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75 years ago: Murder and moonshine in West Palm Beach

By Eliot Kleinberg
The Palm Beach Post, January 16, 2005, Page 1D


Liza Moncure became a widow on Jan. 18, 1930, when her husband, Prohibition federal agent Bob Moncure, was shot to death at a bootlegger’s house on Dixie Highway. This is what happened on that fateful day, and what happened to Liza. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

The roadster lurched to the corner of Dixie and Belvedere. It was a Saturday evening, and the streets were mostly empty.

Bob Moncure, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound bull, opened the driver’s door. Frank Patterson stretched a foot to the gravel and slid out the passenger side. He smoothed his suit.

Two more federal agents got out. The four walked toward 2403 S. Dixie Highway.

Moncure’s piece was in its holster on his hip. He had only one thing in his hand: a search warrant.

Moncure knew the real estate. Three times already the Prohibition agent and his colleagues had raided George Moore’s haunts, and one time they’d nabbed 180 cases of hooch right at this home. But the bootlegger had beaten the rap. This time, though, a snitch had tipped the feds that Moore had sold him 13 quarts of whiskey. That was enough for a Prohibition commissioner to order a search.

But Moore also had warned the feds about what might happen if they came to his house.

Moncure and Patterson didn’t speak. Moncure motioned Patterson and W.M. McNulty to the back door. He went toward the front with James Kugler.

It was 5:56 p.m. Jan. 18, 1930.

Moncure stood on the porch in front of a wire screen door and rang the bell. Soon George Moore stood on the other side of the screen. The agent held out the document.

“Moore, I have a federal search warrant for your home. Open the door and let us search.”

“Nope.”

Moore turned, threw open the wooden front door to the home, and slammed it behind him. The door had a glass pane at about eye level.

Moncure wrestled with the screen door and jerked it open. He took several brisk steps to the front door.

The door shattered in a spray of wood just below the glass pane. Moncure’s face seemed to explode and he flew back.

Patterson heard the blast. He pushed through the back door and into the house.

Up front, George Moore stood just inside the tattered front door. Haze hung around his head and in the hallway behind him, along with the smell of gunpowder and hot metal and gore.

“Look out, George! He’s going to shoot you!” It was Merna Moore.

Her husband wheeled. He saw part of the profile of Patterson, standing in his kitchen, a hand reaching for a sidearm. Moore swung the shotgun up and fired through a kitchen cabinet. Patterson went down. Around the cabinet, Moore could see part of Patterson’s body and his eyes and hear him groan.

Out back, McNulty heard the second blast. He looked through the open door and stared at a shotgun pointing at him.

Merna fainted. Her young daughter Olive began pulling her up the stairs, bumping her limp body at each step. Moore raced over and helped Olive half-carry, half-drag Merna to the second floor.

Moore heard the dim but growing whine of a police siren. Then he heard the squeal of brakes on tires.

It was 6:17 p.m.

A Ferguson ambulance was out front. Behind it was another West Palm Beach police car. Police Chief Frank Matthews stepped across Bob Moncure’s body. He looked down and saw the warrant lying in the man’s blood. Then he saw the door, its wood splintered and a giant hole in the middle, just below a glass pane.

He stepped inside.

“George Moore,” he called.

“Come upstairs, chief,” he heard.

Matthews walked slowly up the stairs. With each step, more of Moore came into his view. The man was holding the shotgun, muzzle away from Matthews.

“Give me the gun, George,” the chief said.

“Nope,” Moore said.

“C’mon, George.”

“Chief, people I didn’t know were breaking into my home. I was defendin’ it.”

Downstairs, a detective knelt next to Patterson. The agent was half-sitting, half-leaning. He was unconscious. A .45-caliber pistol was next to his body.

“He’s still alive,” the detective shouted.

Ambulance workers rushed to him and raced him toward Good Samaritan Hospital. The ambulance passed another car that pulled to the front of Moore’s house. Out stepped Sheriff Bob Baker.

“I’m in here,” Chief Matthews shouted. “Stay out there, sheriff.”

Baker waited. And waited.

After 20 minutes, Matthews came out the back door with Moore. He led the man toward a patrol car. A patrolman held the top of Moore’s head and leaned him inside. The door slammed. The car made a U-turn and made its way north toward downtown.

Matthews turned to the sheriff.

“What a mess. I knew it would come to this. I knew it!”

He sighed.

“Who’s gonna tell Liza?”

Seventy-five years ago this week, Jan. 18, 1930, two federal Prohibition agents died in an explosion of rage, described above as it happened, with some educated guesses about dialogue and minor details.

The home where the shooting took place is now a Hoffman’s Chocolates shop.

