Feature Articles

November, 2010
Prohibition Bootlegging

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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By Mike La Sorte

     Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (Ratified January 16, 1919): "After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is thereby prohibited." Prohibition took effect nationwide on January 17, 1920.

     Of the hundreds of uses for alcohol only that for human consumption was outlawed by the Prohibition Volstead Act. The Act challenged the concepts regarding criminality, making outlaws of large segment of the population and all social classes. It was a heyday for racketeering. It gave a jolt to American culture, pushing it toward modernity. There was gold to be found in the 18th Amendment.

     Prohibition was a dream come true for opportunists who saw a chance to make a clean up and a perfect breeding ground for a massive crime wave by otherwise law-abiding citizens. Booze production, bootlegging and smuggling in their various manifestations became ubiquitous as casual and fulltime occupations. The speakeasy (perhaps too numerous to count) became part of the popular culture. The bootlegger emerged as a folk hero, an essential businessman of some standing, no matter his previous station in life.

     There is little doubt that Prohibition fostered a more expert criminality and a more glamorous one for the tabloids. Prohibition was the catalyst that transformed street gang structures into smoothly operating criminal syndicates that spread their power beyond the neighborhoods. Small town crooks with small time reputations morphed into underworld titans. The challenges of the illegal liquor business would provide on-the-job executive training leading to an increase in sophistication that would come to dominant racketeering well into the post-World War Two decades.

     Before the 1920s, American crime had nascent aspects of organization. In 1919, the Chicago Crime Commission concluded that "modern crime, like modern business, is tending toward centralization, organization, and commercialization." During the Roaring Twenties that process accelerated and was perfected so that by the early thirties gangsters could create in cities like New York a crime family business structure.

     Bootlegging required transportation and distribution networks for interregional transport necessitating willing associates who were otherwise not mob-related. Detroit, with the second largest booze industry, did business far beyond the city. John Torrio and Al Capone brought Chicago gangsters into the illegal liquor racket. An alliance was formed with Detroit's notorious Purple Gang. Detroit delivered westward and ferried their product across the "Jewish Lake" (Lake Erie) destined for Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Meyer Lansky's New York operation. These and other routes required a rational business plan and otherwise honest workmen and officials. Those people were the army of the willing and made possible a successful bootlegging enterprise--from manufacturer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer. Bribery was a way of life--everyone in the process became corrupted. Who would forsake such temptation? The money was too good to pass up and the chances of arrest slim.

     Many were quick to profit. The most prominent from the start were the Billingsley brothers of Oklahoma, who began smuggling in Michigan after statewide prohibition was established. Another was Detroit delicatessen proprietor Sam Boesky (father of the infamous Ivan Boesky of the New York stock marker insider trading scandals during the 1980s). Sam sold contraband booze in Detroit's East Side Jewish neighborhood.

     As one critic of the Volstead Act sagely predicted, "The business of manufacturing alcohol, liquor and beer will go out of the hands of law-abiding members of the community, and will be transferred to the quasi criminal class." And in its wake would be seen corruption, hypocrisy and cynicism within all sectors of the society. "The drys had their law, and the wets would have their liquor." With Volstead, as the law would become known, the alcohol industry would retreat underground to the black market. Many viewed the attempt to promote nationwide abstinence as extreme, impractical, and essentially unenforceable. And as far as enforcement was concerned, the Prohibition Bureau was viewed as rotten to the core, with good reason.

     The illicit booze routes went to all points of the compass. For New England, the product was ferried to shore by fleets of vessels of every description. The source in Philadelphia was denatured alcohol permitted for industrial use but diverted and made drinkable and available days after production. The Chicago Genna brothers arranged for hundreds of home stills in apartments in the Italian Near West Side. These mom-and-pop distilleries earned the families $15 monthly; the Genna gang reaped an estimated $350,000 each month. Moonshine stills proliferated across the South. Detroit had the envious advantage of having quick access to choice Canadian liquors across the Detroit River, delivered by boats dubbed the "Mosquito Fleet.

     Rumrunners operated off the coast of Mobile, Alabama. The contraband was under the protection of the city's leading citizens. In 1923, the United States Attorney obtained indictments against 117 persons, among them the Mobile County Sheriff, five of his deputies, a politician, lawyers, and the police chief.

     For the thirty-two thousand speakeasies in New York the going protection rate paid a beat cop was a daily five dollars. It was said New York's Finest and city politicians could pocket at least one hundred and sixty thousand dollars each day with little effort. Whatever the amount, protection money was doled out generously to keep the booze flowing.

     The northern border smuggling trade, led by the Jewish Canadian Bronfman extended family, kicked into high gear in early 1920. The Bronfman brothers imported whiskey from American distilleries, mixed in alcohol and water, and sent it back across the border. They also imported neutral spirits from Scotland, diluting and coloring, adding creosote for a smoky flavor.

     The Bronfman export houses--the so-called boozoriums--were established along the U.S.-Canadian border. The cross-border runs were made with automobiles with backseats removed and suspensions reinforced by heavy-duty springs. Bribes paved the way as these automobiles roared through the night.

     After Sam Bronfman made the acquaintance of American gangster Meyer Lansky, the family spread its domain to the more populated East Coast. Arrangements with the British resulted in leading brands of whiskey and gin being transported to the American illicit markets for those who had more refined tastes and could afford the hefty charges. (Anticipating a drought with the onset of Prohibition, the moneyed classes filled their cellars to capacity.) The Bahamas became a leading shipping port, once the right persons were paid off. The average citizen had often to satisfy his thirst with a less than satisfactory bathtub gin, or some rotgut liquor concoction that could have serious side effects. Deaths from alcohol poisoning were regularly reported in the press.

     One of the most efficient criminal operations was developed in Philadelphia by Max (Boo Boo) Hoff and his Seventh Street Gang. They manufactured, reformulated and repackaged millions of gallons of 80 proof booze. They not only cornered the market in the city, they also shipped to St. Louis, Chicago and St. Paul.

     Hoff succeeded in buying off the police force and the Federal agents. The mayor's office was definitely "wet," that is against the "dry" advocates of Prohibition reform, such as the very active Anti-Saloon League. An official investigation uncovered police captains and inspectors who with annual salaries of a few thousand dollars a year had amassed bank accounts approaching $200,000.

     Bootlegging provided for those who had few possibilities for advancement a path to rapid social mobility and respectability. Historian John Higham called these chances "dazzling for slum dwellers," which meant in many cases immigrants. And, indeed, a study in the late 1920s established that roughly half of the professional bootleggers were eastern European Jews, another 25 percent Italians, and the remainder a mix of ethnicities including Polish and Irish. After Prohibition many of these individuals became successful in the legitimate business world; what was once criminal became legit.

     Amendment 21 (1933): "The eighteenth article of the amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed."

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