Monday, March 6, 2017

Deadly Moonshine Summer, 1922

On a quiet, warm Sunday morning in late July, the corpse of young Marie Repp was found floating face down in Sawyer Creek. She was adrift under the Sawyer Creek Bridge.

Her body was discovered by three boys who went to the creek to retrieve a boat. A 10-year-old named Alvin Hartmann came upon her first. The girl in the water was his neighbor. She lived across the street from him on Sawyer Ave. Terrified, Hartmann scrambled away. He ran home to get his father. 1922 had just taken another ugly turn.
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 31, 1922
The Oshkosh Crime Wave
When Prohibition began in 1920, its supporters in Oshkosh swore the law would bring order to a community they claimed was disoriented by drink. By 1922, the hollow ring of that promise had grown deafening. The majority in Oshkosh opposed Prohibition. Many dismissed it with total disregard. The dry law normalized lawlessness.

The enforcers fired back. Beginning in January 1922, federal and state Prohibition agents made a series of raids on Oshkosh. The city had been put on notice. Oshkosh police tended to look the other way when it came to illegal liquor. Now they were pressured to take action.

Arthur Gabbert, Oshkosh’s new chief of police, began talking tough. “We intend to clean this city up, if possible, so far as moonshine is concerned,” Gabbert told the Daily Northwestern. “There has been altogether too much of that sort of thing going on and we are going to put a stop to it.”
Chief of Police Arthur Gabbert
It was telling that Gabbert openly wondered if it were even “possible” to reign things in. It was also instructive, and no secret, that Gabbert made wine at home. Such contradictions proliferated here in the wake of Prohibition’s onset.

Whether Oshkoshers liked the law or not, one thing was absolutely clear: the city was riven by crime.

Volga Germans
The greatest fissure may have been in the old 12th ward. Oshkoshers called it the West Side where the “Rooshins” lived. The epicenter of the neighborhood was West Algoma St., now known as Oshkosh Ave. where it intersected with Sawyer Ave.
The West Side. West Algoma St. is now Oshkosh Ave. (west of the river) and Congress Ave. (east of the river).
The immigrants of the West Side had taken a hard road to Oshkosh. They were ethnic Germans whose ancestors had been lured to Russia in the late 1700s by offers of autonomy and free land near the Volga River. A century later, Russia revoked their privileged status. The Volga Germans went on the move again. Some came to Oshkosh.

The wave began in 1899. By 1905 there were nearly 300 Russian-Germans living in Oshkosh. They found work at the Paine Lumber Company and built homes on the West Side. The community they formed was set apart from that of other German immigrants here.

Marker in Abe Rochlin Park, N. Sawyer Ave.

The Volga Germans spoke an antiquated German dialect seasoned with Russian. They were deeply conservative, of rural origins, and intent on maintaining their distinctive culture. But often their children didn’t share their parent’s commitment to the old ways. Marie Repp embodied the generational divide.

An American Girl
Marie Repp was born in Oshkosh on June 30, 1903. Her parents and older siblings were Russian-born. When she was two, her father Johannes Repp died unexpectedly. Her mother remarried another Volga German and moved the family to Wyandotte, Michigan near Detroit.

By the age of 15, Marie had left school and was working in a factory in Wyandotte. It was expected of her. She didn’t like it. On her own, Marie returned to Oshkosh in February 1922. She was 18 years old. Prohibition had been in effect for two years. The city was beginning to roil.

Marie moved in with her older sister Katherine, whose husband was George Leinweber. Their home was on Sawyer Ave., a block south of the Sawyer Creek Bridge. The German Volga dominated the neighborhood.

1117 N. Sawyer Ave., the home of Marie Repp at the time of her death.
Like many of her neighbors, Marie found work at the Paine Lumber Company. It was a miserable job. She told a friend they had her, “Working in glue,” and that her job was too hard. On weekends, she escaped the dreariness of the mill by going to dancehalls.

Among the many unintended consequences of Prohibition in Oshkosh was the rise of unlicensed dancehalls. Places where, according to the Daily Northwestern, the young people of Oshkosh were being demoralized by “Jazz music and bootleg liquor.”

