Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Prohibition was a boon for Tacoma character Sabatino "Sam" Spadoni

When I first signed up for a two-week trial subscription to in the spring of 2009, I spent many hours taking notes on Spadonis from Ponte Buggianese who had come to America around the turn of the century. One entry I found for Samuel Spadoni in the 1930 Tacoma census baffled me, though, and I eventually gave up and filed it under impossible to solve mysteries. In the past month, however, while looking for something else, I stumbled across the answer to the enigmatic Samuel.

I first noted Samuel Spadoni listed in the 1930 census as residing in the Pierce County Jail. I had been aware of a Guido Spadoni living in Tacoma at that time, but I had never heard of Sam, nor could I find any Samuel, Sam or Samuele Spadoni coming through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. I couldn’t find a World War 1 draft card with that name, nor any Sam Spadoni in the 1920 census. He just seemed to appear in Tacoma, get arrested and then disappear.

To add to the puzzle, I also found a Victoria Spadoni in the 1930 census, age 10, living as a boarder with a Tacoma family, William and Amalia Benigni, but I never found another reference to her in the Ancestry database either. It appeared likely that she was Samuel’s daughter, being watched over by friends of the family, but I had no other evidence to corroborate this or tell me what became of her.

Skipping ahead three years, I recently decided to find out more about other Spadonis who lived in Tacoma. Perhaps now I’ve just become a better researcher, or perhaps Ancestry has added more Tacoma information to its database, but this time I found plenty of Tacoma entries about a Sabatino Spadoni, who was a brother to Guido. The key breakthrough came when I gradually realized that Sam and Sabatino were the same person. Italians routinely Americanized their names, and since there is no American equivalent to Sabatino, he had to get creative and pick something that at least started with the same two letters.

Once I made this connection, the facts started pouring forth. Here is a brief summary. Sabatino came to the United States in 1910 at age 16. He had cousins in Chicago and his brother Guido in Tacoma. He shows up in the Tacoma directory in 1915, though I suspect he arrived here earlier. In his World War I draft card, he was living in Seattle, just a block away from the house of Michele “Michael” Spadoni, and both were working at the same steel mill, strong evidence that the two knew they were cousins. Sam was inducted into the army in October of 1917 and received an honorable discharge in January of 1919.

In October of same year, Sam married 14-year-old Maria Morini in Bellingham, and the couple was back in Tacoma by 1920. Around that time, Maria gave birth to Vittoria, whose name was Americanized to Victoria. In 1926, Sam filed for divorce from Maria, who by then was known as Mary. The legal filing says that both wanted out of the marriage and that Mary had already left Sam. He asked for and was granted custody of Victoria, but he landed in jail in 1930 and Victoria had to lodge with another family.

At this point, my research may have come to a dead end had I not stumbled across a marriage record that eluded me previously. In Yakima, Washington, Victoria married Donald Felts in 1936, when she was 16 and Donald 20. Now she had a new last name, and knowing that gave me a better chance to find out what happened to her. Also, within the last year, name data from the 1940 census has been released, and much of it is now in the Ancestry files.

Armed with new information, I found Donald and Victoria living between Fife and Federal Way, King County, in 1940. Further, I found that they had a 2-year-old son, also named Donald, in their home. If he was born in 1938, he might still be alive and living in Washington, so I set to work tracking him down. It looked like he moved around a bit, but it seemed like the most recent address was in Olympia. I gave the number a try, and bingo, there he was on the other end of the phone line.

Sabatino looks like a real sweet guy and a loving
father to Victoria in this photo sent to me by
his grandson, Donald Felts.
I asked if his grandfather was Sabatino Spadoni, and he said no, it was Sam, but then he remembered that Sam was not his actual name, and his real name could have been Sabatino. His mother had been Victoria, so I knew I had the right person.

Victoria was a very beautiful lady who was mistaken for my sister many times,” Donald said. “Her hair was so black that many thought she dyed it, but she never did.  She was happy and laughed a lot but was somewhat mistrustful of people, probably because her mother walked away from her on a street corner near their home in Tacoma to go to Alaska.”

Mary, Victoria's mother, later married James Hansen and ran the Black Rapids Lodge in Alaska. Donald sent me a copy of a postcard from the lodge which shows Mary with her team of huskies. He said he only saw his grandmother twice.

Mary Morini Hansen in Alaska. James Hansen was her
third husband. Between her marriage to Sabatino and James,
she was married to Eugene Morris.
Donald told me that he spent the early years of his childhood in Spring Valley, a neighborhood between Federal Way and Fife, and that his grandfather Sam lived about a half mile away. He said the relationship between Sam and Victoria was cordial, but they were more like neighbors than father and daughter. This is probably because Victoria, according to Donald, “boarded with several Italian families while growing up.”

