Eight Million Sots in the Naked City

How Prohibition was imposed on, and rejected by, New York


Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A. Lerner, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 351 pages, $28.95

The Diary of a Rum-Runner, by Alastair Moray, Mystic: Flat Hammock Press, 193 pages, $16.95

Smugglers of Spirits: Prohibition and the Coast Guard Patrol, by Harold Waters, Mystic: Flat Hammock Press, 186 pages, $16.95

During Prohibition an off-Broadway restaurateur smuggled liquor for his patrons' enjoyment. He and several others would purchase the illegal hooch from a collection of offshore ships called Rum Row. Back on land, the men would pack the cases into a furniture-moving van and drive to a garage just outside New York. There they would wait until dawn, when fewer witnesses were about, to bring the booze into the city.

One day the men arrived at the garage and learned that revenue agents (the Bureau of Prohibition was part of the Treasury Department) planned to raid it overnight. Having no other hideout, they immediately drove their cargo to its destination, parking on the busy street outside the restaurant at the height of the dinner rush.

"Well," the restaurateur recalled, "just to let you see what our average citizen thinks of this Volstead Act, what happened was this. We handed the cases across the sidewalk, and every person supping inside helped pass them to the cellar by forming a chain.…We got every blessed one in without any interference, even with the traffic cop at the corner looking on."

Such anecdotes are chock-a-block in a new collection of books on American Prohibition. At the forefront is the New York schoolteacher Michael A. Lerner's absorbing Dry Manhattan, which explains how temperance, a notion completely alien to New York, was imposed on its citizens and then repudiated. Almost simultaneously, Flat Hammock Press has published half a dozen accounts of Prohibition rumrunning, most of them reprints from the late '20s and '30s. Several shed light on how liquor was smuggled into the Big Apple.

These books are welcome relief from a recent wave of revisionist rotgut. The Drug Enforcement Administration's website proclaims that "Prohibition did work" (the DEA's emphasis), while ignoring the ban's effect on violent crime. This message has been more fully expressed by historians of American temperance such as K. Austin Kerr and Jack S. Blocker Jr. In a February 2006 article in the American Journal of Public Health, Blocker wrote, "The conventional view that National Prohibition failed rests upon an historically flimsy base.…The failure of National Prohibition continues to be cited without contradiction in debates over matters ranging from the proper scope of government action to specific issues such as control of other consciousness-altering drugs, smoking, and guns."

It is strange that the temperance movement would attract such modern support, since Prohibition was always a WASP phenomenon driven by condescension and disgust toward working-class ethnic groups, Catholics, and Jews. It was this very snobbery that doomed Prohibition within the polyethnic pandemonium that comprised the five boroughs in the Prohibition era, as Lerner explains in Dry Manhattan.

The fact that aridity gained a toehold in New York at all was the result of the labors of one William H. Anderson. In 1914 the Anti-Saloon League transplanted Anderson, then state superintendent of its Maryland branch, to New York, where he aimed to turn both state and city dry. The league differed from most earlier temperance organizations in that it sought to force its will through political means rather than evangelization to the masses.

H.L. Mencken called Anderson "the vampire and hobgoblin of every bartender's nightmare," responsible for shuttering almost half of Baltimore's taverns during his roaringly successful seven-year tenure. If Anderson could duplicate his successes in New York—the wettest of America's 48 states—the league hoped 35 other dominoes would follow, giving them the necessary three-fourths to pass a constitutional amendment forever banning alcoholic beverages from the United States.

Anderson went to work fashioning coalitions with church groups and like-minded reformers. He hired people to spread lies about wet or moderately dry politicians, going so far as to forge letters of support to officials from liquor interests. He successfully gerrymandered the state through "local option," trimming small cities away from their surrounding counties (the rural areas more likely to vote dry) and getting cities with populations of more than 50,000 to vote on Prohibition on a district-by-district basis. Anderson continually introduced other dry legislation, most of which didn't pass but kept wets on the defensive.

Even so, the dry agenda, as successful as it was in the Midwest, would have never taken New York or even the country had it not been for the Great War. During World War I a large swath of the population that opposed Prohibition was silenced. The Anti-Saloon League accused German-American brewers of sabotage by wasting grain and intoxicating fighting-age men, Lerner notes, while "Irish Americans were criticized for opposing the U.S. alliance with Great Britain, and Southern Europeans
and Eastern European Jews drew suspicion for their perceived radicalism." An anti-Catholic strain bubbled to the top of Anderson's speeches as he denounced high-ranking clergymen as the traitorous tools of wet interests. In 1917 the Anti-Saloon League helped pass wartime measures that gave the federal government control over food and fuel, banning the use of grain for distillation and giving President Wilson the power to regulate beer and wine manufacture.

By Christmas 1917, Congress had approved the 18th Amendment, and on January 16, 1919, the 36th state—Nebraska—ratified it, making Prohibition part of the Constitution. New York followed less than two weeks later.

