Pete Tanzini, Will o’ the Wisp — Part 2

Advertisement for the American-Italian Garden, Lake Placid News, Aug. 17, 1923. The restaurant was operated as a speakeasy by Pete Tanzini’s brother Jack and others.

Last week, local historian Phil “Bunk” Griffin introduced the tale of Pete Tanzini, one of Saranac Lake’s notorious rum runners. What follows is the second part of this story.

As prohibition continued and bootlegging took hold in the North Country, organized gangs soon demanded a share of the revenue. In return, they offered protection from competing criminal networks.

Early in the game, a group out of Rochester had staked out much of the area business. The gang routinely patrolled the North Country and vigorously defended their claim. Any independent supplier entering their territory risked losing their loads, their money and their lives. Independent rum runners faced constant harassment from both the law and the outlaws. Examples of this dual threat are illustrated in two stories found in 1922 and 1923 editions of the Plattsburg Sentinel.

It was the summer of 1922, and two lawmen, state Trooper Charlie Broadfield and Franklin County Sheriff Frank Steenburg, were searching for an escapee from the Franklin County Jail. They spotted Pete Tanzini’s car coming across the border near Teboville. The car appeared to be carrying a heavy load. Inside were Pete Tanzini and his son-in-law Tony Salvaggio. The remainder of the car space was filled with several burlap bags full of Canadian ale.

Hotel Saranac postcard, courtesy of Nora Bouvier. The types of cars pictured were used for rum running during the 1920s.

When Tanzini spotted the officials, he attempted to outrun them. Tony began tossing bottles of ale out the window in an effort to flatten the tires of the pursuers. The lawmen avoided the broken glass, and the high-speed chase continued for several miles, with the lawmen riding tight to their bumper. Pete’s car was no match for the lawmen’s vehicle, and he was eventually forced onto the bank of the Salmon River.

Capt. Broadfield had brought along his 14-year-old police dog, Bobbie, to assist in tracking the jail escapee. When Pete and Tony began running, Charlie released the dog. Pete dove from the 30-foot-high ledge into the Salmon River. Bobbie followed suit, grabbed Pete’s arm in his powerful jaws and delivered the soggy captive to the waiting officers. He then found Tony and brought him back also. This was the first time in the history of North Country bootlegging that a dog had been used in the capture of rum runners. Pete and Tony were arrested and paid a $600 fine. It was a small fee compared to the price Pete would pay to a group of outlaws a year later.

In the early hours of Saturday, June 9, 1923, Pete was taking his attractive 20-year-old girlfriend (soon to be second wife) Augusta “Gussy” Menzel to her home in Syracuse. Oscar Saunders, an ex-Saranac Lake cabbie, was driving Pete’s Cole Eight. Gussy and her mother were in the front seat with Oscar. Pete was in the back, sleeping. It was around 1 a.m., and they were nearing New Russia.

The group was accosted by five men who were parked on the side of the road in a big Wills Sainte Claire car. One of the men got out of the vehicle and signaled for Oscar to stop. The man was holding a .45-caliber pistol. When Oscar didn’t stop, he fired five shots at the car. The first soft-nosed bullet flattened a rear tire, and another splintered the spokes on a wheel. The last bullet passed through the back of the Cole Eight, pierced Pete’s right kidney and lung, and lodged in his chest.

The men, flashing what appeared to be fake badges, approached the stopped car and said they were searching for illegal booze. When they saw that Pete was hit, they got back in their car. Oscar drove a short distance on the flat tire to New Russia. There he pounded on the door of the home of Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Jacobi and asked to use their phone to call a doctor.

Pete was taken to the Champlain Valley Hospital in Plattsburgh. He wasn’t expected to live, but several weeks later he was back in Saranac Lake, where he declared in a newspaper article: “I have made my last trip over the Adirondack Booze Trail.” Was the “Will O’ The Wisp” actually retiring from the bootlegging profession?

To find out, stay tuned next week for the final installment in Bunk Griffin’s story of Pete Tanzini.


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