With the introduction of the 18th Amendment instigating nationwide prohibition in the United States, a nation with a very “wet” past is suddenly and bluntly thrust into a very “dry” future. With a nation now firmly divided between the drinkers and teetotalers, a new network would be required if the fortified tipple was to be defended. Enter the bootlegger.
As a term previously used to describe concealment of a knife or pistol inside ones bootleg, “bootlegging” became synonymous with the act of smuggling liquor across a newly prohibited America. Despite organised crime existing prior to 1920, prohibition would ultimately be defined as, “offering a graduate course for training in the crime industry”. The graduates from which would quickly develop into America’s first national crime syndicate.
Less than a decade before the Great Depression and with a bill passed greatly from the pressures of small town America temperance unions, the nation’s major cities offered up no shortages of adventurous young men keen to make a quick buck. By 1926, the nation’s most powerful crime cartel would spread from Boston to Philadelphia and consist of such well remembered names as Meyer Lansky & “Lucky” Luciano (New York), Abner “Longy” Zillman* (Newark), Charles “King” Salmon (Boston) and Daniel Walsh (Providence). Powerful men each in their own right but one key factor held them all in common, all were in their 20s.
The first arrest made under the new constitution of prohibition was on the same day the governing Volstead Act was activated (January 17th, 1920) and consisted of two truckloads of “medicinal whiskey” from a warehouse in Peoria, Illinois. Needless to say thousands more would follow. To the less criminally driven Wet, solutions could still be found for enjoying a quiet drink at your local tavern. Speakeasy’s – also known as “Blind Tigers” or “Blind Pigs” – opened up as soon as prohibition came into effect and in many of the big cities (Chicago, New York etc.) ended up numbering greater during prohibition than legally licensed venues beforehand. For some people such as Mr Goldwater of Phoenix it was as easy as having his favourite saloon (including bar top, brass rail and back bar) moved into the basement of his house. Each state devised their own unique ways of hiding the manufacture of liquor relative to natural geography and resources available to them. Liquor in Kansas was known as “Deep Shaft” after the deep mines in which it was covertly made whereas in Denver Colorado, moonshiner’s were known to use rotting animal carcasses near their stills to help mask the smell of distilling spirit. Needless to say the sale of pot stills exploded nationwide with many states developing their own unique designs such as the “Double Stacked Mash Still” of Georgia, the “Blackpot Still” of Virginia or “Barrel-Capped Pot Still” of Alabama. Outside of local production however, the only major source of obtaining liquor was via neighbouring countries untouched by prohibitions Volstead Act. Across land it was Canada who supplied the biggest volumes of illegal spirits with an impressive record of 900,000 cases of liquor crossing the border between Windsor and Ontario in the first 7 months of prohibition alone. Across sea it was all about the “Rum Run”, a combination of speed and stealth utilising prearranged coastal dead drops from vessels entering outside of Americas 3 mile coastal boundary. A process so successfully exploited it would drive America into developing their first major offshore customs force – the Coast Guard – and advance speed boat design with the invention of the cigarette hull.
Top Bureau agents such as Elliot Ness and his “Untouchables” may have been iconic towards the end of prohibition but over its opening years, it was all about the team of Izzy and Moe (Isidore Einstein and Moe Smith). With Moe a keen boxer, Izzy a multilinguist and both long serving members of the Freemasons, between them they amass 4,932 arrests of which 95% would be convicted. Quickly grabbed by the media, this dynamic duo became well-known for infiltrating illegal spirit houses and distilleries using undercover tactics and disguises. These included street car conductors, gravediggers, fisherman, icemen and even opera singers – a talent which Izzy referred to as the “Einstein Theory of Rum Snooping”. Quickly realising the advantage of having the media’s support, the duo began inviting the press to their raids and in one such occasion managed to make 71 arrest in 12 hours – accompanied the whole time by a team of reporters. Unfortunately the media attention proved to be their downfall when in 1925 they were laid off along with 38 other agents in a reorganisation plan instigated by Bureau senior, General Lincoln C. Andrews. By the end of prohibition in 1933, both men would be resuming a normal life as insurance salesmen.
