Signal 100 | Demon Rum and The Story of Booze


No. 10 in a series of 52 commemorating 100-year anniversary of The Signal

“A nihilist, a socialist, and a neo-Marxist walk into a bar and order drinks.

“The bartender says, ‘Sorry. We don’t sell alcohol to anyone under 21.’”

So The Mighty Signal has been in business now for more than a century. A wicked question: The past 100 years, has this newspaper written more stories on booze? Or, more stories on religion?

I’d bet the former.

The United States Constitution was rewritten — twice — to address what was called, “The Noble Experiment.” Prohibition drastically changed the face of America and coincidentally occurred a scant 21 days before the first issue of The Signal was published on Feb. 7, 1919.

The 18th Amendment outlawed the production, transportation, sale and use of alcohol. Fourteen years later, in 1933, the 23rd Amendment ended that ban.

Newhall: The temperance community

After the Civil War, alcohol had been a massive black eye on the soul and psyche of America. Saloons abounded. So did the unholy abuse of women and children, from neglect, beatings and even murder. We had our own temperance meetings here in Newhall in the early 20th century. Because of our countless secretive canyons and valleys, we were also a mecca for moonshiners — those creative and criminal souls who distilled and sold illegal alcohol.

Most interestingly, Newhall was founded both as a temperance community AND had more saloons than churches. Henry Clay Needham, the SCV’s only serious presidential candidate, ran three times as leader of America’s Prohibition Party. For those of you with recent public educations, he lost all three times. It was his dream to turn the entire SCV into a “Dry” valley and to that end, he attempted to sell 10,000 acres of the St. John tract and divide it up into homes where alcohol touched no lips. The devil was in the details. Needham’s real estate paperwork carried a proviso that if anyone was caught drinking on your land, your property would be subject to forfeiture back to the seller. Not the strictest teetotaler would sign on the dotted line.

A century later, we still live peaceful memories of Prohibition: Kansas and Arcadia streets in Newhall were named after the Kansas governor, John St. John, leader of the 19th-century Prohibition Party.

If you live on Arcadia, your street was named after this man, Kansas governor John St. John, top Prohibitionist of 1884.

Just prior to Prohibition being the law of the land, the SCV was a bona fide and dangerous Wild West town, filled with saloons catering to different demographics: oil workers, miners, vaqueros, cowboys and a handful of gentlemanly types. One of my absolute favorite old Newhall tales involved the collision of alleged Good vs. alleged Evil. At a Sunday church service in the late 19th century at the old Newhall Elementary on present-day 9th Street, shocked parishioners watched as a barroom brawl meandered down the street and into the schoolyard. One of the fighters took a 2-by-4 and beat the other combatant to death.

It must have been an Old Testament sermon. The pastor led the churchgoers to the yard where they captured the drunk. They dragged him over to the then-bridge at Placerita Creek to lynch him. A local constable rode up just as they were about to hang the imbiber. He later served 18 months for the murder and was released.

The SCV: A bootleggers paradise

The Signal, a weekly then, almost always had a front-page story about alcohol. Drunks. Drunk drivers. Bootleggers.

One of the bigger arrests in Southern California bootlegging history occurred in May 1923 on the old King Collins Ranch, which had been sold to Frank Lasalle of Lasalle Canyon fame. Two 500-gallon stills were seized, along with sugar, yeast and 57 barrels of sour mash — enough to make four double flatbed truck loads of moonshine whiskey. The man operating the still was arrested and held in lieu of $5,000 bail. For some odd reason, the bail was reduced to $1,000. He had confessed he worked for “…wealthy Russian Jews from Los Angeles.”

Federal agent James Bond (right) headed up the SCV’s “Dry Squad” in 1924. That’s Jack Pilcher (left) at a San Francisquito moonshine operation.

Federal agent James Bond (right) headed up the SCV’s “Dry Squad” in 1924. That’s Jack Pilcher (left) at a San Francisquito moonshine operation.

Back in the 1920s, a house in Newhall on an acre cost about $500. Total. Imagine getting arrested for making bathtub gin in 2019 and getting a half-million-dollar-plus fine. That’s what happened to Louie DeMatios up Soledad Canyon. He was busted for having four barrels of wine on his ranch and fined $600.

