two room apartment on 20th Street, N.W. within walking distance to the U.S. Treasury Building. About half of the time I spent in the laboratory, the other half in Wollner's office.

Several Treasury officials sent Wollner problems. What to do about narcotic drugs? Liquor was being sold legally in saloons--but was it tax paid liquor? Some saloons were bringing bootleg liquor in the back door and refilling (unobserved) empty tax paid bottles under the bar. Why pay $12 a gallon tax? To distinguish bona fide whiskey from the bootleg product required equipment, a gauging set and other items. These would have to be carried in a box or large package, not easily concealed from the bartender. He could easily empty any refilled bottle below the bar before the disguised revenue agent "customer" was served.

Millions of gallons of liquor were being sold in saloons without tax payment. I had the solution to that problem. Wollner and others were aghast when I demonstrated a test made on only 1/2 oz. of whiskey. This test quickly showed the proof as well as any artificial color. All that was needed was a small graduated glass tube and a 4 oz. bottle of reagent, easily concealed in a coat pocket. All the customer (agent) had to do was to observe the proof on the bottle from which he was served, take his drink, or part of it, to the men's room-not for the usual reason, however. Within two minutes the agent could check the proof and also the presence of artificial coloring. With this evidence an arrest could be made, the bar room liquors seized, and a tax and fine imposed. The Fisher Scientific Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had exclusive rights to make and sell the small test sets. When I had patented this method in 1928, there was a very small market for the sets. Now a market was in sight. Wollner asked that a number of sets be ordered. They worked. Hundreds of sets were bought. The agreement I had with Fisher Scientific Company was that 10% of the sale price would go to me as royalty payments. The revenue and fines collected as a result of the use of my method, amounted to millions. The total was never added up. I was told that in one city alone, Chicago, 3/4 million dollars was collected during a six month period, using my method. I visited many large cities to demonstrate to Federal agents the use of the sets. One demonstration and a dozen agents understood and could use the method easily.

Now something new came into the picture. It must have been some jealous person in or outside the laboratory. Why should Williams get a salary and a royalty both? Was not the government the real owner of his patent? The U.S. Government was his employer. The last question did not apply. I did the work leading up to the patent on my own time. It had nothing to do with my federal employment. The question now spiraled from someone in the laboratory (Dr. Linder) all the way up to the Assistant Secretary's Office. Mr. Ellis, a legal advisor to the Secretary came to see me. Would I sign over my royalty to the U.S. Government?

This was not the only time in my life when I needed to consult an attorney, but did not. Stupid of me. How small I was and how big was the U.S. Treasury. I signed. The royalty on 1,000 sets was $7,500. As a reward for my "donation" of my royalty, I received a beautiful thank you letter from Henry Morganthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury. A copy of the letter, dated October 23, 1936, is attached. Later he invited Virginia and me to his beautiful home in Georgetown on social occasions. Here we met many important Treasury officials. The Morganthaus and Roosevelts were land neighbors, both having country estates north of New York City. Stephen Gibbons was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, over Internal Revenue, the Narcotic Unit, and other bureaus. He gave me his photograph with compliments written thereon. More about Gibbons later.

The next problem Wollner received was the prevalence of moonshine liquor, believed to be made in back country foothills and out of sight. A copper pot still, a vat fermenter containing corn mash, yeast, and water was all that was needed to produce "corn liquor." Someone suggested that the air around an open fermenter should have at least some yeast cells. It should be possible to catch these small cells in an agar solution, especially formulated for yeast culture. With several petri dishes containing the semi-solid agar I drove an auto on a road where a legitimate brewery was in operation. The air was sampled before passing, and after passing the brewery. Then the exposed petri dishes were incubated at the optimum temperature in the laboratory. Sure enough, several visible colonies of white yeast cells developed on the dish which had been exposed down wind passing the brewery. There was no colony on the other dishes.

The Director of Engraving and Printing, Alvin W. Hall, was contacted. He sent his associate, Henry J. Holtzclaw to Wollner's office. He designed a mechanical device where samples of air could be taken automatically each half mile of travel along any road. The date, time, and wind direction had to be recorded separately. A road map was used to pinpoint the probable location of a moonshiner's plant. Holztclaw was a mechanical genius. (Later he became Director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.) The equipment was turned over to agents of the Alcohol Tax Unit, Internal Revenue Bureau. The small truck used became known as a "snooper dog." Because of a protrusion on the roof of the truck to bring in the air sample, moonshiners soon learned to spot the vehicle from a distance. I never learned the success story of this enforcement vehicle, because of assignment to other projects. To my knowledge it was never written up by the Internal Revenue Bureau. This may be the first published account.

The author and baby Norman Pomeroy in Washington, D.C. at their apartment near Dupont Circle

In July, 1935, Virginia gave birth to our first child, Norman Pomeroy, in Columbia Hospital for Women. He was named after her father who died in February 1934 at Lockport, New York. Pomeroy was later killed in a racing car accident at Glendale, California in 1960. He had personally rebuilt the engine for higher speed. Tragedy, sorrows, and tears. He was a good boy. In the intervening years, Virginia and I frequently visit his tombstone, No. V-2347, at Fort Rosecrans, San Diego, California.

