MOONSHINE AND BOOTLEGGERS (Illustration) American History Famous Historical Events History Social Studies Crimes and Criminals Film

During the years of Prohibition, police enforced the ban on making, transporting and selling alcoholic beverages. In this image, we see a police raid at Elk Lake, Canada, during 1925. Online via Archives of Ontario.


Johnny Torrio was right when he saw Prohibition as a lucrative opportunity for organized crime.

Before the "Noble Experiment" (so called by President Hoover) failed miserably, after just thirteen years, organized crime made staggering amounts of money from the liquor business.

A monologue of the time illustrates, in part, how the twenties became "the lawless years." Performing "Donnie Donahue, on Prohibition," William Cahill expressed the mood of many in 1921:

When we need a bottle they take it away from us!

Because the perceived need was great, the bootlegging trade flourished and led directly to "the lawless decade" of the 1920s. It wasn’t just homemade alcohol, made with a moonshine still, that police tried shut down.

Smugglers, called "rumrunners," worked both coasts, illegally importing the banned substance from Canada and Mexico, among other places. The Chesapeake Bay was a "smuggler’s paradise."

Bootlegging operations went on everywhere, but many who took the risks were forced to give their profits to city officials. After a new Bureau of Prohibition was created in 1927, the feds conducted sting operations.

Their investigation of a case in Washington state was lengthy, and thorough, designed to catch as many people as possible. When the net was finally set, many people were caught in it - including police officials and the mayor of Tacoma.

In addition to shipments by sea, bootleggers sent/received shipments by rail. A typical operation in Cleveland would list bogus products and companies on a freight bill as the real product traveled from transporters to users.

The "drag net" of Uncle Sam would often catch the moonshiner, the bootlegger, the speak easy and the runner. After years of investigation, the feds could hardly contain their glee as a press release, sent to the media just before arrests were made, attests.

It was actually easy to get around Prohibition. People ignored the laws that were designed to keep them from making, transporting, selling and consuming alcohol. Even athletic clubs became "rum dives."

Throughout the country, police often protected the illegal buying and selling of liquor. 

In Atlantic City, home of the famous Boardwalk - where Enoch L. Johnson, better known as "Nucky Johnson" (or "Nucky Thompson," in "Boardwalk Empire") was "The Boss," Babette's was a favorite hangout and African-Americans (like the fictional Chalky White) were an integral part of the city's life - law enforcement officials routinely "looked the other way." 

New York gangsters, like Lucky Luciano, felt at home in a place like Atlantic City.

Wives wrote letters to federal agents, or police officers, stating their husbands bought liquor from bootleggers and spent money that was "needed for household expenses."

One woman wrote a letter to complain that her husband was buying a quart every other day.  Another came to see "The Boss" himself, whereupon Nucky Johnson gave her more back than her husband had lost.

During the 1920s more than a half million people were arrested for violating prohibition, but people still drank their liquor. During the year of the stock market crash (1929), more than 66,000 Volstead Act arrests were made.

Al Capone, meanwhile, was raking in the profits.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jul 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: Oct 18, 2016

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"MOONSHINE AND BOOTLEGGERS" AwesomeStories.com. Jul 01, 2002. Feb 29, 2020.
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