Tony Cornero: The Bootleg Years

tony cornero 1920s

It was a woman scorned who first called Tony Cornero the King of the Bootleggers. The press ran with it. His rum-running operation was remarkably successful, if marred at times by drama, bootlegger wars and run-ins with police. 

Tony’s parents Louis Cornero and Madeline Pirra were married in 1894, where they farmed in Italy’s Piedmont region. Tony would later tell journalist Florabel Muir that his his father went to market to sell the family corn crop, but lost the money in a poker game. They immigrated to the U.S. c. 1904-1905 with their five young children, Katherine (b. 1894), Antoinette (b. 1896), Francis (b. 1898), Antonio (b. c. 1900), and Louis (b. 1901), settling in rural Los Gatos, Santa Clara County, California, where they welcomed a sixth child, Esther (b. 1905). The family was broken up temporarily after Louis was killed in an accident with a live wire on January 14, 1908. As was typical of the time, the boys- Tony, Louis and Frank- were sent to live at the St. Vincente orphanage across the bay. Daughter Katherine went into service with a private family while the two younger girls lived with Madeline, who worked for Giacomo Stralla, operator of the Monviso hotel restaurant at 2124 Polk St. in San Francisco. Madeline and Stralla were married in January 1911 and the family was reunited, the children often using their stepfather’s last name (1). 

Tony Cornero navy 1920

Tony Cornero as a sailor, 1920, photographed for his Seaman’s Protective Papers

In the teens, young Antonio, who went by Tony, drove a taxi cab for a while and saw the world as a sailor. With the onset of national prohibition in 1920 he used his knowledge of the sea to launch a career in the illicit liquor business, reportedly starting out as a hijacker. He soon had a fully-fledged rum-running operation with his own ships and a fleet of speedboats to run the liquor to shore.

Tony Cornero

A Los Angeles Times profile on local rum-running operations, prominently featuring Tony Cornero (upper right) and Frank. 8-8-1926

By late 1923 Tony had established himself in Los Angeles. He used the alias Tony Michaels, sometimes referred to by the press as “Black Tony” (3). His crew consisted of people he knew from San Francisco and family members, including Frank, Katherine and Esther and their husbands, Louis Crank and “Eddie” Edwards, an ex-LAPD officer (2). Not everyone was happy to see the newcomer, especially the powerful and well-connected “Bootleg Trust” headed by gambler Farmer Page.

In May 1924, Tony was called to deliver a load of liquor to 150 S. Hobart Avenue. It was a setup. When Tony and crew arrived at the address with 25 cases, police officer George Ryan was there waiting along with William “Sledgehammer” Joslin, one of the detectives later credited with running Al Capone out of town in 1927. Bullets flew. Tony was hit in the leg and arms. Ryan received a minor wound to the hip.

Tony Cornero

6-1-1924

Jailed briefly, Tony’s bail was reduced from $25,000 to $5,000 because Ryan was soon up on his feet. The charge was assault with a deadly weapon, the liquor delivery having apparently been forgotten (though it was noted that Tony had checks on him bearing the names of many wealthy city residents). Things were smoothed over and Tony was soon back in business.

Tony Cornero

Tony’s liquor load, 3-21-1925

In March 1925, Tony had a liquor load captured by federal agents. He and three others were taken in to custody and found not guilty when the case went to court in October.

In the meantime, Tony and the “Bootleg Trust” were engaged in a liquor war. It started in June when Tony’s outfit had a load of 80 cases of liquor hijacked near Long Beach. One of Tony’s crew, Jimmy Fox, was wounded in the leg. Tony subsequently broke into a warehouse belonging to the Trust and stole back the 80 cases- plus another 420 for good measure. Tony found himself snatched off the street and “taken for a ride.” But because this was Los Angeles, not Chicago, the kidnappers merely issued a warning: return that liquor or else. Tony made arrangements for the handover. It went down August 4, 1925 on a foggy beach road en route to Long Beach. But when the hijack gang got there, they were met with machine gun fire from Tony’s boys. No one was killed. The wounded, including Farmer Page’s bodyguard Jake Barrett and Les Bruneman, recovered in local hospitals, their bills covered by Tony, who was taken into custody and questioned about the shootout. He hinted that that the Bootleg Trust, run by a “well known gambler” (Page) was attempting to organize and squeeze out independent operators.

tony cornero

August 1925

The papers took to calling Tony the “Bootlegger King” around this time, picking up on a phrase used by an ex-girlfriend of his from San Francisco to make her point that Tony was not too poor to marry her, as he’d claimed. She threatened to bring a lawsuit for breach of promise, but indicated, in view of the “King’s” recent troubles, she was willing to forgive and forget. That the lady already had a husband was beside the point.  

