The Census - 12 The Still
May 22, 1940
This may well be the last chapter of my story about the Suchla murder, but I learned something very interesting in my visit to her son Albert and his family who were very friendly to me. They live in a small white house, a corner plot, half the size of where Albert's mother lives, and there are six children still living at home, all except Merlyn, still at school.
After I was given coffee and some lovely poppyseed coffee cake, said to be a Polish specialty, Albert asked me what I wanted to know.
Here is sort of how the conversation went.
“When I visited your mother for the census a month or so ago, she mentioned that her husband had been murdered, and I was intrigued by that. She invited me to come back and visit her, and suggested Friday mornings would be a good time while Madelyn was out shopping.”
“Huh, no doubt Madelyn didn't want Ma going off on one of her rants,” said Myrtle.
“I did get the impression that she didn't like me being there, especially when she saw I was taking notes. Do you mind if I jot things down that you tell me?”
“No, that's fine. Nothing that we can tell you that is going to land any of us in jail,” said Albert with a grin.
“Susie, as your mother asked me to call her, said that she would tell me more about the murder, but we never got around to it. She did let me copy out an article from the Jamestown Sun.”
“Did she show you the one from the Bismarck Tribune?” asked Myrtle, and
when I said no, she went off to see if she could find it.
She showed me the full front page with the Headline – Posse to Find Murderer.
“Goodness," I said. “Did they really have to use a posse to find that man who murdered him?”
“No,” said Albert, “that refers to something else.” He showed me the short article, and agreed that I could copy it out. Here it is.
BOX CAR NEAR
Believed to be That of
Thomas Suchla of Jamestown
Hold up Camping Party
Two Under Suspicion
Elgin North Dakota August 25
Thomas Suchla of Jamestown was found
dead in a box car here Saturday morning. Bullets from
a .32 caliber revolver has caused the death
Suchla was supposed to have been murdered
by two men who had previously held up a
camping party near Leath. They had secured $30
from the campers, and then had driven
away in a car. A Maxwell car containing two men
who are suspected of being the assailants
was seen near the box car early Saturday
morning by five young men who drove by.
The young men noticed the auto, their
attention first called by the light caused
by a small flashlight and later
by the car, believed to be a Maxwell.
The boys got a close view of the two men
and described one of them as being tall,
about 6 feet and the other s being 5 foot 6 inches.
It was before daylight when the young men drove by.
His wife and brother arrived
in Elgin and identified the body.
“Is Elgin nearby?” I asked.
“Oh no, it's 150 miles or so, south west of Bismarck. It took Uncle John and
Ma four hours to get there.”
“Why was he working there? Surely they must have had threshing teams
“Well according to one of the witnesses that John and Ma talked to, a Mr Albert Boyer, there were very few threshing machines in the area, so they depending on getting a team from where ever they could. And of course, it was Pa's machine, but he had to hire local people to help him run it. I guess there were five people in all in the team.”
“Your mother seemed to think they were robbed.”
“She was obsessed by money in those days, as we all were. She expected to get some money from him, but there was very little on him. I suppose she got confused because the men who were accused of the murder had stolen money from the campers that they attacked first.”
“So did the men ever get caught?”
“They were arrested but never charged, and the case was dropped for lack of proper evidence. So as far as we know, they never had a trial or anything like that.”
“Your mother said something about how she financed life for the children after your father's death as having something to do with a recipe, but Madelyn didn't want her to go into any details.”
“I don't see why you shouldn't know. She ran a speak-easy out of our house. We'd always had homemade wine and beer and booze, but when she was desperate, with Pa not having left any insurance policy or anything, she let it be known that she would provide people with illicit booze for a price. This was during the prohibition you know, and if she had got caught, she would have been in bad trouble.”
“So did she have a still or something like that? I thought they had to be near running water and were quite large things.”
“You can easily get the alcohol out of wine to make something that gets pretty strong. She was always making wine – the place smelled like a brewery.”
“What did she make it out of?”
“Whatever she had on hand – apples or plums or cherries in the fall, and potatoes, beets or parsnips in the winter. Blossom in the spring.”