Yet the league found it had made a conquest it couldn't defend. Enforcement became an immediate problem. Although the Bureau of Prohibition had more agents than the FBI, relatively little money was appropriated for it because drys assumed bureau agents would be assisted by state and local police. The league wanted to keep its tentacles buried within the government, so the Volstead Act, co-written by Rep. Andrew Volstead (R-Minn.) and league lawyer Wayne Wheeler, bypassed the civil service system.

The league handpicked the bureau's top administrators, but lower-level recruitment was dicier. The combination of low pay and less-than-thorough vetting of hires led to widespread corruption. Bootleggers paid $50 to $500 for agents' incognizance or information; the bureau learned to turn off its outgoing telephone service on raid nights to stop agents from tipping off the targets. And agents could be violent: In March 1920, a Prohibition agent killed a cabby in what the agent claimed was a sting gone bad. After the autopsy revealed that the cabby had been shot point-blank in the back of the skull, the Manhattan district attorney charged the agent with homicide. The motive: attempted robbery of the cases of liquor in the taxicab's trunk. The agent then confessed his previous lines of work had been armed robbery and jailhouse snitching.

Scandals like this discredited the bureau within the city. Anderson pressured the New York Police Department to step up, but there the demagogue had to sleep in the bed he'd made: The heavily Irish Catholic force took a dim view of both Anderson and his dry agenda. Meanwhile, the courts became clogged with cases of petty Volstead Act violations; by 1923 the Manhattan District Attorney's office said it was handling 15,000 to 20,000 cases a year involving the manufacture, sale, or transport of liquor, very few of which led to jury convictions.

The difficulty in finding friendly jurors—in one minor case, 57 candidates were dismissed during voir dire because of their stated wetness —reflected the city's animosity to Prohibition. Ethnic and working-class groups ignored it as best they could (in Little Italy women with purple-stained hands were common), though Volstead-related fines and closings hurt them the most.

Among the upper and middle classes, the cultural fashion of patriotism and privation during the late 1910s shifted in the early '20s. It became cool to drink. To be served alcohol in restaurants required displays of wit and humor; to know where the best speakeasies were demanded entry into exclusive realms; and to afford the expense, night after night, necessitated shows of wealth. Newspapers and magazines kept readers up to date on the hottest locales and the latest shutterings, and being arrested for Volstead offenses was a mark of pride. The Daily News editorialized: "We think [dry laws] represent an attempt by small town and country people, who cannot know metropolitan conditions, to tell us how we shall conduct our private and personal lives. We don't propose to take such dictation." To New York sophisticates, the decade became a blur of cocktails, cabarets, and—in the words of one contemporary movie poster—"beautiful jazz babies."

Much of the liquor flowed into the speakeasies from domestic moonshiners. Of foreign imports, an estimated two-thirds came over the border by land from Canada. The rest arrived via Rum Row, a flotilla of ships with holds full of hooch brought in from Canada, Britain, and elsewhere. These vessels sat in international waters just outside U.S. jurisdiction (originally three miles but later switched to 12), although, as we learn in Alastair Moray's The Diary of a Rum-Runner, some would often dip closer to make themselves more attractive to the American buyers motoring out to them.

Moray's 11 months of dated entries, recorded between 1923 and 1924, offer innumerable insights into how the smuggling trade was conducted, along with its manifold dangers. The author was walking the streets of Glasgow when a friend asked him if would care to sign on as the cargo superintendent of a four-masted schooner heading to New York to sell 20,000 cases of liquor. He agreed. His job was to handle the exchange of sauce for cash on the other side, as well as performing the ship's clerical and chandler duties along the way.

What followed was a pulp adventure full of howling storms, fistfights, two stowaways, and a Chinese assistant engineer named Ping Pong. Moray had done some prior pleasure boating but nothing in the way of trans-Atlantic merchant marining, so the author's thick sailing patois is tempered by his wide-eyed amazement at St. Elmo's Fire and flying fish. Just reaching America was a Homeric endeavor, in large part because alcohol is not the best cargo to keep in close proximity to those in the maritime trade. Moray earned a certain authority onboard, despite his inexperience, simply because he could have a drink and then stop.

The venture capitalist funding the expedition—referred to obliquely as "the boss," "the owner," or "His Nibs"—crossed on a passenger liner to New York, where he acted as fixer. Once he reached the coast, he communicated to Moray via a pre-arranged code carried by messengers on motorboats, giving the ship its final coordinates about eight and a half miles off Fire Island. A group led by a man named Hamman became the main buyer, paying $21 per case, but Moray was authorized to sell to anyone who pulled up at $23. One dollar of each sale was to be reserved as protection. "Exactly what we are being protected against I don't yet know," writes Moray.

Business wasn't easy. On good-weather days, contact boats came alongside and bought several hundred cases, except when Coast Guard cutters appeared to photograph Moray's ship and scare away customers. The abundance of rumrunners along the Row drove down prices. Moray couldn't unload the stuff for $23 or even $21: Scotch went for $17, and gin was a tough sell altogether because American moonshiners commonly produced it.

