SARANAC LAKE WILL O' THE WISP






PETE TANZINI - WILL O' THE WISP

On January 29, 1919 the government enacted the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. This act created a lucrative new illegal enterprise for the North Country. Saranac Lake, with its maze of back roads and its close proximity to the Canadian border, soon found itself playing a key role in the bootlegging game. The Volstead Act changed the lives of many Saranac Lakers and was instrumental in ending some prematurely.


Saranac Lake's reputation as a center for the treatment of Tuberculosis was growing and its popularity as a tourist destination was already well established but there were still many residents with thin wallets. The average annual wage for Americans in 1919 was $2,000 but most residents of this area earned far less. Prohibition would provide an opportunity to improve the cash flow of many locals.


The bulk of the imported booze was destined for Albany, New York City and other large cities, but speakeasies were numerous in Saranac Lake and they were well stocked with Canadian booze. Locals, tourists, TB patients and gangsters, including Legs Diamond, intermingled and made for an exciting ambiance. It was the beginning of the Roaring Twenties and it was party time!


Men who were normally law-abiding citizens were drawn into this dangerous occupation in the hopes of making some quick cash and area lawmen were soon pitted against a steady stream of fast-driving local runners. Stories have been passed down about the exploits of local bootleggers and almost every family had at least one member in the business.


Bert LaFountain, a local bootlegging virtuoso, had a song called, "Bert LaFountain's Packard", written about him and a street in Gabriels bears his name. Bert, in spite of his occupation, lived a long life and died of natural causes. One local bootlegger, however, seems virtually forgotten, in spite of the fact that he is the subject of a pair of mysteries that have remained unsolved for over seven decades.


Pietro "Pete" Tanzini and his five brothers had come to the U.S. from Italy in the early 1900s and eventually came to Saranac Lake, where they operated a construction company specializing in first class masonary. The brothers produced some beautiful stone work in Saranac Lake, including the early brick streets, which they laid around 1916. The brick was eventually covered with asphalt but patches of the Tanzini brother's work occasionally show through the asphalt in various places around town.


Four of Pete's brothers later settled in Binghamton but one brother, Jack, stayed in Saranac Lake and was associated with Rocco and Jimmie's American-Italian Garden Restaurant at 104 Broadway, which was frequently busted for selling illegal beverages. Pete, on the other hand, decided to become a more active participant in the illegal booze trade.


Pete Tanzini was in his twenties at that time and, besides his ability as a stone mason, was also an adept racecar driver. He would utilize both of these skills in his bootlegging career. Because of his uncanny knack of avoiding their traps and disappearing quickly from sight, Pete became know by law enforcement agencies as the "Will O' The Wisp". Pete's name was destined to become linked to North Country bootlegging and to the most perplexing unsolved mystery in the North Country.


As with any illegal operation, organized gangs soon became involved in local bootlegging operations and demanded a share of the revenue. In return they offered protection from competing gangs. Early in the game, a group out of Rochester had staked out much of the area business. The gang routinely patrolled the North Country and vigorously defended their claim. Any independent supplier entering their territory risked losing their loads, their money and their lives. Independent rum-runners faced constant harrasment from both the law and the outlaws. Examples of this dual threat are illustrated in two stories found in a 1922 and a 1923 copy of the Plattsburg Sentinel.


It was the summer of 1922, and two lawmen, State Trooper, Charlie Broadfield, and Franklin County Sheriff, Frank Steenburg, were searching for an escapee from the Franklin County Jail when they spotted Tanzini's car coming across the border near Teboville, NY. The car appeared to be carrying a heavy load and inside were Pete Tanzini and his son-in-law, Tony Salvaggio. The remainder of the car space was filled with several burlap bags full of Canadian ale.


When Tanzini spotted the officials he attempted to outrun them. Tony began tossing bottles of ale out the window in an attempt to flatten the tires of the pursuers. The lawmen were able to avoid the broken glass and the high-speed chase continued for several miles with the lawmen riding tight to their bumper. Pete's car was no match for the lawmen's vehicle and he was eventually forced over on the bank of the Salmon River.


