by Bruce Cherney (part 4)
According to testimony at a 1927 Royal Commission hearing, Canadian customs officer Cyril Knowles ordered the cars of the three American rum-runners seized as required by law for failure to report to customs upon entering Canada. The Americans accompanied Knowles to the Bronfman liquor export warehouse in Gainsborough, Saskatchewan, near the province’s border with southern Manitoba and quite close to the U.S. border, where they had purchased the booze. Knowles, who was based in Winnipeg, said he required more than $3,000 for a deposit before the cars would be released. The Americans had been told by warehouse manager Max Keppner that if they got in trouble with the law, they could receive help from him. As it turned out, warehouse owner Harry Bronfman was in Keppner’s office when the men arrived.
“The testimony of witnesses on both sides was identical up to this point,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on September 10, 1927. “Then there was a sharp divergence. Officer Knowles declared that Harry Bronfman offered him money to keep out of the district. His statement is supported by witnesses. Harry Bronfman denied this absolutely, and his statement also met strong support from witnesses ... the evidence is contradictory.”
The amount of the alleged bribe to Knowles was $3,000 a month.
When Max Keppner testified, he admitted to selling the liquor to the Americans. When he and Bronfman met Knowles in Gainsborough, the customs inspector “demanded a deposit of over $3,000 ... this was paid to Officer Knowles and then he was requested (by Bronfman) to see the cars across the line with their load. Mr. Knowles, however, refused to do this, the witness declared, and said the liquor was seized for the Manitoba government. Harry Bronfman got angry at this, and there were high words. Eventually the men quieted down and Officer Knowles went away.”
During Bronfman’s testimony to the commission, he related that the demand for a deposit on the cars was paid. He also admitted there had been a heated exchange of words, “and I told him if he would take off his badge and come outside and stand up for ten minutes with me, I would give him twice the money.”
This was more of a bluff, since Bronfman undoubtedly knew that the customs officer would not place himself in such a compromising situation.
At the commission hearings, which were held across Canada, Bronfman insisted that no bribe had been offered to Knowles.
On the other hand, RCMP Constable A.G. Pyper, who accompanied Knowles on the patrol along the Manitoba-U.S. international border, told the commission that a bribe had been offered,“if Knowles would get out of the province (Saskatchewan).”
Captain William Vaughan, who in 1920 owned a livery service in Winnipeg, said he was also present during the meeting, “and confirmed Knowles’ statement that Bronfman had offered $3,700 for Knowles to get out of the district and at another date asked Knowles if he had considered his offer.”
Bronfman’s revenge against Knowles was allegedly to report the inspector to his superiors which resulted in an official reprimand.
Following a 1922 raid of Bronfman’s Dominion Distributors, Knowles had discovered a counterfeit strip of 15,000 U.S. revenue stamps and forged liquor labels — the distillery was inactive at the time, so no illegal liquor was seized. Bronfman watched Knowles pack all the evidence into a carton and place his official seal on the box (Whisky Wars of the Canadian West: Fifty Years of Battles Against the Bottle, by Rich Mole) and was about to send the parcel via CP express to his superiors in Ottawa. For some inexplicable reason and using extremely poor judgement, Knowles accepted an offer by Bronfman to deliver the carton to the CP office. Knowles didn’t know until later that crucial evidence mysteriously went missing from the package.
It was also alleged that the Bronfman family’s political connections had prevented any further investigations into their liquor warehouse activities. Furthermore, the Bronfmans were able to have Ottawa curtail all investigations by Knowles into illicit liquor smuggling from Saskatchewan to the U.S.
In fact, Knowles would work behind a desk until his retirement in 1932.
The 1927 Royal Commission recommended that Bronfman be brought up on charges of attempted bribery of Knowles and two instances of trying to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses during a 1922 liquor trial in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. It took another three years for these cases to wind their way through the courts and in the end, Bronfman was found not guilty on all counts.
In a June 10, 1924, Tribune editorial, it was claimed that rum-runners were becoming more dangerous.
“A few days ago a rum-runner in a stolen car, carrying a rifle loaded with dum-dum bullets, was captured by mounted police in the vicinity of Waskada (Manitoba). The use to which he intended to put the weapon in any emergency may be left to the imagination.
“Last Saturday a rum-runner with 71 cases of illegally purchased liquor intended to be smuggled into the United States from Manitoba was captured near Emerson. Each was fined $50 and costs for the illegal possession of the liquor.”
According to the editorial one man had a rifle and was known as a member of a bootlegging gang regularly engaged in rum-running across the border. The man was only fined $10 for possessing the rifle.
“Judging by the disparity in the two fines — $50 for possession of liquor and $10 for possessing the rifle — it may be presumed that the liquor was five times more deadly than the weapon, though there are few people who would accept the idea very readily.”
A November 2, 1920, report in the Bismarck Tribune (North Dakota), stated that machine-guns had been sent to border agents to combat whiskey running. The two Browning machine-guns allocated were sent to Bottineau County, which was a favoured point of entry from Canada for rum-runners. The smugglers drove through the Turtle Mountains on the Manitoba side of the border and then crossed into the North Dakota county.
Inspectors from North Dakota’s licence department revealed that rum-runners were making an “immense profit ... since the officials became active and since one man was killed last week by a deputy of County Sheriff Hennesey of Bottineau County ...”
In effect, the border area was becoming more dangerous for rum-runners, which necessitated paying more to attract willing drivers.
The driver who was killed had a wife and four children, and his wife told officials she thought her husband was “travelling for a Sioux City, Ia., auto accessory house,” instead of being a rum-runner.
Officials said the pay for “chauffeurs” driving “Whiskey Sixes” (high-speed Buick Six Specials — six-cylinder autos capable of outrunning police cars) had increased significantly.
The North Dakota newspaper reported that the cars are driven so fast on the back roads near the border that farmers are afraid to go out on the roads at night.
“The price offered (to a driver) is usually $1,000 for making three trips with a car across the line, a distance of about 70 miles on each round trip with the car furnished (with whiskey). It was reported one chauffer was offered $1,000 and an automobile to take a load to St. Louis (Missouri).
“Cars have come from Minnesota, Indiana and even Texas and Oklahoma to transport whiskey, officials say.”
According to the newspaper, “They buy liquor for forty dollars a case inside the Canadian line, some of it being priced as high as $60 a case or from $3.50 to $5 a quart. They expect to dispose of it for an average of $20 a quart.
“The state inspectors claim that the Canadian wholesalers are cooperating with the whiskey runners. They send a ‘tow car’ across the line and meet whiskey runners and guide them into Canada ... They then will send the ‘tow car’ ahead on the American side for several miles to see if the roads are clear.”
The whiskey was carried across the border in sacks to conserve space in the automobiles. “It is reported by inspectors that they found 60 cases of liquor in two cars, the retail price of the liquor being about $15,000.”
The state officials admitted that most of the rum-runners were getting through since there weren’t enough agents to patrol the multitude of section roads in the county.
With the establishment of government-run liquor stores in 1923, the belief was that rum-running to the U.S. would slowly wind down in Manitoba. It did over time, but the profits to be realized were still too tempting for some individuals. As a result, there would periodically be sensational incidents reported in newspapers.
In April 1925, a gunfight erupted between U.S. customs officials and three rum-runners near Bathgate, North Dakota, which is across the border from Gretna, Manitoba. The officials seized liquor valued at $20,600.
(Next week: part 5)