Bootlegging Down “the Avenue de Booze”to the Monroe Crossroads

monroe

Rumrunner Muskrat La Framboise preferred to move his bootleg whiskey stored in jute bags tied together at the tops like ears in his boat equipped with a stopper resembling a bathtub plug. He rowed along the Detroit River Highway from Ecorse to its mouth near Monroe taking orders and delivering his liquid refreshment. When a government agent or policeman spotted him and gave chase, he pulled the plug and the boat would sink. After the drama of the chase and capture died down, he’d return to his boat and dive for his liquor, or if he had a large shipment, he would bring a few friends along to help. Muskrat became as skilled as a loon diving for fish at this method of River recycling.

Other thirsty buyers chose to drive instead of dive for their drinks. Some of Muskrat La Framboise’s landlubber friends (and perhaps Muskrat himself) used the part of the Dixie Highway that ran through Monroe County to Toledo in such great numbers that during Prohibition in southeastern Michigan, it became known as “Avenue de Booze” and Rummer’s Runaway.” A number of roadhouses including the Villa, dotted the Dixie Highway between Detroit and Toledo, providing rest and refreshment and the asphalt paving made driving carloads of liquor back and forth less hazardous than navigating the dirt backroads of southeastern Michigan.

Frank B. Elser, playwright and newspaper writer, made a special trip from New York to Michigan to examine the effects of Prohibition in Michigan a year after it took effect on May 1, 1918. He wrote an article in the New Outlook, detailing some of the changes that Prohibition brought to Detroit, Downriver, and especially Monroe.

Journalist Frank Elser wanted to find answers to his questions about the state of Detroit and southeastern Michigan after the city survived a year of Prohibition.  He knew some of the Detroit Prohibition facts.   A cosmopolitan city with large communities of foreign immigrants and black migrants from the South, Detroit was the first city with a population of nearly a million people to be voted dry. Frank asked how Detroiters had coped with their dry year. [1]

Frank learned some interesting answers to his questions and some additional facts when he talked to the Detroit Mayor James J. Couzens and Michigan governor, Albert Sleeper. He talked to bankers and bell hops, rum-runners and rum-drinkers, policemen and politicians. He discovered that alcohol could still be obtained by bootlegging and pitching pennies in the right direction. Whisky with kick but questionable quality sold in Detroit for sixty cents a swig. Priced by the quart,  whiskey brought between eight to fifteen dollars profit. It was obvious to anyone with dollars and sense smarts that smuggling whiskey from wet to dry territory could be a money machine.  Ohio hadn’t yet gone dry and the Dixie Highway stretched invitingly toward the state line and wet Toledo, Ohio, just sixty miles away. [2]

Federal and state governments stepped in to stop the bootlegging industry from getting started. Frank Elser reported that by February 19, 1919 Federal Customs agents had seized more than 25 car loads of whiskey in and around Detroit. The contraband whiskey came in a variety of disguises ranging from cement, fiddle boxes, red peppers, lime, oil, paint, and varnish and arrived concealed in trunks, bags, oxygen tanks, boxes, and coffins. One enterprising bootlegger sent his whiskey from Bridgeport, Connecticut packed in a dog crate, with a live dog inside as camouflage. The crate had a false bottom and underneath were snuggled four dozen quarts or whiskey. A salesman’s sample trunk packed with high quality hats sheltered one dozen bottles of Scotch underneath them.

People invented as many methods of bootlegging whiskey  in Detroit and Wayne County as there were bottles to hold it.The Federal Government handed out severe sentences to bootleggers, but since Wayne and Monroe Counties were wet, state and county officials tended to be more lenient with them. Frank Elser talked to Detroiters and then traveled down the same rum running highways that Muskrat Framboise and his friend used – the Detroit River and the Dixie Highway. Frank stopped in Monroe and discovered a rum running metropolis.

Monroe, Michigan – Bootlegging Crossroads??

The bootleggers, with one oar always floating in law enforcement currents, swam with instead of against them. They stopped water shipping their wares for the most part and picked Toledo to buy and load their liquor and the roads leading north as their routes. This change of operations and its geography placed Monroe, Michigan, then a town of 12,000 people, as the hub of a northward bootlegging wheel. Monroe sits forty miles from Detroit and twenty from Toledo. Trolley, railroad and vehicle roads converged at Monroe. The level, asphalt Dixie Highway sang a siren song to the Toledo bootleggers and hundreds of them followed the song to its source – Monroe!

