William Neidermeier and Philip Kalb Encounter Prohibition Agents
From Downriver Prohibition: Its People and Perspectives by Kathy Warnes
Prohibition enforcement agents sometimes displayed lapses of judgement under the pressures of their jobs that called for swift, impartial decisions. Some agents were caught in a tug-of-war between state and federal courts while others floundered in the backlash and politics between enforcement agencies and public perceptions of their jobs.
Murdered Mail Carrier
On December 21,1926, William Neidermeier, a 56-year-old Monroe County mail carrier, and a friend went duck hunting on the Huron River. Detroit River Prohibition Agent Jack Henway and a partner were out on patrol searching for rumrunners when they spotted William and his friend in their boat. The agents also noticed a pickle keg in the boat and surmised that it contained bootleg liquor. The Prohibition agents ordered the two duck hunters in the boat to halt, and when they didn’t halt quickly enough, Agent Henway shot and wounded William Neidermeier, who died at Wyandotte Hospital. He is buried in Woodmere Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan.
Accounts in local and state newspapers across the country spotlighted the tensions between Prohibition agents and ordinary people and the tug-of-war between local, state, and federal Prohibition enforcers. Monroe County Prosecutor Edward Gordon announced in December of 1926 that the arraignment of the two Prohibition officers who had been charged with fatally assaulting William Neidermeier and his friend had been postponed indefinitely.[i]
The postponement of the trail spurred lawmakers into action. State Congressman Robert Clancy of Detroit (Democrat) actively agitated to bring about the prosecution of Federal Prohibition Agent Jack Henway who was convicted of the murder of William Neidermeier. At the trial, Agent Henway, a former member of the Detroit River Patrol, testified that he had mistaken William Neidermeier for a rumrunner and a pickle keg he and his partner used for a seat in their boat as a container for bootleg liquor. Congressman Clancy also demanded a federal investigation into the case.[ii]
The Cedar Valley (Iowa) Daily Times reported that the death of William Neidermeier prompted Michigan Congressional Representative Clarence J. McLeod (Republican) into investigating the practices of national Prohibition enforcement machinery under Assistant Secretary Lincoln C. Andrews. Representative McLeod charged that the Prohibition enforcement policies of ruthlessness had reached their peak in the murder of William Neidermeier and that these policies violated the Constitutional rights of citizens. He said that many ordinary citizens had been searched or arrested without warrant by the border patrolmen and innocent people had been arrested and beaten.[iii]
Less than two years after the murder of William Neidermeier, a story in the Sheboygan Press reported that Michigan Governor Fred Green had denied a pardon to Prohibition Agent Jack Henway. Commenting on what he considered the determined efforts of Prohibition agencies to win parole for Agent Henway who was out on parole, Governor Green issued a statement declaring that “I have no sympathy for officers who shoot first and find out about it afterwards. I have great and abiding respect for human life, and I cannot understand how officers can shoot without exhausting all other reasonable means of stopping a person. Just because somebody doesn’t jump at an officer’s command is no just reason for the officer to start shooting. There is too much of this deplorable practice going on.”[iv]
Governor Green emphasized that the trial testimony showed that Neidermeier, the mail carrier, and another friend were in a boat duck hunting on the Huron river. Searching for rumrunners, Agent Henway and his partner commanded the men to halt, and when they didn’t comply quickly enough, Agent Henway shot and fatally wounded William Neidermeir. The suspected pickle keg of liquor turned out to be used as a seat for one of the hunters.
The Sheboygan Press editorialized that “within the last few years there has been a total disregard for human life on the part of these federal agents and when we ascertain the caliber of some of them we are prone to ask if they have not in some instances, been law violators themselves and too ready with the gun. It is peculiar that of all parts of the government which Uncle Sam operates this is the only one where discredit has resulted. The governor is right when he says that every means must be exhausted before taking a human life. Here was an instance in Michigan where an innocent party was shot down in cold blood and now certain government instances are trying to free the guilty person. Such a step would bring further discredit upon a federal department that has outraged state laws.”[v]
Philip Kalb – Shoot Out in Monroe County and Ricochets in Portsmouth, Ohio
A fatal shooting that took place on January 13, 1924, two years before the William Neidermeier murder, exposed the undercurrents of tension between Prohibition enforcement agencies. That January day, Federal Prohibition Agent Frank W. Rickey and four other federal agents, and four members of the state police raided the farm of Samuel Kalb near Lambertville in Monroe County, Michigan. During the raid, Samuel’s son Philip, 22, was shot and killed.
