Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bootleggers and Blind Pigs - Prohibition Era Detroit

The Prohibition era conjures images of flappers, Al Capone Tommy-guns, hidden passages, and secret basement speakeasies, otherwise known as blind pigs. I was surprised to learn the impact of illegal alcohol smuggling in Detroit during Prohibition. 

Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a
clandestine brewery during the Prohibition era
{PD} National Archive
From the mid-1800s, the temperance movement worked to outlaw sales of alcohol in Michigan. They hoped to reduce crime and improve family life. At the end of 1916, Michigan was the first state to amend prohibition into the state constitution. It took effect in May of 1917.

Soon the criminal element were happy to take over the control of alcohol sales through bootlegging and smuggling. Individual states had their own laws and in 1918, Congress enacted a temporary law to limit the sales of beverages to those with an alcohol content of 1.28% or below. By 1920,
the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the sales of alcoholic beverages altogether. While wine could be used for religious purposes and alcohol could be owned and consumed privately, local laws could be much stricter. 

Detroit, circa 1920, {PD}

Detroit, a short distance across the river from Windsor, Ontario, Canada became a prime hub for smuggling liquor. Whether by boat, driving across the frozen river in winter, or walking across with bottles stowed in their boots (Real bootlegging!), it was a short distance to bring in the illegal substance from a foreign country. The bootlegger’s trick to sneaking the hooch across the ice safely was to drive slowly and not overload the car! Around 70% of hooch illegaly smuggled into the U.S. during Prohibition came through Detroit.

Thousands of speakeasies sprouted up across the city and the Motor City became also known as Whiskeytown. Gangster activity mushroomed over the next decade. 

Detroit's notorious Purple Gang, {PD}

The notorious Purple Gang, led by Abe Bernstein and his brother, included other members of his family, and their former reform school friends. They controlled most of the gambling, drug, and alcohol trades in the city. 

If the Purple Gang caught a smuggler on their way back to Detroit with a load of booze, they held up the driver at gunpoint, killed them, and took over the vehicle. Known for their violence, they murdered at least 500 of their rivals. Fear of retribution caused local police to often turn a blind eye to the gang’s activities. They truly held Detroit in a grip of fear and terrorism.

Even Al Capone, feared their violent tactics, and struck up a partnership rather than engage in turf wars with them. The Purple Gang made sure Capone received his share of the Canadian whiskey he was so fond of.

Al Capone, {PD}
In 1931 due to suspicions of alleged betrayal in the Purple gang, three of its members were murdered in the Collingwood Manor Massacre. Three of the gang’s leadership was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Afterward, in-fighting and rivalries brought a collapse to the gang. By 1935, a rival Sicilian mob controlled the underbelly of the city.

By then, law enforcement was doing their best to curb the 
. Discouraged by the increase in crime and the desire for an increase in jobs through legal manufacturing of alcohol, the issue of Prohibition came to the forefront once again. In 1933, Michigan repealed its own Prohibition amendment. By the end of the year, December 5, to be exact, Prohibition was repealed across the nation.

Raid at Elk Lake, Ontario, {PD}
Detroit eventually became known again for the strength of its automobile industry. A decade later, it would be called “the arsenal of democracy” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for the manufacturing of equipment used in World War II.

Does your city or town have a "hidden" history that might not be well known to others outside the area? Please share!

Kathleen Rouser is the award-winning author of Rumors and Promises, her first novel about the people of fictional Stone Creek, Michigan, and its sequel, Secrets and Wishes. Kathleen wanted to be a writer before she could even read. She lives in Michigan with her hero and husband, Jack, and the sassy tailless cat who found a home in their empty nest. Connect with Kathleen on her website at, on Facebook at, and on Twitter @KathleenRouser. 


  1. Interesting post! I don't know much about Detroit except its tie to the auto industry. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're welcome, Linda. I've lived in SE Michigan all of my life and I didn't know this about the Detroit area until my husband was watching a show about Prohibition. It is new to me too. :)

  2. Wow! What a wild time! Thanks for sharing!

    1. It does sound wild, doesn't it? And to think my parents were kids then and lived there . . . Thanks for stopping by, Connie.

  3. New history about Detroit for me. Thank you for sharing this interesting post.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Marilyn. Glad you learned something new. It was new to me recently as well!

  4. Love history like this. I grew up in Detroit Jr., AKA - Flint. So sad to see what happened to these once great cities. Interestingly, the Purple Gang affiliated with organized labor. Who has ever noticed the "organized labor" - AKA - unions, are at the root of so much destruction and decay. Coincidence? Hmmmm.