Everything Librarian: Who Is Prisoner Hyman Polski?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Who Is Prisoner Hyman Polski?

“The war on alcohol in the 1920s and the war on drugs of the ’70s and ’80s are symbiotic campaigns. The initial edifice of the war on drugs was built with similar logic, the same cast of characters, and some of the initial infrastructure that came out of the war on alcohol.”

~ Lisa McGirr

This is the story of Hyman Polski (1885-1939), merchant, husband, and father and resident of Minnesota, USA. Mr. Polski was born Chaim Krasnopolski about 1885, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States around 1905. In 1927, Mr. Polski is sentenced to two years at the Federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, for Conspiracy to Violate the Prohibition Act-- Mr. Polski is a moonshiner who was caught with storage tanks of alcohol and a still operation in a barn in Minnesota. According to the record in the district court:

“...did feloniously have in their possession and under their control a certain still and distilling apparatus set up, used and intended for use in the manufacture of distilled spirits, to-wit, whiskey, which said still and distilling apparatus was not and had not been registered with the Collector of Internal Revenue for the district of Minnesota…”

The Appeal

While Hyman Polski was sentenced on December 30, 1927 he does not begin his sentence until almost two years later. A letter from 1928 in his inmate file shows that a judge granted Polski and his co-defendants more time to appeal their conviction. Polski’s co-defendants include Charles Geller, Harry Skar, Maurice Ruben, Jacob M. Fredgant, Louis B. Wiggins, Charles J. Stock, Lawrence Jenson, William Ledgerding, Henry Lotfog (aka Isaac L. Rabinovitz), Louis Wittles, and Clarence F. Bradfield.

Ultimately, Mr. Polski’s appeal is denied and he is received in Leavenworth Prison on December 29, 1929. Hyman Polski appeals his conviction, but loses. An order from May 1929 directs Polski and his co-defendants to surrender themselves to prison within 30 days. Instead, Mr. Polski et al file a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. The writ asks for an appeal or review of the case that lead to the conviction of Polski and others. On October 21, 1929, the US Supreme Court denies the petition of certiorari and Hyman Polski et al must surrender themselves to the proper authorities to serve their sentences in prison. (This same court case from 1929, Polski v. United States, is sometimes cited in other legal cases due to the nature of Mr. Polski’s arrest.) On January 3, just five days later, Polski sends a worried telegraph to his wife Tillie in St. Paul, Minnesota, concerned that he has not heard back from her. Three days later on January 6, Ms. Polski telegraphs back to say that all is well and that she had sent a letter out just recently.

One interesting historic aspect of Hyman Polski’s file is a memo from J. Edgar Hoover (dated January 24, 1930) addressed to the Superintendent of Prisons at the Department of Justice in Washington DC, with a copy going to Leavenworth, Kansas, that states that Mr. Hyman’s fingerprints reveal that he has no federal record of previous convictions. The translation: Mr. Polski has no prior convictions.

J. Edgar Hoover & the FBI

There is another memo from April 10, 1937 that is personally signed from J. Edgar Hoover at the Federal Bureau of Investigation that shows Mr. Polski’s criminal record and felony registration. Presumably, the detail-oriented J. Edgar Hoover has created a felony registry with Hyman Polski having registered on March 6, 1937.

A sad aspect of imprisonment during the Great Depression is that Mr. Polski’s wife and three children lost their house due to foreclosure. Mr. Louis Hertz writes, “Mr. Polski until convicted and imprisoned had a good reputation, and had never been involved in any trouble before that time.”

With no breadwinner in the household, Mrs. Polski was unable to pay the mortgage. Where did they go? What did they do? Only history knows. Friends of Mr. Polski, a Mr. Hertz and a Mr. Gordon write poignant letters to the parole board on behalf of Mr. Polski and family. There is also a letter in support of Mr. Polski from J. Clair Stone, the president of the Elk Laundry Company in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Polski Released

The good news is that Mr. Polski is released on parole after a little over a year in Leavenworth, Kansas. Presumably, Hyman Polski leads a law-abiding and productive life after prison.

Luckily for Mr. Polski, there is a job waiting for him with the Milton Rosen Tire Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota when he is finally released in December 1930.

It is somewhat sad that Polski only has less than a decade on the outside before he dies in 1939, but his wife Tillie (1889-1989) lives to be 100 years old. They are both buried at the Sons of Jacob Cemetery in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

A book by Lisa McGirr, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (2015), talks about how the penal system in the United States grew and developed during Prohibition at both state and federal levels. This dry, dark time in American history also lead to the rise of organized crime and the Ku Klux Klan. From 1920-1933, the National Prohibition Act made illegal the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Can we call this the War on Alcohol? Yes, we can. Many who tried to illegally provide this demanded product ended up in state or Federal prison. During the years of the Great Depression, it only seems natural that many would try to supplement their income by the illegal manufacturing and distribution of alcohol. Many who were locked up were first time offenders, minorities, or recent immigrants, just like Hyman Polski.

You can read the inmate file of Hyman Polski at the National Archives online catalog here.

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