When prohibition came to America in January of 1920, the governing Volstead Act offered plenty of room for the production and sale of liquor within the somewhat grey highlights of the law. With industrial manufacturers and practitioners of medicine empowered with the right to dispense spirituous liquors through their profession, any criminal with enough smart could easily produce and distribute alcohol under legal precedent.
Despite prohibition, many large scale industries still relied on raw alcohol for the manufacture of many consumer wares such as felt hats, smelling salts, photographic paper, pencils, perfume and paint. Unsurprisingly during the first five years of prohibition, the sale of industrial alcohols more than triple despite the sale of alcohol related commodities not shifting. By the end of 1930, it would triple again. And at the heart of this was a man known as Max “Boo Boo” Hoff.
Hoff was arguably one of (if not the) most successful gangster during American prohibition. While public attention was drawn to more charismatic persona’s of Al Capone, “Lucky” Luciano and Elliot Ness – beware the devil you don’t know.
Born in Philadelphia to a poor Russian-Jewish family, Hoff made his mark early in running gambling rings and managing boxers. While these operations made Hoff a player well before prohibition came into effect, it would be his foray into illicit liquor which would net him an average of USD$5 million a year. Standing at a mere five foot nothing, the no smoking, no drinking Hoff managed a boardwalk empire divided amongst multiple corporate fronts across multiple industries from boxing and night clubs to banking, manufacture and real estate. Most lucrative of all where his manufacturing operations registered under the Quaker Industrial Alcohol Company, Glenwood Industrial Alcohol Company and the Consolidated Ethyl Alcohol Company. Operating out of a central office with 175 phones and a weekly staff payroll of $30,000, Hoff’s manufacturing enterprise was further funded with support by a USD$10 million money laundering scheme managed directly through the Union Bank and Trust Co. With such an infrastructure in place, the smallest gangster in America managed to establish a supply of illicit liquor so big it required the annual modern-day equivalent of USD$20 million in bribes alone.
Key to Hoff’s success lay his ability to control the entire production process from the manufacture, packaging and distribution of new spirits to the repackaging and re distribution of old ones. Producing upwards of 1.5 million gallons of pure alcohol a year, this would then be diluted to a more potable 80 proof (40% abv) increasing the available stock to nearer 3.4 million gallons. In one instance,
five hundred gallons of overproof liquor labeled as “hair oil” was delivered to a what is known as a “coverup house” (a false business address) for distribution. The house in question consisted of a village of only 50 people. To help litigate against any legal wrongdoing, Hoff even had a US Congressman (Benjamin M. Golder) act as his attorney. Operating out of his native Philadelphia, Hoff’s enterprise yielded more alcohol in one year than the whole state could consume in the same period. In short, Hoff owned Philly.
But nature likes balance and for every villain there must be a square chinned hero of the people. For Hoff, this came in the form of one of the most highly decorated men in US military history; two time recipient of the Medal of Honour – Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, aka “Old Gimlet Eye”. With half of the local police force already paid off or involved in the illicit sale and distribution of alcohol by 1924, local Mayor W. Feeland Kendrick looked to the armed forces for a new authority figure to fill the position of Director of Public Safety and counteract his losing battle against bootlegging.
Decorated with a total of 16 medals including 5 for bravery, Major General Butler was a man who wouldn’t back down and moreover, couldn’t be bought. Opening with a barrage of raids on over 900 known speakeasies across the state in his first 48 hours alone, Butler made it clear he was a man to which the law was a clear line in the sand to which your actions dictated which side you were on. The days that followed would see the Major General instigate new police uniforms, elect dedicated bootlegger squads kitted out with sawn-off shotguns and posting random police check points throughout the city to disrupt distribution. As a veteran of battles spanning three continents and one world war, Butler was well experienced in coordinating battles and strategy’s across clear front-lines, prohibition however was anything but clear.
After initiating raids on socially sensitive locations such as the Ritz-Carlton and Union League HQ, Butler made enemies of more than just the bootleggers. The media as always would be involved from the start and Butler would learn a vital lesson in the power of the press when quoted as saying, “I don’t believe there is a single bandit notch on a policeman’s gun in this city, go out and get some”. The increasing political pressure from key city representatives including Mayor Kendrick whom recruited him, would in the end be too much with Butlers policing tactics likened to “a bull in a China shop” of Philadelphia’s society. Two years after accepting the position, Major General Butler resigned from increased pressure as Director of Public Affairs. Despite his brief term as an instrument of domestic authority, his two year reign was one of the only effective means of law enforcement in Philadelphia during the entire 14 years of prohibition.
According to the Report of the Special August Grand Jury in 1929, a single group of high-ranking Philadelphia police officials were receiving approximately USD$2 million a year in hand offs. When examined in front of a Grand Jury as to the reason why their bank accounts showed so many large installments (some as high as USD$200,000) the responses came as;
- Being lucky in crap games and poker games.
- Betting on the right horse.
- Building bird cages for the retail trade.
- Raising thoroughbred dogs for sale.
- Lending money to dead saloon-keepers who left provisions in their will for the loan plus a large bonus.
- Having an interest in butcher stores, restaurants, and haberdasheries.
As for Hoff, by the time Prohibition was coming to an end in the early 1930s, much of his power and control began slipping as the demand and romanticism of the roaring 20’s began to abate. In the end it would be the same legal tactics used to capture Capone which saw him finally arrested and charged from tax evasion in 1933. Prohibition would be repealed the same year and Hoff, already stripped of most of his assets and finances after selling his final business, an ice cream parlor near the University of Pennsylvania campus – Hoff died of heart failure at a young and very broke 46 in 1941. Butler himself passed away the year before from intestinal cancer despite a successful career in politics and public speaking, Old Gimlet Eye would never forget his home front battle against prohibition between January 1924 until December 1925, reflecting that “Trying to enforce the war in Phili, was worse than any battle I was ever in” continuing to say,
“Sherman was right about war, but he never was head of police in Philadelphia”.
- Last Call: The rise and fall of prohibition, by Daniel Okrent. Scribner Inc, 2010
- Marine Corps Times: 22. November 15, 2004.
- Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History, by Hans Schmidt University Press of Kentucky, 1998
- Philadelphia Bootlegging: The Report of the Special August Grand Jury, by Mark H Haller, Temple University – PDF
- Noir Con: Calling All You Fans of Boo Boo Hoff, by Parry Desmond- blog article
- Remembering Max “Boo Boo” Hoff, by Parry Desmond – blog article
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