Moonshine in Woodbine: The Case of the Felonious Minister

February 21, 2024
by Ruby Johnstone

One of my favorite aspects of processing large archival collections is the discovery of unexpected materials hidden among the otherwise uniform boxes.  These novelties will often have no obvious connection to the rest of the box’s contents and can range from handwritten notes to photographs and various 3-dimensional objects. Recently, while preparing the Records of the Baron De Hirsch Fund (I-80) for digitization, I stumbled across a report detailing the investigation and subsequent arrest made at an illegal whiskey (or moonshine) still on September 15, 1919.

While prohibition law enforcement may seem like an unlikely subject for the records of a charitable organization focused on helping recent Jewish immigrants, considering the document in context with the rest of the collection helped me understand the connection between illegal whiskey making and the regulation of farmland in Woodbine, New Jersey. As part of the Baron de Hirsch farming colonies program, the land referred to in this report as “Farm #9” would be subject to frequent visitations from local officials, resulting in the inevitable discovery of a farmer (a Minister with a previous warrant for embezzlement) in possession of 150 gallons of illegal whiskey. View the document in our research catalogue (I-80, Box 88, Folder 13).

Thousands of newly digitized documents from the Records of the Baron de Hirsch Fund can now be viewed online.

document of a case of moonshine contraband

Transcript from Jacob S. Levin’s letter of investigation:
“Dear Sir:-
In further reference to my telegram of yesterday regarding the Roumanian Farmer who made whiskey.

I beg to say, that for some time, there was a suspicion that the Rev M. Gavrilescue, the Roumanian Minister, whom you once interviewed in Phila. and who is the purchaser of Farm #9, being the former Sapsin Farm, was making whiskey.

On Monday the 22nd, instant, a Constable of Roebling N.J. came to me to have his warrant endorsed for the arrest of M. Gavrilescue, for embazzling $500. from one of his (M. Gavrilescue’s) Roumanian congragation members, this fact has given me more reason to believe that a man of such caliber, is one that is likely to make Whiskey.

I went with the Constable on the farm, but have not found him home, while there I was making close observation of the premises in order to see trace of there is any whiskey being made, and before long I noticed a very light smoke in the woodland about 500 feet from the buildings, I immediately followed into that direction and found in the woods a man (an employee of M. Gavrilescue) in the act of making whiskey, with a complete outfit, with 10 gallons of ready made whiskey and about 150 gall. in process of preparation, it was being made from seedless raisins.

I placed the man under arrest and sent him to the Cape May Court House Jail, about an hour later M. Gavrilescue appeared and I have placed him also under arrest and delivered him to our local Constable to give him time to to make arrangements for the care of his livestock, as by placing him and his employee under arrest it left no one in care of the farm, while in the caurse of making this preparations he escaped from the Constable and so far has not been found.

I have delivered the entire transaction to the Federal Authorities, who are now in charge of this case. the Revenue-men have expressed their full satisfaction in the manner I handled the case, however, I regret tha this transaction has taken awaye my entire time since last Monday morning.

Yours very truly,
Signed Jacob S. Levin”