History Mystery #20: Gangsters at the Grand Atlantic

Author: Sarah Masters Buckey

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Douglas Fryer

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  New Jersey shoreline, 1925


Twelve-year-old Emily Scott is tagging along on a trip to the Grand Atlantic hotel her eighteen-year-old sister Dorothy has been invited on. Emily and Dorothy used to be very close, especially when they lived on a farm, but after their father was killed in the Great War, they and their mother moved to Philadelphia, where they could stretch their money more easily; Mrs. Scott teaching instead of farming. And then Dorothy got a college scholarship to Vassar, and became a fashionable flapper, and doesn't seem to have time for Emily anymore. Even Mrs. Scott thinks Emily is immature for her age. So why is she allowed to go to the New Jersey beach with her sister? Emily happened to witness some bootlegging gangsters beat up a store owner, and it's safe for her to get out of town for a while. Dorothy's been invited by her friend's family, so Emily will probably not get to see her sister much, but she'll be safer.

Shortly after arriving in Shell Cove, New Jersey, Emily meets Gwen Chapman and the dachshund she's watching, Max (Emily has a dachshund at home). Gwen had polio when she was younger, and uses a wheelchair or crutches and leg braces to get around, but that doesn't stop the two girls from having fun together. Emily's happy to find someone nice her age staying at the same fancy hotel, and Gwen is happy to Emily around Shell Cove, where her uncle manages the hotel they're in. Max belongs to one of the hotel guests.

Gwen isn't the only interesting person Emily sees that day. She also spies Mr. M, the gangster who ordered the beating she witnessed. Dorothy convinces Emily that she must have just seen someone who looks like him. Besides, they have to get to dinner with her friend's family. While eating, Emily sees that Dorothy's friend is very well-off and a bit stuck-up. It seems that Dorothy has to put on a show to be accepted and downplay her less-than-impressive past (not that the Scotts are scandalous--they're just boring). Seeing Dorothy with her fashionable friends gives Emily an idea: she'll cut her hair into a bob and if Mr. M really is in town, he won't recognize her. Gwen happens upon Emily as she's trimming, and helps even out the short do. She also sees a sketch Emily made of Mr. M (Mrs. Scott teaches art and music; Emily is a good artist) and says she's seen the man--he's a guest at the hotel. Gwen's taking care of a parrot in the room next door, and when the girls go to find out out if they can listen in on anything, they hear Mr. M discussing, among other things, "that kid from Philadelphia who skipped town." He knows Emily is at the hotel!

Some spying and reconnaissance lead to Emily and Gwen to one conclusion: Mr. M is a liquor smuggler, and has a shipment waiting off the coast in international waters (twelve miles from shore at the time). He's blackmailed one of Dorothy's friends, Frank, into the use of his boat to get the alcohol. And since Frank and Dorothy are dating, Dorothy could be in danger, too. Emily happens to recognize an undercover law enforcement officer, and tells him that a nearby yacht club is hiding a speakeasy. She knows Dorothy and her friends are going there (Dorothy doesn't drink since she doesn't care for the taste and because she knows someone who was blinded by poorly-made alcohol). If the group is arrested, they won't be able to be forced into the dangerous smuggling run. With the tip from Emily and Gwen, the officer carries out a raid on the speakeasy and and also catches Mr. M and his cohorts.

In the morning, Dorothy is furious about having spent a night in jail, but Frank comes by the room to explain how much worse the night could have been. He's from a farming town and ended up owing money to the mob due to trying to keep up appearances. He'll have to return to the farm for about a year to work off his debt, but he and Dorothy will stay in touch. Shortly after, Mrs. Scott arrives, having been told about Dorothy's arrest. Gwen whispers to Emily that she has a surprise planned. When Mrs. Scott meets Gwen's mother (her father was also killed in the war), she' s offered a summer job teaching art at the hotel! Since the mob torched the Philadelphia apartment building--everyone got out safe--Mrs. Scott figures it only makes sense to stay for the rest of the summer while the renovations take place. Emily and Gwen can hardly wait to continue their fun!

A Peek into the Past

The 1920s saw two important constitutional amendments passed: the eighteenth established Prohibition, making alcohol illegal (exceptions like Communion wine were allowed), and the nineteenth allowed women the right to vote, the last group of adults given the vote in the US. Prohibition ultimately failed, repealed in 1933 with the twentieth amendment (guess the nation had to sober up to grant women's suffrage?). Alcohol was smuggled in to many places around the country, and made secretly in others. Gangsters supplying alcohol could make things very dangerous for people living in those areas. Still, the 1920s were an exciting time: women's fashions were becoming less restrictive and women had more job opportunities, and the population in general was becoming more relaxed about social rules, allowing themselves to enjoy entertainment like jazz dances and movies. But while the upper class had more leisure time, the lower class still struggled. Furthermore, racial prejudice made life difficult for non-white Americans and for immigrants, and diseases like polio spread quickly through the cramped communities where poor people often lived (the diseases also affected the upper class too, it just spread easier in close quarters; epidemics don't care how much money you have).


Dedicated to "J. J., A. W., and J. M. With love, always."

In an author's note, the author thanks many people who helped her with the book: Don Canney, historian for the US Coast Guard; Jill Radel of the Museum of Yachting; Carrie Brown, historian; Nancyrose Logan; her husband and children; her mother, who told her stories about growing up fearful of public swimming pools that might carry polio and who was relieved and grateful when the polio vaccine was invented; and her editor Peg Ross.

Keep your vaccines up to date! Let's make polio extinct, like we did with smallpox.

Dorothy says she doesn't smoke despite it being fashionable for college women her age, because it would make her teeth yellow. She did try it once, and illegal alcohol, but found both disgusting. I'm certainly going to tell my kids about the health dangers of smoking (which weren't well known when this book was set), but if they skip smoking because of vanity instead of knowledge...well, at least they won't be smoking!

The bit when Emily and Gwen realize the Ws are upside-down Ms reminds of seventh grade art class. One of my friends had a folder for the class that had "NEW NEW NEW" printed on it in gold letters. He thought it was hilarious--and so did the rest of us twelve- and thirteen-year-olds--to turn flip it around and read it out loud as "MEN MEN MEN."

Mrs. Scott gets her hair cut into a bob after it's singed in the fire, and marvels over how easy it is to care for. I know for some people short hair is a flattering look and very easy to take care of, but I laughed when people suggested a short "mom haircut" when I was pregnant. Mine is so thick and wavy/curly that it really looks best and is more manageable when past my shoulders.

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