Beer Baron Max Hassel

Beer Baron Max Hassel


The most enduring name of the Prohibition era in Berks County is that of Max Hassel. He was the beer baron. Some thought of him as the “millionaire newsboy”.

He was a year younger than contemporary bootlegger Abe Minker He was nonviolent in nature and clearly an entrepreneur in his teens. Born Mendel Gassel in Svinsk, a Latvian city under Russian rule in 1900, he came to Reading 11 years later. His father, Elias, had preceded his wife and five children. The Gassel family used the name Hassel on reaching this country. The Hassels eventually settled at 738 Franklin Street in Reading.

As was common 80 years ago, Max quit school at 14. He had attended Park Public School at Perkiomen Avenue and Franklin Street for three years, learning to speak English with little accent. He and a friend, Israel Liever, rented a room on Chestnut Street and made cigars. Many immigrants engaged in this cottage industry at the time, some ignoring to buy the federal stamp required on all cigars. Max and Izzy formed two wholesale companies, Union Cigar Co. and Universal Cigar Co. They also opened a cigar store at 860 Penn Street, hiring Max’s younger brother, Calvin, to work for them.

At a teenager, however, Max was best remembered for hawking newspapers on Penn Street. He sold the Reading Telegram, a daily printed at the Reading Times building at Sixth and Walnut Streets. Max eventually became a collector. Other newsies turned over their sales money to him, which he carried to the circulation department. His prime location on Penn Street was at the Pomeroy’s corner just across Sixth Street from the Reading Eagle headquarters. He was courteous, made quick change, and was a handsome lad who understood customer service. For a time he worked as a “cash boy” in Pomeroy’s department store but quickly learned that the boss, not the employee, makes the big bucks.

When Prohibition started, Israel Liever’s father, Hyman, owned the Berks County Bottling Works at 409 South Fifth Street. Berks Bottling was a wholesale liquor distributor and bottlers of all kinds of beer and carbonated drinks. Within a few years Berks Bottling was out of business, but Max had learned some tricks of the trade. He also understood the law of supply and demand. While his friend, Izzy, went into the real estate business, Max used his Berks Bottling contacts, plus an abundance of ingenuity, to become the patron saint of local guzzlers.

Despite his tender years, Max had the foresight and strength of personality to impose his will on businessmen twice his age. They were rewarded with huge profits by riding his coattails plus a certain amount of notoriety. Hassel bought into Lauer Brewing Co. and Reading Brewing Co. and soon owned Fisher Brewing Co.

Israel Liever and Leon Wise formed Union Realty Company. That business handled the purchase of local saloons and hotels for young Hassel. One of the acquisitions was the Belmont Hotel at 5th and Court Streets, where Union Realty and Max Hassel had offices. Hassel possibly had made his first million before he became a household name locally.

While the country was buzzing about the death of President Harding on August 3, 1923, Max Hassel had a more immediate problem. That day the first of his illegal breweries was revealed to the public. Have established a network of informants, he was tipped off that federal agents were lurking near his Fisher Brewery in the 2200 block of North 11th Street. The agents, realizing their presence had been discovered, made a show of leaving the area to return to Philadelphia. The Fisher defenses were lowered,. the bootleggers not realizing the enemy had circled back and was now hiding in tall grass near the plant.

Four federal agents and a state cop observed two young men loading 16 kegs into a truck. As the truck drove away, it was halted by the drys. The driver, Morris Hassel, 19-year-old brother of Max, was arrested. The feds, supported by the Pennsylvania State Police, entered the Fisher brewery, tested the beer in the vats, and decided its alcoholic content was well above the legal one-half of one percent. The brewery was quickly padlocked.

Reading’s breweries were targeted for extinction by state police and federal agents in 1924. They were wounded but this was a resilient business under the management of Max Hassel and his well-paid attorneys. The opening shot of the government’s offensive was against August Manufacturing Co., now operating out of the same building at 9th and Little Laurel Streets that formerly was the Reading Brewing Co. Later the plant gained another alias: Reading Ice and Storage Company.

The names changed but not the product. In the spring of 1924 as federal inspectors toured the building, they were informed that August Manufacturing was primarily an ice company. But at the end of one building they found their way blocked by a brick wall and heavy metal gate. Behind the wall they discovered what they were looking for – vats containing beer that tested 3.9 and 4.1 in alcoholic content.

