About the Author || 2: Prohibition and Enforcement >>
Many studies that trace alcohol trafficking
during national prohibition focus on the large urban areas along the eastern
seaboard and the United States border with Canada. This is not surprising since the more populous
eastern cities and metropolitan areas along the Canadian border attracted the
attention of U.S. law enforcement as well as hordes of illegal alcohol
traffickers and smugglers who hoped to capitalize in these lucrative
markets. Historians have analyzed
extensively the enforcement conflicts associated with Eighteenth Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution, which banned domestic manufacture, sales and
transportation of intoxicating liquors from 1920-1933. There are, however, relatively few monographs
that detail the substantial alcohol trade that existed along the Gulf
Coast. The lack of historical study,
however, belies the activity of alcohol trafficking in the southern region of
the United States.
The U.S. Gulf Coast indeed experienced an
active rumrunning trade. Several factors
contributed to this phenomenon, including the difficulties associated with
enforcement along the southern coastline.
The disproportionate federal government enforcement presence along the
Gulf Coast was a key element. In 1920,
federal government appropriations funded a prohibition force of only about
1,520 agents, which rose to about 2,800 by 1930. These agents combined forces with the Coast
Guard, Customs Service and Immigration Service, but this still only provided
enough personnel for one manned patrol every twelve miles along the 18,700-mile
border of the United States. The federal government, meanwhile, directed
most of its initial enforcement resources to the larger population areas of the
East and North, which left the South wide open to domestic and foreign
Federal government documents, including
testimony from members of Congress and government personnel charged with
enforcing prohibition, indicate that strained federal resources hampered
attempts to stem large-scale movements of the illegal alcohol trade along the
Gulf Coast. Coastal areas of Louisiana
and Mississippi in particular featured heavy illegal alcohol distillations and
rumrunning trades, and many coastal residents within these areas richly profited
in the alcohol trade. In some instances,
local police authorities forewarned illegal distillers and bootleggers of
imminent federal raids thereby minimizing business disruptions. In the more populous Southern coastal
regions, such as New Orleans, international underworld organizations shipped
illicit cargo from Caribbean ports to Gulf Coast locations where they then
employed natives to ferry the contraband inland.
By 1925, smuggling along the
Louisiana-Mississippi coastline was big business. Certainly, profit served as the prime motive
for this furtive activity. By 1923, a
rumrunner willing to assume the risks associated with smuggling liquor to the
U.S. mainland could generate nearly $2,000 in wholesale profit on 100 cases of
whiskey if the investment cargo passed through the federal enforcement
net. Such high profits eventually
attracted hosts of rum-laden boats, which hovered off the Louisiana and
Mississippi coasts and darted around the Gulf of Mexico in efforts to elude
patrolling federal cutters. The illicit
trade became so rampant that the New Orleans-based custom inspectors altered
their police sweeps to confiscate all intoxicating beverages on foreign as well
as U.S. ships.
At times the U.S. policy of seizing foreign
vessels led to international and diplomatic entanglements. The most vexing problem resulted from an
incident when Coast Guard cutters sank the Canadian-registered schooner I'm Alone about 200 miles off the
Louisiana coast in March 1929. The event
touched off a diplomatic feud between the United States and Canada that
attracted worldwide attention. More
importantly, the I'm Alone
case clearly revealed the scope of smuggling activities in southern waters,
which were extensive indeed. Underworld
organizations used the Gulf Coast as portals for the movement of tremendous
investment from the Caribbean basin enroute to crime syndicates of Chicago and
New York. The organized groups typically used
foreign-registered vessels to complicate policing efforts, which also
conveniently strained the State Department's ability to conduct diplomacy
relative to the Eighteenth Amendment.
Many Gulf Coast areas played significant
roles moving and trading distilled spirits.
Several communities, in fact, garnered outside notoriety as distillers
of their own liquors and home brew creations.
The large Italian, Spanish and French-descendent groups that populated
New Orleans and the coastal areas of southwest Louisiana helped to underpin a
pervasive alcohol trade. Most of these groups did not oppose alcohol
consumption and openly defied national prohibition. Not surprisingly, their moral indifference,
or opposition, to anti-alcohol legislation easily positioned them as players in
the burgeoning illegal alcohol trade.
The illegal production and distribution of alcoholic beverages opened a
window of opportunity for making quick money during the prohibition era. The heaviest rumrunning and illegal alcohol
trafficking appeared mostly in parishes or counties that abutted or were
located near marine areas. By contrast,
north Louisiana--a Protestant stronghold--generally supported anti-alcohol
legislation, and held in disdain the Catholic citizenry residing along the
coast, especially in New Orleans. Not
surprisingly, many of north Louisiana's mostly white Anglo-Saxon protestant
population celebrated the prohibitionists' victory in 1919, which was in
harmony with the nation's dry crusade of social and humanitarian reform.
Clearly, the illicit alcohol trade along
the Gulf Coast deserves more than a passing glance. Prohibition set in motion an onslaught of
illegal trafficking activity along many Gulf Coast parishes and counties. The federal government slowed, but failed to
arrest coastal trafficking in the South.
Alluring profits and, to a large extent, the moral acceptance of alcohol
consumption underpinned the illegal trade, and eventually played a part in
weakening the federal will to enforce prohibition.
Eighteenth Amendment received the necessary approval of thirty-six states on
January 16, 1919. On January 16, 1920 it
went into operation, as did the Volstead Act of October 28, 1919, which defined
intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than half of 1 percent
alcohol; see Burl Noggle, Into the
Twenties: The United States From Armistice to Normalcy, (Chicago: The
University of Illinois Press, 1974), 165.
Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal
History of the Nineteen-Twenties, (New York: Harper and Brothers
Publishers, 1931), 248-49.
June 9, 1923.
March 28, 1929 and November 28, 1934; also see T. Harry Williams, Huey Long, (New York: Vintage Books,
Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, From Bryan
to F.D.R., (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 297 and 290.
About the Author || 2: Prohibition and Enforcement >>