We even had our own federal agent, James Bond (no relation to 007) stationed in Newhall. On a hot August day in 1926, he busted a huge moonshining operation right in town, up Railroad Canyon. Seems a huge flatbed truck was idling next to Bond’s car, emitting the unmistakable pungent odor of sour mash. He followed the truck and uncovered a sophisticated operation, pumping out 100 gallons of gut-busting whiskey a day. Luke Porfillio and Joe Salano were hit with $1,000 bail — each. Porfillio pulled out a wad of cash big enough to choke a cow and paid for their freedom in 100s.

Even our beloved historical figures were involved in the lucrative production of booze. Frank Walker, the Placerita patriarch, reportedly dabbled in moonshine and used his children as lookouts. The kids would stand on hilltops along the old dirt road and warn if any lawmen were coming.

In 1926, local constable Sanderson got a serious black eye, trying to cuff two hillbilly moonshine brothers in the alps of Saugus. Big mistake on their part. Before the days of cellphone video, Sanderson pistol-whipped the holy crap out of the siblings and gave them a complimentary ride to the emergency ward of Newhall Hospital. They were caught with just two gallon jugs of hooch. Imagine had it been a barrel.

A Signal reporter in 1923 covered a raid on a Lake Elizabeth ranch that uncovered “…enough liquor to float a dreadnaught,” which is a lot of liquor. The rancher, a Mr. C. Eichenhofer, got wind of the raid and was caught poisoning the environment, dumping thousands of gallons of cheap whiskey into a creek. The Signal quoted one of the arresting officers on the quality of the batch: “You’d be better off drinking carbolic acid.”

Besides being a local booze-hunting lawman in the 1930s here, Benjamin Franklin Summers (left) was movie star Lem Summers.

In 1930, The Signal reported that a massive truck was pulled over as it rumbled through the SCV. It was carrying a load of 5-star cognac, brandy and expensive champagne. The driver was arrested, his cargo unloaded and filled up the old Newhall Jail (which today is that little faded yellow building behind the Newhall Library). That night, a well-dressed, polite and dangerous man from Los Angeles pulled up to the station and asked to speak with the local constable, Benjamin Franklin Summers. Outside the little pokey, the gangster pulled out a thick roll of cash and said: “If I were to accidentally drop something here and walk away, would it be possible that just maybe you could go have dinner and leave the front door open?” Summers reportedly swallowed hard, then told the mobster he had better leave or he’d be in with the high-end alcohol.

Later that night, a small parade of Los Angeles Police Department vehicles appeared, with a court order to take a few hundred cases to L.A., for safekeeping. Signal Editor A.B. “Dad” Thatcher did a little digging and found out the booze ended up at John C. Porter’s mansion. Porter was the mayor of Los Angeles. And a member of the KKK. And, a Democrat.

Interestingly, A.C. Klaprith is in the SCV record books forever. He was the last person arrested for bootlegging, and that was in December 1933, a few days after the 23rd Amendment (repealing the 18th) was passed. Even though alcohol was now legal, you needed a license to make it. The 75-year-old Saugus farmer didn’t have one. Local Judge Port C. Miller gave him 90 days and suspended the sentence.

Driving drunk, driving stupid

The Signal has covered so many stories about DUIs, driving under the influence. One of the most popular columns this paper ever published was called “Demon Rum,” the brainchild of former Publisher Scott Newhall. It ran every Wednesday during the 1970s and was a list of everyone arrested for driving under the influence. It eventually was pulled due to a, hock, ptooey, attorney threatening to sue The Signal.

Here’s a Nov. 20, 1983 clipping of our Demon Rum column. Glancing over, the author spotted two locals he knew. Ironically, they were cousins, arrested separately for DUI.

Personally, I think The Signal should bring back Demon Rum.

With alcohol, you can imagine how many nominees there are for O.D.S. — Oddest Drunk Story.

