Selling the stuff would get you a jail term if you were caught, but that might still be a better fate than what drinking it could give you. If you sampled the wrong batch of illegal alcohol in the grocery on this corner, you might have been blinded or dead by the morning.
That’s what happened at Mrs. Irmalinda Vatala’s store here which served the extensive business from longshoremen working on the vibrant docks. In 1922, at the height of Prohibition, 12 people died from a rum moonshine that she sold. She was arrested and held on $25,000 bail (equivalent to $330,000 today).
Thorough police searches ensued up and down Conover street for several days trying to uncover the source of the stock. Moonshine was easy enough to make with the right equipment. During Prohibition, neighborhoods got their fixings for alcohol locally. Michael Auletti, a longshoreman turned bootlegger, was found to have a full distilling setup on the 3rd floor of 115 Wilcott St. His brewing activities had amassed him enough money to buy four houses in Red Hook; much better returns than dock work as long as you could stay out of the law’s way.
Visit New York State withAtlas Obscura Trips
Only in Queens: Tasting Our Way Through New York’s Most Diverse Borough
Manhattan may have name-brand recognition and Brooklyn a certain cachet, but Queens is the city’s largest and most diverse borough. Join us, May 17–20, to dig into Queens’ rich neighborhood life.