12 Dead From Bad Moonshine – Brooklyn, New York - Atlas Obscura
Unusual adventures and hidden discoveries. Explore our 2018 trips now »

Brooklyn, New York

12 Dead From Bad Moonshine

What’s a sure fire way to end up in jail in New York in the 1920s? Peddling bad moonshine.  

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.