The Martini murder of 1931 Prohibition era crime reaches Brunnerville

By on January 2, 2013

By: CORY VAN BROOKHOVEN Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer

It was a cold Monday morning on Dec. 21, 1931. A man’s body was discovered in a shallow cellar of a run-down abandoned gas station. He was stripped naked, with nine bloody bullet wounds to the head, shoulder and chest. A blood-stained path leading from the road to the back of the abandoned service station was also discovered. A mysterious empty pack of matches which advertised the name of a restaurant several cities over was found nearby. The match pack looked new and therefore seemed out of place compared to the rest of the dilapidated items in the shack. A nearby mail carrier then happens by, and peered through a crack in the rear of the sloping porch of the building where he discovers the naked feet of the victim. He runs to the nearest garage and calls the authorities. This phone call sets off a state-wide search for the killer.

Although the dramatic scenario described above could easily fit the description of a best-selling whodunit crime novel or a real life big city homicide, believe it or not, the above crime happened in Brunnerville.

The body was found at the abandoned Sunny Temple filling station which used to be located on the right hand side of the road at a slope before one reaches Brunnerville, on land that at the time was owned by Clayton Geltmacher.

Local resident Amos Yerger was the person who discovered the body and reported it to authorities. A full investigation was then launched by Pennsylvania state troopers, Lancaster County detectives, and the Deputy Coroner. It was all in an effort to find out why or how this crime could have possibly happened right outside this small village. Did any neighbors see or hear anything suspicious? Was the victim a local Lititz man? What was the motive behind the crime, and how did his body wind up in this “out of the way” location? Questions like these suddenly needed answered.

Due to the placement of the bullet holes, it was determined that the deceased was murdered while sitting in an automobile and then dragged to the rear of the service station for disposal. It was also discovered that the person who fired the rounds was sitting to the left of the victim when he was shot, and the crime was most likely committed near or at the location where the deceased was found. The condition of the victim’s hands indicated that he was not used to physical labor, and therefore could very well have been a racketeer or a big time bookie or gambler.

The headline in the Dec. 24 Lititz Express proclaimed, “Gangland Methods at our Doors — Murdered Man Found Near Brunnerville,” and it certainly shocked many area residents.

After being positively identified by an undisclosed resident of Reading, it was determined that the victim’s name was Harry Martini, 43 years of age. The autopsy revealed that he was most likely killed 24-40 hours before his body was discovered. According to his police file, he held several aliases and lived in Brooklyn, Allentown and finally Reading before coming to Lancaster County. Popular belief was that Martini was a big-time gangster, who came to Lancaster to intimidate the beer and whiskey bootleggers that were very common during this period. Prohibition was in full swing across the United States as organized crime and unauthorized liquor transportation and underground sales rose. Further investigation revealed that Martini had a long list of arrests, including one for burglary in both Connecticut and Washington.

The Reading Eagle newspaper, on Dec. 24, 1931, reported that Martini was asked by local police to leave Reading due to suspicious activity. “You are not wanted here, so you might as well leave” the police said to Martini, according to the article. He then fled the city leaving behind a hotel bill of $96 and a garage bill of $10. His car was also taken away from him by a finance company, it was reported. One of the last places he was spotted in Berks County was the Reading Hotel. Additionally, the matchbook found at the crime scene came from a Reading restaurant. One theory was that it was accidentally dropped by the assassin as Martini’s body was being disposed of. Was the murderer hot on Martini’s trail all the way from Reading? It was apparent that many questions still needed answers.

As the story was pieced together, many things started to add up. It was surmised that once arriving at Lancaster, Martini told some of his new acquaintances that he was in the “big dough” while residing in New York; however, he failed to impress any of the local racketeers in this area. Although he had no apparent means of support, he quickly made friends within the underworld, where he made a modest living. A few days before his murder, he was seen leaving the Reading Hotel with a few other men. They were all posing as New York detectives as a means to warn the smaller bootlegging operators to cease and desist.

The life of supposed gangster and racketeer Harry Martini ended tragically; and unfortunately, we may never know the full details of his death. To this day, nobody has come forward with a confession and no one was ever arrested for this crime. From the various police reports and eyewitnesses who knew him or saw him in the area, it can safely be concluded that Harry Martini got mixed up in the wrong crowd and apparently got in over his head or knew “too much.”

Sadly, so many stories from this era in our nation’s history ended this way as prohibition paved the way to the rise of organized crime. Even the small hamlet of Brunnerville was not safe from this spreading epidemic in 1931. More 1931 MURDER, page A3