A 1922 letter penned by an angry mother and published in the Northwestern described the dancehall atmosphere in Oshkosh.

“Anyone in town, who has goods to dispose of, can rent a hall, hire an orchestra, and the dance is on… booze flows as freely as water … young men come with stocked hip pockets, and mere boys of 16 and 17 are drunk.”

On the evening of Saturday, July 29, Marie Repp was bound for just such a place.

Saturday, July 29, 1922
She had spent most of the day with her close friend, 18-year-old Amelia Kleveno. They were neighbors on Sawyer Ave. The two had known one another since childhood. Like Marie, Amelia was of German-Volga descent. Like Marie, Amelia worked at Paine Lumber.

The two had gone downtown earlier in the day to shop on Main Street. Marie bought a hat and white stockings. They met again at around 8 p.m. on Sawyer Ave. Marie was wearing her new clothes. The dance at LWT Hall was already underway.

They crossed Sawyer Creek Bridge heading north and could see LWT Hall ahead of them. The hall was owned by long-time Oshkosh barman Louis W. Tyriver. Before Prohibition, Tyriver had run a saloon (now known as Repp’s) in the neighborhood. With the saloon business suffering under the burden of Prohibition, Tyriver had taken to staging dances at his neighboring property.

LWT Hall in 1922; the white building on left. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.
Marie and Amelia approached LWT Hall. It was in full roar. Moonshine was being sold from two cars parked nearby. Drunken young men loitered near the entrance. There had been dances here before, but the pitch of this one was different. The Daily Northwestern later reported, “There was more or less disorder at and about the dance hall. The stories told by residents of that neighborhood vary, but some of them are sensational in the extreme.”

It didn’t keep Marie and Amelia away. They entered the hall, joined the dance, and promptly lost one another in the swirl.

Marie met a young man named Carlton Youngwirth. They danced. Youngwirth was 20, a year older than Marie. He worked as a clerk at a shoe store on Main St. Youngwirth lived with his parents on Prospect Ave. His father was a cop.

Youngwirth had apparently been drinking before Marie met with him. He had been in a fight at the dance earlier in the evening. Marie wasn’t troubled by any of it. About 10 p.m. she and Carlton Youngwirth left LWT Hall together. Marie didn’t tell Amelia she was leaving.

The couple headed east on foot into a warm July night. They crossed the Bridge over the Fox River.

Looking east over what is now Congress Ave. Bridge.
When they reached  High Ave. they walked south almost a mile. They found a deserted spot near Osceola St. They settled in the grass. It didn’t go well.

Carlton Youngwirth later said he made “advances” on her. He pressed her too hard. He said they “tussled.” Marie was well developed and strong. She was too much for him. Youngwirth gave up. The tryst was over. Together, they walked back to the West Side. They had been away about an hour and a half.

Around midnight, Karl Krueger saw them coming over the Congress Street Bridge. Krueger was the night watchman at the Paine Lumberyard off Sawyer Ave. Krueger noticed they both looked ruffled. Youngwirth’s shirt was pulled up in front and hung out in back. He later recalled thinking, “That young man got the worst of it.”

Three men were on the corner near Sawyer Ave. Marie knew one of them. She called, “John, wait.” His name was John Luft. Marie went to him, leaving Youngwirth behind.

Marie and Luft had worked together at Paine Lumber. Luft was Volga German and lived in the neighborhood. As Marie approached, he noticed her white shoes were muddy. There was dirt on her pink dress. Her hair was tousled.

Luft saw Youngwirth standing where Marie left him. Luft turned towards Marie and teased her, “How do you like your boyfriend?” She didn’t reply. Luft offered to walk Marie home. They began down Sawyer, Luft’s two friends following behind. Marie was quiet and reserved. She walked with her head down. She appeared to be in low spirits.

When Marie returned home, her sister Katherine met her at the door. It was dark in the house. Katherine didn’t notice the mud on Marie’s dress and shoes. She asked Marie where Amelia was. Marie said she didn’t know and went to her room. It was the last time she was seen alive.

