by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
In a scene reminiscent of the HBO series about Prohibition Era bootleggers, Boardwalk Empire, it was reported that one of the Winnipeg victims of the liquor and three-car hijacking in North Dakota, who had been making the same run for two years, recognized the American leader, and that as a result of his complaint, “powers that lie back of the interests here are attempting to obtain some restitution for the men who are out (of their whiskey and cars) on the trip.”
Two years before the hijacking, in the October 22, 1922, Tribune article, a bootlegger was asked if running whiskey across the border was “risky.”
The reply was, “Not at all,” although there was the possibility of a periodic
“As in the risk, there is practically none, so far as shooting or jail terms are concerned. In Canada it is legal to load up with liquor into your car, take bills of lading and customs papers, and nobody on earth can detain you. You are on lawful business until you cross the line (border).
“After you cross the line, there is the city, county, the state and the federal authorities. Prohibition is a (U.S.) federal law. Its enforcement is left to the federal officers.”
The Winnipeg bootlegger said city, county or state police wouldn’t touch rum-runners. And if caught by the federal agents, the only outcome was the loss of a small quantity of liquor and receiving a $25 to $500 fine, “but you make more than that by your next successful trip.”
He said the Manitoba border was being patrolled, but rum-runners were getting through. “I can leave here and cross near Emerson, or at points further west, and be out of Manitoba in from two to eight hours without even being seen. Those fellows do not know the roads and trails and fords. They can watch bridges till the cows come home, and never get anybody.”
The lure of a quick buck with little perceived risk, attracted individual entrepreneurs, many of whom were farmers or small-town residents living along the international boundary, to rum-running. The individual rum-runner would amass a load of liquor — whether home brew or the “good stuff” — and venture forth by car or truck on rural back roads to quench the thirst of Americans across the border. The profits were enormous and highly tempting for a farmer struggling to eke out a living from the land.
Once a rum-runner crossed the border, the liquor was delivered to locations — usually farms — where it could be stashed until picked up a gang for distribution to customers in Mid-West cities.
Rum-runners from Winnipeg and Minneapolis were more organized than their rural counterparts, and had links to the major crime figures in the Mid-West, such as Al Capone, head of the “Chicago Outfit,” Kid Cann in Minneapolis and New York’s Genovese crime family.
The November 13, 1923, Manitoba Free Press described what it termed an “endless chain of rum-runners over the line” to Minneapolis, which was a “conspiracy to smuggle high-grade liquor” to the Minnesota city. The smugglers only sent a few bottles at a time to Minneapolis from Winnipeg concealed in suitcases. Prohibition agents in the U.S. said the “suitcase carriers turned their packages over to a rum-runner bootlegger clearing house upon arrival in Minneapolis.”
Whisky was bought for $53 a case and then quart bottles “were parcelled out to scores of operatives who rode as railway passengers from Winnipeg to Minneapolis.
“The system then was to distribute the liquor to drivers and bootleggers for retail sale at fancy prices.”
In some cases, cab drivers were used to distribute the booze. Two Minneapolis cabbies were arrested with bottles in their possession, although they weren’t subsequently charged with a liquor offence.
But four men involved in the Minneapolis bootlegging exchange were arrested and charged with “conspiracy” to smuggle liquor into the U.S. and were eventually released on $2,000 bail each.
According to M.L. Harvey, the prohibition field chief in Minneapolis, the brains of the gang behind the scheme was a man named Abe, “a wealthy Winnipeg resident who finances the conspiracy.”
The Winnipeg-Minneapolis connection wasn’t always above board. “Fancy prices” were occasionally charged for what turned out to be rot-gut whiskey. Chemist Gavin D. Williams examined some of the product sent to the Minnesota city and found labels were counterfeited and the so-called premium Scotch whiskey was no more than coloured low-grade alcohol.
Winnipeg was actually awash with private stills producing home brew for the international trade. The Tribune on January 2, 1924, reported excise officers had raided 100 such operations in one year alone, but the “business survives.”
Inspector W.H. Stubbs, the enforcement officer for the Canadian excise prevention service, had a display he called “Poison Row” in his office. The row of poisonous liquor had been seized during raids. Most of lethal liquor was distilled from vehicle anti-freeze and tincture of iodine.
The tincture of iodine was shipped in 40-gallon casks from a well-known Eastern Canadian manufacturer. The tincture, which contained 90 to 95 per cent of low-grade alcohol, was placed outside in the winter to freeze, which separated the iodine from the alcohol.