Horse racing. What has that to do with chemists? Quite a bit, as you will see. The Internal Revenue was concerned that gamblers were not reporting and paying their Federal Income Tax on winnings. Moreover, certain gamblers seem to be able to pick winning horses quite easily and make a lot of money. One Florida Racing Commission also became concerned. A stable boy could give a horse a shot of heroin without it being known, except to a certain gambler. Heroin, made illegally from morphine is a powerful drug. The horse could speed down the race track without feeling the usual fatigue.

Mr. Gibbons sent Wollner to Florida. Most of us thought he was getting a free holiday at government expense. He returned with an idea. Why not wipe the white froth from the mouth of the winning horse, using a clean gauge rag, put this in a bottle, and send it to the Washington laboratory? If heroin is found on the gauge it will indicate the horse had been doped. The racing officials agreed; it was tried and the evidence found. The lead horse was then declared a loser. The gambler lost his winnings. The tax officials were pleased, the racing officials were pleased, and the practice of giving horses heroin ceased. Why use it? The laboratory test for heroin is very sensitive. Other chemists made these tests. My own recommendation was that a second chemist should verify the results so that the laboratory report would be beyond any suspicion or doubt.

The Marijuana Law. Those who had made big money at the race tracks, using the undercover method described above, now cast about to find a substitute for heroin; one which could not be detected by tests in the horse's saliva. Marijuana was tried. A pound or two of the dried flowering top and leaves of the female plant Cannabis sativa (Hemp) was mixed with the alfalfa used to feed horses. It was not as effective on the horse as heroin had been. It had its good side, however, (1) no chemical or other laboratory tests were known to detect it, (2) inspection of bales of horse feed was of no use. It was still hay: a mixture of dried weeds, and (3) there was no law against its use.

Revenue officials got wind of its use from underground intelligence agents. This was brought to the attention of Steven Gibbons, Assistant Secretary. Mr. Wollner then called on the laboratory staff to develop methods for testing Cannabis. Seeds were obtained from commercial bird food and the plants were grown in the laboratory windows. Pete Valaer specialized on this phase of the project. It was a botanical laboratory project. No chemical tests were known or were developed at that time. Years later a group of university scientists under Professor Roger Adams discovered a substance never before known, which was given the name hydrocannabinal. It was very difficult to identify. Dr. John Matchet did much of this research work. The Washington laboratory also had an M.D. on its staff who examined the plant from a medical point of view. He, as well as Public Health M.D. 's (then under the Treasury Department) could find little if any important effects on people. They wanted to wash their hands of anything connected with marijuana. It had no known medical or other uses. The plant (one of 3,000 varieties of weeds) had for thousands of years been (cultivated and uncultivated) grown in the U.S., Mexico, Asia, Africa, India, in fact throughout the northern hemispheres, Indians, farmers and land owners in the U.S.A. for generations knew about marijuana.

One interesting fact. From 1921 to 1936, in laboratories where samples of drugs were tested, I never received or heard of any marijuana being sent in even for identification, by government agents. This indicated to me there was little if any use in the U.S.A. of marijuana during this 25 year period. However, it doubtless was now being used to speed a horse at the race track.

The purpose of the Federal Marijuana Tax Act, 1937 was to prohibit its use by gamblers and income tax dodgers at horse races. The law should have been limited to such use. The tax imposed was $2,000 a pound--the same as that already imposed for the dangerous drug, opium, except that opium intended for medical use, would receive a government permit, in which case the $2,000 tax did not apply. Cannibus Sativa is nothing more or less than the hemp plant used in the U.S.A. for 300 years to make hemp rope. Note 8

I knew Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Narcotic Unit, Treasury Department, quite well. He was pleased with the new law, went to Congress for money to enlarge his force. His unit later became a bureau and he its commissioner. Every state and most foreign countries as well, enacted similar legislation. Why young people now wish to violate a new and unpopular law I do not know. Perhaps they followed their parents who violated the prohibition law! During the prohibition era I saw more drunks on the street than I've seen during the 42 years since its repeal. From a handful of marijuana smokers before 1937, it is estimated there are now over 30,000,000 people in the U.S.A. who have violated the law. Much more could be written on this subject --but time flies.

My next assignment was to take a look at the laboratories of the Bureau of Customs located at some of the principal ports. I made an inspection of them at Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah, New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, and Kansas City. I also visited other districts where there were no laboratories, such as Seattle, Galveston, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburg, and a few others. It was appalling. These laboratories had no technical supervision of any kind. They were under the administrative control of the local appraiser of merchandise who had no knowledge or training for such supervision. Methods of tests were not uniform. In some cases tests were being made which were unnecessary or unscientific. Examiners had no knowledge of the kind or size of samples for laboratory analysis. There were many defects. My written recommendations were: (1) Make each laboratory a district laboratory to serve several appraisers--not just the one at the local port, and (2) All laboratories should be put under a chief located in the Customs Unit (Bureau) in Washington. After the report went the rounds in Treasury without opposition, the question arose as to who would be named the Chief. Mr. Morganthau asked, "Who wrote the report?" I got the job.