Captain Broadfield had brought along his 14 year old Police Dog, Bobbie, to assist in tracking the jail escapee and when Pete and Tony began running, Charlie released the dog. Pete dove from the 30 foot-high ledge into the Salmon River. Bobbie followed suit, grabbed Pete's arm in his powerful jaws and delivered the soggy captive to the waiting officers. He then found Tony and brought him back, also. This was the first time in the history of North Country bootlegging that a dog had been used in the capture of rum-runners. Pete and Tony were arrested and paid a $600.00 fine. He paid a small fee compared to the price he would pay to a group of outlaws a year later.



GUSSY MENZEL TANZINI


In the early hours of Saturday, June 9, 1923 Pete was taking his attractive 20 year-old girlfriend (soon to be second wife) Augusta, "Gussy" Menzel, to her home in Syracuse. Oscar Saunders, an ex Saranac lake cabbie, was driving Pete's Cole Eight. Gussy and her mother were in the front seat with Oscar and Pete was in the back, sleeping. It was around 1:00 AM and they were nearing New Russia.


The group was accosted by five men, who were parked on the side of the road in a big Wills Sainte Claire car. One of the men got out of the vehicle and signalled for Oscar to stop. The man was holding a .45 caliber pistol and, when Oscar didn't stop, fired five shots at the car. The first soft-nosed bullet flattened a rear tire and another splintered the spokes on a wheel. The last bullet passed through the back of the Cole Eight, pierced Pete's right kidney and lung and lodged in his chest.


Oscar stopped and the men, flashing what appeared to be fake badges, approached them, and said they were searching for illegal booze. When they saw that Pete was hit they got back in their car. Oscar drove off on the flat tire and was followed by the five men who, after a short time, turned off onto a side road and headed in the direction of Upper Jay. Despite the flat tire, Oscar drove a short distance to New Russia. There he pounded on the door of the home of Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Jacobi and asked to use their phone to call a doctor.


Unable to connect to Sheriff Wolfe or Doctor Gerson by phone, the Jacobis directed the party to the doctor's office. From there Pete was taken to the Champlain Valley Hospital in Plattsburg. Pete wasn't expected to live but several weeks later he was back in Saranac Lake, where he declared in a newspaper article: "I have made my last trip over the Adirondack Booze Trail". Was the "Will O' The Wisp" actually retiring from the bootlegging profession?



PETER TRIMS THE HEDGE AT HIS HOME ON OLIVE STREET


Pete appeared to have settled down. He married Gussy shortly after and they settled into their new home at the end of Olive Street. A couple of years later, however, Pete became the proud owner of a giant Wildcat Still. This was said to be the biggest illegal still in New York State, originally costing $45,000.


The still was previously owned by a Brooklyn bootleg gang, who had bought it piecemeal, assembled it and produced hundreds of gallons of booze a week. Eventually, the gang was snagged and the still was confiscated by the government and cut into apparently useless scrap metal and sold to a junkyard. Word got out about the misfortune of the Brooklyn gang and it quickly reached the ears of a clever upstate gang.


A Rochester gang, operating as junk dealers, bought the "useless" scrap metal piece by piece with the intention of reconstructing it. The Brooklyn gang, however, heard about this plan and made things tough for the Rochester gang, who decided to sell the device to Pete for $7,000. It was quietly shipped to Saranac Lake and reassembled in a secret chamber that Pete had built into the cellar of his home on Olive Street.


The Brooklyn gang was run by Jack Moran, better known as Legs Diamond. Jack's brother, Eddie Moran, was curing in Saranac Lake and Jack quite often came to visit him. Jack wanted to control distribution in the North Country and so he put the pressure on Pete. He said he would allow Pete to sell his goods in Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Lyon Mountain and other small outlets in the area. He was, however, warned not to do business in Lake Placid, Elizabethtown, Port Henry and localties to the south. On at least one occasion, however, Pete had been seen by the Diamond gang in a taboo area.