Despite this setback, August still held a license to produce “near beer.” These licenses were a gray area that bootleggers exploited to thwart federal authorities. At first the civil courts handled cases involving seized property. Good lawyers could drag out cases for years as illegal beer continued to be made. But when agents seized another 100 barrels of beer from a freight car on 9th Street near the August plant on July 26, federal marshals were assigned to guard the buildings.

Meanwhile, a second team of drys was preparing to raid another of Hassel’s breweries. Its target was Lauer Brewing Co., North 3rd and Walnut Street. The Lauer name by now had been changed to Gierot Manufacturing Company. On August 4, the drys witnessed Lauer employees loading kegs into a freight car on 3rd Street. When the train began to move, the agents climbed aboard planning to ride the rails to the beer’s destination. It was a very short trip.

At Front Street just below Franklin, the sealed beer car was shifted to a siding. Three trucks with six men were waiting to transfer the barrels. They had barely begun when a lookout gave the high sign that agents were moving in. The dirty half dozen fled the trucks.

The federal take that day was 235 half kegs of prime (which is to say illegal) beer. Armed with new warrants the next day the investigators discovered enough beer in the Lauer vats to fill 3,580 barrels.

The license on one of the abandoned trucks was registered to Morris Hassel and Robert Moeller. Moeller was listed in court records as a part owner of the Lauer and August breweries, along with Max Hassel’s name on the titles of both companies. Other Lauer owners were recorded as William C. Haberle, Carl F. Lauer, and Mrs. Florence Landis. The other owners of August brewery, in addition to Hassel and Moeller, were listed as Frank A. Caheen Jr., George G. Meade, and I. Raisch. The owners of Deppen Manufacturing Company while Prohibition beer was produced were Louis E. Wiswesser, W. L. Diffenderfer, and R. D. Nevin.

Federal enforcement director for the Philadelphia district, Reuben B. Sams, reported that Reading breweries were the principal suppliers of high voltage beer for Philadelphia that summer of 1924 when breweries in the Quaker City were under quarantine. The Fisher brewery by now had been dismantled on a federal court order. Hassel had paid a $1,500 fine and lost raw materials worth about $25,000. It was a mere bump in the road for the fast-rising Prohibition celebrity.

As for the violations at the Lauer and August breweries, Max and his co-conspirators paid $1,500 fines, the courts ordered the two plants dismantled, and for a little while Reading’s glasses were refilled with beer from other sources in Lancaster and York, also controlled by Hassel.

Although a giant in his chosen field, Max Hassel was of less than average size. Possibly it was his erect posture and imposing reputation that caused admirers to estimate his height at 5-feet-8. Others remembered him being 5′ 4″ with a slight but athletic frame. Friends, acquaintances and close associates always spoke of Max’s good looks and calm demeanor. He had a reputation for treating customers fairly but being able to drive a hard bargain; Adding to, his legend was his habit of buying new hats almost daily, always giving yesterday’s felt away.

He was friendly, but remote if the occasion called for it. If he met a politician or judge or banker on Penn Street, he didn’t expect a “hello” or handshake. Perhaps nods of recognition were exchanged, but Hassel didn’t want to embarrass the VIP by public displays of friendship with a notorious figure. But many of the city’s movers and shakers were indebted, one way or another, to the little man with the expensive hats and big cigars. During the early days of Prohibition he hung with gamblers and bootleggers in front of the Crystal, the popular restaurant at 6th and Penn. This became something of a ritual gathering place for racketeers in the years ahead.

In 1926 the Internal Revenue Service filed a $1,241,926 lien against Hassel for the recovery of income taxes he had failed to pay for the past six years. It was said to be the largest penalty levied against an individual up to that time. In 1928, instead of paying his tax debt he bought the Berkshire Hotel for $1,500.000. After three years of legal haggling, Max finally settled with the government. The deal was, if he paid two $2,000 fines on other indictments, plus $150,000 to clear the tax lien, his past tax evasion record would be cleared.

Naturally there is no record of how many palms Max greased, nor how much he poured into local political campaigns. But a former city and county solicitor, the late Wilson Austen, reported Hassel’s usual contribution in a mayoralty campaign was $20,000 to each of the nominees. He couldn’t have operated his breweries for fourteen years without bribes. Twice he was publicly accused.

In January, 1926, Berks District Attorney David Mauger brought conspiracy and bribery charges against him. John V. O’Neill, a clerk in the West Reading state police barracks, was questioned on suspicion of tipping off Hassel about state enforcement movements. O’Neill quickly caved in to interrogators, admitting he and state trooper Paul W. Chambers were on Hassel’s payroll.

