Deputy OBerlin and the Bootleggers
Adam Wenger Oberlin moved to Miami from Ohio in 1919. He invested in real estate and things went well, that is until 1921.
Adam Oberlin lost his first wife in 1916, an event that affected him deeply, but on June 3, 1921, a marriage license was issued for Adam W. Oberlin, 62 and Ida Marie Keough, 52; new city, new life; new wife.
July 16, 1921 he accepted the position of deputy United States Marshal in charge of the Miami district. He'd just lost an election for county sheriff, but he had a good track record in law enforcement that preceded him. In Canton, Ohio he was known as the man who cleaned up Canton, when he served as sheriff for two term, 1909-1913.
He had a reputation for fearlessness. He worked with an anti-vice squad to wipe out gambling and liquor violations. He closed down saloons including the famous gambling joint known as Meyers Lake. He stopped Sunday race track betting and automobile racing. He eliminated the "red light" district which was considered a menace.
Afterwards he was elected a member of the house and then served a term in the state senate which ended January 1918. Then he came to Miami and worked in real-estate.
Many of the local Miami citizens insisted on his appointment in an effort to enforce Prohibition.
He took his oath of the office on August 1, 1921. He replaced John A. Moritz.
Within a few days he had to return two truckloads of liquor made up of 71 cases of Scotch, Irish gin and Bacardi rum to D. R. Armstrong at his Point View home on SW Second St. which had been confiscated several months before. This was the second time in two weeks that federal prohibition agents had to return liquor to Armstrong per an order from Judge Rhydon M. Call.
Apparently something was up when two days later it was ordered that any seizures of liquor made by federal agents in Miami should be stored in the federal building under the supervision of Adam W. Oberlin instead of the Withers warehouse where they were normally held.
By August 18, Oberlin was making high-profile arrests. John Crosland, president and GM of the J. G. Crosland Company was arrested on the charge of conspiracy to defraud the government and violation of the National Prohibition Act.
The arrest was believed to be an effort to end one of the largest single liquor activities being conducted in the United States, and that Crosland was one of the ring leaders.
Described as an Atlantic City millionaire, Crosland, denied any connection to the recent seizure of a "booze-laden schooner" from Atlantic City on August 2, which was under British registry. Inside were 1400 cases of liquor.
Strangely enough a co-conspirator was H. Holden who operated a beauty parlor in Miami.
In the following days warrants were served on smaller bootleggers working off the Florida coast.
In the beginning of September, Oberlin was laid low, not by criminals but by dengue fever.
The raids against bootleggers didn't stop though. A 50-gallon moonshine still was destroyed in a wooded area near DeBerry's sawmill eight miles west of Larkin. A copper outfit with fire still burning under the boiler was discovered with two barrels of mash nearby, about 150 gallons of beer and a can of potash. No arrests were made since the moonshiners left before they could be caught.
In November, James A. Allison a wealthy winter resident of Miami Beach and president of the Miami Aquarium Corporation was arrested by Deputy US Marshall Adam Oberlin on a charge of violation of the national prohibition act. He was placed under a $300 bond. Mr. Allison had been indicted in May by a grand jury for alleged ownership of 200 cases of intoxicating liquors seized at an apartment adjoining the Miami Aquarium which Mr. Allison occupied personally.
By the end of November, 1921, Adam Oberlin had not been seen for a week. Strangely the proprietor of Melrose Dairy, Mr. Joachim Fritz presented notes amounting to approximately $10K that he claimed Oberlin owed him for land deals.
Oberlin's automobile had been found a few days earlier on the Tamiami Trail, 12 miles west of Miami. According to statements made by Mr. Fritz, Mr. Oberlin had paid in cash for the deals in which they were associated. He had been pressing Oberlin for some time for a payment of $500 he had given him for the purchase of his vehicle. These stories later turned out not to be accurate for in truth Oberlin was in the black from his real estate deals.
Oberlin was last seen leaving his home a week before with intention of getting a shave and then visiting his attorney E. B. Kurtz. He never made it to the barber shop. A few days later authorities dragged a canal on the Tamiami Trail at a point opposite of where the auto was found.
A fisherman who reported finding the car said at that time that the car was driven to the point where it was found, by a man who got out of the "machine and walked due west into the Everglades." After he made this statement to the local sheriff, the federal authorities were trying to find him to verify what he had seen.
W. J. Keough, Oberlin's stepson said he doubted this was a case of suicide, and there were no warrants pending that would have taken him out on the trail.
A story was told that Mr. Oberlin disappeared from his former home in Canton, Ohio during the world war following the death of his first wife in 1916. He was a afterwards found working as a carpenter in a shipyard at Norfolk, Virginia under an assumed name.
While the search was being conducted for Oberlin, it appears that Crosland was making plans to leave for Bimini aboard one of his fishing vessels. Dr. Holden and the crew of the Henry L. Marshall were apprehended and arraigned in court in Trenton, NJ.
