Calumet Roots. Bootleg booze was right up Abe Kaplan's Alley
by Archibald McKinlay

Publication: The Times [Hammond, Indiana]
Publication Date: 05/19/96

Abe Kaplan, the most visible partner in Midwest Liquors, vaguely resembled Edward G. Robinson, the movie star of "Little Caesar" fame. He had at least three trademarks: a perpetually unlit chompin' cigar that was as much a part of his face as his nose; a prominent limp that, given his other propensities, conjured up all sorts of nefarious escapades; and an elbow jerk (to the ribs or gut) that punctuated every other paragraph of his speech and was coordinated with the exclamation - "ya unnerstan? Ya unnerstand?" Nudge, nudge.

As the wiseguys used to say, Abe was "with Capone." That is, he first surfaced during Prohibition, mainly because of his association with Sam Bronfman, one of four Canadian brothers who were to Prohibition in the United States what the Niagara River is to the Niagara Falls. Originally, the Bronfman brothers were in the hotel business, but when they discovered that a dollar invested in booze turned over a hundred times faster than a full house of insomniacs, they turned to potables.

Their corporations followed function: to handle investments, the Atlas Finance Company; to handle transportation, the Atlas Shipping Company: to handle the U.S. market, the Northern Export Company - all under the percentage of Distillers Corporation - Seagrams, Ltd.

Abe Kaplan mainly ran trucks and was an important part of Seagrams's distribution system. The Bronfman brothers were allied with the Reinfeld Syndicate, which wholesaled bootlegged booze and whose members (some of them) also bought booze from the syndicate and retailed it.

Ordinarily, Atlas Shipping delivered booze up the St. Lawrence to Northern Export on the French-owned Atlantic islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, just south of Newfoundland. From there, Northern re-exported the booze to Rum Row, off the east coast of the U.S., to which customers, at their own risk and after paying in advance at offices in New York or Newark, would sail out beyond the three-mile limit (later extended to 12) to the rummy (booze boat), presented a receipt, collect the product, and start dodging the Coast Guard.

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Abe became a verbal partner of Joe Fusco, Al Capone's right-hand man and his successor as Chicago's Public Enemy No. 1. Although Fusco had become interested in Gold Seal Liquors, a post-Prohibition haven for Capone alums, he and Abe also partnered in several Chicago wholesale houses. In later years, Abe, who boasted as naturally as he breathed, delighted in showing off cancelled checks from the old days for as much as a quarter of a million dollars. "This here's money, ya unnerstan', ya unnerstan'?"

When a pioneer Hammond wholesaler failed for lack of a source, Abe came out from Chicago and opened Midwest Liquors at Indiana Harbor's Four Corners. He had five partners, including Sonny Sheetz, co-owner of the nearby Big House (gambling casino). Abe's enterprise was aided by the fact that the Bronfman brothers had by then piled up such a surplus of money that they begun to channel it, though Atlas Finance, into the U.S. enterprises. Naturally, Abe got the Seagram line exclusively in Northern Indiana, the first such exclusive in the U.S. In time, Midwest would have as many as 70 salesmen cultivating Hoosier groceries.

To celebrate Joe Fusco's 50th birthday, Abe took over the Eagles Lodge across the alley and gave an employee the key to his private stock. "Make sure we have enough champagne and keep it cool and keep it flowing, ya unnerstan', ya unnerstand'?"

Guthrie Street never saw so many Cadillacs, pearl gray hats and fur collars. The employee later said, "I saw more crooked noses than I knew existed." Abe eventually lost his partnership when a Lake County sheriff with a "secret" tried to shake him down, a not unprecedented initiative. Unless his conscience were reinforced appropriately, the sheriff feared that the secret would break out, the secret being that Abe, during his bootlegging days, had once briefly called Lake County Jail home. Although such a revelation could nullify his liquor license, Abe rejected suggestions by his compeers that, with Truman as president and Madden as congressman, a presidential pardon could be arranged.

"Forget it," he said elbowing the compeer nearest him. "You can buy these Lake County politicians for two bits, ya unnerstand, ya unnerstan'?" Alas, even brought politicians talk ("I got such and such from this guy Kaplan up in Indiana Harbor.") So Abe sold out to his straight-arrow brother-in-law and invested in an Outfit-owned nightclub in Las Vegas, whose glitz and glitter was then just sprouting from the Nevada desert. He hit another jackpot.

But for all his money, Abe's greatest joy was talking about the old days. "I was runnin' a load o' booze down South with four or five trucks, ya unnerstan'? I never allowed my men to carry guns, ya unnerstan'? Well, we got into Louisiana and this state copper came up and nailed us. The cop said, 'What have you got?' So I told him, 'We've got a load of booze for Huey Long.'

'Where's it supposed to go?' 'To the damn statehouse, ya unnerstan', ya unnerstan'? 'OK, sir, follow me.' "

With that the trooper jumped back on his motorcycle and escorted Abe to Baton Rouge, with sirens at full screech.

Archibald McKinlay (1927--2015) was an expert on Calumet Region history.
His column appeared in The Times [Hammond, Indiana] and he was author of the
monumental "TWIN CITY--A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF EAST CHICAGO, INDIANA," 1988.

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