by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Rum-running during the Prohibition Era was quite lucrative on both sides of the United States-Canada border. While Windsor, Ontario, on the Canadian side, with its connection to Detroit, Michigan, on the American side of the international border, is commonly associated with rum-running, there was also a booming illicit liquor trade in Western Canada, including Manitoba.
And while the U.S. had its share of legendary gun-toting gangsters engaged in running booze across the border and its distribution in the U.S., with Al “Scarface” Capone being among the most notorious, Manitoba also had a few desperados who were willing to pack heat to protect their merchandize during delivery. But none of the rum-runners on the Manitoba side of the border gained the infamy of the mobsters in the U.S.
Instead of sobering up America, the National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, led to a out-of-control crime wave, typified by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, and a citizenry intent upon flaunting the law, typified by the proliferation of speakeasies.
What is probably surprising to Manitobans is that this province had it’s own experiment with prohibition, which was as equally unsuccessful as the American version, although much shorter in duration than its U.S. counterpart at seven years versus 14 years. Manitobans learned earlier and more quickly than the Americans that prohibition, despite being touted as a cure for the social evil of rampant intoxication, had the opposite effect. In essence, making alcohol illegal made it more desirable. As a result, prohibition failed miserably in its goal to establish a province filled with teetotalers.
Initially, Manitoba Premier T.C. Norris, whose government passed the 1916 Manitoba Temperance Act, pointed to statistics that showed public drunkenness infractions in the courts had diminished in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of prohibition. But this was misleading, as people merely changed their drinking habits, taking to the bottle in their private homes and in illegal “blind pigs,” away from the prying eyes of the government and its courts.
Many would also be surprised to know that Winnipeg, similar to Chicago, had its own Elliot Ness. Alexander McCurdy of the Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) was appointed the chief morality officer in 1918 and was charged to enforce the temperance act, which was passed by the provincial legislature after Manitobans overwhelmingly voted, 50,484 to 26,052, in favour of prohibition in a plebiscite.
Manitoba’s prohibition law was not as severe as the Volstead Act. A number of loopholes existed that made it relatively easy for most Manitobans to obtain alcoholic beverages and, in turn, aided rum-runners sending booze across the border. The only group to suffer the full effect of prohibition were hotel and bar owners, who were forced to shut down their highly-profitable drinking establishments.
Under Manitoba’s prohibition law, all previously legal bars were closed, alcohol could only be consumed in private residences, liquor could only be purchased through government sanctioned dispensaries and only for industrial, scientific, mechanical and medicinal purposes, and distillers and brewers could be licenced to manufacture alcohol, but only for export outside the province.
The inclusion of “medicinal” purposes meant that doctors’ prescriptions for alcohol were widely abused, as shown by the long line-ups at pharmacies during the December holidays. In 1921, two years before prohibition ended in Manitoba, doctors issued 1,211,461 prescriptions for intoxicants in the province.
Crafty alcohol distillers marketed their products as medicine. The Bronfmans created the Canada Drug Pure Company to store and sell liquor across the prairies for “medicinal” purposes.
So-called medicinal remedies were loaded with alcohol, such as Hall’s Great Discovery, which contained 43 per cent alcohol, Hottetter’s Bitters had an alcohol content of 46 per cent, and topping them all was Hamlin’s Wizard, which had a mind-numbing 65 per cent alcohol content.
Since each province had its own prohibition law that included a clause limiting distillers to exporting their products out-of-province, Manitobans could telephone a Saskatchewan or Ontario warehouse and have a bottle sent by post to their home, where it was perfectly legal to consume intoxicating beverages.
But this changed in 1920 when the federal government for the first time allowed Manitoba to legislate against the importation of liquor into the province, which consequently led to an increase in bootlegging and rum-running.
Recognizing that they could earn more by converting their crops into alcohol, many rural farmers set up stills and shipped their home brew to grateful urban consumers.
Prohibition, as was the case in the U.S., had the unintended result of encouraging normally law-abiding citizens to become law-breakers, as well as contributed to a proliferation of illegal actives by opportunist hard-core criminals.
Speaking before a U.S. Senate committee in Washington, D.C., investigating the Volstead Act, Francis William Russell, the president of the Moderation League in Manitoba, said: “Western Canada never had such a crime wave before as we had during the last two years of prohibition. Thank God, we did away with it. It went out with the bootleggers and the rum-runner.”
Clandestine “blind pigs,” or “speakeasies,” opened across Winnipeg and served illegal alcohol to thirsty customers with booze provided by rum-runners.
In his book, Manitoba Medicine: A Brief History, Ian Carr wrote that on some Winnipeg streets every third or fourth house was a bootlegger’s.
Under the provisions of Manitoba prohibition, once-legal hotel bars were ordered shut down, but that didn’t prevent some hotels from flaunting the law and establishing speakeasies. One of the more infamous of these speakeasies was in the Stockyards Hotel at the corner of Marion and Archibald in St. Boniface.
The hotel was a short distance from the 137-acre Union Stock Yards on Marion Street, which was the biggest employer in St. Boniface, where cattle were received from all three Prairie Provinces and shipped to Eastern Canada and exported to Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. At the stock yards could be found salesmen, buyers, shippers, producers and yard employees, some of who periodically visited the hotel to slake their thirst. The Stockyards Hotel was frequently raided by morality officers.
The August 23, 1923, Winnipeg Tribune, reported that W.E. Ramsay of the Commercial Hotel and W. Paulson of the King George Hotel were each fined $200 for infractions of the Manitoba Temperance Act. The same article reported that five hotels were raided by the morality squad and samples of over-strength beer spiced liquor were seized.
“The proprietors will be summoned to appear Thursday morning in the city police court to face charges of having liquor in a place other than a private dwelling” ended the article.
The Manitoba Temperance Act invoked prohibition in Manitoba, which was dividing the province into “wets” and “drys,” although the primary anti-prohibition group termed itself the Manitoba Moderation League. As in the U.S., Manitoba prohibition was a failed experiment, doomed to become an historical footnote. Prohibition ended in 1923 after Manitobans voted in a plebiscite against its continuation. It wasn’t until years later in 1933 that the U.S. repealed the Volstead Act that established prohibition in 1919, which led to widespread lawlessness personified by gangsters such as Capone and Lucky Luciano.
In 1923, it was reported that Winnipeg was “dripping wet.” Even before that was stated, the Tribune on October 24, 1923, claimed, “Liquor is coming into Winnipeg by the car-lot, and quite frequently.
“This statement was made by one of the most noted — or notorious — rum-runners of the border country, well acquainted with the men under arrest in the West in connection with the Matoff murder and thoroughly in touch with the conditions surrounding border crime.”
Paul Matoff received a shot-gun blast in the back on October 4, 1922, at the Bienfait, Saskatchewan, railway station shortly after he made a liquor sale to an American rum-runner.
Matoff was the general manager of the “Bienfait boozorium” — the Regina Wine and Spirits Company — owned by Winnipeg-based Harry Bronfman. The warehouse was licensed to export spirits to neighbouring provinces, but was primarily used to supply American rum-runners (Booze: When Whiskey Ruled the West, by James Gray, 1972).
In 1922, the boozorium earned $500,000 a month for the Bronfman family (Grass Roots, by Heather Robinson).
“It is the gossip of the Saskatchewan rum runners’ world that the slaying of Paul Matoff grew out of a feud with North Dakota booze gangsters who claimed they had been gypped in several loads of booze they had got from this side. Some one, they claimed, had slipped in several odd cases of water (that is, the booze was watered down) and they wanted some one to make their loss good and threatened a killing if that somebody did not come through” (Tribune, October 22, 1922).
In his book, Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada, Stephen Schneider wrote that Matoff’s murder was a reprisal for his alleged role in the arrest of Minnesota’s notorious Kid Cann gang, which had previously hijacked a Bronfman car loaded with booze.
Another report stated that Matoff’s body was rifled and $6,000 in cash was taken.
A Canadian and an American were charged with the murder, but both were acquitted. The murder is unsolved to this day.
After the murder, public hearings were held that revealled the Bronfmans’ involvement with some of America’s most notorious gangsters.
Public opinion was also changing against the bootleggers as a result of a spate of robberies that were believed to have been perpetrated by American gangsters associated with the liquor trade.
Although they received little more than a reprimand from the Canadian government, there was a crackdown initiated against the liquor warehouses in Saskatchewan, which prompted the Bronfmans to move their base of operations to Montreal.
The unnamed bootlegger in the 1923 Tribune article said: “The liquor from Saskatchewan cannot be depended upon at all. I bought 60 cases a short while ago, labelled as John Dewar’s Scotch, and sold 35 cases of it. Then I had so many complaints that I examined every bottle in the other 15 cases and found it all rotten — as rotten that I wouldn’t offer it to anyone except as a gift, and then only if I wanted to push someone off the old earth.”
The bootlegger claimed the “stuff” was no doubt manufactured in Saskatchewan, so “who knows what they put in it.”
The unsavoury nature of some of the booze being peddled resulted in an incident which involved a Winnipeg gang and an American gang during a “bootlegger war along the boundary,” according to the July 18, 1924, Tribune.
“The row is the result of a double-cross a gang of Canadian runners played on their American conferrers several weeks ago.
“The Canadians had agreed to deliver a shipment of 48 cases to one of the North Dakota ‘receiving depots.’ The 48 cases were delivered, but 26 of them weren’t the expected good Manitoba liquor ... And so the hold-up of the Winnipeg gang was in retaliation.
“There was a gunfight on a lone road five miles south of Bisbee, N.D., between the rivals, it is stated. No one was wounded, but the highjackers (sic) got the liquor and the cars.”
The three cars left Winnipeg by separate routes, travelling by night and before crossing the international border just west of Morden, Manitoba, they joined up for mutual protection. A total of six men were in the cars.
After crossing the U.S.-Canada border, the three-car caravan encountered a barrier of barbed wire stretched across a rural road in North Dakota. This forced the first car to abruptly stop, at which point, a shot rang out.
The Canadians initially believed that the three cars were being trapped and stopped by U.S. border agents. In fear that they were about to be arrested, the men in the second and third cars sped off through adjacent fields, more shots rang out and “they were stopped by a gang of men.”
According to the report related to the newspaper by another rum-runner, an American hijacker said: “You ----- Canadians are getting pretty fly with your bum booze and we’re just teaching you a lesson. You carry word back that the next man that tries to put anything over on us will get the same treatment with a little more added to it. We don’t intend to be trifled with in the future.”
The Americans seized the $10,000 shipment of whiskey as well as the Winnipeg rum-runners’ cars.
(Next week: part 2)