Welcome to part III of Hysterical History, where we take a deep-dive into the shenanigans of Prohibition. Part I focused on how Carries changed the US. Part II discussed the law and the loopholes. It gets worse: We still aren’t living in the first Clown World.
Some crime may have occurred during the Prohibition era. Loopholes aside, Americans loved their hooch, wanted to drink booze, needed to socialize with libations in a public setting, and the mystique, intrigue, and the forbidden rebel hi-jinks of sneaking through alleys, creepy warehouses, and fortified green doors deserved a reward of giggle juice in a highball with a flapper on every lap. Even my thesaurus needs a belt after that sentence.
The Volstead Act authorized the Prohibition Bureau to hire agents and enforce the law. They seized 697,000 stills between 1921 and 1925. From mid-1928 to mid-1929 the feds confiscated 11,416 stills, 15,700 distilleries, and 1.1 million gallons of alcohol. It wasn’t even a drop in the ocean. The Prohibition Bureau estimates that Americans brewed 700 million gallons of beer alone in 1929. Grocery stores sold malt syrup – a prime ingredient in beer – by the can. In 1927 they sold 888 million pounds of the stuff: Enough to brew more than six billion pints of homemade beer.
It may not have been legal, but America certainly was drunk.
Local politicians, police, and prominent citizens were regularly rounded up on raids carried out at speakeasies: Secret drinking clubs where you had to whisper the password through a slot on the (often) green door. The police precinct Captain had a regular table at New York City’s famous 21 Club.
The most famous Prohibition agents – called ‘Prohis” – were covered in newspapers, magazines, on radio, and in move theater newsreels. Isidore “Izzy” Einstein and Moe Smith were the most famous. They got their own movie in 1985. After busting bootleggers, waiters, bartenders, and random Saint Bernards, they’d celebrate in the new great American tradition: Drinking a whiskey, followed with a cold beer chaser. They were fired in 1925. Government agencies can abide everything but competence.
Agents, who made $1200 to $3000 a year, were easily bribed. As a result, more than one enforcer and police officer started a bootlegging side-hustle. The most famous was Roy Olmstead, a Lieutenant with the Seattle police force, who got to see how the bootlegging business operated first-hand while doing busts starting in 1916. Washington State was an early adopter of Prohibition. Yes, that Washington State. He thought he could do better, and he was right! Busted in the spring of 1920, he paid a $500 fine, was fired, and went on to become the largest employer in the Puget Sound region. Crime certainly pays. Bootleggers produced liquor at typically $0.50 to $0.75 cents a gallon, and then sold it for $3 to $12.
It wasn’t all bribery and hypocrisy. William H. “Kinky” Thompson was a “blackjack artist”. A blackjack is a small club. As in a baton, not a social group. Autists, am I right? He worked with the Prohibition Bureau in Seattle. Yes, that Seattle. On one occasion, Kinky and his partner, Earl Corwin, entered a pool hall. Kinky sapped the cook. They were smart in those days, and they knew you always took out the cook as early as possible. The waiter protested and Kinky bludgeoned him to the floor. Kinky then demanded to know the location of the secret liquor cache. Bludgeoning people is thirsty work; Kinky was an alcoholic. When the owner told him he had no cache, Kinky broke a bottle over his head.
If you’ve ever had a real bottle broken over your head you’ll know it isn’t what they depict in the movies. That’s real glass. It’s real blood. Those are real concussions. It’s palpable pain. Movie bottles are made of sugar and all the stuntmen drink after a long day of filming bar scenes.
Kinky and Corwin took the place apart with axes. Axes were very popular with the prohis. Nothing makes casks bleed booze like an ax to the spigot. When they were finished, the only intact items were a ventilation fan and a wall clock. The clock was so traumatized it ran three minutes behind. They found no grog, hooch, or firewater of any kind.
Complaints were registered with the Prohibition Bureau, but they were dismissed. “That’s just Kinky,” they said.
Two weeks later Kinky blackjacked a twelve year old boy, the boy’s mother, and his one-legged father. “Someone,” Kinky said, “Is guilty; I’ll keep bludgeoning people until they confess.” The Bureau dismissed the reports as ‘bootlegger propaganda’.
After that, Kinky pistol-whipped a manacled prisoner in front of a crowd of witnesses. Kinky wasn’t sure exactly how the prisoner had bootlegged, but Kinky desperately needed a drink. The crowd was appalled. But the Bureau wanted everyone to understand they were in a boss/serf relationship. “You should know your place,” they said, “and quit drinking all the booze. Some of us need to relax after a long day of flogging peasants.”
Kinky drove blackout drunk one night, sideswiped a car, snapped off a telephone pole, and careened through a plate glass window. The Bureau may have had doubts about Kinky, but Karma still had a bit of a wait, and I wanted to type ‘Kinky’ a few more times. On July 27, drunk and belligerent, Kinky was stopped by Tacoma police, reached into his pocket, and was promptly shot. He died a hero on August 3. The Prohibition Bureau made him a martyr enforcing the dry cause, praising him for his zeal.
They never admitted that he used excess force.
Prohibition agents may have made the laws a complete joke, but the Judiciary wanted to play too. In 1928 the Los Angeles Prohibition Bureau had caught themselves a bootlegger. He was put on trial. He was acquitted. The judge had no choice: The jury drank the evidence. At their subsequent trial, jurists said they, “Needed to see if it was actually alcohol.” If they hadn’t admitted to drinking it they’d have been acquitted too, and for the same reason: No evidence.
Speakeasies sprang up faster than agents could shut them down, so the Prohibition Bureau hatched a sure-fire plan to take them out at the source: the common drinker. Even though it wasn’t illegal to imbibe hooch, drinkers were supplying the vital ingredients needed to keep the bootleggers, the bottlers, the grocery stores, the rum runners, and the speakeasies in business: tongues, throats, and highly-inebriated blood cells.
A major source of illicit hooch was industrial alcohol, used in paints, paint thinner, paint stripper, cleaners, and other industrial products. Caution! You might want to turn the shields up if you decide to ask the internet about ‘paint strippers’. Distillers were required by law to toss additives into their product to ‘denature’ it: To render it so foul that it was undrinkable. They’d use things like iodine, ether, nicotine, and formaldehyde. The biggest one, by far, was methyl alcohol, or Wood Alcohol as it was more commonly known.
Bootleggers would acquire vast quantities of industrial alcohol via various means, run it through their stills, and bottle it up as ‘rotgut’, which was generally only a little bit poisonous.
Without warning the public in any way, the Bureau went to the distillers and told them to pump the percentage of Wood Alcohol from the typically non-fatal 2% to as much as 10%. They used Science! to figure out where the optimal amount of poison would yield the best results.
The first victim walked into the emergency room at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital on Christmas Eve in 1926. He claimed that Santa Claus was chasing him with a baseball bat, keeled over, and died. The hospital had seen alcohol poisoning before but never a case quite like this. More victims started to show up. Santa Claus was quite busy and especially naughty that Christmas Eve. Sixty people checked in under similar circumstances, and 8 died. Within the next two days 23 more people were tossed into the morgue. It was a well-attended party but it was also quite dead. It had been a hell of a Christmas, courtesy of the Prohibition Bureau.
New York public health officials eventually tracked down the source of the poisonings. The Bureau shrugged it’s shoulders, said “It’s still just Kinky,” and continued the program. They eventually replaced the Wood Alcohol with Kerosene. By the end of Prohibition in 1933 some estimates put the deliberate poisoning by the US Government death count at 10,000.
Nobody was ever charged or prosecuted.
The Spork Speaks – tempestinateardrop.com – Part IV Coming Thursday