(as told to me by my Dad, Joseph H. Fiet III)
The sounds of a rowdy party: laughter, glasses clinking … just what was the secret behind the “Green Door?” Many think that song is a reference to speak-easies, places that sold alcohol illegally. Such spots became popular after the 18th Amendment took effect in 1920 making it illegal to make, sell or consume alcohol.
The “noble” experiment was deemed a failure and repealed in 1933. In a three-part series on PBS, Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” showed that, much like drugs, alcohol was brought in by plane, boat and over the border by cars. It also was illegally made and sold in the United States. Prohibition was intended to reduce crime, but it actually did the opposite. The “unintended consequences” of Prohibition was demand for the product increased, and crime – which became more organized – filled the void.
But there’s another story about what happened once alcohol was again legalized. My Dad said this left the Mafia with a huge problem.
“They had a lot of money from Prohibition and they had nowhere to put it. So someone in Philadelphia suggested that they open a supermarket,” Dad said. He believed he worked in a mob-run store when he was a teen still in high school.
About six months after they opened, one of the managers asked his bosses when they did inventory.
New concept. The Mafia was not in the habit of making public what they did and had no idea what an inventory was. They told the manager to do whatever it was, and he discovered that some employees were robbing the store blind.
“One day during a lunch hour, when most people are home eating their lunch, they noticed that the few remaining customers were lined up at one particular register: Mason’s,” Dad said. (To protect the guilty, I’ve changed the cashier’s name.)
The store’s managers tried to get people to go to the other lines. They refused. That’s how they determined Mason was their prime suspect. But how to prove it?
Mason had devised a scheme with his neighbors in South Philly. For every $5 order – remember this was during the Great Depression in the 1930s – Mason told them he would charge them only $4.
Mason would ring up $3 on the cash register. He’d pocket one dollar of the $4 he charged the customer. The customer saved a buck. This scheme netted Mason about $100 a week on top of his weekly salary of $16 or $17. He was ecstatic. The customers were happy. The Mob was not pleased.
After the orders were bagged, they told customers they wanted to check it. The customers would not allow them to do this, knowing store managers would learn about the deep discounts they were getting. Finally, they talked one customer into cooperating.
“The order turned up short. They brought Mason up to the office and told him he was going to be arrested for theft,” Dad said.
Mason told them: “Not so. The only thing you’ve managed to do was catch me in a mistake. One mistake.”
They fired him for inefficiency. He was quickly hired by a competitor as a store manager. So, in Mason’s case, crime did pay.
Dad said this was only one of many thefts at the store. “It eventually went bankrupt because of pilferage.” A lesson learned for the Mob, I’m sure.
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(Photo caption: A 1930s grocery store)