By Phil “Bunk” Griffin for Historic Saranac Lake
Following his brush with death (as recounted in last week’s article) Pete Tanzini appeared to have settled down. He married his second wife Gussy, and they settled into their new home at the end of Olive Street.
A couple of years later, however, Pete became the proud owner of a giant Wildcat still. This was said to be the biggest illegal still in New York State, originally costing $45,000. The still was previously owned by a Brooklyn bootleg gang, who had bought it piecemeal, assembled it and produced hundreds of gallons of booze a week. Eventually, the gang was snagged. The government confiscated the still, cut it into apparently useless scrap metal, and sold it to a junkyard.
A Rochester gang, operating as junk dealers, bought the "useless" scrap metal piece by piece with the intention of reconstructing it. Not wanting to provoke the Brooklyn gang, they sold the device to Pete for $7,000. It was quietly shipped to Saranac Lake and reassembled in a secret chamber that Pete had built into the cellar of his home on Olive Street.
The Brooklyn gang was run by Jack Moran, better known as Legs Diamond. Jack's brother, Eddie Moran, was curing in Saranac Lake, and Jack often came to visit him. Jack wanted to control distribution in the North Country, and he put the pressure on Pete. He said he would allow Pete to sell his goods in Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Lyon Mountain, and other small outlets in the area. He was, however, warned not to do business in Lake Placid, Elizabethtown, Port Henry, and localities to the south. On at least one occasion, Pete had been seen by the Diamond gang in a taboo area.
Legs Diamond continued his threats toward Pete and began spreading lies that Pete's whiskey was watered down. A lesser man would have thrown in the towel at this point, but Pete, although just five feet tall, wasn't a man who could be pushed around. Pete set up a meeting with Legs at the Aratoga Inn, in Cairo New York, 25 miles south of Albany, to settle this problem. This was one of Legs' favorite hangouts. At the meeting, Pete verbally and physically put Legs down, a very dangerous move. Legs Diamond was later attacked by Dutch Schultz and his gunmen at the Aratoga Inn but was only wounded. Two innocent bystanders were killed in that attack.
On Wednesday, December 17, 1930, at 5:00 PM, Pete told his wife Gussy that he had a business meeting in town and left the house. He told her that he would stop at the store on his way home and pick up groceries. He went directly to the Club Restaurant on Main Street, Saranac Lake, and met with the owner, Al Chapple, and Jimmy Carolina, a local businessman, concerning a store they were planning on building in town.
The Club Restaurant was busy with its 5:00 o'clock dinner crowd, so Pete and Jimmy left the restaurant saying that they would return at 8:00 PM Pete was seen shortly after coming out of a grocery store carrying a package. He got into his dark green Buick bearing 1930 license plates numbered 9P-55-32 and drove away. A Saranac Lake salesman reported seeing Pete a short time later near Work's Corners, now better known as Donnelly's Corners. The man said that Pete was driving his Buick and was accompanied by two men who he didn't recognize. That was the last known sighting of Peter Tanzini.
On February 17, 1931, exactly two months after Pete's disappearance, Norman Demo was doing some work around the Tanzini house on Olive Street. He recalled at 1:45 PM hearing the phone ring and Gussy answering. He said he couldn't hear the conversation. Norman testified that he heard the doorbell a few minutes later and that Gussy went to the door. Another telephone call came just a few minutes later, Demo stated.
Just before 2:00 PM, Norman said he heard a shot and ran upstairs to investigate. According to Demo, Gussy was on the floor and a .22 caliber pistol was lying nearby. She had a bullet wound in her right temple. Police traced the phone calls to a local pay phone but had no clue as to who made them. Mrs. Tanzini, 29, had just recently made out her will with Justice Harold Main of Malone, who appeared at the house just moments later. Norman Demo and a cohort named Sonny Foster, took a one-way trip to Alaska shortly after the death of Gussy. Rumor had it that each had $5,000 in his possession.
Later, a search was made of the house, and the secret chamber in the cellar was discovered. Police also found two secret rooms in the attic containing thousands of counterfeit Canadian liquor labels and seals. The still was once more cut up and stored in Malone. An associated bottling plant on Keene Street was also raided at that time.
On December 18, 1931, almost exactly one year after Pete's mysterious disappearance, Legs Diamond was rubbed out by Dutch Schultz's gang at his hideout on Dove Street in Albany.
According to an article in the Lake Placid News of February 25, 1944, the Tanzini home was involved in a fire but was not badly damaged. Pete's beautiful stonework and the entrance to the once hidden room can still be seen behind the house on the end of Olive Street. Although no song was written about Pete and no street bears his name, this stonework still stands as a haunting memorial of the tragic tale of the "Will O' The Wisp" and Gussy.
-Pete Tanzini trimming the hedge at his home on Olive Street. Courtesy of Bunk Griffin.
-Augusta "Gussy" Menzel Tanzini, Courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake.
-Shirley Tanzini, daughter of Pete and Gussy Tanzini, demonstrates a hidden door built by Pete at William Morris' Camp Intermission. Courtesy of Bunk Griffin.
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