Think of Prohibition and you think of romantic images of flashy gangsters and gallant lawmen. But the battle was real and it had real victims. Bob Moncure, Frank Patterson, George Moore, Frank Matthews and Bob Baker were real people.

This is what happened to Bob Moncure’s family after that fateful showdown on Dixie Highway.

Prohibition, that noble experiment, might have been the law of the land from 1920 to 1933, but it was shamelessly ignored in the boom towns of South Florida.

Here was a thirsty tourist trade, local officials vulnerable to corruption, miles of open beaches and coves, a vast Everglades to hide stills and a smuggling pipeline from nearby islands.

All Prohibition did was turn South Florida’s lucrative alcohol business over to criminals. Mobsters oversaw stills, smuggling and distribution to hotels and speak-easies and ran many establishments themselves.

Rum-running became routine. A case of liquor was $18 in the Bahamas, double that on the street, or behind closed doors, in South Florida. It was as much as $100 up north. Boats would shuttle the liquor from Nassau to West End and Bimini, less than 60 miles from Florida. Contraband then was packed in “hams,” six bottles to a burlap sack, padded with paper and straw. Boats sped the hooch to the mainland.

In West Palm Beach’s Northwood Hills neighborhood, one “castle” home had a view of the water and the smuggling boats, and others had specially built basements to hide booze. Private dining rooms were built at The Breakers so tourists could drink discreetly. At the Royal Poinciana Hotel, imbibers sneaked to the bar by walking down “Hypocrite’s Row.”

In 1927, the U.S. Treasury Department created the Bureau of Prohibition Agents.

Not surprisingly, many agents were assigned to South Florida. One was Bob Moncure.

Born in Fredericksburg, Va., a sailor and merchant marine in the Great War, he had been a truck farmer in Florida. He spent a total of three years with the agency, including a year’s apprenticeship in Washington. He officially became a “Dry Man” in March 1929. He had lived in Jupiter and now lived in Lake Worth. He also owned the Washington Inn, at Lucerne and K Street. His father was a judge in Alexandria, Va., and was a close friend of James H. Doran, the federal commissioner of Prohibition enforcement.

Moncure was 43. He had a teenage boy, Robert Knox Moncure Jr., nicknamed Knox.

He knew Dry Men were not popular. They were the “jackbooted thugs” of their time, enforcing a law that many people despised. And in this upside-down time, rumrunners and bootleggers were glorified for getting around the law and getting the people what they wanted.

Bob Moncure knew that peril could come unexpectedly. Around 1927, a cousin, Prohibition agent Charles Rouse, had been killed during a raid in Baltimore. And once, during a raid at an illegal still, Bob had been severely scalded on the leg when he had fallen into a vat of steaming mash.

Frank Patterson became an agent in April 1928 and came to South Florida from Atlanta around the same time as Moncure. He had a wife and four children. They lived on Avenida Allegre, about a mile from where Patterson would die.

George W. Moore had come from Jacksonville to Palm Beach County around 1925. He now lived at the home near Dixie and Belvedere with his wife, Merna, 35, and four daughters: Alilia, 16, Olive, 14, Merna, 12, and Margaret, 5.

Moore supplied the illicit alcohol for the Boca Raton Resort and Club and selected establishments in Palm Beach. Born around 1891, he hadn’t touched the stuff himself until he was 32. That was around 1923, soon after Prohibition began.

Moncure’s grandson, Bob Moncure III, is an insurance agent in Boca Raton. He tells a family story, unconfirmed, that Moore tried to bribe Moncure with a new Packard if he would be sure he was in Boca Raton on a day when Moore would be coming into Jupiter Inlet. But he reportedly said, ”Mr. Moore, if I took your automobile, I never would have been able to drive it without looking in the rear-view mirror.’”

In the middle of January 1930, a snitch named Burton Arnold let the feds know he had bought 13 quarts of whiskey from Moore. They took his story to U.S. Commissioner Robert L. Earnest. Earnest signed the search warrant.

On Saturday, Jan. 18, the agents headed toward Moore’s home. The night before, Bob and Liza Moncure had celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary.

Pat J. Lytal was 4 years old. He was standing on his porch. Outside, he saw a car in front.

“I heard them shooting back and forth,” Lytal, a longtime auto broker and a nephew of former Palm Beach County Commissioner Lake Lytal, recently recalled. “There were guys scrambling around. There were a couple of guys behind the car. My grandmother grabbed me and pulled me inside.”

The page for Jan. 18, 1930, in the West Palm Beach blotter shows that Ferguson Ambulance was called at 6:17 p.m. to respond to a report of federal officers down. Chief Matthews was notified at his home a half minute later.

A police captain named Williams raced to the home and found Moncure dead. Patterson died on the table at Good Samaritan. Dr. L.A. Peck examined the bodies of the two men.