In 1941, local Clarence Creel was with his honey, heading to Las Vegas to be wed. He was already blottoed. His fiancée, Betty Johnson, was driving. Sick of his insanity, Betty grabbed the whiskey bottle from his hand and threw it out the window. Betty was doing 50 up Highway 6 (Sierra Highway today). Clarence dove out the window after the bottle. When lawmen arrived, they tried to extricate Clarence from the shrubbery and he put up one bobcat of a fight. On the way to jail, he kicked out the patrol car back window. Clarence drew 60 days and I hope Betty never waited for him.

In the 1950s, John Dalton opened a law office in town and didn’t make too many friends, especially in the courts. Two local sheriff’s deputies observed him trying to park on San Fernando Road (Main Street). He gunned the car twice, ending up on the curb, then laid rubber in reverse, an entire block, knocking over a motorcycle, then put it in “Go” and smashed into the Newhall Hospital on 6th. He denied being drunk, saying the problem was “…an unusually heavy fog in Downtown Newhall.”

Jan Schurr in 1971 was nearly passed out in Canyon Country when a good Samaritan stopped to help. She stumbled out of the car with a great Dane and used the dog to guide her down an embankment to relieve herself. The giant hound then pulled her back up to the road, and across the street, where a semi hit Jan square on doing 50, killing her dead. The dog was unhurt.

My all-time strange drunk driving story?

It was in The Signal in 1976.

A 24-year-old Castaic man was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving; causing a multiple traffic accident on I-5; drunk and disorderly conduct; possession of a controlled substance and resisting arrest. His wife pleaded with officers not to take him to jail and confessed that her better half was under the influence of booze, cocaine, codeine, Valium and another pain-killing drug. She explained that in the due course of exchanging their marital and mutual love for one another, her husband had sustained an — ahem, marital aid — up where the moon never shines and they were en route to Henry Mayo to remove said battery operated arousal device. Boy howdy, this gets better. The husband, who was now violent and hallucinating, further resisted arrest, up until being strapped to a gurney at our local fine emergency ward. Finally, doctors extracted a 3-inch section of plastic and showed it to the missus. “That’s not all of it,” said the wife. The husband was then transferred to county medical where more advanced retrieval equipment was stored.

Hate to say this, but this isn’t remotely the first time this kind of story has graced our police and E.R. files. A CHP officer pulled over a woman in 1971 doing more than 100 mph. She was naked. The officer is shining his flashlight into the car and hears moaning from the backseat. Boyfriend is in the back, drunk and moaning. He, too, has a marital aid lodged where 11 major religions firmly state things aren’t supposed to go.

And we can wince, we can chuckle.

In the 1950s, a toddler was found wandering on Highway 6, dead of winter, in just diapers. Her mother was found a half-mile up the road, passed out, door open. A few years back, a father ran into the Santa Clara River to hide from cops after he shoplifted a six-pack. It was summer. He left his toddler son in the car with the windows rolled up.

The statistics involving drunk driving are nothing short of heart-breaking. The latest statistics I could find were from 2010. Every day across America, 28 people die in drunk-driving related accidents. About 30 percent of all fatal traffic accidents involve drunk driving. Every day, across the U.S., six teens die in car accidents involving drinking.

A social necessity, the devil with whom we sleep

The stories The Signal has written from 1919 on, with tears or mirth, outrage or tragedy. Barroom brawls. Dazed awareness. Loss of limb, eyesight. Poverty. Death by accident, by murder. Alcohol takes up many squares in the quilt of Santa Clarita civilization. For some, it’s a cold beer during a football game or wine (red) with a spaghetti dinner. It’s an integral part of Santa Clarita’s economy and can be an ugly, soul- and family-wrecking beverage in the form of the living hell of alcoholism.

My grandfather, Stan, was a bootlegger. In the 1920s, he worked on the railroad, selling bathtub gin. He tried his own product one day, stepped out onto the street and was hit by a truck, turning my father, 5, and four siblings into orphans. His last words were to make sure my dad had his First Communion.

The many sides of “Demon Rum.” The effects ripple across the ages . . .

John Boston earned the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award to go along with 118 other major journalism honors. He is a historian, novelist, best-selling author, humorist and, with a career nearing 40 years, the longest-serving and most prolific journalist in The Mighty Signal’s century.

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