In January 1948, a young woman called Anna Grace Robertson suffered fatal brain injuries when she fell from a moving truck – or was pushed out; no one knew for sure. What was certain was that she had been drunk when her skull cracked on the road, and that the man who she had been with, Martin Fobes, had been drunker still, as had most of the witnesses who testified that they’d seen Fobes and Anna Grace drinking until well after midnight in the Rex Café, Jim’s Place and the Square Deal Café.
There wasn’t enough evidence for a trial, and Fobes was released, but the inquest had focused New Castle’s attention on the lawless liquor joints in the industrial district, frequented by hard-drinking factory workers speaking a babble of old-world languages and run by management that wasn’t too particular about local liquor laws.
Something had to be done.
In the months following Anna Grace Robertson’s death, agents from the state liquor board quietly investigated the town’s bars and cafés, collecting evidence, filing reports and compiling lists of transgressions. Then, on a busy Saturday night, the police raided establishments across the centre of town – the West Side Café, the Lawrence Confectionery, the Grant Street Café, the Marathon and others – rounding up not only the drunks, but the bartenders and bar owners, who ended up in court facing heavy fines.
Elizabeth Miller worked in the Rex Café, “The Home of the Big Mug”, which had featured prominently in the inquest into Anna Grace’s death, as it was where she’d met Fobes and where Fobes had returned to get “pretty well loaded” the night after her battered body was found in the street. Elizabeth and the owner, Demetrios Proios, were arrested and charged with various breaches of the liquor laws, including serving liquor to intoxicated persons, and were fined $100 and $150, respectively.
However, perhaps because of its notoriety, the authorities seem to have gone after the Rex harder than the other places. The district attorney declared it to be a common nuisance, a haunt of undesirables and the source of much of the trouble in the area. He pointed out that, despite the fact that it was licensed only to sell liquor to accompany meals, it had done $33,808 worth of beverage business in the preceding year and only $699.80 worth of food business. State liquor board agents said they’d observed minors and men with criminal records being served alcohol and stated that the place was insanitary, that disorder was marked and that they’d seen no food ordered or served; and the city chemist testified that the whiskey glasses that he had examined were thick with “more bacteria than I could count.”
In August, the city padlocked the doors of the Rex Café, pending an appeal, which was lost. In September, the café was closed for good. Elizabeth Miller was out of a job.
Before the Rex Café opened, the building had housed Ginsberg’s kosher delicatessen on the ground floor with Faella’s barber shop – “25¢ any style any haircut” – and a Catholic boy’s club upstairs. Earlier still, in the twenties, it had been Bevan & Arthur’s magazine store and restaurant; and, at the beginning of the century, when it was still new, it was New Castle’s only kosher hotel, run by one Nathan Rabinovitz, whose annual application for a liquor licence was always refused.
The block was demolished in 1968. A Burger King sits on the site today.Sources: New Castle News (14 Jan 1948 “Cause Of Girl’s Death Is Mystery”, and other pieces that month on Fobes; 7 June 1948, “Fifteen Facing Liquor Charges”; 3 Aug 1938 “Seeks To Revoke Café License”; 12 Aug 1948 “Café Is Nuisance, Court Declares”; 11 Sep 1948 “Court News”; 1906 piece on Nathan Rabinovitz; 1915 piece on Bevan & Arthur; 1930 piece on Ginsberg.)