The press would continue to play a pivotal role during the dry years with a strong influence over the public mentality of both the prohibition agent and bootlegger alike. With the power to either make or break, both camps would do their utmost to win over public support in an often comic book representation of villains and heroes re born with their new alter-ego nicknames. Following in the media shadow left by Izzy and Moe were other such crime fighting avengers as, “The Lone Wolf of Texas”, “The Kokomo School Master”, “The Plague of the North”, “Tall and Slender Daisy” and Al “Wallpaper” Wolff (the last surviving member of Eliot Ness’s Untouchables). However prohibition officers were not the only ones in the media’s glow. The smartest of the crime bosses understood all too well how a positive public image could supply gloss to an otherwise violent reality. Amongst the many colourful personalities published during prohibition, a young Chicago based mobster named Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone who would be best remembered. Capone managed to remain a media favourite despite his clear roles in bootlegging, liquor production and murder. Capone used the press like any other informant, inwardly using favours and threats against key players while outwardly acting the public servant promoting family values – “A woman’s home and her children are her real happiness” and public donations to charity. When finally arrested in 1931 it would be tax evasion which led to his incarceration rather than anything associated with liquor. When asked of his relationship with the press Capone simply replied, “I give the public what the public wants”. The media would also help publish the new language of the gangster with colloquial terms like, “Torpedos” (fast boats), “Trigger men” (gunners), “Gorillas” (big physical mobsters), “Pineapples” (hand grenades) and the popular barrel clipped machine gin known as a “Rod”, “Trench Broom”, “Chicago Typewriter” or “Tommy Gun”.
By the end of 1926 it was estimated that the annual sales from bootlegging had topped USD$3.6 billion, an amount almost equal to the entire federal budget that same year. Not that bootlegging wasn’t without its overheads. Crime was still a business and managing a network of staff in every stage of production, distribution and sales not to mention paying off police, judges and politicians**, was an expensive operation. Capone’s own bespoke armoured car came at a cost of USD$350,000, that said there was clearly enough left over for a bit of splashing out, such as Chicago bootlegger Terry “Machine Gun” Druggans purchasing a solid silver toilet seat (bet it was cold in winter).
The epicentre of American bootlegging took place in the upper east coast where the first national crime syndicate would also be formed. Initially most of Chicago’s illegal booze supply came over the Canadian border where it was controlled by Detroit’s “Purple Gang” (aka “Sugar House Gang”), while on the coast, New York was reliant on the Rum Row for the majority of their supply. A supply ample with rum from Jamaica, gin from Liverpool and scotch from Glasgow. When the Coast Guard finally tightened their control over the nations coastal borders, major shipments were forced to return to risky overland tactics via an 800 mile route from Detroit. For the big city mob bosses invested in supply, a better solution had to be found and eventually came in the form of Brooklyn mobster John “Papa Johnny” Torrio (aka “The Fox”) who is ultimately credited with bringing together Chicago’s own mobsters to form the beginnings of America’s first national crime syndicate – later be known as “The Chicago Outfit”. Working under Torrio at the time was an ambitious 20 year old Capone. Five years later Capone would take over control of the Chicago cartel from an aging Torrio who, after surviving an assassination attempt and a year in jail, retired from organized crime – one of the few.
As with any industry operating outside the law and with so many unemployed young men, violence was inevitable. In one such bloody period 215 mobsters were killed in Chicago alone and despite almost 14 years of prohibition consumption of alcohol would only drop by around 30% nationally, the majority of which is credited to the rural states. It was also estimated that even before Capone began making a name for himself, around 60% of Chicagos Police Officers were already engaged in the liquor business – and business was good.
*Longy Zillman was also well-known for a very public romance with film star Jean Harlow
**A Michigan State Police raid on Detroit’s Deutsches Haus once netted the mayor, the sheriff, and the local congressman.
[For further reading on Prohibition in America – Click Here]