At this point, the jail at Monroe had a capacity of twelve prisoners with a total of 23 being the annual occupancy figure. In February 1919, when Frank visited Monroe, the total of imprisoned bootleggers had exploded from 40 to more than  112 bootleggers. He noted that the bootleggers lounged on  questionably clean mattresses in the cells, on top of the cells, and on the floor. They shot craps and yelled and fought with each other, creating chaos in the jail and consternation in the world of Monroe Sheriff Joseph J. Bairley. The Monroe Sheriff in 1919, Joseph J. Bairley, had been on the job since January 1, 1918, and had never experienced anything like this bootlegger invasion.[3]

Portraits of Prisoners – Monroe Jail Style

State law enforcement authorities patrolling the roadways, especially the Dixie Highway, and inspectors from the State Food and Drug Department combined to provide the Monroe jail with an almost limitless supply of prisoners. Inspectors from the State Food and Drug Department disguised in plain clothes patrolled the interurban and railway passenger cars stopping to seize and search heavily loaded suitcases and often their owners.

Foreign women with ample chests and stout girth were often stopped and searched, especially if they made frequent trips back and forth from Toledo. The inspectors would lead the loudly protesting lady from the interurban car as she insisted that she understood little English and she had just been in Toledo visiting a sick relative. She was shocked to be the object of a police search, but a matron searched her despite her shock and the matron in turn, was surprised. The lady was stout not by nature, but by design. She carried twelve hot water bags containing rye whiskey hanging from various parts of her anatomy. Other women smugglers concealed their liquor in false breasts and others carried rubber stomachers which suggested a pregnancy, but in reality were filled with rum.

An inspector experienced a twist on the rubber bosom ruse when he attempted to take a woman suspected of smuggling from an interurban car. She whipped out a hatpin and deliberately plunged it into her chest, giving it a violent downward twist. Her chest immediately began to deflate and whiskey fumes filled the air!

Frank Elser witnessed state inspectors arresting three men in an automobile. Two of them had whiskey in suitcases, but the inspectors found nothing on the third man. Inspectors thought the man appeared too smug so acting on instinct, the officer holding the man told him to take off his clothes. The man reluctantly began to obey and removing his coat and vest revealed a rubber and canvas protector. The protector extended from neck to thighs in the front and back, but it wasn’t inflated with air. Instead, the protector was snugly packed with whiskey.

Although these smugglers were devious, they were amateurs aiming to smuggle just small amounts of liquor for themselves or their friends or to sell it to a limited clientele.

Professional Bootleggers

Prohibition and criminal gangs helped professionalize bootlegging and create national and international distribution systems. Ex-saloon keepers and astute criminals and gang members sharpened and implemented their skills during Prohibition. They armed themselves with state-of-the-art weapons and they bought or stole high powered automobiles capable of carrying multiple cases of liquor and speeding away from pursuers. In Downriver and Monroe terms, high tech bootleggers meant cars carrying more than a thousand quarts of liquor zoomed north from Toledo to Detroit, mostly at night and disregarding speed laws and safety concerns. Dixie Highway soon became littered with the wrecks of bootlegger cars.

Law enforcement officials divided themselves into squads to patrol the Dixie Highway. Frank described how the system work for one group of policemen. Policemen in the first squad swung their lanterns (they often patrolled at night) and shouted “Halt!” Car after car came to a screeching halt. Then a car containing three men whizzed by at sixty miles an hour, and when law enforcement shouted for them to Halt, they sped up instead of stopping. Squad Number One signaled Squad Number Two and the Second Squad lowered a telephone pole which the fleeing car hit at 70 miles an hour. The car soared 30 feet in the air and the three men shot out like corks with bottles of whiskey exploding around them like firecrackers. The car landed on its nose and with spinning rear wheels plowed 50 feet ahead before it rolled into the ditch. The three men although uninjured, were arrested.

Professional bootleggers were also clever because they had to come up with ingenious ways of concealing large amounts of liquor. Some filled spare tires with whiskey. Some concealed their wares in the bodies of cars with the original chassis removed and another filled with liquor substituted. The bodies of these altered cars were hollow all around and smugglers poured gallons of whiskey into the secret compartment. Once the car arrived at its destination, they used an unobtrusive spigot to siphon off the whiskey.

