Unsolved: The Amber Lantern Massacre

Marker near intersection of Marinnier Street and Lincoln Drive, Hometown

I arrived in Hometown – yes, the name of the community is Hometown – in search of a simple marker telling of an event that happened there in the summer of 1938. After making a couple of wrong turns and detours, I finally saw the marker located along Marinnier Street.

Parking along the street, I got out and walked over to the metal sign in the yard of a private residence. Careful not to trespass on the private property, I read the sign that was placed in 2004 that recalls the day when gangland violence came to the community of Hometown.

My journey to this site was caused by accident. I had never heard of the infamous Amber Lantern Massacre, which is also referred to as the Flag Day Massacre, until I stumbled upon it while doing research. While searching for another unsolved murder, I accidentally typed the wrong year into the search engine I was using. The front page of the June 14, 1938 edition of The Reading Eagle screamed “Three slain by machine gun bullets.” The headline definitely caught my attention as it told of a gangland execution in the small village of Hometown. Note: While the headlines captured the attention of readers, the three men were not killed by machine gun bullets. Instead they were killed by a fire of shotgun blasts and an automatic pistol.

The Amber Lantern was a “house of ill repute” and speakeasy and had been known by a number of names over the years, such as the Palais Royal and the Rio Rita. No matter what the name, it was known for its underground connections and questionable activities. Here men would gamble, drink, and womanize freely. The building was a known center of a white slavery ring that operated in Eastern Pennsylvania. On the morning of June 14, 1938, the Prohibition-era violence that plagued the larger cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago came to this community.

In the early morning hours, the sounds of gunfire broke the silence — though at the time locals thought it may have been a car backfiring and little was thought about the sound. At 6:40 that morning, a stranger stumbled into Amy’s Tea Room and Coffee House bleeding profusely from the head and neck. The stranger managed to gasp a couple of words before collapsing on the floor.

Police had already been contacted by another man who witnessed the bleeding man staggering along the road. They arrived at Amy’s Tea Room and Coffee House and followed the trail of blood left by the unidentified man. The trail began at an abandoned road house known as the Amber Lantern about three hundred yards away.

The dance floor of the Amber Lantern told of the massacre that had taken place. In the main room, police found a large pools of blood and bullet holes in the walls. Searching the road house, they discovered two more bodies shoved into a closet. These two men were identified as Peter Biscotti and Giustino Starace of Philadelphia. The man who stumbled into Amy’s Tea Room and Coffee House was later identified as Leonard Pugliese, also known as Jack Leonard. All three were small-time crooks with connections to a Philadelphia mob. Biscotti and Starace were rumored to be a part of the Lanzetti gang. The gang was known for bringing girls from Philadelphia to brothels in Eastern Pennsylvania and were involved in a “shakedown” scheme of illegal gambling dens and brothels for “protection” from other gangs. Note: The three men were believed to have been involved in a number of bombings in Baltimore the week before they were killed. Newspapers report the supposed connection, but I have not discovered any place that actually connects the men to the bombings.

The story became evident as the police studied the scene. The three men had been lined up and as they stood there, were cut down by a storm of bullets. Somehow, despite fatal wounds, Pugliese managed to escape through a side door and staggered down the street after being shot by his unidentified assailants. As he fled the scene, the shooters moved the other two bodies from the middle of the room into a small closet.

The day following the massacre a 1937 sedan belonging to Starace — one of the three men gunned down — was discovered parked along a road in Mahanoy City. This discovery led to the arrest of several of his associates, also from the Philadelphia area, but all were soon released due to a lack of evidence.

On July 12, 1938, a badly decomposed body was discovered in a coal pit along the Mahanoy City-Delano highway. The body would be identified as Peter Gallelli, a barber from Wilkes-Barre with known connections to the Philadelphia mob. Reports stated he was involved in the shooting at The Amber Lantern and was killed due to either being the killer or being the killer’s contact person.

One of the most promising arrests made at the time was Joseph Jackman, also known as Joseph DiGiacomo, the owner of a cigar store in nearby Shenandoah. Jackman was questioned because he owned a car similar to one spotted near The Amber Lantern on the morning of the massacre. Witnesses claimed there were three well-dressed men, whose identities remain a mystery, riding in the car. Jackman was questioned and charges of murder were filed against him, but they were soon dropped.

Jackman, however implicated another man, Joseph Amata. In November 1938. (Vincenso) James Amata of Shenandoah willingly surrendered to authorities. Authorities wanted to question him about using Jackman’s car the morning of the massacre.

Two years later the events of The Amber Lantern massacre would once again grab the headlines of local newspapers. The Reading Eagle records on January 17, 1940 the arrest of Anthony Porelli. Porelli was a suspect from the beginning of the investigation but was not apprehended until almost two years later. Despite being arrested for the murder, it appears any charges against him were immediately dropped.

Jackman and Amata never had the charges against them dropped until June of 1966. The reason the charges were finally dropped was due to the prosecutor and a number of the witnesses having died in the years after the massacre.

The truth being told, The Amber Lantern Massacre is mostly forgotten as life continues. Those who lived through it and the years following are gone. The Amber Lantern and Amy’s Tea Room and Coffee House are both gone, replaced by pleasant little homes. Life continued and memories faded — nothing seems to remain in Hometown today that existed on that horrible day. Only a marker recalls those terrible events that happened long ago — a marker that can be easily missed and is often overlooked.

Note: This was not the only time violence visited the Amber Lantern, but it was the most deadly. The year before, the building was rocked by an explosion from dynamite placed next to it. While the building was damaged, nobody was killed in the explosion. Two years after the massacre, on August 15, 1940, building burned to the ground and would be replaced by the current building.

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