Monday, May 18, 2015

An Oshkosh Beer Doctor

In last Monday’s post about near beer in Oshkosh, I mentioned the practice of “needling” or as it was also called “spiking.” This is where folks would take non-intoxicating near beer and inject it with alcohol in an attempt to produce something similar to real beer. The flavor couldn’t have been especially pleasant. Still, needled beer was common in Oshkosh throughout the years of Prohibition (1920-1933).

Needling could be as simple as a bartender dosing a mug of near beer with a shot of alcohol. Or it could be a more elaborate operation with the process taking place en masse. For example...

Harry E. Wiese
Harry E. Wiese was known in Oshkosh as a beer doctor. Weise would buy cases of near beer from the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Peoples Brewing. Then he’d spike each bottle with a measure of moonshine. Wiese would turn around and sell the fortified beer to Oshkosh speakeasies masquerading as soda parlors. Everyone was in on the con, from the breweries on down to the boozing end user who’d amble up to the bar and order a bottle of Peoples Bravo with a knowing wink.

Wiese’s had a good racket going until he was ratted out. On January 12, 1927, Oshkosh police arrested Wiese following a complaint and subsequent raid on his home at what is now 537 12th Ave. Weise’s house still stands, by the way.

They caught him red-handed. Police found 30 gallons of moonshine and a still at Weise’s home. Let’s hear the details of Weise’s operation from Oshkosh Police Chief Arthur Gabbert.

Wiese, Chief Gabbert told the court, is a "beer doctor." He is the man, the chief said, who takes near beer and makes "good stuff" out of it... this man has been operating on an extended scale in Oshkosh and vicinity for some time.”
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; January 14, 1927

Arthur Gabbert
Don’t you love that our top cop was referring to the illegal stuff as the "good stuff”? I do. Gabbert knew what he was talking about. During the dry years the chief was known to make his own wine. Prohibition had a way of making hypocrites out of nearly everyone other than those wholeheartedly devoted to having no fun at all.

Back to Wiese. The thing most striking about him is how unremarkable he was. Though he was a criminal in the eyes of the law, he was just your average, everyday sort of Oshkosh guy.

At the time of his arrest, Wiese was 37 and single (he’d get married a few years later). He was the son of German-born parents, had an eighth grade education and was a WWI Vet. In addition to his bootlegging he also worked a day job in the warehouse at The Buckstaff Company. He moonlit with moonshine.

After his arrest, Wiese pleaded guilty and was slapped with a hefty $800 fine. That would be about $10,000 in today’s money. After paying up, Wiese went on his way. His days of crime had ended.

That’s how it seemed to be in Oshkosh. As we’ve seen before with Oshkosh’s wildcat breweries (here & here), bootlegging was embedded in the community, a pastime pursued by ordinary people.

Here’s another example. Last week I was sent an email by Dave Gehrke, who grew up in Oshkosh. Dave relayed a story about his grandfather that I think is telling. Here’s Dave...
Seeing your recent posts regarding the production/consumption of alcohol during prohibition in Oshkosh prompted me to remember a comment my paternal grandpa (Harold H. Gehrke, b. 1908 d. 1982) made in around 1972, when I was 14. I asked him to drop me off at an antique store on the North side of 6th st., about a block east of Oregon, so I could purchase a Chief Oshkosh beer tray. When we stopped in front of the building, he kind of chuckled and said "this place used to make bathtub gin during prohibition". I had no idea what he meant, so I asked him about it. He essentially indicated that there were numerous places in Oshkosh to obtain various forms of alcohol during prohibition, and "bathtub gin" was a local favorite due to availability and cost. My grandpa drank very little when I knew him, but he did say that the gin of this era was "rotgut". My grandpa rarely talked about drinking/alcohol, so this era must have really left an impression on him.
I’ll bet it did. Kind of romantic in its own way. Personally, I’m happy to forgo the romance and have beer that doesn’t need the needle.

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