Mr. Allison had a summer home in Indianapolis and would come down to Miami on his yacht Sea Horse.
On November 25, the sheriff's forces gave up the search for Oberlin in the belief that he had suffered a lapse of memory and was still alive. W. J. Keough his stepson was sworn in as acting deputy marshal.
On December 3, an anonymous source offered a $5000 reward for any information in regard to the death of Adam W. Oberlin (if murdered). The ad printed in the local newspapers and specified, "we will guarantee protection to any information and his name will not be used in any way."
Perhaps all the rumors that Oberlin had committed suicide or had a mental lapse and headed back to Ohio where his 5 children lived seemed more improbable.
Days later the federal authorities were perplexed over the identity of who made the offer for the $5K reward. The ad had been signed only with the initials A. W. O. and the address given was 232 Republic Building. It seemed the existence of the offer only came to their attention after a reporter for the Metropolis called the Department of Justice.
The address specified belonged to the office of H. Paul Prague who owned a for-rent post office lock box at the Republic Building. He told police that the week before a man whose name he was not at liberty to give out, owing to the privacy with which he operated his service, secured a box and the mail, and that it should be handled under the initials of A. W. O.
Deputy Keogh denied his mother had made any such offer, and in fact she had been hospitalized due to the grief of her husband’s disappearance when she suffered a nervous breakdown.
The ad for the reward was reprinted on December 5, 1921.
On December 8, L. W. Shaw a resident of Georgia filed suit for $10K in damages against Deputy Oberlin and his former real estate partner, Joachim Fritz.
On December 28, 1921 Seminole guides and Everglade hunters searching for Oberlin found his body three miles from where he left his automobile. Between the legs of the decayed corpse which was only a skeleton, a revolver was found which Oberlin carried as a government official. His hat, coat and other belongings tied up in a handkerchief were found hanging on the branches of a nearby bush. He had a number of letters and telegrams addressed to him in his coat pocket, but there was no suicide note.
Buzzards and wild animals had been at the body. Authorities said that Oberlin had been careful to conceal his tracks, and if not for the expertise of the trackers in the party he would not have been discovered. The body was found on a small island, a clump of bushes rising above the level of the marshes. One had to traverse a ridge of myrtle bushes over a mile in length. It was about 18 miles from Miami.
It was believed the worries over financial matters caused him to commit suicide. This was despite the claims of his family that he appeared always in good spirits.
However this theory was turned on its head when no bullet hole could be found in the skull, though two cartridges had been discharged. A triangular-shaped fracture at the top of the skull which was at least was at least 2.5 or 3 inches in width was found. Some of the members of the coroner's jury thought it had been made by some blunt instrument.
The skull hung by a thread of dried flesh to the body which was lying on its back, sprawled out, with the trousers and shirt in shreds from exposure to the elements.
The guides who found the body testified that only one set of tracks could be found to where the corpse was discovered. It was on the strength of their statement that the theory was upheld that Oberlin took his own life. Supposedly the trail leading to the body was found after someone in the search party shot at a wildcat and chased after it, that's when they crossed over the faint trail left by Oberlin over a month before.
Once they found the hammock where the trail led, the Indians refused to enter owing to a certain superstition concerning dead bodies.
The autopsy found that Oberlin had shot himself through the mouth or eye, and the bullet fractured the skull, where it was later found deeply embedded in the skull.
His stepson reiterated that he never showed an indication that he was suicidal and that his finances were not in a tangled condition. "His assets were greater than his liabilities, and he could easily obtain loans necessary to conduct his business."
Authorities claimed the land was flooded up to a short time before, which was the reason the searchers had not found the trail before as they searched that section right after Oberlin's disappearance. The exhaustion of county funds available for the search was stopped until the return of Leon Howe, special agent of the department of justice who immediately renewed the search.
On December 31 the coroner's jury decided that Oberlin's death was caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
A year later despite the decision of the coroner’s jury there were persistent rumors that Oberlin had been murdered by men engaged in "illicit traffic in liquor and that he had been lured to the spot where his body was found."
Mrs. Oberlin refused to believe her husband a suicide, and after the body was sent to his former home in Ohio had it examined by physicians who were reported to have declared that it indicated he had been struck on the head by a blunt instrument.
Two years to the month after Oberlin's body was discovered, John G. Crosland was convicted in Trenton, New Jersey on a charge of conspiracy to violate the Federal Prohibition Act. Eventually he was sentenced to only 2 years in prison and a $10K fine.
Ida Oberlin died in 1932.
And the questions beg to be asked, did Adam Oberlin commit suicide just months after marrying and securing a job as a US Marshal, or did he cross powerful men engaged in bootlegging, who were aware of his reputation in Ohio and that he intended to do the job he had been hired to do?
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Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer