1920 Prohibition

Rum Running and Prohibition in the Fairhaven Area

Sometimes you must be careful what you wish for.

At midnight, January 16, 1920, the United States began enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment. Breweries, distilleries, and saloons were forced to close their doors, because the manufacture, transportation and sale of any beverages over .5 percent alcohol was illegal. Medicinal alcohol written out on a federal ticket form was still available, for which a doctor's prescription was needed. Not too many citizens were sympathetic to Prohibition, even Woodrow Wilson, the President at the time, tried to veto the Volstead Act but was overridden by Congress on the same day, October 28, 1919.

Many in this country at that time were immigrants and alcoholic beverages were part of their heritage. Taking away this simple privilege was considered a violation of their rights.

This was all due to a decades old push from what was known and the 'Drys'. They were the Women's Temperance Society, scores of religious groups and many more who felt liquor consumption was ruining families and the country.

Those against the en-action of the Volstead Act were called the 'Wets". Most New England states were Wets.

Prohibition actually caused the consumption of alcohol to rise in the United States. In fact it more than doubled. When the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933 it actually went down to the level is was before Prohibition. It seems to have become an 'in' thing to drink.

The economic impact on the country was instantaneous, from the farmers who grew the grain used in the fermentation and distillation processes to the brewers and distillers themselves, as well as wholesalers right down to the bar and tavern owners. Some bar owners tried converting to ice cream parlors and the like but few succeeded. It was apparent that the demand was still there for alcohol and soon smuggling of Bahaman, Canadian, Scottish and British liquors began to thrive.

If you will, picture what it would be like today if it were to be announced that all intoxicating beverages would be banned. The 1931 movie, Public Enemy starring James Cagney portrayed it as a near free for all. A florist truck pulls up to a liquor store and two men begin pulling out the contents of floral arrangements and bouquets, throwing them on the ground and obviously getting ready to fill the truck with as much booze as they can afford to buy. A man and woman walk by with a baby carriage. The man is carrying the infant on his shoulder and the woman is pushing the carriage that is full of bottles. Stupefied drunks stagger amid cars honking their horns like it was New Year's Eve. It was, after all, the Last Night to drink, legally. Apparently it was much calmer in the New Bedford-Fairhaven area, as there was not a single news report concerning disorderly citizens.

The 1920's in America was an amzazing era in history. Just for perspective in the New Bedford Times was an article describing four young women dressed in 'flapper' outfits walking across the Fairhaven/New Bedford bridge. Flappers were a fashion revalution. Prior dresses were always below the knee, flappers wore their skirts above the knee. Long stockings were part of the fad as well as garters. The garters were a necessity to stash a hip flask of booze to their thighs. The article describes drivers of autos stopping and staring in amazement. Traffic backed up seriously enough for the police to come and straighten things out.

In 1919 there was "The Great Molasses Flood." In a n effort to get one last load of alcohol made before prohibition a Boston distiller had a ship deliver a load of Bahaman molasses which was used to distill alcohol. The alcohol in the ship was still warm and the tank that it was stored in was cold. Mixing the stored cold molasses and the warm resulted in a fermentation and the faulty holding tank exploded. As a wave of molasses spread through the neighborhood buildings were flattened, draft horses were so badly mired in the goo that they had to be put down. People were killed and allegations that "Italian Anarchists" had sabotaged the tank were tossed about. As it turned out the tank was faulty and leaking bad enough that neighborhood kids would use a stick to scrape up a sweet treat for themselves. A version is here. Anarchist or as we would describe them today were terrorist. Bombings of buildings and aimed at public officials was fairly common. Two of the most famous Anarchists were Italians Sacco and Venzetti. Possibly framed and eventually executed Sacco and Venzetti dominated the news for weeks.

Another sensation was the Scopes Monkey Trial. Wikipedia describes the "The Scopes Monkey Trial, was an American legal case in 1925 in which a substitute high school teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school

Let me take the time here to make a distinction between a rum runner and a bootlegger. The description of a bootlegger goes back to colonial times, when a man would hide pints in his boots and sell a drink or a bottle to other men. A rum runner used a ship or land vehicle or wagon to move large amounts of liquor. In the Prohibition era 'rum runner' was the common spelling, today spell check suggests "rum runner". In most cases I used the period correct form. "Rum" also was used as a generic term for intoxicating liquors, especially "the demon rum."

For a time did genealogy lookups for people. One request I had involved a man in the late 1800's who, according to his family, died in a railroad accident. After some searching through the micro films at the New Bedford library I found his obituary and also a news article about his death. It turned out the "accident" occurred when the man either passed out or laid down on the Braley railroad crossing. Near his mangled body was a bottle of rum. Demon Run was the cause of his death. The family was a little surprised.