The local justice decided that Philip Kalb had been murdered and there was reasonable proof that Agent Rickey had shot him. He was held to appear in Monroe County Circuit Court and when he appeared before Judge Jesse Root on April 14, 1924, Agent Rickey and stood mute. The Court entered a plea of not guilty and Agent Rickey was released under a $10,000 bond. The prosecuting attorney was prepared to file information and bring the case to trial.
In a swiftly executed move, the United States Attorney Delos G. Smith issued a writ of certiorari upon Judge Jesse H. Root of Monroe County to have the case removed to the Federal Court at Detroit, arguing that Agent Rickey was an officer of the government engaged in performance of duty. Clayton Golden, Prosecuting Attorney for Monroe County moved to quash the Writ, contending that the federal court was without jurisdiction and that the order for removal was made before information had been filed. He lost the argument, the writ was granted, and the trial moved to Federal Court in Detroit.[vi]
On July 15, jury selection began in the Federal Court to try Agent Rickey for murder. The Federal government offered the defense that Philip Kalb was killed before the Prohibition agents raided the farm when occupants of the Kalb home supposedly beat off hijackers in a spirited gun battled over their still.[vii]
At the trial, Philip’s father Samuel testified that when he told Agent Rickey that he should not have shot his son, Agent Rickey picked up an axe and told him if he said another word he would knock him down. Two other witnesses, Abe Berman and Isaac Susman, who were present at the farmhouse during the raid, said that Agent Rickey shot Philip Kalb without warning and threatened them when they asked him why he had shot Philip. On cross examination, Isaac Susman contradicted his testimony about the shooting in several details.
On July 17, Samuel Kalb testified for the prosecution, contradicting some of his previous testimony, and admitting on the witness stand that he had lied about the equipment for making illegal whiskey on his farm. He had previously testified that he had no knowledge of any stills, mash, or whiskey on his farm, but when Judge Charles C. Simons questioned him, he hesitatingly admitted the stills and liquor found belonged to him.[viii]
The prosecution charged that Agent Rickey shot Philip Kalb, but the defense claimed that hijackers shot him before the Prohibition agents arrived. Several members of the Prohibition Party, officers, and state police who raided the farm testified for the defense that it would have been impossible for Agent Rickey to have shot Philip Kalb.[ix]
In less than a week later, on July 23, 1924, after deliberating for a short time, the jury acquitted Agent F.W. Rickey of the murder of Philip Kalb. Judge A.Z. Blair defended Agent Rickey, who lived in Portsmouth, Ohio, but had worked the Detroit sector as a dry officer for over a year. He was well known in Toledo, Monroe, and Detroit. His family accompanied him to Detroit for his trial.
Judge A.Z. Blair of Ohio had reached the height of his argument to the jury which would decide the fate of Frank Rickey, Federal Prohibition Agent, charged with murder when the listening silence in Judge Charles Simon’s court was shattered by the screams of a woman. Turning, they saw Mrs. Fannie Kalb, mother of 22-year-old Philip Kalb who Agent Rickey was charged with having killed, shaking her fist under Rickey’s nose. “You killed my boy!” she screamed. “You killed my boy!”
Officers of the court quickly ushered Mrs. Kalb into the corridor. A moment later a commotion broke out in the spectator’s area behind the rail and Sam Kalb, the boy’s father, leaped to his feet shouting, “He killed my son! I ought to kill him!”
For a moment, chaos ruled the courtroom. Judge Simons shouted, “Arrest that man!” Twice Samuel Kalb started for the door. Court officials headed him off and led him to a cell in the marshal’s office. He was charged with contempt of court.