Clever bootlegger mechanics used Ford cars to smuggle their liquor. They removed the Ford gas tank located under the front seat and made two tanks of it. They put in a metal partition, making one large and one much smaller. The smaller partition held enough gasoline to make the trip from Toledo to Detroit while the larger compartment held the whiskey.

The automobile as smuggling tool also helped roadhouses like The Villa, near the Dixie highway, grow and prosper as refreshment and rest stations for weary bootleggers and their customers and possibly for Prohibition enforcers as well.

A February 22, 1919 New York Times column noted that the single day toll in smuggling statistics in Toledo amounted to 305 cases, 20 gunnysacks, 25 suitcases, 68 jugs and 150 bottles of whiskey, all in one day.

When Ohio went dry on May 27, 1919, bootleggers turned to Canada and its favorable liquor laws and smugglers began trafficking bootleg liquor across the Canadian border into Michigan using the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and other waterways between Michigan and Ontario. Again, Monroe occupied a favorable geographical position for smuggling liquor with its proximity to the Detroit River and Lake Erie.

sledsonthedetroitriverIn 1923, gangs, including Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang took over the bootlegging industry and made it their own.  In 1928, the Detroit News estimated that between 16,000 and 25,000 speakeasies operated in the Detroit area.  By the time Prohibition became nationwide in 1920, Michigan and Ontario residents were intimately familiar with bootlegging and became more familiar with it over the 13 years of national Prohibition.  Seventy five percent of all of the alcohol smuggled into the United States during Prohibition crossed the border in the Windsor Detroit corridor. By 1929, bootlegging had become Detroit’s second largest industry, totaling $215 million dollars per year, with even more liquor made in distilleries in the metro-Detroit area, including Monroe.[4]

Prohibition motivated farmers in Monroe, Monroe County and eventually counties across America to change some of their ideas and customs that had been as deeply entrenched as dandelion roots. Farmers who had never before considered the notion of making wines and beer began to grow the crops to make them, brewed them, and created a thriving business of selling their wares.

Milan, in Monroe County, had four saloons before Prohibition, but none of them allowed women inside. During and after Prohibition, women began to visit speakeasies and bars in a sweeping social change from drinking secretly if at all to drinking publicly.

Sheriff Bairley is Fired

Prohibition affected officers of the law as well. Monroe County Sheriff Joseph Bairley had an excess of bootleggers to provide for in his jail, but some evidence suggested that he provided for himself as well. According to Frank Elser, Sheriff Bairley threw up his hands when Michigan state officials cited him for the unsanitary conditions in his jail. He quoted the Monroe Sheriff as exclaiming, “Lord, how can I help it? Every nook and cranny in the rest of the place is full of booze.”

In company with Sheriff Bairley and the Deputy Sheriff, Frank viewed thousands of confiscated bottles of liquor piled in the cellar and thousands more in two garret rooms in Sheriff Bairley’s living quarters adjoining the jail. The garage was filled to capacity. The deputy sheriff calculated the total to weigh in at 60,000 gallons.C.B. Southworth, the proprietor of Monroe’s leading hotel as well as its Mayor, said, “They’re making a fool out of this town. The Constabulary is pulling off a lot of shooting and movie stuff, stopping autos, and the sheriff is jamming prisoners in the jail under conditions I wouldn’t let a respectable pig live in.”[5]

On July 11, 1919, the State of Michigan removed  Sheriff Bairley from office on charges that he did not enforce the dry laws, that he sold whiskey to department inspectors, and that he permitted prisoners too much liberty. The transcript of the  case entitled  Groesbeck Attorney General vs. Bairley   recordeds Michigan Food and Drug Commissioner Fred L. Woodworth accusing Sheriff Bairley and Governor Sleeper examining him in his executive offices.

Ordinary Monroe Citizens Experience Prohibition

During Prohibition it was a frustrating experience to uphold the law-nearly every Monroe County citizen flaunted it.” -John Clark, Monroe County resident.

Monroe resident Marion W. Childs interviewed some Monroe and Monroe County citizens about their Prohibition experiences and put them into a booklet she called, Recollections of Life in Monroe County, Interviews by Marion W. Childs. Her manuscript can be found in the Monroe County Historical Museum Archives.

