by Brian Clarey
What’s an editor to do when the biggest scandal of the young century drops on his desk?
This one had it all: Prohibition-era booze, a fancy neighborhood, crooked cops, hookers, a cover-up and a list of willing participants that reached into the highest echelons of Winston-Salem society. Allegedly.
It was the biggest story the city had seen since Santford Martin took over the editor’s desk of the Winston-Salem Journal, the city’s morning paper, in 1912 — just two years after taking a job as a reporter there.
And it came to him through reporting both solid and kind of sketchy, teasing out a short exchange that occurred during a trial about a completely separate matter. Martin honed in on it, began gathering facts and employed a little bit of journalistic gamesmanship to bring this one to light.
Momentum gathered on the front pages of the morning Journal for more than a week, when the story inexplicably vanished from the newspaper of record.
It’s likely that Martin didn’t know exactly what kind of tiger he had by the tail on the night of Saturday, Sept. 19, 1925, when he laid in copy for the next day’s paper with a juicy detail from the trial of Mrs. Grace Renner, who had been arrested for stealing a hat.
Sunday, Sept. 20, 1925
Woman’s Hint of Night Ride With Cops Stirs Court
Policemen’s Names are Linked With Ardmore ‘Parties’
Mayor and Chief in Secret Parley
Winston-Salem’s 12-Day Scandal began with a Sunday morning off-lead news piece, running on the left side of the broadsheet above the fold.
Following the three-line headline, just two columns across, were a series of subheaders in the newspaper style of the day.
It certainly sounds pretty juicy.
The story recounts a trial the day before in municipal court involving Mrs. Grace Renner, who had been convicted for stealing a hat, fined $25 and given a six-month suspended sentence.
But the nut paragraph concerned testimony from Mrs. Charles Johnson, Renner’s sister. While she was on the stand, Martin reported:
Judge Watson stated that he had received a number of complaints charging that dances and liquor parties were being held in the home of Mrs. Johnson; and that many people, “both married and single,” were frequently seen at the place.
Now here’s where a little context comes into play. In 1925, the United States was six years into the grand experiment known as Prohibition, making it illegal to sell, manufacture or transport “intoxicating liquors” anywhere in the country.
We all know how that played out. But it would be eight more years before Prohibition was repealed. And though cops all over the nation turned a blind eye to the black-market liquor business, the idea of it happening in Ardmore was just too much for a guy like Santford Martin to take.
It’s important to note that Martin was what could be described as an “ardent prohibitionist.” And that North Carolina had been dry since 1909, 10 years before the rest of the country.
By 1925, Martin had already graduated with a law degree from Wake Forest University, worked as private secretary to Gov. Thomas W. Bickett, been named president of the NC Press Association, served on the state fisheries commission and sold war bonds during the Great War. And by that year, North Carolina had perhaps more illegal stills than any other state in the union.
It must have galled a man like Martin, whose editorship at the Journal marked a period of repressive politics — including segregation, which he hoped “negroes” would settle into “voluntarily.”
His feelings on alcohol are best illustrated by an anecdote about Martin and Marshall Kurfees, who served as mayor of Winston-Salem from 1949 to 1961 and was solidly on the “wet” side of the issue.
As the story goes, years before he became mayor Kurfees told Martin that he could throw three rocks from the Journal’s offices and with each hit a place where he could buy a drink.
Martin then had Kurfees subpoenaed; he found himself before a judge that very day with orders to disclose the speakeasies.
Kurfees unflappingly named the Robert E. Lee Hotel, the Twin City Club and the bus station, and then named three prominent political and business figures who routinely drank there.
As the story goes, Kurfees left the name of the reigning mayor off of the list. None of the names made it into Martin’s story in the Journal the next day.
Now, about those “parties”….
Suffice it to say that an editor like Santford Martin could never bring himself to put the word “whorehouse” in his newspaper.
The Sunday newspaper piece had Mrs. Charles Johnson — as she would be referred to in the Journal every single time throughout the scandal; we never learn her first name — in a car late Friday night with two Winston-Salem police officers. Riding around in cars had connotations of its own in those days.