Bootlegging in the Basement

When I gave a lecture on the Roaring Twenties to the Campbell County Historical Society last week, I mentioned several examples of reputable institutions that dabbled in making illegal liquor, such as one hospital in Los Angeles that began ordering denatured alcohol by the boxcar instead of by the gallon, as it did before Prohibition, and churches buying ten times the amount of “sacramental wine” that they previously used. 

Well, Campbell County, Virginia, had an example of its own: the Academy Center of the Arts in Lynchburg. A newspaper article from 1918* told about a police raid on the Academy of Music Theater that resulted in the confiscation of 71 pints of liquor, along with the arrest of the theater manager and a stage hand. It seems that bootlegging in the basement brought in some extra income.

(*If you’re thinking that 1918 date is a mistake because Prohibition didn’t start until 1920, you’re thinking about national Prohibition. Virginia and several other states began their own version of prohibition several years before the rest of the country.)

Published in: on May 3, 2018 at 3:23 pm  Comments (2)  

The Man with the Green Hat’s House

The “man with the green hat” was famous in Washington DC during Prohibition. His name was George Cassidy and he was the unofficial bootlegger to Congress, the man who supplied all the “wet-drys” in the House of Representatives and the Senate. (A wet-dry is a politician who drinks but votes for prohibition.) Since most politicians were wet-drys, Cassidy had a lot of business. So much that he had to work from morning to late in the evening each day. 

It didn’t pay to be too blatant about delivering booze to Capitol Hill, so Cassidy played it carefully. Congressmen gave him office space in the House of Representatives building so they could pick up their illegal booze discretely. This went on for the first 5 years of Prohibition, until the Capitol Police busted him. He paid a fine. Banned from the House, he set up business in the Senate side, where complicit senators gave him space for his repository in what is now the Russell Building. Cassidy wrote in his memoirs that senators referred to him as the “librarian” and the product he sold as “new reading matter.” He was noted for wearing a green fedora. 

When I was visiting family on Capitol Hill yesterday, someone told me the house across the street was for sale–it had belonged to the Man with the Green Hat. And it’s even painted green! Check it out: 303 17th Street SE, listed for $650,000. No liquor included. 

ABC Agents Talk about Moonshine, Then and Now

An interesting lecture today at the Library of Virginia involved 2 agents, one retired, from the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control), who talked about busting illegal moonshine operations in Virginia back in the Prohibition days and today. I had no idea stills were so common! I learned that Virginia’s ABC was formed in 1934, the year after liquor became legal again, to regulate and control liquor sales. I learned that while it has been okay to make wine or beer in your home for your own consumption since the 1970s,  it is NOT okay to make distilled beverages. 

I also learned that Franklin County in southwestern Virginia, which was said to be the moonshine capital of the state (and of the country or world, according to some) continues to have the most illegal stills today. In the 1920s, a lot of Virginia’s illegal whiskey was shipped to Chicago. One of the agents, who was from that general region, said his father and grandfather made moonshine and that they remembered the mule-drawn wagons hauling moonshine to the Galax, Virginia, train station to send it to Al Capone. Maybe I can work that tidbit into my next story . . . 

Published in: on June 7, 2017 at 4:22 pm  Comments (2)  

Last Call in Virginia 1916

On November 1, 1916, all saloons, breweries, and distilleries in Virginia shut down. (Or they were supposed to. Some stayed open secretly and illegally.) There was one great, last-minute stampede to buy drinks, and it was reported in the Alexandria Gazette.

“The rush for liquor refreshments [in Harrisonburg, VA] Monday night and yesterday morning resembled a football mass attack or a charge of women on a bargain counter . . . it was like a Christmas holiday rush” as people swarmed the saloons for a last, legal drink.

So when national prohibition came around to the rest of the country in 1920, Virginians hardly noticed.

Published in: on May 27, 2017 at 1:36 pm  Comments (1)  

Hidden Flasks

This is a common photo–I’ve used it several times. But only last week did I come across an actual example of a hidden flask like the one pictured. A handy size, it could tuck into a gentleman’s breast pocket or under a lady’s skirt . . . too shocking for words.  (From the Library of Virginia exhibit on Prohibition.) 


