Convergence of cars and alcohol made the Detroit-Windsor-Toledo triangle a bootlegging hotspot
One hundred years ago, in the aftermath of World War I — and, of course, a deadly pandemic — the United States was well into its experiment with national temperance. Michigan wasn’t a stranger to Prohibition — the state banned alcohol in 1918, about two years before Prohibition went into effect nationwide. Despite restrictions, thirsty Michiganders still found ways to get their hands on booze. And before long, alcohol smugglers in the Toledo-Detroit-Windsor region developed a thriving trade, due in part to an increasingly popular tool for transporting the sauce to the speakeasies: the automobile.
That’s what historian and Monroe resident Joe Boggs covers in his new book, Prohibition's Proving Ground: Cops, Cars, and Rumrunners in the Toledo-Detroit-Windsor Corridor. He says the 1910s were a unique moment for people in the region, as the expanding automotive industry brought shifts in employment, mobility, and culture in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, Canada. Plus, there were growing calls for temperance — from some people and places.
“Most people don’t realize that Prohibition … really starts in America in a patchwork fashion,” Boggs said. “There's various states that adopt it before the national Prohibition.”
That means that, in the Toledo-Detroit-Windsor triangle, different local governments had very different laws. For example, although Michigan was dry in 1918, Ohio wasn’t.
So, Boggs says, Michiganders would go for a drink in Ohio and smuggle alcohol back over the state line via the Interurban Electric Railway, an electric trolley that ran between Detroit and Toledo. Some put the booze in their pockets, although agents quickly caught on to that, Boggs says. Others got more creative and concealed liquor in fake Bibles they carried with them — or even under their coats.
“There were women who would get on the Interurban in places like Detroit or Monroe, go down [to Ohio] very skinny, and come back eight months ‘pregnant,’” he said.
This all created a bit of a mess at the time, Boggs says.
“Essentially, Toledo [was] known as the place where you go and do whatever you wish,” Boggs said. “A lot of the Toledo businesses were supporting this smuggling activity, because they knew it was very lucrative. Whereas in Michigan, you have — well, not necessarily in the Monroe County, Wayne County areas, but throughout the rest of the state, there was this movement to really crack down on smuggling and drinking.”
It wasn’t just everyday people who recognized you could make money bringing illegal alcohol into Michigan. The rise in Prohibition laws was tied to the growth of organized crime. In Detroit, one group called the Purple Gang became notorious bootleggers, helping alcohol flow into dry Michigan from both Ohio and, especially once national temperance went into effect, Canada. Many smuggling gangs hijacked, kidnapped, and murdered — and the growing availability of cars helped them do it.
“There was organized crime in a lot of different states,” said Boggs. “But really, [the] Toledo-Detroit area was the mecca of organized crime, because of the automobility of the region. Cars were essential tools for these criminals, and very few other places had as many cars.”
When Michigan’s prohibition laws first went into effect, access to automobiles worked to the smugglers’ advantage. Many local and state police officers didn’t have cars at the time. They rode horses instead, Boggs says.
“They had to set up roadblocks to stop the cars that were coming in,” he explained. “Sometimes you would have officers confiscate the rum runners’ cars to transport them to the jails.”
Rum-running offered bootleggers an immense amount of money. Boggs says another group, called the Billingsley gang, could have made close to a million dollars when they brought their Kansas- and Washington-focused business to Ohio and Michigan. If they hadn’t been caught, that is.
“They go ahead and purchase a fleet of vehicles, several warehouses in Toledo, and they establish business ties with Detroit grocery men to funnel alcohol up to them,” he said. “Eventually they’re caught in the fall of 1918, very early on in the state Prohibition days. But they had made a couple hundred thousand dollars, just in the two months.”
Boggs says that while it’s hard to know exactly how much of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. came from the Michigan area, 900,000 cases of alcohol flowed over the Detroit River in the first six months of national Prohibition.
“The trade didn't stop when the water froze over. Model Ts and cars were flowing across the ice at all times of the winter,” he said. “There was one interview that I read. She lived in the Monroe County region along the beaches there. And she said it was like, growing up as a kid, it was like blackbirds descending upon the beach and the ice — the model Ts. It was just unbelievable, she said.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.