1925-winona The bootleg feud simmered on into the New Year. On March 28, 1926, a suspected hijacker, Walter Hesketh, alias Eddie Egan, walked out of a café near Sixth and St. Paul streets. Two gunman in a big touring car fired a bullet at him and sped off. Four hours later, a pal, Lee Moore, found Hesketh on the sidewalk and rushed him to the emergency Receiving Hospital next to police headquarters at First & Hill streets with a serious gunshot wound to the abdomen. Hesketh was known to police, having been questioned back in February 1925 after Farmer Page shot and killed a fellow patron a bootleg dive. Hesketh, in true gangland style, refused to “squeal,” vowing to exact his own vengeance. He died on April 2 without naming his assailant.

4-4-1926

Frank and Tony Cornero, sought for questioning in the Walter Hesketh shooting death. 4-4-1926

Based on an underworld “tip,” police issued warrants for the arrest of Tony and Frank Cornero, who promptly turned themselves in for questioning. The brothers had blamed Hesketh for hijacking some of the liquor, according to the tipster. Listing their addresses as 322 and 409 S. Witmer St., they claimed no knowledge of the shooting and were cleared by a Coroner’s jury on April 6. The crime, like most, went unsolved.

tony cornero frank cornero

Tony and Frank, 1926

Police warned of another bootleg war brewing in the wake of the Hesketh case, prompting a citywide drive on gangsters and gunmen. On April 12, Frank and Katherine were arrested in a series sweeping raids by a special “gangster squad,” under orders of Chief of Detectives Herman Cline. The system, under Chief of Police Davis, would later be known as “rousting.” Frank was picked up with his touring car at W. 6th & St. Paul (the scene of the Hesketh shooting) and charged with gun possession.

Gangster round up in the wake of the Hesketh shooting netted Frank Cornero and sister Katherine. 4-13-1926

Gangster round up in the wake of the Hesketh shooting netted Frank Cornero and sister Katherine. 4-13-1926

Katherine was said to be running the Friar’s Inn, a nightclub located in the lower level of the Tahoe Hotel at 1043 W. 6th St., which police alleged was owned by the Cornero family.

The Friar's Inn, 1043 W. 6th St. in 1926.

The Friar’s Inn, 1043 W. 6th St. in 1926.

1043 W. 6th St. Hotel Tahoe

THE HOTEL TAHOE, 1043 W. Sixth Street. The street numbers are curiously inverted on the front of the card as 1034. The reverse side has it correctly as 1043. Author’s collection.

Tony was picked up in one of the same raids, along with Johnny Roselli (spelled “Rosselle”). Roselli was charged with “vagrancy,” a popular catch-all during such rousts (4).

The bootleg war broiled on all through the dog days of summer, culminating in a shootout at the St. Regis Hotel on August 4 (a year to the day since the shootout with Page’s faction on the beach) that involved Jimmy Fox and left another of Tony’s crew dead in the street.

1926-8-8 tony cornero

“Rum Baron of the Southland” Tony Cornero selling out! 8-8-1926.

Another roust ensued following this burst of violence, and on August 8 Chief of Detectives Cline reported enthusiastically that Tony, said to be in “London,” was selling out, quitting the rackets and leaving town. It was, perhaps, wishful thinking.

Tony did lie low himself from this point on, but the family was by no means out of the rum-running business.

On August 28, Katherine Cornero, aka “Mrs. Catherine Martell” was arrested at her home, 2403 Wellington Rd., found with 115 cases of liquor and 25 cases of wine. She was booked as “Jane Doe Cornero” along with former police officer Eddie Edwards, later her husband. 

katherine-rumcase-1929-8-28-headline

In September, Frank, alias William J. Black, appeared in court for the gun possession charges back in April. He was fined $50 but spared jail time as it was shown that he had had a permit to carry the weapon. Chief Davis denounced Frank as “one of our worst gunmen and booze importers.”

Frank fined as a "gun toter" 9-22-1926

Frank fined as a “gun toter” 9-22-1926

The following month, Eddie Edwards, of 228 Witmer St., was identified as a “henchman” of Tony’s and arrested by federal officers with 92 cases of liquor. 

tony cornero

Eddie Edwards, the ex-LAPD officer and brother-in-law of Tony Cornero, downgraded from Bootleg King to mere Baron.