“So how did she go about converting that into hard alcohol?”
“You have a large pan on the stove with the wine in it – and then you have a smaller bowl that you put in something that you can suspend above the wine. Then on top of that, you put ice or very cold water. When the steam which is the pure alcohol which boils quicker than water, hits the cold, it condenses and drops down into the smaller bowl. After about half an hour, you have maybe a half pint of strong alcohol out of the wine.”
“Was the wine still good to drink after that?”
“It was pretty much like slightly spiked fruit juice, but Ma used to reuse it. She'd put in more sugar, get another piece of bread spread with yeast, put a cloth over it, and put it down in the cellar for a few weeks and then it would have created another pint's worth of alcohol.
“She sold wine and beer too, and sometimes there were people who stayed in one of the rooms and drank just a glass or two here, rather than buying a bottle to take home.”
“Or both,” said Merlyn.
“And sometimes a guy would get too drunk and pass out, and maybe he would stay the night. Some of the neighbors got the wrong idea when they saw him leaving in the morning, and Ma had to put up with lots of unkind comments about what sort of establishment she was running.”
“And was she caught?”
“Here's a clipping from the paper. Jamestown authorities raided a local residence they discovered the source of a booze supply that has occasioned them some little trouble in the last few days.
“They told her to stop selling, and she did stop for awhile, but then she managed to start again, but with less of a party aspect to the procedures.”
“And did that make her rich enough to buy the boarding house?”
“She also was talked into supplying booze from a man who did the job in a big way. This is where I need you to agree to not publishing this. Ma knew him from when she first moved to Jamestown, and he was a friend of hers. But as well as his house near here, he had a huge still on his farm land north of Jamestown. When he heard about Ma's activities, he tried to get her to quit. He offered her quite a bit of money. But she said she would rather have him provide her with some of his brew, so she didn't have to spend so much time making it, and they could split the profits. And he agreed to that, so she did make enough to buy the house.”
“But he was caught eventually, and luckily he didn't implicate her. He slipped back to California before he could be put on trial, so got off scot free,” said Myrtle.
"What was somebody from California doing running an illicet liquor place in North Dakota?" I asked.
“The story is more complicated than that. He was from aruond here until about 1930 when they moved out west. His son Eugene stayed here. They were lawyers – the dad and other brother.”
“You're telling me that the man who owned this huge still was a lawyer?”
“Yes, that's right. And also a hero from the Great War, as were his sons. But his older son, Lynn, was badly injured in the war, and that's partly why they moved to California. He got a place at a home for disabled soldiers, and they also felt the climate was much better for someone with his disabilities.”
“So this family was rich and well known. Surely the police must have known, but not done anything.”
“He wasn't just a lawyer, he was also the treasurer for the Hospital for the Insane, and was involved in all sorts of clubs, like the Knights of Pythias and Independent Order of Odd Fellows,” put in Mrytle.
“I've got a copy of the Jamestown Sun's article about the raid,” said Albert, and went off to fetch it.
“Talk about the rich helping each other,” put in Madelyn. “I'm sure his activities were known, and no doubt there was hush money paid for it to be kept quiet.”
“Here it says:
Jamestown Sun, July 21, 1932
The Big Still Raid
"At 3 o'clock Wednesday morning, John Hagen, deputy prohibition administrator, and four federal men from the department of justice, Saint Paul, Minn., uncovered what is thought to be the largest still in the northwest and probably west of Chicago, on the Oscar Seiler farm five miles north of Jamestown and one mile west of Highway No. 20.
"The equipment is estimated to cost between $15,000 and $25,000, have a 1,000-gallon capacity of alcohol a day, and a mash capacity of 100,000 gallons. It is located in the barns just at the foot of the hill and is housed in two buildings formerly used for hog sheds, on one of the most beautiful farms in the northwest and one of the show places of Stutsman County. Mr. Seiler has lived at Long Beach, Cal., for many years.