Our country's own Thomas Jefferson was charged by the Crown of England with being a rum smuggler when they confiscated his ship "Liberty" in 1768, but not before the Customs agents were thrown overboard. The repeal of citizen's right to have a drink would not be an easy row to hoe.

The 1919 City Directory lists two major breweries in New Bedford. Each one consisted of an office building and a separately located brewery. Each brewery occupied nearly a whole city block. They were the Dawson and Son Brewing and Smith Brothers Brewery. Besides the local breweries, of course, were distributors for other beers, ales and liquors.

New Bedford Fire Chief car

There were just under one-hundred listings for spirits and wine sellers. Both the Dawson and Smith Brothers breweries were shut down and idled until the end of prohibition. Although one article from the New Bedford Standard details a court proceeding involving the management of the Smith Brothers brewery being unaware that a certain individual, Max Fox, to be exact, was seen removing barrels of beer from the brewery after it had supposedly closed. The brewery officials denied any knowledge of there actually being beer in the barrels. They claimed they were empty.

Beer truck

According to the Internal Revenue Service, at last count, in 1919 there were an estimated 236 distilleries, 1092 breweries and 177,790 bars and saloons nationwide. A familiar ditty at the time went, "There, there little barroom, don’t you cry, you'll be a drugstore by and by." Many bartenders were said to have become soda jerks or sought jobs in ice cream parlors, which is hard to believe. Some breweries converted into malt sugar refineries, meat packing plants, cold storage, or fruit and vegetable dehydrating plants.

Once Prohibition was in effect illegal bars called 'Speakeasys' were to be found in nearly every city in the United States. Because of the clandestine nature of the business exact figures of the number of such establishments in the area are unavailable. Countless article of small grocery stores and other shops show liquor was available on almost every corner. Small still seizures in homes, farms and businesses were a common occurrence.

One that I did find evidence of was the Working Men's Club. Located on a section of Ashley Boulevard that is now part of Route 18, in New Bedford. The Working Men's Club's were a tradition brought here by British immigrant's. Very similar to an America Legion type club there are still Working Men's Clubs in England and Ireland today. The New Bedford club was raided in 1931 when a new Prohibition agent came to town. Seven of the club's officers were arrested and 113 cases of beer were confiscated. It wasn't uncommon for judges, mayors and local sheriffs to be found among their patrons. The rum runners and bootleggers were the men and women who supplied the needs of the Speakeasies and Blind Pigs, as they were called.

Locally, the rum runners were basically fisherman and farmers that were trying to make a buck before and after the Great Depression. There weren't many jobs in the area as the once prolific mills of New Bedford were starting their decline due to cheap Southern labor and the introduction of synthetic fabrics. The local economy was hit hard.

new cg craft in gloucester ma

Since the U.S. territorial waters at the time was only three miles from shore, it was only a trip of few minutes by boat to get to an area known as "Rum Row" where imported liquor could be bought off of ships legally. Getting that liquor back to shore was another matter. In order to make it more difficult for the smaller boats to run in the liquor. The Federal government would later set the limit would to twelve miles. This distance was determined by the time it took for the average Coast Guard patrol boat to travel in one hour.

Corruption at national and local levels was rampant. Federal agents, Coast Guardsmen, local police, high ranking politicians and judges in many areas were offered or demanded money "to look the other way".

One local case in 1925 involved a Mattapoisett policeman who 'kicked' a few cases off the back of a truck while returning to the police station after a raid so that he could allegedly return later and retrieve them.


Mattapoisett Voters Approve of Selectmen in Allowing Former Member $500 for Rum Crusade

Accusations Are Heartily Denied With Cries of “Liar”

Charges that Mattapoisett constables were in sympathy with bootleggers were made by Lester W. Jenney, a former member of the board, at a special town meeting last evening, when the voters by an overwhelming vote, approved the action of the selectmen, $500 for the enforcement of the Prohibition.

Mr. Jenny’s statement that a constable had been seen to toss a case of liquor off of a seized truck was hotly denied by constable Frank LeBarron, who declared that he was the constable referred to.

“If he says a constable threw off a case, I’m obliged to call him a liar. The case fell off,” he declared.

Mr. Jenney made a lengthy address in which he told of the work which had been done with the $500 allotted him. The sum came from an appropriation of $1000 made at the annual February meeting to curb liquor traffic in the town. Mr. Jenney asserted that there had been several crimes in Mattapoisett which were a disgrace to the town and that action was necessary to stop such happenings.