Then the spirit was added to quantities of anti-freeze — consisting of commercial-grade alcohol, glycerine and water. “The whole mess was then put into the boilers and the alcohol in it distilled. Even after the redistillation this questionable stuff, when poured upon white paper, stains it the iodine brown. The results of drinking this stuff as whiskey may be left to the imagination.
“Winnipeg and district have become the mixers of mash and the drawers of illicit alcohol for the underworld relatives of one Uncle Sam, according to those engaged in the business of checkmating the traffic,” reported the Tribune.
The home distillation of spirits became the new business practice for bootleggers due to the Manitoba government’s liquor control commission raising the price of “good” liquor bought in the province.
“Hence the establishment of stills, large and small in the houses, barns, farm premises and all sorts of out-of-the-way places here ... The liquor they distill varies similarly — from the vilest kind of chain lightning to the double-distilled ‘69 O.P.’
“Seriously, it is declared that the illicit distillers sell their product for auto-smuggling to the south, where the bulk of stories of poison-liquor fatalities come from. The poison may be contained, in part, in the stuff that is distilled here; and it may be possible in the ingredients that are added in the south before the finished product is bottled up and sold under all the forged labels of standard brands of well-known liquors.”
The distilled liquor was bottled in one-gallon, five-gallon and 10-gallon bottles in Manitoba and sold south of the border for $18 per gallon to U.S. rum-runners.
Anyone willing to use their car to smuggle booze into the U.S. was paid $300 per trip, according to reports provided to the Canadian excise service. In addition, a special fund was set up by the gangs to compensate a car driver who fell into the hands of the police.
An offshoot of the illicit liquor trade was car thefts on both sides of the border.
A report in the November 19, 1921, Tribune said that rum-runners from the U.S. stole cars south of the border, bringing them north to sell so that they had cash to buy booze.
If a car(s) failed to sell, an informant cited by the newspaper said the vehicle was abandoned in a ditch and set ablaze or run into a river. In a 10-kilometre stretch south of Glenboro, all manner of vehicles used for smuggling were found abandoned and destroyed.
“A rum-runner can not be bothered to steal an ordinary car,” said the informant. “He specializes in Buicks, Studebakers and Cadillacs, though other makes are by no means beneath notice. I have seen many a brand-new Cadillac traded for three cases of whiskey — equal to about $150.”
Depending upon the model of 1921 Cadillac, the price could vary between $4,000 and $5,600.
“When a rum-runner sells a ‘hot’ car it is sold with the understanding that he must ‘ring it up.’ By ‘ringing’ a car they change every number in the machine and body and will go even so far as repainting.”
If a stolen car broke down on the Canadian side of the border, the practice was to steal another and transfer the load to it and burn up the car that broke down. A photo in the November 17, 1921, Tribune shows the remains of a Studebaker “Master Six” stolen in Winnipeg for the border run-running trade and burned up near Headingley where it broke down. In the early-1920s, before Manitoba abandoned prohibition, the town west of Winnipeg was a distribution centre for liquor obtained from Saskatchewan-based “boozoriums.”
The more adventurous rum-runners used airplanes to transport booze to the U.S.
Following a tip, Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) intercepted or scared off whisky-smuggling airplanes intended to be flown to Minneapolis on March 7, 1921. One of the aircraft was captured at Waugh, Manitoba, while another was located forty miles away, and a third was scared off. Police seized 15 cases of liquor in St. Boniface that were intended to be sent to Waugh.
The liquor was purchased from the Manitoba Liquor Commission outlet using permits issued to several men, with all the permit holders giving their address as Waugh. Ironically, the town was named after R.D. Waugh, the chairman of the liquor commission. In fact, the men were all from the U.S. and said they were merely visiting Waugh.
“The police believe the entire scheme is backed by a wealthy St. Paul and Minneapolis rum-running syndicate, which had planned to start a scheduled traffic in illegal liquor between Winnipeg and the two Minnesota cities” (Tribune, March 8, 1921).
“In the mid-1920s Manitoba’s provincial police stated that airplanes were transporting Canadian liquor from Winnipeg to Minneapolis, Minnesota,” wrote J. Anne Funderburg in Bootleggers and Beer Barons of the Prohibition, 2014. “American customs officials confiscated two of the planes, which were equipped with skis for landing on ice in the winter.”
(Next week: part 3)