Max arrived late at his preliminary hearing in the small courtroom of Alderman H. M. Mayer. All seats were occupied, so the dapper Max stood quietly through the long hearing. O’Neill testified he received several payments totaling $1,500 which he split with Chambers. He said Hassel personally paid him $300 during several Saturday meetings at Fifth and Franklin Streets. Fred Marks, one of Hassel’s top lieutenants, also met with him, O’Neill said.

Hassel was held for grand jury action but was never indicted. O’Neill disappeared and charges were eventually withdrawn. News reports speculated that the frightened clerk had been paid to take a long vacation in Canada. Trooper Chambers was discharged from the state police.

The federal government thought it had Max in another bribery case in 1927. In August, two of its best enforcement agents were assigned to look into reports that Fisher Brewery was again producing strong beer. They claimed they were paid $2,050 to allow two carloads of beer to be shipped from the brewery.

Col. Samuel O. Wynne, eastern Pennsylvania Prohibition administrator, gushed: “The man we wanted for brewery violations – now we have him and I hope we have him right.”

Wrong. At a hearing before a federal magistrate, agents Paul T. Hurley (a Marine Congressional Medal of Honor winner in World War I) and Meredith Kerstetter testified that Max and Morris Hassel talked with them outside the brewery and offered a bribe. Hurley claimed that a few days later an unknown driver of a car in West Reading handed him a bag of pears, which also contained a lot of money. Unfortunately, he and Kerstetter ate the evidence – the fruit, not the money – and threw away the bag. The Hassels were held for trial even though their attorney claimed the agents had coerced them to pay the money. A federal judge eventually agreed with that argument and threw out the case. He ruled it was against the spirit of law to induce or encourage anyone to commit a crime.

Max “Boo-Boo” Haff, a fight manager, controlled bootlegging in Philadelphia until Prohibition reached middle-age; Hassel had a good relationship with Boo-Boo during that period. Hoff, Hassel and Waxey Gordon, another top-rank bootlegger, headed a syndicate, using the names of fictitious buyers that purchased breweries whenever the government shut them down. Soon they were operating those breweries again, turning out strong beer and sometimes stronger ale. Their empire covered southeastern Pennsylvania with plants in Philadelphia, Easton, Lancaster, Hanover and York., and into New Jersey.

A 1928 grand jury closed in on Hoff, ending his career as Philadelphia’s beer baron. Although the grand jury indicted numerous Philadelphia politicians and law enforcement people, Max Hassel narrowly escaped that ordeal, even when his close ties with Hoff were exposed. With Hoff gone, Max now had to deal with Mickey Duffy, who took over the Quaker City’s illicit beer racket. Knowing Duffy’s propensity for gaining power at gunpoint, Hassel began to look elsewhere for expansion.

He found it in North Jersey in partnership with Waxey Gordon, who was a protégé of Arnold Rothstein, the famed New York gambler who bankrolled numerous bootleggers. Rothstein was killed in November, 1928. By then Hassel and Gordon controlled up to 17 breweries in New Jersey, New York state, and Pennsylvania, according to enforcement officials.

The aggressive Mickey Duffy elbowed into the rich Jersey territory and Max handed over a brewery to him. Hassel’s style was compromise, not violence; close friends claimed he never carried a gun. Shortly thereafter, Duffy was assassinated in an Atlantic City hotel in 1931. While that was not Max’s way of settling business matters, he must have recognized that Waxey Gordon certainly knew people who would take such a contract. Hassel, perhaps fearing retaliation from the Philly mob and probably not too sure about Gordon either, spent most of his time in his Berkshire Hotel suite for several weeks.

But Hassel was a social animal. From the time he sold the Reading Telegram on Penn Square, Max retained friendships with newsmen at the Reading Times, which eventually absorbed the Telegram. In the late 1920s he frequently visited the Times editor, I. Hornstein, and managing editor Abe Hurwitz. On one occasion, Hassel’s yellow Moon sedan wouldn’t start as he prepared to leave. Hurwitz ordered his sports editor, Shandy Hill, to give the Moon a push with his car. A crowd quickly gathered to watch the comical tableau of the beer baron’s luxury car being nudged along by Hill’s battered coup. Suddenly the Moon shocked the crowd with a monumental backfire. Believing that Max was the target of a bomber, spectators dove for cover. The beer baron’s chauffeur drove off, his smiling passenger tipping his hat of the day.