The next day, Liza Moncure opened her door for a reporter from The New York Times.

“My boy has lost a kind, wise, indulgent father, (and) his country has lost a conscientious, courageous and tireless fighter in the greatest war of all time,” she declared. “My mother has lost a son, tender, affectionate and generous. I have lost . . . ”

She paused.

“Oh, what have I not lost? A protector. A pal for the past 17 years.”

Then she said, “Yet, if the eyes of this so blind country could be opened, if the dry-voting, wet-living congressmen could be made to realize the conditions as they are, if the corrupt judges who encourage these men by taking advantage of every technicality available to release them could be impeached, I would face my broken home and my joyless future with calm resignation and feel my ruined life a small price to pay.”

Supervisors from Washington, Jacksonville and Savannah raced to South Florida.

“I brought Moncure into the Prohibition service several years ago,” Prohibition chief James Doran said. “He was a fine, clean chap and an efficient, honest officer.”

Moore’s lawyers were talking, too.

Moore’s lawyer, E.M. Baynes, said agents “broke into the house” and “some of the officers shouted, ‘Shoot him.’ Moore fired in self-defense.”

He said Moore had no knowledge that the officers had a search warrant.

Robert Tuttle, administrator for the Prohibition agency district headquartered in Savannah, was not moved.

“There can be no doubt that Moore well knew Agent Moncure when he visited his home on Saturday evening armed with a legal search warrant for execution on Moore’s premises.”

On Tuesday, Jan. 21, at the Ferguson chapel, a double funeral took place at 5 p.m., as the day’s last light was starting to fade.

Liza Moncure took her son and her husband’s body to Washington, the Moncure family’s home. He was eventually buried at Arlington National Cemetery: Section 17, Grave 21561.

Patterson’s widow took him and their four small children to Tampa.

On Wednesday, the 22nd, a coroner’s jury was empaneled in West Palm Beach.

A worker at a service station across the street and about 100 feet to the south testified he heard shouts after the first shot. The second shot was about 15 seconds later, he said. One man told the coroner’s jury he was in a drugstore several weeks earlier at which Moore threatened Prohibition agents if they didn’t stay away from his place.

“This isn’t about whether you like or dislike the 18th Amendment or what the proper conduct of officers should be,” Prohibition bureau legal adviser A.S. Anderson told the coroner’s jury. “No evidence has been submitted that Moore asked to see the warrant or find out if there was any warrant. On top of that, Moore knew agent Moncure. This was cold-blooded murder.”

The jury also brought in famed Palm Beacher Gus Jordahn, owners of Gus’ Baths. The gruff but lovable Scandinavian had his own weather station. He testified he had calculated official sunset on Jan. 18 at 5:52 p.m.

After two days of hearings and deliberations, the coroner’s jury ruled that George Moore should be charged with murder.

A Delray Beach preacher blamed the deaths on the public’s winking support for bootleggers. Sixty lawmen had been killed since the start of Prohibition, the pastor wrote, and “the real killer is the man at the small end of the bottle.”

At 10 a.m. Jan. 30, Moore posted $10,000 bond and walked out of the county jail. In March, a local grand jury issued two indictments. They were for second-degree murder, which meant the panel believed Moore should be charged with shooting the two in the heat of the moment and not with premeditation.

Moore was tried first for the death of Bob Moncure. The names of 100 local citizens – all men – were pulled for what was then one of the largest jury pools ever in Palm Beach County. The trial started on April 21.

On the morning of April 23, Olive Moore took the stand. The 14-year-old said she had been on the couch in the living room with her parents when she heard a disturbance at the front door and her father stood up to investigate.

At 11 a.m., George W. Moore climbed to the stand.

“I heard a noise at the back door and then one at the front door. No one rang the doorbell.”

Later: “I did not recognize either of the men I shot. I did not realize they were agents until Chief Matthews told me.”

Then there was the time element.

The search warrant had been for daytime only. Bob Moncure had stood at George Moore’s stoop at 5:56. Sunset had officially come at 5:52. In those four minutes, Moore’s lawyers argued, their warrant had become invalid. And they had gone from officers of the law to unknown trespassers threatening a citizen, his property and his family.

Prosecutors scoffed.

Official or not, it wasn’t dark yet. Besides, they said, Moore knew Moncure all too well. The agent had helped raid his home at least once before. On top of that, Moncure had identified himself and held the search warrant for the bootlegger to see.

Both sides waived final arguments and the judge gave the jurors the case.

“A man is within his rights in defending his home to the extent of killing another person, especially when he believes that his home, family or himself will be injured,” Judge A. G. Hartridge intoned in his charge to the jury. “You should acquit the defendant if you find the agents went to the Moore residents after sundown with a daytime search warrant, which is invalid after nightfall, and were found to be trespassing on Mr. Moore’s property.”