According to Monroe resident Clarence Leamus, nearly a third of Monroe County residents made their fortunes as bootleggers or rum runners. A list of bootleggers during Prohibition would include half the town. It was a profession almost honored, you might say, in the East End. In fact, prohibition wasn’t considered worth observing and breaking the law wasn’t considered a violation of anything worth mattering. Some of the rum runners made real fortunes and have assumed a status in the community.

detroitriver

The ice on the Detroit River and Lake Erie proved to be very thick in 1917 and Clarence remembered watching the automobiles on the ice that year enroute between Amherstburg and Toledo with  loaded with liquor. The traffic there was heavier than on the Dixie Highway. The officers watched the rum runners, but didn’t try to stop anyone unless they tried to land on the Michigan shore.

Clarence spoke candidly about his activities during Prohibition when bootleggers brought Canadian liquor across Lake Erie in motor boats to Stony Point or the far end of present Sterling State Park for $100 per load. At the state park, Clarence often set the runners and rowed his boat about two miles back to his dock with as much as 500 cases of liquor aboard, earning $7.00 for his work. He knew every cat tail growing up and down Sandy Creek and he believed that no one could catch him in the maze of rushes so he had no fears. No one questioned him about his lawbreaking. Ironically, he was deputy sheriff himself.

Monseigneur Doyle of St. Aloysius told another Prohibition story. He came to Monroe to hunt with a gentleman named Duby and had such a good time that he stayed over for a second day. Duby thought that Monseigneur Doyle was a doctor and he welcome the news that the Monseigneur wanted to come to his house for the evening. At the time Duby was a bootlegger and he nearly fainted away when the Monseigneur appeared at his door that evening in all his vestments!”

A fellow by the name of “Rubbergut” Morse knew every watering hole in Monroe. One day a stranger in town stopped him on the street and asked him where a person could get a drink of whiskey.

Rubbergut told him, “Why just stop at any house east of Kentucky Avenue.”[6]

Temperance – the Beginning, Middle, and End

The City of Temperance in Monroe County began in 1859 as Bedford Center. On December 8, 1884, the United States government established a post office at Bedford Center with Lewis Anstead as first postmaster. The town was renamed Temperance. One version of the renaming has it that the wife of one of the founding land owners, a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, suggested the name Temperance. She and her fellow WCTU women circulated a petition and Bedford was renamed Temperance.

Walter Romig writes in his book Michigan place Names, that Temperance was named when temperance advocates Lewis and Marietta Anstead sold their land complete with a series of deed restrictions or “temperance clauses” prohibiting the sale or manufacture of intoxicants.

During the early years of Temperance sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages were prohibited.

On April 10, 1933, Michigan became the first state to ratify the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Most of Downriver and Monroe had already ratified and repealed!

Notes

[1] Michigan had voted dry in the general election of November 1916, but to ensure that business wouldn’t be disrupted and existing liquor stocks consumed, the state set the inception date to be May 1, 1918. National Prohibition didn’t take effect until January 1919.

[2] Keeping Detroit on the Water Wagon, Frank B. Elser, New Outlook, May 1919.

[3] .JOSEPH J. BAIRLEY 1918-March 6, 1920 1930-1938 1940-1944 Joseph Bairley was the son of William and Anna Fleishman Bairley. He was born May 12, 1882, in Monroe. He attended St. Michael’s School and graduated from Monroe High School. He was employed by the Standard Oil Company and Monroe Auto Equipment Company. Bairley was elected sheriff in 1917, starting his service January 1, 1918. Sheriff Bairley was a prominent figure in the famous Benoit kidnapping case which attracted nationwide attention. He was director of the Michigan Sheriff’s Association for a number of years. Sheriff Bairley was removed from office by the governor on an order from the Michigan Supreme Court. Bairley served eighteen months. His removal grew out of charges that he did not enforce the dry laws, that he sold whiskey to department inspectors, and that he permitted prisoners too much liberty. In 1929, he was elected sheriff again and took office in 1930. Barley lost his bid for sheriff in 1938 to Harry Doty. He did win the bid for sheriff again in 1940.

[4] Intemperance: The Lost War Against Liquor. By Larry Engelmann. (New York: Free Press, 1979. Pp 72,86.

[5] Keeping Detroit on the Water Wagon, Frank B. Elser, New Outlook, May 1919.

[6] Recollections of Life in Monroe County, Interviews by Marion W. Childs. Monroe County Historical Museum Archives.

 

 

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