Polish ‘moonshine’ and a police stakeout in Whitechapel 1888

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Detective supervisor Llewhellin [sic] had organised a stakeout to watch two properties in Whitechapel in March 1888. This had nothing to do with the infamous murders in that district because, in the spring of that year, no one suspected that the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was about to become a byword for brutality against women.

Instead Llewhellin and the two detective constables under his orders were acting on information that a number of people were involved in buying and selling spirits without paying the tax due on them. As they waited they saw two men – Aaron Klausner (34) and Aaron Cohen Zeitlin (17) – enter the house in the middle of the night, carrying ‘a hamper partially filled with straw’. Not long afterwards they reappeared outside 72 Whitechapel High Street with the same hamper, but this time it seemed to be a lot heavier, as they were struggling a little to support it.

As the men moved off Llewhellin and his team followed at a distance tracking them to a house known to be the home of a local Rabbi. Just as they were about to go inside Llewhellin pounced, ordering his men to arrest them. Zeitlin took to his heels but was picked up soon afterwards, hiding in a nearby loft. The rabbi was Zeitlin’s father but he seemed to know nothing about his boy’s activities. The place was searched nevertheless and a quantity of wine was found there.

More wine (some being made) and two barrels of spirits were discovered at Klausner’s home and it was clear some sort of illegal operation had been exposed. In court Klausner admitted that he had been making a white spirit distilled from plums. This could be a ‘moonshine’ version of slivovitz, which is widely drunk in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a plum brandy which has very long association with Jewish cultural traditions in Poland, where many of the Jewish community living in Spitalfields and Whitechapel had emigrated from.

Aaron Klausner dealt in spirits and the police undercover team had purchased nine bottles from him only days before as part of their operation. However, in court Klausner claimed that he’d paid duty for the spirit and hadn’t known it was against the law to take it from one place to another without paying additional excise charges. According to an officer from the Inland Revenue who was present it was, and of course ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.

Mr Hannay, who was the duty magistrate at Worship Street Police court, took pity on the pair however. The fine they were both liable to was substantial but the prosecution was, he said, ‘somewhat novel and unusual’ so he would mitigate it. The minimum fine of £10 each would be levied, but that was still a very large sum for them to find.

At first both men were taken away to begin the 21 days imprisonment that was the default punishment for those unable to pay that fine  but Klausner was later released, his friends and relative shaving brought the money to court. Young Zeitlin would have to stay where he was for three weeks and then explain himself to his father on his release. One imagines that would be the most difficult of conversations.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 22, 1888]

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