The phonograph swindler

Not long after my grandmother Katarzyna Bosakowska arrived in New York in April 1912, she landed a job as a live-in servant with the family of Joseph H. Mayers.

Mayers, an immigrant from Russia, lived at 101 Essex Street with his wife Rose, two sons named Martin and Harold, and his mother-in-law Gertrude Portnoy. That building is still there, across the street from the Essex Street Market, surrounded on both sides by newer structures.

I know that my grandmother was living at Mayers’ address in September 1913, because it’s noted in her brother Wincenty’s immigration documents. And you can find my grandmother listed among the Mayers household in the 1915 New York census.

I’m not sure how long my grandmother worked for the Mayers family. I’m guessing her employment ended by the time she married my grandfather in November 1916.

Anyway, I was curious to learn a bit more about Joseph Mayers (not that I expected to find much). The 1915 census revealed that he was a phonograph dealer, so I googled him and found that he owned a business called the International Phonograph Co. with offices on Essex and East Houston Streets.

Mayers is mentioned in a few brief news items in The Music Trade Review. These include a 1911 piece on the opening of the International Phonograph Co. store at 101 Essex Street with Mayers as the proprietor:

Mr. Mayers has been identified with the trade for a number of years, formerly handling the Victor line at 108 East Houston street.

And then there was this from a 1919 article:

Probably the largest new Victor store in the city is that of Joe Mayers, opened at 101 Essex street. It is without doubt one of the largest on the East Side and is most attractively furnished. Mr. Mayers believes that there is an unusual opportunity for business in this locality.

So it would seem that my grandmother got a job working for a successful small businessman and his family, end of story. But then I came across a 1915 report from the New York State Department of Labor looking at various frauds perpetrated against immigrants. One of these scams concerned the sale of phonographs through deceptive installment plans. Here is the relevant section of the report:


One of the most prolific sources of swindling immigrants and aliens is the phonograph mail order business, a lucrative and highly organized mode of extracting money from the unsuspecting through the medium of the foreign press. Advertisements are inserted in various languages, stating that on payment of $5 and an agreement to pay the balance in small installments, a machine will immediately be forwarded to the purchaser “with records of your national songs in your own tongue.”

On receiving the initial payment the phonograph company forwards a machine by express with the entire balance to be collected C. O. D. When the alien is notified by the express company he is shocked at the “mistake” and protests to the phonograph concern, with the result that this company retains both the machine and the original payment. The immigrant being helpless and unfamiliar with either the language or usage of the country thus loses his hard-earned money and his remonstrance remains unheeded.

The report cites the case of Saul Birns (a.k.a. Birnzweig), the “chief offender,” whose fraudulent mail-order schemes targeting unsuspecting immigrants netted him $125,000 per year.

His circulars displayed machines selling at from $10 to $75, each being fundamentally the same machine and costing him not more than $8 wholesale. The representative of one company, from whom he purchased these machines, testified in court that Birns’ purchases amounted to $6,000 per month from this one concern. Birns was finally arrested, indicted and convicted under section 215, U. S. C. C. He first pleaded “not guilty” and afterward changed his plea. He produced a physician in court who testified he was suffering from mastoiditis and that his wife was suffering from another ailment which invariably affects the wives of indicted swindlers. He was fined $750, an absurdly inadequate punishment for a man whose swindling operations extended from ocean to ocean, and who for years had unscrupulously robbed ignorant and hardworking foreigners to the amount of over $100,000 per year.

Joseph Kalman, proprietor of the “Adria Phonograph Company,” the “Pallas Phonograph Company,” and the “Metropolitan Phonograph Company,” was convicted under the same section and fined $100.

Joseph H. Mayers, the proprietor of the “International Phonograph Company” and the “Supreme Music Company,” under the same section, was fined $350. Mr. Mayers was also the president of the “New York Credit Watch and Jewelry Company.” Other cases are still pending.

And sure enough, I was able to find an example of Mayers’ ads in the Russian language newspaper Svoboda – offering easy installment payment terms of $1 a month and 24 free records of traditional Russian songs, just as the report describes. The paper was dated April 1915.

So my grandmother was working for a convicted crook! And the criminal case unfolded while my grandmother was working for him. I wonder if she had any inkling.

For what it’s worth, it doesn’t seem like the conviction cramped Mayers’ style very much. He still continued to sell phonographs at his dealership on Essex Street – which we know was the largest on the East Side. And the 1920 census shows that another young immigrant, Mary Golub, was working for the Mayers in the apartment on Essex Street.

By 1928, Mayers was the vice president of Talking Machine and Radio Men, Inc., a trade group.

This entry was posted in Family Line - Bosakowski, New York City and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The phonograph swindler

  1. Pingback: The Lower East Side or the Eastern Front: the Bosakowski family during World War I | John Kowal's Family History Blog

  2. Pingback: Six immigrant ancestors and the fault lines of World War I | John Kowal's Family History Blog

  3. Pingback: The surprising history of NYC’s first community garden | Danielle Marie Mackey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s