Legs Diamond continued his threats toward Pete and began spreading lies that Pete's whiskey was watered down. A lesser man would have thrown in the towel at this point but Pete, although just five feet tall, wasn't a man who could be pushed around. Pete set up a meeting with Legs at the Aratoga Inn, in Cairo New York, 25 miles south of Albany, to settle this problem. This was one of Legs' favorite hangouts. At the meeting Pete verbally and physically put Legs down, a very dangerous move. Legs Diamond was later attacked by Dutch Schultz and his gunmen at the Aratoga Inn but was only wounded. Two innocent bystanders, however, were killed in that attack.


On Wednesday, December 17, 1930, at 5:00 PM, Pete told Gussy that he had a business meeting in town and left the house. He told her that he would stop at the store on his way home and pick up groceries. He went directly to the Club Restaurant on Main Street, Saranac Lake, and met with the owner, Al Chapple, and Jimmy Carolina, a local businessman, concerning a store they were planning on building in town.


The Club Restaurant was busy with its 5:00 o'clock dinner crowd so Pete and Jimmy, left the restaurant saying that they would return at 8:00 P.M. Pete was seen shortly after coming out of a grocery store carrying a package. He got into his dark green Buick bearing 1930 license plates numbered 9P-55-32 and drove away.


A Saranac Lake salesman reported seeing Pete a short time later near Work's Corners, now better known as Donnelly's Corners. The man said that Pete was driving his Buick and was accompanied by two men who he didn't recognize. That was the last known sighting of Peter Tanzini.


On February 17, 1931, exactly two months after Pete's disappearance, Norman Demo was doing some work around the Tanzini house on Olive Street. He recalled at 1:45PM hearing the phone ring and Gussy answering. He said he couldn't hear the conversation. Norman testified that he heard the doorbell a few minutes later and that Gussy went to the door. Another telephone call came just a few minutes later, Demo stated.


Just before 2:00 PM, Norman said he heard a shot and ran upstairs to investigate. According to Demo, Gussy was on the floor and a .22 caliber pistol was lying nearby. She had a bullet wound in her right temple. Police traced the phone calls to a local pay phone but had no clue as to who made them. Mrs. Tanzini, 29, had just recently made out her will with Justice Harold Main of Malone, who appeared at the house just moments later. Norman Demo and a cohort named Sonny Foster, took a one way trip to Alaska shortly after the death of Gussy and rumor has it that each had five grand in his possesion.


Later, a search was made of the house and the secret chamber in the cellar was discovered. Police also found two secret rooms in the attic containing thousands of counterfeit Canadian liquor labels and seals. The still was once more cut up and stored in Malone. An associated bottling plant on Keene Street was also raided at that time.


Ironically, on December 18, 1931, almost exactly one year after Pete's mysterious disappearance, Legs Diamond was rubbed out by Dutch Schultz's gang at his hideout on Dove Street in Albany.


According to an article in the Lake Placid News of February 25, 1944, the Tanzini home was involved in a fire but was not badly damaged. Pete's beautiful stonework and the entrance to the once hidden room can still be seen behind the house on the end of Olive Street. Although no song was written about Pete and no street bears his name, this stonework still stands as a haunting memorial of the tragic tale of the "Will O' The Wisp" and Gussy.



PETE AND GUSSY'S DAUGHTER, SHIRLEY, DEMONSTRATES THE INNOVATIVE AUTOMATIC DOOR THAT PETE CREATED FOR WILLIAM MORRIS, OF THE WILLIAM MORRIS TALENT AGENCY, AT CAMP INTERMISSION, ON LAKE COLBY, WHICH IS NOW OPERATED BY THE STATE.


Thanks to Shirley Ann Tanzini McCarthy (8/5/1924 - 5/31/2010) for the great pics and info. RIP, Shirley.