Prohibition in U.S. led to exciting times in Canada
Francis neatly presents the political and social aspects of the story without neglecting colourful characters and bizarre incidents.
Most books about Canadian bootlegging and rum-running during the 1920s and 1930s have dealt only with a particular city or region. By contrast, Daniel Francis, the Vancouver historian, has written a spirited yet fully thought out survey of the subject that takes in all parts of the country — without of course neglecting his own hometown. He quotes one long-ago clergyman who, drunk on his own pro-Temperance rhetoric, called Vancouver “the city of refuge for all the whisky-soaks and booze artists of the whole hemisphere.”
Francis brings that gentleman back to earth while also acknowledging that by 1923 “the rum-running traffic out of the harbour was well established and an open secret.” In time, control of the liquor trade here, and in Victoria and B.C. generally, “shifted to a small number of export cartels based in Vancouver and managed by prominent members of the local business community.” For example, one establishment family owned two distilleries and four breweries. Such people supplied the American mother ships off the coast, which in turn supplied Los Angeles and other cities.
For Canada, America’s federal Prohibition law, in effect from 1920 to 1933, was a miraculous economic benefit. Canadians were free to manufacture and export liquor. The American customers who took possession of it in their own waters or on their own soil assumed all the risk. Big-money people weren’t the only Canadians cashing in, for the little guy prospered as well. A case of whisky bought in Quebec for $15 could be sold in New York State for $120. “There wasn’t any job in Canada that paid that much for so little work,” Francis writes.
In neither country was Prohibition a new idea. It had been tried time and time again in the 19th century, and beyond, as Marcel Martel shows in great detail in Canada the Good, which compares prohibitionist thought with attitudes toward gambling and other so-called sins throughout our history.
At first, sanctioned prohibition took place on a local level and always at the insistence of moralistic scissor-bills and preachers as well as otherwise right-thinking social progressives, including proto-feminists. In 1900, for example, two-thirds of the towns in the Maritimes were dry.
The provinces followed suit, beginning with Prince Edward Island in 1906, with the others joining in (Quebec, reluctantly so) during or immediately after the Great War, when many viewed drinking liquor as unpatriotic. The federal government had tried banning liquor exports but gave up the fight once the war ended. As for the provinces, B.C. went wet in 1921. By the end of 1927 the others had done so as well — or all but P.E.I., which hung on until 1948.
Francis neatly presents the political and social aspects of the story without neglecting colourful characters and bizarre incidents. Atlantic Canada was enriched by smuggling as were the Prairies (consider the Bronfman family of Saskatchewan and later Montreal). Alberta’s leading bootlegger was “Emperor” Emilio Picariello, a Sicilian, who had bought $50,000 in war bonds and smuggled booze in large sixcylinder automobiles known as “Whisky Sixes.”
Ontario was the home of, among others, Hamilton’s notorious Rocco Perri, who was murdered in 1930.
But the biggest stage of all was the area around Windsor, across from Detroit. A Windsor bootlegger named Vital Benoit made so much money that he personally built a streetcar line linking Windsor and the Detroit ferry to his out-of-theway roadhouse. Another operator there, “Babe” Trumbell, was shot and killed in 1920 by the Rev. Leslie Spracklin, who wasn’t content with just attacking bootleggers from his pulpit. He beat two murder raps before fleeing to the States.
Francis estimates that 80 per cent of Canadian-made liquor passed through Windsor to Detroit, where it was widely distributed. This one part of the wholesale trade amounted to $40 million.