Friday, November 29, 2013

Spirits in the basement

It's one of those brick-and-limestone residences common to the North Hyde Park neighborhood, where large houses went up on small lots in the first years of the 20th century. This one is three stories facing Armour – blending handsomely with the vintage apartment buildings being renovated along that boulevard – with a basement garage and driveway entrance on Campbell.

In an era when garages – where they existed  –  typically were detached from the home, this one promised convenience and security.

A fine place, say, to squirrel away your liquor during Prohibition.

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In 1919 this was the home of Samuel E. Sexton and his wife, Theresa, both near age 50, and their live-in maid. Sexton was a builder. He and his partner, George Hucke, had constructed several substantial homes in the blocks bracketing Troost between 26th and 34th streets, as well as the Heim Brewery and its Electric Park in the East Bottoms, downtown's Dwight Building – then seven floors – and the six-story Hotel Sexton.

The Sexton, at 12th and Baltimore, was a favorite of traveling cattlemen doing stockyards business, and it featured a popular bar operated by Samuel Sexton. But the previous January had brought ratification of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the production, transport and sale (but not private possession or consumption) of alcohol. Although real enforcement would not begin until January 1920, supplies of liquor began dwindling and bars began closing. That summer Sexton shut the hotel bar and remade it as a 300-seat restaurant that opened in September.

When he closed the bar he packed up the remnants of his liquor stock and trucked it home to his house on Armour, stashing it in a basement storeroom off the garage.

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The Sextons had one son, Ernest, who lived with his wife in Denver and made a living as a stock broker. The families visited each other in summer and on holidays.

The night after Thanksgiving Theresa Sexton was feeling ill and her husband called for a doctor to stop by the house on Armour. The rest of the family had sat down to dinner when the doorbell rang. But instead of the doctor, a half dozen men with handguns burst into the dining room. All but one hid their faces behind overcoat collars. The leader wore a mask and ordered everyone upstairs.

The intruders drew shades, doused lights and ransacked the upper floors. Then the leader grabbed Sexton and demanded to know where the booze was. While the others held his family upstairs, Sexton led him to the basement storeroom.

A truck was backed into the driveway off Campbell and down into the garage. The two loaded it, the masked man whistled to his pals and soon the thugs were driving off with the high-octane booty – bottles of wine and cordials, ten cases of gin, and fifteen jugs plus three barrels of whiskey. Value: $5,500. (In today's money, that's almost $75,000.)

From things that were said Sexton suspected at least one in the group knew him, but he hadn't seen them clearly enough to identify anyone.

And so perhaps in the coming years of Prohibition he was able to enjoy the Hotel Sexton's stolen spirits as anyone else might have – by buying them from his local bootlegger.

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