Third in a series on the centennial of prohibition
Following our last two installments on the centennial of prohibition in America, we are now in the heart of the period. Private clubs and speakeasies blossomed as never before, though “officially” the entire country was dry. Government officials regularly found illegal pot stills in the countryside, next to barrels full of whisky. They were destroyed on the spot. Unofficially, the United States was wetter than ever. A large speakeasy could easily make a yearly turnover of $500,000 in alcoholic beverages and not one red cent would go into the national treasury. This was another effect of Prohibition — the American nation quickly saw its deficit grow, caused in part by not incurring taxes on alcohol. A rough estimate at the time showed the Federal government’s annual loss at $50,000,000. Financially and morally the “Noble Experiment” was heading for disaster.
Persons who profited from the situation were gangsters like Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Johnny Torrio, Hymie Weiss and Dion O’Banion. They weren’t afraid to attack each other and as a consequence the streets from New York to New Orleans were painted with blood. One of the worst assassinations was executed on Valentine’s Day 1929 in Chicago, when seven members of Bugs Moran’s gang were mowed down in an abandoned warehouse by automatic machine guns fired by Capone’s cronies. Two of them were dressed like police offers and were responsible for opening the fire. The main target, Bugs himself, escaped since he arrived later at the scene of the crime than planned. Bugs was caught by the authorities soon after and would testify that only Capone could be responsible for such a hideous crime.
The U.S. had never seen the supposed involvement of police officers in gang wars and was shocked. In Chicago more than 250 police detectives were screened. Since Capone had used hired killers from other parts of the country it was extremely difficult to track them all down. Capone was never convicted for the murders, but eventually caught for tax fraud. The most notorious gangster of the U.S. disappeared behind bars before Prohibition had ended. In 1931 he was sentenced to 11 years in prison — eight years later he was released early, an ill and broken man. When he eventually died in Florida in 1947, he was poor as a rat. In this particular case crime didn’t pay. The man responsible for catching Al Capone was detective Elliot Ness, on whose character a film and a TV-series were built: The Untouchables.
“All I ever did was supply a demand that was pretty popular,” said Al Capone. Indeed, the common people weren’t really against trafficking of booze by the mafia, but the famed slaughter on Valentine’s Day became a turning point. Public opinion now turned against the gangsters, who certainly weren’t the only ones to blame for the many people that died. Another cause, as dramatic as the gang wars, was the production of so-called “bathtub gin,” distilled illegally at home. The stuff not only contained methanol, which can cause blindness and death, but was regularly diluted with cleaning products and other hazardous liquids. Illegal “distillers” colored the white alcohol with iodine and tobacco to make it look like mature whisky. Thousands of people died after drinking the “rotgut” produced in bathtubs. Even more went blind or suffered permanent paralysis.
The Volstead Act made one exemption on the prohibition of the manufacture, sales and transport of alcohol. It was allowed for medicinal purposes only. The ones who were lucky to obtain a license could sell alcohol on a small scale. Medical doctors could write a prescription and the patient acquired his bottle of whiskey at the pharmacy. There were many happy patients and doctors during Prohibition.
A shady lawyer and bootlegger who originated from Germany discovered this loophole in the Volstead Act — if he bought a distillery and a pharmacy, he could sell liquor to himself for medicinal purposes. Subsequently he hijacked his own stash and put it on the black market. This gent, George Remus, is said to have made over $40 million within three years. Eventually the cunning lawyer was caught and hit the blues with a two-year sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for bootlegging. His wife Imogene then began an affair with Frank Dodge, a Prohibition agent. Together they stripped Remus of his assets and even tried to have him killed by a hired gun.
In 1927 Remus was taken to court in Cincinnati to finalize the divorce that Imogene had demanded. When he spotted the cab of his wife and daughter, he chased them through Eden Park, cornered them and shot Imogene. She died the same day. When put to trial Remus, defended himself and pled temporary insanity. He was sentenced to an asylum for six months. After his release he tried to get back into bootlegging but gave up when he found out the business was taken over by an infamous group of gangsters. Remus then moved back to Kentucky where he led a further unremarkable life and died 20 years after the end of Prohibition.
The story about Remus and the massacre on Valentine’s Day are just a few of the many horror stories surrounding the Prohibition Era. The end came when President Franklin Roosevelt presented a national plan of urgency to Congress. The 1929 crash in Wall Street and the subsequent depression had decimated the state’s finances and that of the citizens, together with a steep decline in morale. The president’s New Deal announced a series of measures to help recover the dwindling economy. One of the measures was the repeal of Prohibition. This happened on December 5, 1933. That same month the Distilled Spirits Institute was founded at Schenley Products Company offices in New York City. This institute still exists and has been named Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) since 1973.
The Whisky Couple