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 . . . 

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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)  

Prohibition Exhibit at the Library of Virginia

An exhibit at the Library of Virginia tells the story of Prohibition in Virginia. Titled “Teetotalers and Moonshiners,” the exhibit traces the prohibition movement from its start in Virginia in 1914 (6 years before national prohibition began in 1920) to its end. As in all states, implementing the new federal laws proved impossible, in part because so little money was allocated for enforcement. “Having only fifteen inspectors in this state, it is impossible for us to give prompt attention to the hundreds of complaints that come to the office,” wrote Harry B. Smith, Director of Prohibition in Richmond. He didn’t mention that their low pay made it easy for law-breakers to bribe them to look the other way. 

It’s a good exhibit! It runs through December 5, so you have plenty of time to drop in and see it. And there is free parking in the underground garage below the Library. 

Published in: on May 14, 2017 at 6:27 am  Leave a Comment  

Henry Creamer (Little-Known Today, Well-Known in the 1920s) Resurfaces Last Night

Last night, I attended a wonderful musical event at the Library of Virginia that featured two groups who played and sang music from the Prohibition era. The musicians gave some historical background and told little stories about the original singers and composers, then played their pieces. So were funny, some were hokey, and the talent was terrific.

One of the songwriters mentioned Henry (Hank) Creamer, an African-American lyricist and vaudeville performer well known in his day. Coincidentally, I mention him in passing in the first of my Roaring Twenties mystery series, THE IMPERSONATOR, so I was familiar with the man. What I didn’t know was that Creamer was born right here in Richmond, VA–a nice surprise for me. One of his most famous songs was “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (1922), which was still popular in 1939 when it was included in a dance numbers in Fred Astaire’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. 

Here’s the passage from THE IMPERSONATOR that mentions Creamer. Jessie is speaking to the man she’s just danced with. 

“What’s the matter?” I asked finally. “Aren’t you going to tell me how pretty my frock is?”

“Like everyone else? You can’t need that many compliments. I’ll tell you that your shoes are delightful, but I’ll wager your feet will be killing you by dinner. How can you dance in such high heels?”

The band began playing “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”

“Oh, that is one of my favorite jazz tunes!” I said.

“Hmmm, yes. Sadly, this is not a jazz band, and I’m afraid poor Hank Creamer wouldn’t recognize his own song if he were here tonight.”

I laughed. “You’re right, this is awful. Let’s sit.” We moved to the nearest table and I couldn’t resist saying, “As a matter of fact, I know Hank. He’s written a number of popular songs and is a talented song-and-dance man himself.”

“He’s a friend of yours?”

“I haven’t run into him in a while, but yes, we’ve shared billing a few times.”

“But I—but, I thought he was colored?”

“He is.”

“Oh my god,” he said, clearly horrified. “How very . . . interesting.”

 

Published in: on May 6, 2017 at 9:32 am  Comments (1)  
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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  
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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)  

A Pre-Order Deal on Book #4

For readers who want a hardcover copy of Book 4 in the Roaring Twenties series, I noticed that my publisher has posted it on amazon.com for pre-orders at a discount. The regular hardcover retail is $29, but pre-orders are $22.68. (One wonders where they get these odd prices . . . last week it was $22.46) The book won’t be released until August 1, when it will  be available in ebook format as well. Paperbacks don’t appear until about 6 months after that. 

Published in: on April 15, 2017 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

You Can Quit Correcting Me Now, Mother

I teach writing at the Richmond Jail (volunteer job), and my inmates, like many other people, are surprised when I tell them that the rules of grammar aren’t written in stone. This coming Monday, at my next class, I’ll be showing them an example of that, now that rules have changed on an important point.

It’s official!! “Their” can be singular! 

I can’t wait to tell my mother that she can stop correcting me when I say things like, ‘Everybody has their own opinion.’ (I know the old rule: that a singular subject takes a singular pronoun–it should be ‘Everybody has his or her own opinion’ unless it’s clearly masculine or feminine, like ‘Every girl has her own opinion.’) But at a recent meeting of the American Copyeditors Society, experts okayed a change that the major styles (Chicago and AP) agree on: “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and or gender neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.” THANK YOU!!! No more “Each child has his or her toy,” or pretending that “his” is neutral.

This is a day for celebration! Hooray!

Published in: on April 9, 2017 at 2:10 pm  Comments (3)  

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)