Jurors retired at 2:36 p.m. They were back at the stroke of 3. They had been gone 24 minutes.

Hartridge warned the audience against demonstrations. Then the verdict was announced: not guilty.

Cheers rang out. The judge ordered a deputy to find and arrest those responsible. But none could be found.

Moore knew his problems weren’t over.

On July 17, 1930, county prosecutors dropped the murder charge for Patterson. But Moore was later indicted on a federal charge of assaulting a federal officer in connection with Patterson’s death. Trial was to take place in Miami.

Liza sat down and wrote a letter to her dead husband.

She wrote that she went to Miami for the trial and there, in the marshal’s office, she ran into the man who had killed her beloved Bob.

“O my darling, how did I keep from rushing in and tearing him apart with my bare hands. Why is it that my miserable body turns so weak and ill every time I see him. I don’t believe I could speak a word to him to save my life. It is a terrible thing to have arrived at my age without ever knowing hate, and then to suddenly know HATE! It is so devastating.”

George Moore was convicted in federal court and sentenced to 10 years. The federal judge ruled that, although the search warrant had been presented past official sunset, it was still light enough for people to see features. In April 1932, an appeals court upheld the conviction.

Moore was sent to the federal prison in Atlanta.

In May 1935, he was cleared on a federal liquor conspiracy charge along with two co-defendants. The men had been charged with conspiring a boatload of liquor to shore 3 miles north of Jupiter in 1927. Moore was eventually released from prison. He moved his family to a home on Upland Street, near his former house.

He died in May 1958. He was 67. A three-paragraph obituary lists his occupation as owner of a roofing and painting company.

His wife, Merna, died in 1975. Three of the four daughters have since died, leaving only the youngest, Margaret – now Margaret Briant, 80. She moved to Leesburg about 12 years ago.

“He never talked about it. Not around any of us. He kept that stuff strictly away from the family. It wasn’t discussed at home.”

That didn’t stop Margaret’s classmates from taunting her with “You’re a jailbird’s daughter.”

“I have no recollection of the incident itself,” Briant said recently. All her dad would ever say, she recalled is this: “When they were entering the house, they were entering the kingdom.”

Liza died in 1968 at age 75. She never remarried. The Moncures’ son, Knox, would become an engineer for the U.S. Army. He retired to Port St. Lucie. His son Robert III said he could not come back to West Palm Beach because the memories were too painful. Knox died in 1993.

In her letter to her dead husband, Liza had written that she had visited a family retreat.

“Words can not describe my feelings as I unlocked that door to Memory Lane,” she wrote. “The time your leg was burned in the boiling mash and you thought – we both thought you would lose it. How admirable you were.

“How could I have been so unconscious of this horrible ax over my head. I went in the front room where the night blooming jessamine used to intoxicate us with its sweetness. What memories! So sweet, so dear, they almost overshadow the bitterness of now.”

Liza wrote that James Kugler, the agent who had gone to the front porch with her husband and who had watched him die, had told her, “Think how much you have to be thankful for in the memories you have of him and the replica you have of him in Knox, who is getting to be a man now and who needs your encouragement to carry on and be the kind of man Bob would have him be.”

And, she wrote, “Another time he (Kugler) said, ‘Somehow, things have never been the same since the 18th of Jan. There is not the same spirit of brotherhood in the men as there used to be when Bob was here. Somehow, I can’t get over expecting them to come back.’

“Dear God!”

At the end of the typewritten letter, Liza hand-wrote a note to her in-laws in Virginia, where Knox was staying. She told them to use their judgment about whether to show the letter to the boy, adding, “For a long time, I used to write letters to Bob. Somehow, it seemed to comfort me.”

Near the end of the typed part, Liza had said she had a dream. She had run to the office to have lunch with Robert. It was payday.

“We started out to the elevator and you called back, ‘So long, fellows. When I come back I will be a picked bird.’ We went out to the laughter of the whole office and I ran down the steps holding your hand. When I woke up, the cruelty of the whole awakening almost killed me. Honey, it literally almost killed me. I can’t cry yet, but I felt like – like I was bleeding to death. I just lay still while waves of dispair (sic) engulfed me. HOW can I go on living with this terrible load of sorrow that does not grow any lighter. Other women lose their husbands, but not such a husband. And not such a woman whose life was bound up in her home.

“God help me. God help me.”

Sources: Robert Knox Moncure III, Margaret Moore Briant; the archives of The Palm Beach Post and New York Times; Palm Beach County Court records; the National Archives; the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Miami historian Paul George; and the historical societies of South Florida and Palm Beach County and the city of Lake Worth. Portions of this story originally appeared in The Post on Jan. 23, 1995.

Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg January 16, 2005 at 2:54 pm.

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