In a letter to the selectmen from Mr. Jenny, the statement was made that rum running had increased in Mattapoisett. The statement caused such a burst of laughter that further reading was prevented for several moments.

While a smaller crowd than that which gathered on Monday night appeared for the adjourned regular and special town meetings to last night’s audience, if it came for thrills was not disappointed. Action started almost immediately after the taking of a check list ballot on the question of borrowing $33,000 for the taking of land and extension of the present water system. This was endorsed by the voters 83 to 41.

The real tidbit of the evening which has had the town tongues wagging for several weeks in fact since it was learned that the selectmen had handed over to Mr. Jenny the sum of $500 for special work in the enforcing of the liquor law in Mattapoisett while at the same time the board had declined to approve a bill for $45 presented by Frank LeBaron and Louis Kinney, the two regularly elected constables for extra work, was launched when J. E. Norton Shaw moved reconsideration of article 14 in the Town Warrant.

This was the article that had appropriated the sum of $1000 for special work against rum running and high jacking operations in town and the order was considered by the board to call for special work outside the activities of the towns elected constables.

Constable LeBaron moved that the selectmen be required to report what use had been made of the money.

After the town meeting, said selectmen L. A. Crompton, state aboard we engaged Lester W. Jenny to enter upon special work for the town. He then read from a letter dated Feb. 17, addressed to Mr. Jenney, asking him to take up the work and offering to furnish the sum of $500 and advanced to cover expenses providing that an itemized account of the expenses be provided later.

Jenney’s Letter Read.

Under the date of April 2, Mr. Crompton then, read a letter from Mr. Jenney in which it was stated that acting under the instructions from the board, for aid had been made, through arrests with three convictions, evidence furnished to the state police and other authorities, at the present time, read the letter from Mr. Jenney to the selectmen rum running has ceased in Mattapoisett. Further reading of the letter was interrupted for several seconds at the point by the prolonged laughter. Continuing the letter stated that the excellent cooperation has been received from many of the townspeople and that any loyal board of select men but a few of the townspeople, either through a desire for financial gain or because of cowardice, had sent aid to the boot-leggers. Of the $500 furnished to him Mr. Jenney reported that he had expended $163.

In answering the board’s request that he furnish such requests or recommendations as his experience indicated might be a value to the town, Mr. Jenney’s letter commended in the point of establishing a police department and an employee of Chief from the outside. In closing he stated that no citizen of the town could expect pay for such work, and added that the activities carried out by himself had been without thought of compensation.

“That’s a fine letter, all covered with honey, but I do not think that the voters intended to patrol all of the country between Fairhaven and Onset when they made that $1000 appropriation,“ remarked one voter from the rear of the hall.

“I would like to know where the four raids were made, and when and where the convictions were secured,” remarked Mr. Shaw.

After taking the vote on whether the question should be allowed an overwhelming vote favored it at the regular town meeting.

Mr. Shaw declared that he had no intention of seeking to withdraw the appropriation but that he did believe regular constables of the town should be paid for their work and he moved that an extra $250 for the pay of extra work done by the constables be appropriated. This was voted.

Reclining to Mr. Jenney constable LeBaron declared that the Sherr referred to was caught in New Bedford, and that though one Considine referred to happen to be Horenstein and that he was caught on Sconticut Neck, the first arrest being made by members of the Flying Squadron and the second by members of the State Police.

Selectmen Crampton declared that “he wished someone would tell him what the constable was really supposed to do-what his duties consisted of.” “They said that they would not take orders from the selectmen so what we thought we would get somebody who would,” said Mr. Crampton.

Responsible To Voters.

“I believe that the constables are elected by the people the same as the selectmen and are therefore answerable to the voters,” remarked a voter in the hall. “I understand that this grievance is because the selectmen will not approve a bill for $46 presented by the constable for special duty in connection with their alleged in and work in watching rum Runner’s,” said Mr. Jenney. “As I understand the motion awarding the $1000 for special investigation it was drawn up with the special purpose of securing aid outside of the regular constables because of the fact that voter after voter had complained of the work of the constables.”

“It is true,” said Mr. Jenny, “that the Sherr arrest was in new Bedford and was made by members of the flying squadron and that another arrest was made by the state officers but both were made on information furnished by us. We are claiming no credit for anything done neither do we care for the blame. We have had a good time in doing our duty and intend on, if you want us to. As a result of our work the town is being patrolled by both land and water tonight and it is not costing us a cent.”

Constable LeBaron then read the bill which he and constable Kinney had presented for special service watching the Brandt Island road and the Crescent Beach territory for rum runners.