A few days later, Frank and five others were picked up by federals at Balboa Beach as they were offloading 160 cases of whiskey from speedboats.

“I’ve been having bad luck lately,” Frank commented. Released on bail, he disappeared. The authorities caught up to him in mid-December coming out of an apartment house at Wilshire & Shatto Place. Frank tried to make a break for it, but was nabbed.

frank cornero

12-14-1926

Tony was still lying low, much sought after by federal prohibition agents, who were in the midst of a large operation to halt rum-running on the Pacific Coast and going after big fish like Tony and the Canadian-based shipping companies that transported their supply.

tony cornero

Headlines, December 1926

With all of this going on, Tony’s ex-girlfriend renewed her “heart balm” suit against him in Los Angeles court. But Federal agents who attend the trial hoping to see Tony were disappointed. He wasn’t there. He won the suit, but the victory was short-lived. The next day, December 22, he was included in a huge, sweeping indictment of federal liquor law violators and went on the lam.

12-23-1926

12-23-1926

The new year 1927 started out with Frank being found guilty on liquor charges stemming from his December 1926 arrest. Never mind the 160 cases found with him in October of 1926- Frank was charged for possession of 2 pints of whisky and transporting it in his $10,000 touring car, which the authorities kept.

frank cornero

1-24-1927

In April 1927 police warned of another bootlegger-hijacker war brewing. Chief Davis denied that the men of his “gun squad” had orders to shoot Frank or Tony on sight. “I did say, however,” Davis added ominously, “that these men are being watched and any unlawful acts on their part will be met with the only method that seems to be efficacious.”

The warning did seem to have the desired effect of driving Frank into hiding and Tony deeper underground. Cornero bootlegging continued, however, further south with Tony’s brother-in-law Louis Crank and his wife, Tony’s sister Esther. Louis Cornero, aka “Pico” was also engaged in some occasional rum-running.

In January 1928, Frankie, Esther (identified as “Madeline” in some papers), Crank and several others were incited for conspiracy to violate the Volstead Act and the National Tariff Act after being caught unloading a reputed 27,000 cases of liquor at Sunset Beach near San Diego. One of the arresting officers, Special Agent Lyle Chapman of the Prohibition Enforcement Bureau, later hand-picked as one of the “untouchables” to go after Al Capone with Elliot Ness, would testify that he saw a young woman (Esther) on the running board of a car. He found 41 cases of liquor inside it. The group pleaded not guilty at the arraignment on February 20, 1928.

UP Press story about L.A.'s latest gangster war, 7-21-1928

UP Press story about L.A.’s latest gangster war, 7-21-1928

In the summer of 1928, with convicted syndicate bootlegger Albert Marco on trial for assault with a deadly weapon, Los Angeles was in the midst of yet another asserted “gangster war,” which newspapers claimed had claimed seven victims in six weeks, culminating in the murder of August “Augie” Palombo on July 18. Authorities attributing the violence to Chicago bootleggers attempting to organize in LA, and while not accusing Frank and Tony Cornero in any of the recent crimes, nevertheless asserted that the brothers, having “absented themselves for the sake of convenience,” had returned to the city to “protect their interests from foreign invasion” (5).

The Sunset Beach liquor conspiracy trial, having wound its way through the courts, finally came up for trial on June 11, 1929.

At the outset, three of the defendants won the right to a separate trial: Col. Leo A. Stromee, a survivor of the “Lost Battalion” in WWI and before this incident in charge of the San Diego prohibition administration office, and (now) former prohibition field agents H.G. Ramage and Ralph R. Morley

As the Cornero et al trial got underway, defendant Eddie Richards turned government witness, testifying that he’d been paid $100 a night for helping offload the liquor and had worked for three nights before being arrested. Mrs. Ione, owner of a ranch near the beach, testified that she’d seen Frankie Cornero there, along with a lot of trucks and equipment on several occasions. Three of the defendants were ultimately found guilty. Charges against Esther were dropped before the verdict was passed.

Frank Cornero and Louis Crank were acquitted of these charges, but a few days later, the pair and Esther were indicted again, on June 26, 1929, and charged with violation of the national tariff act for assertedly landing an estimate 300 cases at Sunset Beach back in November and December 1927. Nothing came of it.

tonysurrendersheadline1929-10-29

tony cornero

On October 29, 1929, Los Angeles was distracted from reading about the stock market crash by the news that Tony had walked into the U.S. Marshal’s offices here and given himself up. He was quitting the rackets, he said, and wanted to pay his debt so he could return to his adopted hometown to live. On November 12, he was sentenced to two years at McNeil Island and given a few days to put his affairs in order. Before heading off to prison, he send Capt. William Bright of the Sheriff’s office a Christmas present: a machine gun, which, Bright said, Tony had promised him years ago.

