Tuesday, August 29, 2023

A New Breed of Lawbreaker and Lawman--Gangsters and Agents in the 1920s

Gangsters and Agents

Last month I wrote about the Volstead Act, a law with loopholes. People had wasted no time in finding workarounds to the new Prohibition law that went into effect January 1920. In fact, a week into the law’s passage, portable stills were already being sold around the country. The Volstead Act was used to enforce the new law. Nevertheless, while some people complied with Prohibition, many others sought to either exploit the loopholes or outright break the law. This meant different things in different echelons of society.

Those with wealth purchased and hoarded the entire inventories of liquor wholesalers and retailers, emptying warehouses and storerooms to stockpile for their personal use. Even the acting presidents of the era were in on the game. President Woodrow Wilson supplied his private residence in Washington after his term ended, and his successor President Warren Harding brought a large stash with him to the White House when he moved in.

Warren G. Harding, 29th President of the United States (March 1921-August 1923)

The average person didn’t have the luxury of buying out their local saloons or clubs, so many turned to acquiring alcohol by other means. Thus the era of the bootlegger was born--and not only the bootleggers, but the gangsters who operated intricate organizations that controlled the bootlegging industry. Unheard of before, many gangsters developed infamous reputations, the most notable being Chicago's Al Capone, whose crime syndicate built on bootleg alcohol was notorious.

Photo: Dario Studios / Deposit Photos

But while special agents set out to try and catch Capone, a great many other agents from the government's new Bureau of Prohibition took on the mission of stopping the sale and purchase of the everyday homemade whiskey, or "bathtub gin" being bootlegged around the country. On farms, in backwoods operations, in basements—the mom or pop setting up home distilleries, or the small-time operator looking to make a few bucks and have keep up their own supply—these were being ferreted out by agents appointed specifically to the task. The primary reason for halting production was possibly not even related to the issue of drinking as much as it was related to the government not getting the taxes such revenue created. Hence, the nickname for these Bureau men became “Revenue Agents” or simply “Revenuers”.

The following newsreel shows federal agents performing a raid on a $200,000 bootlegging plant.

These new kinds of criminals subverting the law thought they had it made—literally. They were using everything they could find to make their own liquor. For instance, grape juice, an unprohibited beverage, could be fermented in only a matter of a couple of months. Ethyl alcohol was also a popular ingredient used to make illegal booze.

However, they didn’t have it made in the shade quite like they thought.

The federal government caught on and gave the order for certain chemicals to be added to all industrial alcohols in a process called denaturation. These chemicals made the alcohol used in creating bootleg booze unpalatable or downright poisonous. Nevertheless, many bootleggers doubled down and hired chemists on their end to remove those chemicals. In this bizarre battle of chemistry, the Treasury Department (remember what I said about the tax man…) required manufactures to add even more deadly poisons. Methyl alcohol was one that contained such elements as pyridine and benzene.

Side note: almost three decades back, a train derailed in my county that sent benzene spilling into a small river. Everyone for miles around, including most of the city of Superior, Wisconsin had to evacuate their homes and remain out of the area for a time due to the deadly nature of the toxins in the air and water. That stuff is nothing to mess around with!

Back to the Feds and Bootleggers…

The federal policies were opposed by medical examiners, specifically in New York, where as many as 10,000 deaths were blamed on these poisonous additives. They claimed that the moral responsibility for the deaths was to be laid at the feet of the federal government.

Not to be entirely dissuaded, bootleggers kept seeking other ways to imbibe. Those of you who have worked in food service and hospitality or who go camping without amenities might be familiar with “sterno” or what has been called “canned heat”. Sterno is a type of fuel (denatured alcohol) that is indeed poisonous. But bootleggers and those who really wanted to drink it would force the substance through a cloth filter and use it as a rough liquor substitute. Filtering still left them a poisonous drink, but it was not as often lethal. I can only say, wow, that’s pretty desperate.

A 1915 magazine ad (Wikipedia commons)

The methanol in Sterno can cause permanent blindness by destroying the optic nerves. The stuff gave birth to a song in the '20s called Canned Heat Blues.

In the end, by the time prohibition was repealed in 1933,there were 227 gangsters killed in a four-year period in Chicago alone, though more of them were killed by one another as they competed for supremacy in their underworld endeavors than by federal agents. As for Al Capone, the tax man finally caught up to him. He was arrested for tax evasion and sentenced to eleven years in federal prison, but his ill health overtook him during his incarceration. When he was finally released, he retired to a mansion in Florida.

As for the former moonshiners, bootleggers, and suppliers, many of them simply moved into the legitimate liquor trade at the end of prohibition.

Looking into the past with you,

Coming Soon! 
~One cookbook connects them all.~

I and ten other authors are quickly approaching the 2024, month-by-month release of a new book series: the Apron Strings collection, which follows one cookbook passing into the hands of a different woman each decade from 1920 to 2020. January kicks off with the first book Polly, whom we meet just as prohibition takes effect. The PRE-SALE for Polly begins in just a few days (September 1st!) Meanwhile, the entire Apron Strings series has it's own Facebook group in which the authors share tidbits about their stories, recipes, fashion, and fun & games. Come join us for sneak peeks and updates, and get ready for Polly, Apron Strings Book One! I'll be sharing the full cover there in a couple of days! ~Naomi

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I didn't realize the extent to which participants on either side of this issue went to to achieve their goals. It's scary to me that the government would add toxic chemicals to products that would reach the consumer, but I am not awake enough to pursue that thought further!!