Excerpt: Bootleggers and Borders

The following is an excerpt from Bootleggers and Borders: The Paradox of Prohibition on a Canada-U.S. Borderland (Nebraska, 2014) by Stephen T. Moore. 

From Chapter 4: The Halcyon Days of Rum-Running

Roy Haynes, the second U.S. commissioner of prohibition and an astute observer of the border’s effect on the liquor traffic, once remarked that it was impossible to keep liquor from dripping through a dotted line.1 Indeed, there probably was no greater symbolic evidence of the permeability of the U.S.-Canadian border than the success rumrunners and bootleggers enjoyed during prohibition.2 The border itself provided a lucrative opportunity. For thirteen years, pro­fessional rumrunners supplied liquor to thirsty Americans. Collectively, both challenged the vow of John Kramer, Haynes’s predecessor, that the law would be obeyed “in the cities large and small” and that liquor would not be manufactured, “nor sold, nor given away, nor hauled in anything on the surface of the earth nor under the sea nor in the air.”3 As Kramer soon discovered to his dismay, rumrunners and bootleggers succeeded precisely because they operated with the support of so many people. The same sentiment that had enabled smuggling prior to prohibition at least initially supported the liquor traffic during prohibition. In the Northwest, the smuggler’s paradise became the rumrunner’s paradise and the early years of the 1920s the halcyon days of rum-running.

The Respectable Crime

The principal supply of liquor, particularly of unadulterated whiskey, came from Canada, the Bahamas, or the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. Beyond geographical propinquity, Canada enjoyed great advantages as a potential supplier. Canadian brewers and distill­ers were eager to replace the markets lost when the various provinces and municipalities went dry in the years of and just after the First World War. Accordingly, the Dominion government refrained from banning the export of liquor and chose instead to take full advantage of the lucrative, thirsty, and captive American market. Not until 1930 would Canada make any serious effort to prohibit liquor exports to the United States.4

Assuaging the great American thirst quickly adopted the mantle of respectable enterprise, with bootleggers and rumrunners often attaining a social station not generally enjoyed by outlaws. Many a grateful consumer regarded the liquor smugglers as a romantic breed of modern-day Robin Hoods. Few bootleggers were likely to argue with such a characterization. Fraser Miles, one British Columbian rumrunner, considered himself part of an “international drought relief project.”5 Those who supplied liquor were public philanthropists who brought prosperity to British Columbia while providing a valuable service to thirsty Americans. It is, of course, hard for the historian to separate sincerity from the self-rationalization used to justify illicit activities; many rumrunners certainly claimed a greater social conscience than they really had.

Nevertheless, at the heart of these rationalizations were certain truths. Rumrunners liberated the consumer from some of the more peril­ous domestic alternatives, especially diverted industrial alcohol and moonshine. Following the chemical industry’s expansion during World War I, new products like rayon silk, antifreeze, and photographic films required vast amounts of denatured alcohol. As a consequence, the production of industrial alcohol increased fourfold during the 1920s, and it was not particularly difficult to divert it to bootleg channels. To discourage its diversion, the Prohibition Bureau insisted that manu­facturers add any one of seventy-six denaturants. Many, like lavender or soap, were harmless; others, such as sulfuric acid, iodine, and wood alcohol, however, were poisonous. These additives did not always deter the less scrupulous bootleggers, who mixed industrial alcohol with caramel and prune juice to make “scotch,” then bottled their concoc­tions with forged labels suggesting it came from England or Canada.6

The hazards to public health from this “rot-gut” or “coffin varnish” soon became evident in the rising incidence rates of alcohol poisoning. As the Post-Intelligencer commented in 1920, the “trouble with the spirit of the times is that it’s often full of wood alcohol.”7 Liquor smuggled from Canada, on the other hand, provided the American consumer closest to the border with the purest, most unadulterated spirits. It quickly became common knowledge nationally that the best brands were available in the upper Puget Sound region due to its proximity to British Columbia.8

At least initially, few Canadians expressed any qualms about their role as supplier to the liquor traffic. As one exporter commented, “The people of the United States want whisky and they are ready to pay for it. I see no reason why we should not do business.”9 The Dominion agreed; indeed, it tacitly condoned the rumrunner’s activities. So far as Canadian law was concerned, exporting liquor to the United States was legal. In 1920, deciding to take advantage of the market opened by the Eighteenth Amendment, the Dominion levied a special twenty-dollar-per-case export duty on liquor destined for American ports. Thereafter customs officers routinely cleared liquor cargoes to the United States when their receipt was in clear violation of the Eighteenth Amend­ment. To further assist distillers in taking advantage of the American market, the government reduced the required aging time for distilled spirits from twenty-four months to twelve. As the historian James Gray notes, somewhat playfully, rum-running was at least tacitly accepted in Canada as a legitimate enterprise, if “one that fell somewhat short of an international aid program.”10

The “respectability” of rum-running also stemmed from the knowledge that many officials were willing to look the other way. It was no secret that the antipathy held by much of the American public toward the Eighteenth Amendment extended to those who legislated or enforced the law. Even many otherwise dry Republicans recognized that the busi­ness of rum-running flourished because of popular demand. Unduly vigorous efforts to enforce the liquor laws would, they assumed, threaten party interests. That public officials occasionally moonlighted as rum­runners — including, for example, a member of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly, a former Washington state legislator, and numerous members of the Seattle police — no doubt contributed to the belief in rum-running as an acceptable, if not a truly noble, pursuit.11

 

 

Notes: 

  1. Haynes, Prohibition Inside Out, 87.
  2. If one were pressed to make a distinction between a bootlegger and a rumrunner, a bootlegger was generally one who smuggled liquor by land while a rumrunner was one who smuggled liquor by water. Colloquially, however, contemporaries used both terms interchangeably. So too does this story.
  3. Kramer quoted in Merz, Dry Decade, 123.
  4. Kottman, “Volstead Violated,” 109.
  5. Miles, Slow Boat on Rum Row, 214.
  6. Vancouver Daily Province, January 20, 1929, 6; Mendeville, “Sources of the Booze Supply”; Merz, Dry Decade, 66–67; Hacker, “Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” 667.
  7. Merz, Dry Decade, 196–97; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 1921, 6.
  8. New York Times, March 22, 1926, 1–2.
  9. Maclean’s Magazine, December 1, 1928, 5. One Washington daily unappreciatively called Canada’s participation “a national indulgence toward the export trade.” See Spokane Spokesman-Review, July 30, 1922, 1.
  10. Lonsdale, “Rumrunners on Puget Sound,” 30; Gray, Booze, 131, 189.
  11. Portland Oregonian, November 11, 1923, 9; Richardson, Pig War Islands, 309; R. Campbell, Demon Rum or Easy Money, 24.