Dennis Mahoney declared that he believed the town constables should be paid for their work, “I don’t know whether Mr. Jenny was on the board at the time or not but when he refers to the New Bedford police officer being killed in this town I do not recalled in that could board took any action. The whole thing was hushed up, even the women were rushed away. The state police had called there but they didn’t do anything.

“I believe that our constables, the men that we elected, should be the ones to use that $1000. If they are not doing their duty the board can impeach them, just as we can impeach the selectmen if they are not doing their duty. The selectmen would have no trouble impeaching the constables and if the report that they are in 50-50 with the boot-leggers is true. I don’t know whether they are or not. I go to bed at night,” concluded Mr. Mahoney.

Reads Standard.

Mr. Jenney taking the floor again produced a copy of the Standard dated October 22 with a headline reading “District Attorney Williams Suggests Mattapoisett Constables Act”. It is absolutely false when it is stated that the selectman did not act at the time Chisnell was killed, “said Mr. Jenney. “If the salary of the constables is not sufficient, alright, but the towns never voted to increase them.”

“I had not been long on my investigation of the rum running in this town when I found that they were lined up with the opposition. One of them was provoked because he did not get a chance to run away with a case of liquor that had been seized. One constable tossed a case off a load but it was picked up by to state officers who came along in another machine.”

One of our brave citizens did manage to get a case but part of it was stolen from him before he got it home. The constable system in this town has been outgrown. If you do not want good lot enforcement you can show it by your vote,” concluded Mr. Jenney.

“Who got that case of liquor?” Asked it a man sitting besides constable LeBaron.”

“The chair rules that the question does not need to be answered unless Mr. Jenney desires to do so,” remarked the moderator Lemuel LeBaron Dexter.

“If you do not know, a man sitting with in arms length of view does,” answered Mr. Jenney.

“Constable LeBaron was with load taken up on Brant Island. a case fell off and the state officers who followed us picked it up and put it on their car. If Mr. Jenney says that I threw that case off all have to call them a liar,” remarked the constable with considerable heat.

Dennis Mahoney moved that the previous article # 14 appropriating $1000 for investigation and prosecution all the rum running at the discretion of the selectman be reconsidered in that the money be made available for the use of town constables. If they do not handle it properly we can impeach them,” declared Mr. Mahoney.

Action came first on Mr. Shaw’s motion that the appropriation be increased $250 which would be for the use of the constables. This was carried by a vote of 49-42. Mr. Mahoney’s motion to reconsider was subsequently lost.

The motion that the town extend to Mr. Jenney a letter of thanks for his services investigating and prosecuting the rum running and hijacking activities that had stirred up the town was adopted by a unanimous vote.

Constable LeBaron addressing the moderator declared that he and other constables would like to know the names of the detectives employed in order that they would work with them.

“That is a question to be asked of the selectman,” remarked the chair.

“We have asked them, but they only laugh at us,” answered constable LeBaron.

Jenney would be a thorn in the local rum runners side. Another article in the New Bedford Standard quoted an officer who would "store the evidence in his house" because the theft of evidence was so common. Whether he was trying to protect the evidence or trying to fill his home bar was never established, as he later told the judge it was just a big misunderstanding.

In 1927 the Dartmouth the police chief was accused of using his men to give protection to Max Fox when one of his loads of liquor was hi-jacked at the Bergeron Farm. The ensuing 40-50 man gunfight was one of the more spectacular events in the area. One patrolman announced his resignation over the matter. He and another man were later offered a bribe of $500 to "forget what they saw that night." Though not in this area, one New Jersey town, the mayor, police chief and department along with several officials were arrested and tried for their involvement in aiding rum runners.

Also in 1927 three Westport constables were were accused of concealing the liquor they salvaged from rum ship off of Gooseberry Neck. The officers claimed they had merely secured the liquor in a barn at the 'Ocean House' on Horseneck beach. However when confronted by Prohibition agents the constables refused to produce the key for the locked barn.

Before Prohibition the Coast Guard was primarily as a search and rescue force. They were handed the unenviable and underfunded task of enforcing the liquor laws at sea. Men who signed up as surf-men, whose job it was to man shore stations and respond as rescuers for stranded ships, were now in law enforcement. Since both Coast Guardsmen and rum runners often came from the same cities and sea faring backgrounds, it was not uncommon for one family member to take part in the seizure of a relative's boat.

One local Coast Guardsman, Lewis Travers, who had an impeccable service record admitted that his cousin was a rum runner and asked for a transfer to the west coast, rather than having to possibly fire on his own family member was praised by his commanding officer as "honest and forthright" was summarily discharged from the service.