12-24-1929

12-24-1929

Despite Tony’s avowal of ‘giving up the rackets,’ the family’s rum-running activities clearly continued in his absence.

Frank Cornero sentenced to McNeil Island where Tony was already doing time, 5-30-1930

Frank Cornero sentenced to McNeil Island where Tony was already doing time, 5-30-1930

In May, 1930, Frank Cornero was sentenced to a term at McNeil Island as well, for earlier liquor conspiracy charges. He never served that time.

That fall, Frank, along with Louis and Esther Crank, faced new liquor conspiracy charges. In March 1931, Lewis Crank was sentenced a term at McNeil Island for liquor charges dating back to 1927. Like Frank, he didn’t serve that time. Meanwhile, Frank and Louis sought, and got, a license to operate a gambling casino in Las Vegas Nevada, where gaming had just been legalized. 

3-14-1931

3-14-1931

In August 1931 Tony was paroled for good behavior and helped to operate the Las Vegas casino, The Meadows. But, while gaming may have been legalized in Nevada, alcohol was still subject to the federal prohibition law, the Volstead Act. So, while Tony ostensibly stayed out of it, the Cornero’s bootlegging continued.

On November 17, 1931 Frank Cornero and brother-in-law Eddie Edwards were arrested in an LAPD gangster squad roust as part of an “intensive campaign to keep reputed gangsters and liquor dealers from extensive operations in Southern California. Frank was held on a trumped-up charge related to his 1926 gun possession violation, but soon released.

frank cornero

8-3-1932

In July 1932, federal prohibition agents found 376 cases of whiskey in a warehouse at 6803 Stanford Avenue. Through a months-long investigation that involved a tapped phone line, it was traced to Katherine Cornero’s home at 4908 Victoria Ave., where they listened in on her taking orders for deliveries. Katherine, Frank and Edwards were arrested for conspiracy to violate federal prohibition laws. The case was controversial because all the evidence came from the wire tap. Although the process was then legal under federal law, it was argued in some quarters that it violated the Constitution.

Frank Cornero questioned, 1933

Frank Cornero questioned, 1933

Though federal prohibition was winding down in 1933, with beer sales legalized in April, things remained violent up to the end. In May 1933 Frank, now identified as a “café owner” from Las Vegas, voluntarily turned himself in for questioning in the deaths of two suspected bootleggers, Earl “Sprout” Winthrow and Victor Ayers, who’d been found in a ditch, strangled to death. He was released without being held.

On September 4, Eddie Edwards and a partner were held up inside a liquor warehouse by 3 hijackers posing as federal prohibition agents, who relieved them of a truck loaded with 70 cases of whiskey. Less than two hours later, hijacker Axel Anderson found dead, shot by two men in the usual dark sedan near Gramercy Place & Venice Blvd. Edwards identified Anderson to police as one of the men who had robbed him, leading authorities to theorize that Anderson’s death was the result of the trio having had a falling out.

frank cornero

12-2-1933

 The 1932 Volstead Act case against Frank and Katherine Cornero took a year and a half to reach its conclusion, but on December 2, 1933, in what would be the last major prohibition case on the local federal calendar, the pair were finally found guilty. The siblings were fined $500 each and given two years in the federal pen- but the judge suspended the sentence in view of what he called “current events.” Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933.

***

(1) Tony’s birthdate appears in official records as both August 18, 1899 and August 18, 1900. Family history based on census and other records as well as Sawyers History of Santa Clara County (1922) and Florabel Muir’s often quoted but rarely sourced interview with Tony for Saturday Evening Post (August 12, 1939).

(2) Antoinette, who went by Marie, remained in San Francisco and was not involved in the liquor business. She died in 1953.

(3) Not to be confused with other Black Tony” figures operating concurrently such as Tony Parma, alias Tony Foster, arrested around the same time that Tony Cornero was being held in the August 1925 shooting at Long Beach.

(4) Much has been made out of the fact that Roselli listed 1043 W. 6th St. as his address in 1930, when he was arrested with Jack Dragna for gun possession. The address was associated with the Corneros from 1924-1926 for sure. Tony’s address in 1930 was of course cell #499, McNeil Island Federal Prison.

(5) The Healdsburg Times, July 26, 1926.

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