Tedium set in, food dwindled, and the crew turned mad with boredom and booze. (At one point, the blotto cook had to be coaxed out of the rigging after going aloft with an ax to kill God.) The boss unexpectedly abandoned New York for Nova Scotia. Sometimes boats with large numbers of hard-looking men circled the schooner; on a resupplying trip to Bermuda, the mate's brother came aboard and asked the chief engineer whose side he would be on if the man's associates should rush the ship. A steamer was raided, its crew held at gunpoint while the pirates sold the cargo at $7 or $8 a case to other rumrunners, who resold the stuff at $11 or $12. The glut just prolonged Moray's own unlading. Finally, Moray and his shipmates learned an Atlantic City syndicate had targeted their ship for the same treatment. They quit Rum Row with cases still in their hold.

The fulcrum year in the Rum War was 1924, for two reasons. As Moray describes firsthand, it was the beginning of the end for the entrepreneurs, as organized criminals sought to drive out competition. According to gossip along the Row, the hijacked steamship had been deliberately attacked because it had no shore connection. Even celebrity rumrunner Bill McCoy, the father of Rum Row, discovered upon his release from nine months' imprisonment that he couldn't go back because the smuggling racket had been completely subsumed by syndicates.

Also that year, the federal government began blockading the multiple Rum Rows that lay off American coasts. Appropriations were made, old destroyers were borrowed from the Navy, new craft were built, and recruitment was boosted. The "Dry Armada," launched in 1925, dramatically transformed the seascape, as 25-year Coast Guard veteran Harold Waters describes in Smugglers of Spirits: Prohibition and the Coast Guard Patrol.

Prior to this, the Coast Guard had been spread too thin to catch many of the motorboats, fishing trawlers, sailing yachts, and even seaplanes shuttling cases from the Row to shore. But more men and more materiel led to more catches. The destroyers picketed the mother ships, while smaller and more maneuverable cutters created an inshore screen. "Sandpounders"—foot patrols on the beach—watched for landings.

Upon sighting a suspicious vessel, a cutter would sound its horn as an order to heave to and submit to boarding and search. If the vessel refused, a blank one-pounder was fired, followed by live shells put down fore and aft and sprays from Lewis guns. These volleys usually brought the rumrunner to a stop. Often steering cables were cut or engines damaged; gunfire would sometimes set the Scotch and rye alight.

Soon "gentlemen adventurers" folded their cards and left the game, leaving an escalating war between the Coast Guard and the money-heavy syndicates. Alcohol-free decoys distracted cutters while others made a run for land. Spotters on shore watched the cutters, radioing the contact boats when it was safe to come in. Made-to-order rumrunners were constructed, fitted with steel armor and smokescreen devices. The Coast Guard played dirty too. One trick involved sending packets of money and thank-you notes to made men in such a way that the mail was intercepted by their gangland bosses—death warrants for the addressees.

The offensive off New Jersey and Long Island's southern shore, as well as off Block Island east of the sound, had the desired effect, scattering the Row. But the victory was temporary. By the end of summer 1925, the Coast Guard ships began rotating into port for maintenance, opening cracks in the blockade. Rum Row would never again become the place it had been before 1924, but neither did it evaporate entirely.

Waters' reminiscences can be tiresome; many of his stories involve nothing more than enlisted men pranking their officers by sneaking liquor onboard, and there is an air of hearsay about facts and incidents he was not party to. (For example, he confuses the prices of cases out on the Row with their subsequent shore prices, which were considerably higher.) Yet occasionally he provides perspective on the larger issues. During one stint, Waters was ordered to accompany court-martialed Coast

Guardsmen from Maryland to a Navy brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. To a man, they were guilty of having accepted bribes from rumrunners to let them pass through to shore. One of the prisoners turned out to be an old crewmate of Waters' who had accepted $50,000 in a single year. But in true sailor style, he had nothing to show for it, having spent it all on "fast women and slow horses."

By the mid-1920s, New Yorkers had shaken off their fear of Anderson and his Anti-Saloon League, returning the wet Democrat Al Smith to the governor's mansion and electing (and re-electing) the "nightclub mayor" James J. Walker in 1925. The city's cosmopolitan worldview spread beyond the Hudson, very nearly resulting in Smith's election to the presidency in 1928, his loss due to his Catholicism rather than his wetness.

By the early '30s, city and nation alike had grown tired of paying $16 million a year for a law 70 percent didn't want. The 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition was ratified on December 5, 1933.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Saloon League discovered William Anderson had been embezzling funds. He eventually spent nine months in Sing Sing for forgery. Upon his release, he formed the American Protestant Alliance, which worked with the Ku Klux Klan to curtail liquor and immigration.

Prohibition was a national phenomenon, and most previous historical scholarship has treated it as such. Yet because the peculiarities of a place—the makeup of its population, its terrain and waterways, its nearness to foreign borders—determined the success of aridity there, the issue must be studied locally. Did Prohibition prevent intoxication and lead to more righteous living somewhere in America? Probably. But not in New York City.

Jackson Kuhl is a writer in Connecticut.