Judge Blair, forgetting that he was in Michigan where capital punishment was not sanctioned, instead of his native Ohio, had mentioned the electric chair just before the outbreak. Agent Rickey had been on trial for a week on an indictment charging that he had shot and killed Philip Kalb during a raid on the Kalb farmhouse near Monroe, Michigan last January.
Arguing for the defense, Judge Blair told the jury that doctors and others testified that Philip Kalb was shot in the back and this testimony was undisputed. The state’s witnesses who testified that they saw the murder said that Philip Kalb and Agent Rickey were facing each other at short range when the shot was fired. Attacking the credibility of the state’s witnesses, Judge Blair stressed that most of them lied on the stand, a statement that the prosecution didn’t challenge. Judge Blair added that Sam Kalb admitted at one point that he had lied.
The defense advanced two theories in arguing Agent Rickey’s innocence. One theory said that Philip Kalb was killed in a battle with hijackers the night before the raid by the dry agents. The other was that Philip Kalb was shot, probably by accident, by his brother Paul.
Clayton C. Golden, prosecutor of Monroe County, briefly addressed the jury. He argued that the hijacker’s theory was impossible, but declined to comment on the theory regarding Paul Kalb. He contented himself with telling the jurors that they were competent to judge the evidence. Prosecutor Golden’s brevity contrasted with Judge Blair’s arguments which lasted for about two hours and a half. Fred L. Eaton, Assistant District Attorney, also argued on behalf of Agent Rickey, took half an hour.
Throughout the trial, Agent Rickey appeared unperturbed and confident of the outcome. [x]
Less than a month later, on August 15, 1924, Isaac Susman and Abe Burman who had testified for Samuel Kalb that they had observed Agent Rickey shoot his son Philip, were arraigned before United States Commissioner J. Stanley Hurd, on charges of perjury. The two men stood mute and their examination was set for September 25. In the meantime, they were freed under $2,000 bonds each. Thomas Wilcox, agent of the Department of Justice, charged in his warrant against the two men that they testified “they did not see a liquor still on the Kalb farm, and that they were there at the time of the raid to purchase horses.”[xi]
[i] Neidermeier is spelled Neidermeier or Niedermeier on census and other documents as well as in the newspaper accounts. “State Briefs, “Benton Harbor News- Palladium, December 30, 1927, p. 13.
[ii] “Agent Mistook Man for Rumrunner.” Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, New Jersey, May 14, 1927, p. 20. Ironically, Congressman Robert Clancy had his own troubles with the legal system. He served as United States customs appraiser for Michigan from 1917-1922, and during Prohibition he, the mayor of Detroit, and the Wayne County sheriff were arrested while drinking alcohol.
[iii] ” Duck Hunter Killed by Dry Agent. Plan for Thorough Probe.” Cedar Valley Daily Times (Iowa), December 23, 1926, p. 1.
[iv] “Respect for Human Life. “Sheboygan Press, May 26, 1928, p. 20.
[v] “Respect for Human Life. “Sheboygan Press, May 26, 1928, p. 20.
[vi] Rickey Case Transferred to Detroit.” Portsmouth Daily Times, April 15, 1924, p.2
[vii] “Government Aids Dry Raid Slayer, Defends Prohibition Agent Accused in Detroit. Keeps Case in Federal Court.” Indianapolis Star. July 16, 1924, p.19; “Three Men Testify He Fired Fatal Shot in Raid. Escanaba Daily Press, July 16, 1924, p. 1
[viii] “Kalb Admits Owning Stills on His Farm. “Toledo News Bee, July 18, 1924, p.1
[ix] “Father Refutes Murder Testimony.” Indianapolis Star, July 18, 1924, p. 23.
[x] “Was Charged With Murder, Defended by Judge A.Z. Blair. Portsmouth Daily Times, July 23, 1924, p.9.
[xi] “Susman and Burman Arraigned.” Battle Creek Enquirer, August 15, 1924, p. 1