“My take on Sam and Victoria’s relationship is that she lived apart from him during her growing up years, so she was not as close as she might have been if living with him,” Donald said. “Also, she and my father did not approve of his life style of gambling and staying out late.”

He remembers his grandfather as a serious man whom he rarely saw smiling or laughing.  “I recall him always dressed in a suit, tie, overcoat, and fedora,” Donald said. When Sam’s wife left, she remarried and moved to Alaska. Mary became an Alaska pioneer and is mentioned in some historical accounts, Donald said, adding that he has seen her pictured with her dog sled team.

Sam’s life underwent major changes during the 12 months of late 1919 and early 1920. He had been discharged from the army, married and had a child, but of equal impact was the official start of Prohibition on Jan. 16, 1920. He most likely used his connections in the Italian community to obtain and sell alcohol, and he quickly found it highly profitable. Donald said that Sam ran at least one very successful speakeasy in Tacoma during the 1920s, and it was frequented by the mayor and many police officers. Donald recalled that Sam once bragged he could buy out any of the wealthy families in Spring Valley and that he always carried large wads of cash in his pockets.

“Mom and I rode into Tacoma with him occasionally, and policemen greeted him like he was their friend,” Donald said. “Sometimes they’d pull him over and say, ‘You have any money for me, Sam?’ And he’d pull out a roll of bills and hand over $20 or so. There was no expectation of him getting repaid.”

Not only did Sam profit from selling alcohol but he also ran gambling operations in the back of his businesses. Donald inherited seven one-armed bandits from Sam, and now he regrets very much that he gave them away over the years without realizing their historical value.

From the Tacoma Daily Ledger,
September 1932
Apparently, Sam didn’t have all the policemen in his pockets, though. A 1932 newspaper clipping describes a police raid in a back room of one of Sam’s businesses. Apparently this happened fairly regularly, because the article quotes police officers as saying Sam was “a fool for punishment,” since he had already had “several previous liquor violation convictions on records against him.” The article also says Sam may be charged with being a “jointist,” and I had to look that up. Wiktionary says it is an “operator of an illegal drinking place or joint,” but it also says the word became obsolete in 1933, the year which marked the end of Prohibition.

Donald remembers Sam as owning several restaurants in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Toscano Cafe. City records also show he operated The New Lido and that he owned Sam’s Parking Garage.

The finish of Prohibition didn’t end Sam’s battles with the law, though, as he continued to cross the line of legality by cheating on his taxes. Donald recalls that after his mom was married,  “Sam went to prison for tax evasion twice in the late 30s or early 40s.”

His niece, Ida (Spadoni) Holts, thinks that after being released from one of his stays in prison, his friends from Tacoma were avoiding him and he wanted to get away to make a fresh start. He moved to Eureka, California, in the mid-1950s, and he worked as a restaurant cook until his death there in 1958.

Donald has positive memories of Sam as well. “Sam was always cooking something, with a big pot on the stove,” he said, “and being used to cooking for crowds, he always made too much, which he sent our way.  I still remember those wonderful dishes, including head cheese and smoked tongue that I might not be able to keep down now. Even though Victoria did not cook Italian often, I gained my love of Italian cuisine from Sam.”

Victoria Spadoni at age 14.
And despite Sam’s tendency to stray from the law, Victoria grew up to lead an upstanding life. Her husband was a carpenter and they operated a family farm. Donald graduated from college with a degree in pharmacy. He worked for a small pharmacy in Seattle and retired from Group Health in 2000 after 33 years.

“She was a stay-at-home mother,” Donald said, “but she did work occasionally to supplement the family budget.  She worked several Christmas seasons at Rhodes department store in Tacoma, worked for several years during the fall canning season at the Hunts cannery in Puyallup, and did housework for several of those well-to-do families in Spring Valley for a few years.

“She milked our cow for years. When my father was drafted into WW II, my mother was stuck caring for 1,500 laying chickens with me as helper until she could dispose of them. She was very financially conservative and never purchased anything she couldn’t pay cash for and didn’t have a checking account or credit card until late in life. After my father’s death in 1983, she did a lot of volunteer work at the Sumner Senior Center. She died of ovarian cancer at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup on Jan. 2, 1996. She was my biggest cheerleader and probably responsible for me getting a college education.”

1 comment:

  1. I just read in Andy Anderson's book "In the Shadow of the Mountain" that Washington state adopted prohibition in January 1916, three years before Prohibition began on a national basis. I'll have to modify that part of my story about Sam one of these days . . .


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