Reading's Max Hassel made illegal booze and made a fortune during Prohibition
His legacy includes two art deco toilets from his Hampden Heights mansion.
Mike Lauter gets some interesting items at the Centre Park Historic District's Artifacts Bank, a repository of mantels, railings and ironwork salvaged from mansions built during Reading's Golden Age.
But nothing quite equals the pair of unique items that came in about two years ago — art deco toilets from Prohibition era bootlegger Max Hassel's house in Hampden Heights.
"I guess you'd say they're about the most unusual items we ever received," said Lauter, the district's executive director.
The light green and salmon colored toilets, featuring low slung kidney-shaped water jackets, are date stamped March and June 1933. The maker's mark is simply "TN."
In homes of stature, colored bathrooms were in fashion during the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1929, the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased an "Exhibition of a modern bath and dressing room"— deco-inspired onyx, pink, and sable suite designs.
"Color has come to the bathroom in its fullest glory and appealing charm and is steadily growing in popularity," heralded the 1929 Home Builders Catalog.
Ned Selwyn, owner of the "beer baron's" mansion, found the toilets in the attic. Intrigued by their period style, he donated them to the Artifacts Bank.
"The guy had a lot of money," he said. "The toilets were cutting edge at the time."
Newsboy to millionaire
Born Mandel Gassel in Russia, he was 11 years old when he arrived in the U.S. around 1911.
Elias and Sarah Hassel brought over young Mandel and his brothers. It's not known exactly when, but young Mandel adopted the surname Max Hassel.
He got his education in Reading's streets and was working as a newsboy, cigar maker and department store clerk when America went dry in January 1920 — 100 years ago next month.
In the ensuing 13 years, Hassel would rise to prominence as a “beer baron,” making bootleg booze in several Reading breweries during Prohibition.
Hassel would own extensive real estate holdings, secure an interest in the Berkshire Hotel, maintain a lavish apartment in Philadelphia's Ritz-Carlton Hotel and build a country estate with a swimming pool and a sand beach where he entertained friends and associates near Morgantown.
His meteoric rise, which a Reading Eagle columnist compared to the flight of a rocket, came to a sudden halt in the same year the 21st Amendment put an end to Prohibition.
On April 12, 1933, Hassel was executed gangland style in a lavish apartment he kept in the Carteret Hotel in Elizabeth, N.J. The case has never been solved.
Hassel apparently never lived in the Hampden Heights house. He was killed before construction was complete.
Long forgotten by most, that era of gangsters, flappers and speak-easies known as the Roaring '20s survives mainly in movies, novels and history books.
Max Hassel's memory is confined mainly to Ed Taggert's “Bootlegger: Max Hassel, Millionaire Newsboy” and newspaper clippings in the Reading Eagle morgue.
The beer king
The Reading Eagle and Reading Times frequently wrote about the "beer king," whose influence in the rackets spread well beyond Reading.
A Philadelphia grand jury investigating corruption tagged Hassel as a "higher up" in the illegal booze racket. He managed, however, to elude investigation.
In an income tax delinquency case, federal agents testified Hassel made $2.4 million between 1920 and 1925, an estimated $1 million of it in one of those years, the Associated Press reported.
Hassel had financial interests in the Fisher, Reading and Lauer's breweries in Reading. The Hyde Park Development Co. was another of his business interests.
He maintained suites in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, and had an interest in the Berkshire Hotel at Fifth and Washington in Reading.
In classic gangster style, he threw weekend parties for friends and associates at a country estate near Morgantown.
Although he was arrested for bribery, violation of Prohibition laws and income tax evasion, he was never convicted.
After paying federal agents $1,200 for two carloads of beer, a Philadelphia court found that Hassel had been "framed." State troopers on the payroll to provide advance tips of raids got caught, but Hassel evaded a charge.
Hassel was part of a group of wealthy Reading residents who played poker in the mansion of entrepreneur William Bitting in the 1700 block of Hampden Boulevard. Murals on the wall depict Bitting, Hassel and other players in 17th century French outfits.
David Leeland, who lives in the Bitting mansion, said there were silver dollar slot machines in the backyard during Prohibition.
"Reading was wide open," he said. "Top city officials were playing poker with Max Hassel and William Bitting."
A man of contradiction and mystery
"Shrewd, kind-hearted, unassuming, easy-going, careful and yet dictatorial," a Reading Eagle columnist wrote. "Mix them all together and you have Max Hassel."
The Reading Times compared his public life to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
On the surface, he was a respectable businessman, owner of large real estate holdings in Reading and elsewhere and a man deeply interested in charitable works.
A series of prosecutions and underground rumors had it that Hassel raked in huge profits from the beer racket during Prohibition.
By all accounts, he abhorred gun play, and is never known to have carried a pistol.
Around 1926, the federal government began to hassle Hassel. He was arrested three times on bribery, income tax evasion and violating Prohibition laws, but was never convicted.
In 1924, he began efforts to become a naturalized citizen. Henry L. Mulle of Philadelphia, naturalization examiner, opposed his efforts, saying "his hands were not clean."
Nine prominent Reading citizens appeared as character witnesses for Hassel, saying his business and charitable works made him worthy of citizenship.
He never was awarded citizenship. On May 24, 1933, about six weeks after his death, Mulle quietly dismissed Hassel's petition for citizenship.
Died gangland style
Max Hassel lived fast, and died young.
He was only 33 years old when a hitman broke into his suite in the Carteret Hotel and shot Hassel and an associate, Joseph Greenberg.
"Found with two bullets in his head," the Reading Times headline screamed. "No trace of killers found."
Thousands lined Reading's streets as the cortege passed on April 14, 1933. Rites for Hassel were performed in Kesher Zion synagogue. Thirty Reading policemen, plus plainclothes detectives and a motorcycle unit were required to manage the crowd.
"Under the warm rays of a westering sun, on a hilltop where forsythia bloomed, they buried Max Hassel," the Reading Times reported.
He's buried in a cemetery in the Morgantown area.
Contact Ron Devlin: 610-371-5030 or email@example.com.
If you go
What: Artifacts Bank pre-Christmas 50% off sale
When: Dec. 14 and 15, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Dec. 16, 2 to 6 p.m.
Where: 707 N. Fifth St., Reading.
Stock: Large selection of salvaged items from historic properties in Reading, including mantels, newel posts, columns, molding, ironwork, glass, tile and marble.