In addition to his reputation as a philanthropist who helped the poor and gave unsparingly to his synagogue, Kesher Zion, Max Hassel left another legacy to Berks County – the Green Hills Golf Course. In 1929 he bought a 106-acre farm near Beckersville, Robeson Township. He renovated the two and a half story, stone house, adding many modern conveniences. A swimming pool was built, which came in handy as a water supply for firemen in 1930 when Hassel’s home was extensively damaged by a flue fire. The nine-hole golf course was almost completed at the time of his death in 1933. Weekend invitations to Hassel’s country home were treasured by many. Around the pool, the local rich and famous could mingle with racketeers and sportsmen in a lively Gatsby-like atmosphere.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, many of Hassel’s stock investments were lost. His extensive real estate holdings, both locally and in Philadelphia, were devalued as the Great Depression set in. By this time the wet movement was revived as numerous states repealed their prohibition laws. Hassel, in 1929, had moved his base of operations to Elizabeth, N.J. In the Cartaret Hotel he leased a large complex of rooms on the eighth floor. Although he was under indictment for tax evasion, Waxey Gordon by 1932 was considered the most profitable bootlegger of them all. He and Max Hassel were developing plans to control the entire Eastern beer market when the inevitable repeal of the 18th Amendment was voted.

With Prohibition on its last legs, Max made one last attempt to become a United States citizen. For nine years the government had fought him off because of his frequent arrests. On April 4, 1933, he was in Berks County Court to plead his case again. Hassel urgently need his citizenship papers in order to get a passport. His grand plan was to travel abroad to hire top brew masters from Germany and other countries. He envisioned producing the best beer possible as a legitimate brewer. No decision was reached at the April 4th hearings, so he left for Elizabeth that same day.

Hassel’s other big concern was Arthur Flegenheimer, alias Dutch Schultz. Hassel and partner Gordon had wrangled permits to produce 3.2 beer through influential contacts in Pennsylvania and Washington. Schultz, a fugitive from the IRS at the time, proposed that he be cut in on the production end of their future operations. Since Max and Waxey owned the brewery properties, they turned him down. Authorities assumed Schultz insisted on further negotiations.

Investigators believed hit men hired by Schultz arrived in Hassel’s suite in the Cartaret Hotel at mid-afternoon on April 12th. While Max never carried a gun, he did employ protection. Shortly after the Schultz gunmen arrived, Max’s bodyguard, Louis Parkowitz, left the office room where a half dozen members of the Gordon-Hassel crowd had gathered. He later said he stayed on the eighth floor but in another room some distance from Max’s suite.

No eyewitness accounts of what followed were ever completely revealed by investigators. However, they were sure it was hit men who shot and killed Hassel and Joseph “Max” Greenberg, another of Gordon’s partners. Hassel apparently tried to flee the office suite and was shot in the back of the head. Greenberg’s body was found slumped in a chair behind a desk, his right hand in his suit coat pocket, a finger on the trigger of a .45-caliber revolver. He was shot four times in the head and body. Eight unfinished drinks were scattered around the room after the murders, indicating several other men were there when the shooting began.

Waxey Gordon, believed to be the actual target of the gunmen, was in another bedroom on the eighth floor with his girlfriend, Nancy Presser, a known mob prostitute. Five years later Paul “Frankie” Carbo was arrested and charged with the murders. But prosecution witnesses disappeared and the state’s case collapsed. Carbo never went on trial. Authorities believed he also killed Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Duffy.

The news of Max Hassel’s death spread through Reading like a tidal wave on the evening of April 12th. The next night after his body was returned to Reading, the 200 block of North Fifth Street was jammed by an estimated crowd of 15,000 outside the Henninger Funeral Home. An endless queue of friends and the curious filed by Hassel’s $2,000 solid copper coffin until 11 p.m. No marks of the gangland killing were visible on his handsome face.

Harry Rhode, the fast-driving chauffeur Max rode with on hundreds of trips, mourned the killing of his boss as a bad stroke of fate. Rhode said Hassel had planned to return to Reading on the day of his murder. But at the last minute he changed his mind, deciding to stay in Elizabeth to play cards with his friends. He told Harry to go to Reading alone. The driver always felt the gunmen had intended to kill Waxey Gordon, not his boss.

Max Hassel’s death was an ironic tragedy to the thousands who believed Prohibition was a travesty. To those who mourned Prohibition’s passing, it was a fitting end for the man who defied the law, thereby cementing the foundation of Reading’s racket-ridden history.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County


About the author: Edward A. Taggert, retired Editor of the Reading Eagle – Times, is working on a book about organized crime in Berks County. He is the author of ‘His Long Day In Court,’ a book on the long-running Richard Cohen case, published in 1995.