Published in: on May 22, 2017 at 3:49 pm  Comments (4)  

Rumrunners on the Seas (and Great Lakes) Part II

The constant cat-and-mouse chase of rumrunners by the Coast Guard led to a sudden evolution of power boat technology. Speed was essential–for both sides! The Coast Guard tried to develop new, faster boats so they could outrun the smugglers, but there was one huge problem. When they did, federal law required them to make the specifications public so that any boatyard could bid on the construction contract . . . and, you guessed it, that let the smugglers in on the new design, which they then copied.

When Congress extended the three-mile limit (territorial waters) to twelve miles in an attempt to force party boats and smugglers out of business, they inadvertently made it even harder for the tiny Coast Guard, which now had to patrol a much larger expanse of sea.

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rumrunners on the Seas (and Great Lakes)

During Prohibition, the federal government tried to prevent illegal booze coming into the country on boats by turning enforcement over to the Coast Guard. Sadly, the Coast Guard was very small and very ineffectual. Any boats they seized were then sold at public auction, almost always back to the original owner, who was usually the only bidder and who continued with his import business. One example, cited in Last Call, is that of the Underwriter, a ship seized in the Long Island Sound 4 times in one year and auctioned 4 times, returning to rumrunning each time.

Making matters worse, the Coast Guard seamen were paid $36 a month–even in the 1920s, this was lousy pay–which meant it was laughably easy to bribe them to look the other way, just as the smugglers did with policemen. During the early years of Prohibition, there were so few Coast Guard boats, and those that existed lacked the power of the faster, rumrunners’ boats, that any interference in the illegal importation of liquor was minimal. That’s why, in THE IMPERSONATOR, one of my characters can run liquor from Canada to Oregon in a yacht without any interference from the Coast Guard. 


Published in: on April 23, 2017 at 1:48 pm  Comments (1)  

How much did it cost to bribe a cop during Prohibition?

Of course, there’s a wide range of correct answers to that question, but still, I needed to know what kind of money cops were generally paid to look the other way so I could depict this accurately in my books. I learned that U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Willebrandt (pictured), the highest ranking female in government during her tenure, once estimated that each of the 32,000 illegal speakeasies in New York City probably paid a policeman five dollars a day to stay in business. She aimed too low.Other sources show that in Manhattan at least, “speaks” paid more like four times that much. It was probably a good deal less in small towns.

Published in: on April 2, 2017 at 2:06 pm  Comments (2)  

Plea Bargaining in the Roaring Twenties

Plea bargaining didn’t begin in the Roaring Twenties, but the practice certainly became entrenched, thanks to the huge number of arrests for violating the prohibition laws. In large cities, Volstead violators by the thousands were rounded up and delivered to the courts–the backlog was overwhelming. The vast majority of all federal cases were prohibition violations. Emory Buckner, a US Attorney in New York (shown here in 1917), developed something he called “Bargain Day,” where he promised to ask the judge for a small fine if the accused would plead guilty. This way, he could handle 500 cases at one whack and the accused paid a small fine and went home. Another way authorities winked at the law . . . and another factoid I can use in my writing. 

Published in: on March 26, 2017 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  

An amusing exchange . . .

I came across this amusing exchange in Daniel Okrent’s Last Call.

Wayne Wheeler

Wayne Wheeler, the country’s leading prohibitionist and architect of the 18th amendment, characterized the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler (diplomat, philosopher, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who opposed prohibition) as “soaked in avarice, lust and rum” and that he belonged “with the bootleggers, rum-runners, owners of speak-easy property, wet newspapers, underworld denizens, alcoholic slaves and personal liberty fanatics in his fight to bring back booze.” 

Nicholas Butler

To which Butler replied, “It sounds as if something had happened to trouble him.” 

Published in: on March 11, 2017 at 9:37 am  Comments (4)  
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