How Prohibition made Detroit a bootlegger's dream town

Blind pigs like this one at 932 E. Columbia flourished all over the city during prohibition. In 1929, illegal liquor was second only to the auto industry in Detroit in terms of revenue — $215 million.

In 1916, under the growing influence of  an anti-drinking movement, Michigan     approved a statewide prohibition of the sale of beer, liquor or wine, to take place beginning May 1, 1917.  The powers that be, however, had not taken into account the neighborly hospitality of nearby Ohioans, and Toledo, just 60 miles from Detroit, turned on the spigots for smugglers.

False floorboards in automobiles, second gas tanks, hidden compartments, even false bottomed shopping baskets and suitcases, not to mention camouflaged flasks and hot water bottles were all employed as the entrepreneurial and the thirsty navigated the Dixie Highway between Detroit and the Ohio border. It was a sort of dress rehearsal of ingenuity and audacity for the much larger operations to come.

Michigan laws and judges were lenient, however, with the fine for the first offense set at $20, and in 1919, the Damon Law, the enforcement vehicle for Michigan’s prohibition, was ruled unconstitutional. Smuggling arrests stopped, judges freed prisoners, and for two months, Ohio to Michigan roads were a stream of traffic. In April, Ohio outlawed the manufacture and sale of booze and Monroe, the center of operations for smugglers, returned to sleepier times.

The fervor for prohibition was sweeping the country, though, and in 1917 the 18th amendment was passed and by January of 1919 had been ratified by three fourths of the states. The Volstead Act provided the federal vehicle for enforcement, and prohibition officially began January 16 of 1920.

Federal agent Abe Lezotte nails a “closed” sign to a blind pig after padlocking the building in 1929.

Ohio’s earlier hospitality was now echoed by our neighbor to the north, Canada. Although individual provinces, including Ontario, had outlawed the retail sale of liquor, the federal government approved and licensed distilleries and breweries, of which there were 45 in Ontario alone in 1920, to manufacture, distribute, and export.

With the Detroit River less than a mile across in some places, and 28 miles long with thousands of coves and hiding places along the shore and among the islands, it was a smugglers dream. Along with Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, these waterways carried 75% of the liquor supplied to the United States during Prohibition.

Ingenuity carried the day: cargo was dragged beneath boats, old underground tunnels from boathouse to house were reopened, sunken houseboats hid underwater cable delivery systems, and even a pipeline was built. Between Peche Island and the foot of Alter Road, an electronically controlled cable hauled metal cylinders filled with up to 50 gallons of booze. A pipeline was constructed between a distillery in Windsor and a Detroit bottler. In winter, with the ice frozen, anyone from a single skater towing a sled to a loaded caravan of 75 cars could be seen.

Enterprising individual efforts and congenial business relationships soon gave way to more organized, and more lethal groups ready to reap the profits.

The Licavolis, Bommaritos, Lucidos and Zerillis brought a Sicilian flavor to east side efforts, while the Tallman gang led the west side. The Purple Gang had the run of the town and were unmatched in ruthlessness. Corruption became commonplace and payoffs to police, politicians and judges were rampant. On the day of a raid it was not unusual for half the scheduled squad to call in sick. State and federal forces were slightly less corruptible, but there was so much illegal activity that it was impossible to stem the tide.

Federal agents and Detroit police dump cases of beer overboard after stopping a boatload of bootleggers in the Detroit River in August of 1929.

      Illegal liquor was the second biggest business in Detroit at $215 million a year in 1929, just behind automobiles. Public opinion was against the liquor ban and no mayor was elected in Detroit who expressed favorable views of prohibition. There were as many as 25,000 blind pigs operating in the Detroit area. People drank everywhere, from speakeasies to private clubs to established restaurants to storefronts, and of course they drank at home. Cocktail parties were the rage in society circles, and workmen wanted beer with their lunch or dinner. You could buy a shot from a car in the parking lots of the Hamtramck auto plants or in one of the four hundred ‘soft drink parlors’ licensed in that city in 1923. Open flaunting of the unpopular law was pandemic.

Nick Schaefer ran a blind pig across the street from Police Headquarters, above a bail bondsman’s office. Reporters and police alike frequented the place for its famous potato soup and free lunch. Free lunches were common in blind pigs. Meant to draw in customers, lunch was offered free with the purchase of a glass or two of beer.

When the state police raided the Deutsches Haus at Mack and Maxwell, they arrested Detroit Mayor John Smith, Michigan Congressman Robert Clancy and Sheriff Edward Stein. From St. Clair Shores’ Blossom Heath on Jefferson to Little Harry’s downtown, to the Green Lantern Club in Ecorse, Detroit’s most upstanding citizens fed the coffers of the gangs that were reaping huge fortunes from their appetite for alcohol.

Stills provided the liquor not brought in from Canada. Despite the threat of police or federal raids, and the dangers of explosions, stills were well worth the risks and losses. Commercial breweries that were allowed to produce ‘near beer’ had to first produce real beer, then remove the alcohol. This was a practice begging for exploitation. Illegal commercial enterprises, often run by the various gangs poured out millions of gallons and home stills were everywhere.

Reporters covered the war between the authorities and the bootleggers and between rival gangs, with a vengeance. Two new dailies joined the News, Free Press and Times in covering the mayhem. Competition was fierce and extras were printed almost continuously. Impartiality was the order of the day and reporters were ordered to buy a drink for every one they were bought, and to get both sides of the story. Many of the reporters drank in the same blind pigs as the bootleggers; they needed to know the gangs as well as the police.

The gangs meanwhile grew increasingly violent and brazen. Hijacking and kidnapping were rampant, as was murder of rivals. Innocent pleasure boaters or fisherman could hardly go on the river or lake for fear of stray bullets from the Customs agents or gangs. The innocent as well as the guilty were subjected to searches of their property, homes and persons. Prostitution and gambling went hand in hand with the speakeasies.

Outrage of the citizenry at the violence spawned by prohibition, along with the absurdity of trying to stifle a universal thirst, and anger at imperiled civil liberties eventually combined to move public opinion towards the repeal of this experiment in legislation of social policy, and on May 11, 1933 beer was made legal. Seven months later, on the day before New Years Eve, The manufacture and sale of liquor were legalized in Michigan.

This fisherman’s house at the lower end of Mud Island in the Detroit River and the partially submerged boathouse at right were a terminal for an underwater cable system that carried illegal booze along the river bottom.

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News