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Massacre at the Amber Lantern

  • The Amber Lantern was a hotel, bar and house of ill repute located on old Route 29, now Lincoln Drive, Hometown.
    The Amber Lantern was a hotel, bar and house of ill repute located on old Route 29, now Lincoln Drive, Hometown.
Published June 14. 2014 09:00AM

The death count, four.

The violence, unprecedented.

The murderers and motive, unknown.

The Amber Lantern Massacre is an unsolved case loaded with information but devoid of answers. It remains a true-life, soap-opera mystery that unfolded long before the days of television.

It was a day of mob warfare, bullets, gun smoke, blood and screams.

The tragedy shocked the picturesque mountaintop community three miles north of Tamaqua and made headlines across the country.

It had all of the elements of underworld vice: sex, white slavery, prostitution, gambling and alcohol.

The gruesome murders left a town in shock and disbelief, along with a legacy of questions.

Why did big city crime travel 88 miles north to the peaceful, mountain village of Hometown?

@Body.Head:House of ill repute

For years, the Amber Lantern Hotel and Restaurant, Rush Township, had a questionable reputation.

In fact, the saloon was known to be its very own red-light district. Men visited the roadhouse to gamble, drink, dance, and to hire the companionship of women.

The name was changed a few times. At one point it was called the Palais Royal, and then the Rio Rita.

But everyone knew the place as the Amber Lantern.

According to reports, gangsters dynamited the front of the building in the 1920s or early 30s, ultimately making it their headquarters.

From that location, the corner of what is now Lincoln Drive and Mariner Street, the mob operated a busy vice ring before the existence of municipal zoning, code enforcement and permits.

"It was a speakeasy. Al Capone even visited the place at one point. There was a Chicago connection," says Edward W. Carroll, Davenport, Fla. Carroll is a retired Rush Township police chief who studied the case.

It seemed everyone knew about the illegal activity. But nobody said anything.

People in Hometown minded their own business - until June 14, 1938, early morning on Flag Day.

That's when neighbors heard a car backfiring multiple times. Very loud, distinct sputtering, over and over again.

But the sounds weren't backfires.

And it wasn't a car.

@Body.Head:Gory scene

About 6:40 a.m., Amy Faust, owner of Amy's Tea Room and Coffee House, 300 feet south of the Amber Lantern, was in her kitchen eating breakfast with her daughter, Mrs. Edward Purnell.

The women heard someone at the front door. It wasn't unusual. Amy's Tea Room doubled as a service station and was open for business. The women were startled by a stranger who staggered in, bleeding profusely from the face and head.

The women said the man stumbled through the door and mumbled in desperation, three times uttering just two words, "Oh ... I ...," before collapsing to the floor. He died in a pool of blood within minutes.

"He fell forward. We saw the body sprawled out, but then they had covered it," says Paul Rice, Hometown, who hurried to the scene with friend Jim Stewart, both youngsters at the time. "We heard the commotion. We knew something was going on."

The shocking development was only a hint of macabre events to follow, a series of discoveries that would put an end to the Amber Lantern and blow the lid off organized crime in the lower Anthracite coal region.

The first investigating officers were Schuylkill County Chief Detective Louis Buono, Sheriff Fred Holman and Trooper Lester Lucas of the Tamaqua Motor Police Barracks, now the Pa. State Police. Arriving at the scene, the men followed a trail of blood along the roadway. It led to the abandoned Amber Lantern, where awaiting neighbors said they noticed bullet holes in the building.

With help of neighbor Joe Calabrese, who had a key to the place, officers entered the establishment at the rear of the building and made their way around small cafe tables, then to the dining area and on to the main dance floor. The place showed signs of gunfire, they said, with bullet holes in the walls and doors.

At the center of the floor, cops came upon pools of blood. The blood trail led to a small cloakroom behind a Dutch door. Inside, police made a gruesome discovery - two bloodied bodies huddled together.

Authorities identified the victims as Philadelphians Peter Bisciotti, 28, 731 Christian St., and Giustino Starace, 37, of 1824 Dickinson St.

The men had been shot four times, including once in the neck just below the ear.

The earlier victim who'd collapsed and died at the tea room was identified as Leonard Pugliese, 35, 931 Moore St., Philadelphia. Pugliese, who used the alias Jack Leonard, was originally misidentified as Leonard Adducci due to wearing clothing he'd borrowed from his cousin and an identification card he carried. Also found in the clothing was a letter addressed to Adducci, according to police reports.

Police determined it to be a mob-style execution, all three apparently had been lined up on the dance floor. Then came a hail of gunfire. Pugliese somehow escaped through the back door, although the bullet wounds he received as he fled proved fatal.

A coroner's physician said, after an autopsy, that the bullets that riddled the victims evidently were "pumpkin balls," apparently fired from a sawed-off shotgun. Buono said the killing had "all the marks of a Philadelphia gang battle."

He first identified the weapon as a machine gun but later examination of slug marks in the hall led to a belief the men were slain by shotgun charges, although Buono's initial statement says otherwise.

"These three were brought up here for a ride and were lined up on the dance floor," said Buono. "When the first bullets began to crack, one of them, probably the one nearest the door, made a break for it. The murderers turned the machine gun on him as he went out the door."

Philadelphia detectives tried to trace a blue sedan seen cruising around the Amber Lantern at the time of the shooting.

They figured the slayers fled in that same vehicle, likely the one in which the victims had arrived on a death ride.

@Body.Head:Sensational news

Philadelphia police immediately linked the men to various forms of gang crime in the city.

The massacre became the talk of the coal regions and the state, putting the media spotlight on Hometown village.

The headline in the Tamaqua Evening Courier on June 14, 1938, read: "3 SLAIN IN HOMETOWN IN GANG WARFARE, Three Philadelphia gangsters were machine-gunned."

The headline in the Lansford Evening Record on the same date read: "MOBSTERS SLAIN AT HOMETOWN, Police authorities believe three victims implicated in numbers racket war."

But other motives emerged, as well.

The next day's Evening Record headline read: "WHITE SLAVERS SOUGHT IN HOMETOWN SLAYINGS."

It seemed the worst element of the big city had made its way to cow pastures and countryside.

Unsuspecting Hometown residents were stunned. Suddenly, instead of talking about Sunday's church sermon or the upcoming picnic at Lakeside Park, the daily chatter centered on gambling, sex, hookers, alcohol, and worst of all, dead bodies.

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