Sunday Morning
About 3 a.m., Karl Krueger was making his rounds at the Paine Lumberyard. He heard a splash near the Sawyer Creek Bridge. Krueger thought perhaps some drunk young man had fallen into the river. He went to the bridge and shouted,  “Say young feller, are you trying to make a mud bath?” There was no response.  Krueger called out again. He heard nothing more.

In the morning, Katherine went to Marie’s room. Marie wasn’t there. Her soiled clothes were in a heap on the floor. Her bed hadn’t been slept in. Katherine left the house and went down the street to Amelia Klevenos home. Amelia said she hadn’t seen Marie since dance.

About this time, Alvin Hartmann was running home yelling for his father. Paul Wawrzinski heard the ruckus. He was in his brother’s saloon near Sawyer Creek. Wawrzinski went down to the creek. He saw Marie’s body floating under the bridge. She wore only a blue apron that had gathered above her hips. Wawrzinski's small boat was moored nearby. He rowed to the body and brought it to shore.

At the Oshkosh Clinic near Jefferson and Washington streets, the body was examined by physician John F. Schneider. On the death certificate Schneider wrote in pencil, "Drowning probably suicide." That might have been the end of it if not for the outcry already occurring on the West Side.

Moonshine and Outsiders
Within the insular, Volga-German community on the West Side, the death of Marie Repp was met first with disbelief, then anger. Few accepted Schneider's suggestion that it was a suicide. They knew Marie too well. She wouldn't do such a thing on her own. They pointed to the unruliness that infested their neighborhood. It was moonshine, public dances, and outsiders that caused this.

The Daily Northwestern reported, "Mingled with feelings of sorrow, the residents of that locality express some bitterness over the situation. 'It is not the young men of West Algoma who are responsible for the disorder at the public dances,' said one of the residents. 'It is a group of pool hall graduates from the north side and some of the tough youngsters from the south side who come out here with a bottle on the hip and raise trouble.'"

The West Side wanted justice. But an autopsy returned little that pointed towards foul play. There were no bruises or marks suggesting a struggle had preceded Marie's death. There was no indication of sexual assault.  All the same, something had to be done. Despite the complete lack of evidence, police arrested Carlton Youngwirth. He was charged with criminal assault.

A public inquest began a week after Repp's death. The assembly room on the top floor of city hall was jammed with nearly 500 spectators. Many of them were residents of the West Side. Many were children. As the boisterous crowd swelled, Chief Gabbert ordered every person under the age of 19 out of the room.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; August 1, 1922

It was a show trial. Witness after witness stated they had seen nothing unusual. They each reiterated that Marie hadn't appeared to be under duress the night of her death. There was no evidence presented that Youngwirth had any involvement with her after their parting at the Congress Street Bridge.

Death by suicide was the verdict. The charges against Youngwirth were dropped.

The Way it Would Be
The outcome brought little satisfaction. Blame shifted. A letter to the Daily Northwestern cited Repp’s death as proof Oshkosh was “destroying” its young. In the days that followed, Repp was portrayed as a victim of the moonshine epidemic. Her death a consequence of the lawlessness that had taken hold in the city since the onset of Prohibition.

Chief Gabbert renewed his pledge to shut down the moonshiners. He had to say such things. He also had to know it was a promise he could never keep. Resistance to the dry law was too pervasive. Oshkosh was inundated with small-time producers of bootleg liquor: people making booze in their homes and selling it to their friends and neighbors. It had quickly become an accepted part of life. The flow could not be stemmed.

The death of Marie Repp sparked an upheaval of outrage. Things had finally gone too far. For a city never known for innocence, the reaction was startling. But the outcry was short lived. It burned bright and burned out.  By the fall of 1922, the summer’s furor had quieted. The calls for and promises of reform trailed off. Moral indignation gave way to exasperation.

It would be another decade before things changed. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the lawlessness that typified Oshkosh during the dry years went into abeyance. The moonshine dried up. LWT Hall became a grocery. In recent years it was an adult video store. The Volga German had long since moved on. The hall where young Marie Repp had her last dance was torn down in 2016.

LWT Hall, circa 1923. Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.


1 comment:

  1. My maternal great-grandparents were Germans from Russia and lived on Dove St I believe. And worked at Paine.