"The vats and still are used only for the manufacture of alcohol, corn sugar, water and yeast being used in the manufacture. When the federal men arrived the fires had been pulled out of the boilers, the place was steaming hot and there was not a man in sight, indicating that the place had, perhaps, been deserted just a few minutes before.
"Vats, from 20,000- to 60,000-gallon capacity with tanks of 300-gallon size, were found filled with mash and finished alcohol. Tons of corn sugar are piled in neat stacks and a quantity of coke is on hand for use in the boilers.
"The still is in the center of the hog barn and is of 3,000 gallon capacity with about 2,500 gallons in it now. At the very entrance of the building are two fractionating columns, made of copper.
"In the left wing of the building are six vats containing 6,000 gallons of mash each and in the right wing are four vats of the same capacity, three filled and the other about two-thirds full. The vats are constructed from red wood. In these the water, sugar and yeast are placed.
"On the upper floor of this building are the tanks of alcohol. There is about 1,050 gallons up there.
"The boilers were fired with coke, the stack going into the cupola in order that no smoke would be seen coming from the barn. The boilers are of 75 horse power and are 12 feet high.
"Two monster vats are in a cattle shed which is about 100 feet from the hog house and are each filled with 20,000 gallons of mash.
"There is an elaborate system of piping and all pumping is done by steam pumps. The only manual labor necessary is the lifting of the sugar sacks from the floor to the top of the vats. The vats are open.
"There are about 2,500 gallons of alcohol on the place. A well from which is pumped 500 gallons of water a minute was found inside the barn. This is pure water without any trace of alkali.
The men who operated the plant lived in a small house on the farm. There was a buzzer in one of the bedrooms which connected with the house and the barn where the equipment was.
"We knew there was a still some place in this vicinity and have known it for some time,' declared Hagen. 'We traced a truckload of sugar from Valley City to Jamestown where it was lost and a truck load of pipe from Fargo to within three miles of Jamestown and it was lost.'
"'We came to the plant Wednesday morning and found what you see here,'" he said this morning.
"The spot is ideal for a thing of this kind. It is between highways number 20 on the east and number 281 on the west. It is off trail number 10 about 5 miles nestled between hills with many trees around it and a lay out that one would never suspect would be used for this purpose," it is said.
The man who owned the farm, Oscar Seiler, returned from California following the raid. He was furious. He was embarrassed. He was also a teetotaler.
“The article seems to suggest that Mr. Seiler didn't know how his land was being used,” I said.
“He should have known. Vast amounts of money were spent on the place, and even though he lived in California, his son still lived around here, and no doubt was keeping an idea on his father's property.”
“I think everyone knew he was involved, but were scared at being implicated themselves if they told the whole story,” added Mrytle.
"And another thing, his son died that same year in November. I wonder if he was left to cop the blame, and he committed suicide," said Mervyn.
"You mustn't say things like that," said his father. "There is no proof of that whatsoever."
“And you are saying that because of him, your mother made enough money to
buy the house, and that is why Madelyn is worried about people knowing about this. She is afraid that Susie might be accused of using funds gained illegally.”
“That's about it,” said Alfred.
“She is quite a remarkable woman, your mother,” I said.
“Yes indeed she is, and people enjoyed her company, and she always had a lot of friends. She gets lonely now it's only the family she sees.”
“Maybe if you convince Madelyn that I have all the story I want now, she will allow me to go and visit Susie just for a good old chin wag. Although my husband says that we are leaving to go back to Chicago soon, so perhaps it would be best not to raise her hopes, and then I wouldn't be able to be her friend for very long.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Albert asked, and I said that perhaps I could have a copy of the recipe for her homemade wine – from Poland – as she had mentioned that she would give it to me.
“I'll see what I can do, and mail it to you, if she agrees,” he said.
With that, we shook hands all around, and I walked home.
So I guess that is the end of my murder mystery. I wanted to be the one to solve it, but it turns out the real mystery is how this rich lawyer and perhaps his son, managed to get away with a huge illegal
But I have promised not to write anything about this, but writing to you doesn't count, does it?
I will write soon and let you know our plans for going home.