The Coast Guard was unprepared and under funded for their task at hand. By the time the government provided the service with 14 million dollars to beef up their fleet in 1925 the rum runners had already gained a substantial advantage.

The end of Prohibition in 1933 didn't necessarily mean the end of the the local rum runners involvement in smuggling and distilling. The added tax on liquors kept the business profitable for those who wished to turn a fast dollar or two and it continued into the 1940's.

In New Bedford one man tried too cash in on the liquor ban by making stills to sell.

New Bedford Evening Standard

April 13, 1925

Does Thriving Business in Manufacture of Stills

Jose T. DeSouza Provides Equipment to City Moonshiners Carries on Trade Unmolested by Law Products Bring From $50 to $400, According to Capacity

"Manufacturer of Stills, the very best grade," may be listed as a thriving industry in future classified business directories to be compiled in New Bedford.

And the name of Jose T. DeSouza , like that of Abou Ben Adham, shall lead the list.

In this little tin shop at 252 South Second street, Jose, with his first assistant, Urbano Silvia, and a 17 year old boy, works daily at the trade of manufacturing stills, which in their turn, will manufacture moon shine whiskey.

Sometime police step into the shop and examine Jose’s handiwork with interest and a little bit of admiration. But DeSouza goes right on, in his industrious way. He know the law, attorneys have told him that he is not committing any offenses-and he is certain that his trade can not be interrupted.

Copper stills, some already completed, some on the process of evolution stand in the floor of the shop and hunched in the corners and shelves.

Sheets of copper lean against the wall. A blue flame burns in a small range in the rear room of the shop. A well greased roller waits with it’s maws, ready to suck in the flat copper and turn it into curved boiler sides, circular, straight bodies, trim necks.

Jose can speak no English, but his aide-de-camp, Silvia can translate the story and explain the little intricacies which are always confronting the pioneer in any new business.

"In the last two or three years since the demand for stills began, we have been making them," DeSouza and Silvia said. "If we have made one, we have made a thousand. It takes from three days to a week to complete one of them, depending on the size."

Prices have been set on each class of still, just as prices are fixed on clothing or shoes, or rum-run whiskey.

"The cheaper still we make costs $50," they said, "That kind manufactures a half gallon every hour it is in operation. The largest and most expensive still sells for $400. That makes a gallon every hour it is in operation."

Those in the know on bootlegging activities say the moonshine may sell at from $8 a gallon upwards. Let a still remain in constant operation for 7 hours, making 8 gallons every hour and let the liquor be placed on the market at $8 a gallon. Already the purchaser in that short time, has made the price his factory.

"Jose has devised one little improvement on his own to make the still better," Silvia said, in speaking for his employer, "There is a difference in the coils, in the way they are set, and the copper plates."

The devices have not been patented at the Bureau of Patents and Copyrights in Washington, D.C.

Both of the manufacturers were willing, even eager, to explain the process of the still, the way the mash dropped into one tube out from another pipe as liquor, how the unstable dregs of the mash finds it’s way down into a third tube and it is there discharged from the boiler.

"These are called Russian stills," the two continued. "But we call them Portuguese and French stills. The Portuguese still is for use in a garret, where the ceiling is low, and where it is impossible to have the mash container up high. In this form of still the can in which the mash is placed is attached low, at the side of the boiler. In the so called "French still" the mash container is above the top of the still proper. Purchasers of the stills call at the store and get them," he said. "They are also shipped by boat and by express."

"Plans are under way for an expansion of the business," Mr. Silvia declared. "I am going to put one of those little half-gallon-an-hour-stills in a suitcase and be a salesman. I expect to travel around the vicinity to sell these little stills, which in five minutes can make whiskey for home drinking."

Silvia and De Souza do not conduct their trade as a sideline for pin money. The manufacture of stills is a serious business with them. They are artisans in their work. It gives them a living.

The next month things changed.

New Bedford Times

May 14, 1925


Police Find Elaborate Layout, and Will Hale Souza into Court

Joseph T. Souza, 109 Grinnell street, who poses as the champion still maker of New Bedford and who openly makes and sells his product at his store at 278 South Second street, according to the police, was given a surprise visit at his home by raiding officers under the leader ship of Sgt. Augustine F. Velho, Wednesday night.

The officers, for some time, according to Velho, had been suspicious of Souza’s activities, and in raiding his home found in the attic tenement eleven 50 gallon barrels of mash, five gallons of moonshine in a glass jug, two 10 gallon kegs of the same liquor, 50 pounds of hops, 60 pounds of oats, and the generally complete layout of the moonshiner.