“Do I do business with Canadian racketeers?” the mercurial Al Capone once said, when questioned about the source of the bootlegged liquor that was making him the king of the Chicago underworld. “I don’t even know what street Canada is on.”
Capone was joking, of course. In the Roaring Twenties, everyone in bone-dry America knew who was supplying much of the illegal booze flowing into the nation’s speakeasies and blind pigs. A cartoon published in the Literary Digest in 1920, not long after the Eighteenth Amendment made it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell “intoxicating liquor” in the United States, depicted Uncle Sam looking above his head to Canada, where a stockpile of bottles and barrels was leaking alcohol into his parched country.
It was a decade of fads and excess, as familiar to us as the would-be Gatsbys who gambled on the stock market and as distant as the flickering silent films of Mary Pickford. It lives on in black-and-white photographs of dance marathons, bob-haired flappers, and streets clogged with cheap Model T Fords. But something else defined the 1920s: an unprecedented effort to use the power of the state to outlaw the consumption of alcohol in North America. As the horrors and sacrifices of the Great War were being washed away by a new era of exuberance, consumerism, and social change, Prohibition threatened to spoil the party.
Canada and the United States took different approaches to the crackdown. In America, total prohibition was in force from coast to coast, while in Canada each province crafted its own regimen—and, by the end of the decade, most provinces had moved from an outright ban on liquor to controlled sales through government stores and licenced establishments. Ottawa, meanwhile, used its federal powers only to restrict interprovincial trade in alcohol; breweries and distilleries were free to make booze for sale outside the country. Thirsty Americans looked north for relief. Enterprising Canadians were pleased to oblige.
There were three major gateways for smuggling in booze from Canada. On the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, liquor-laden sailing vessels and steamers gathered just outside U.S. territorial waters on “rum row”—out of the reach of U.S. Coast Guard patrols—and transferred their cargoes to small craft manned by Americans, who made the hazardous dash to shore. But the main entry point was far inland, along the narrow, forty-five-kilometre strip of river separating Michigan from Ontario. As much as four-fifths of the illegal liquor that flowed into the U.S. in the Twenties passed through what became known as the Detroit-Windsor “funnel.”
The Prohibition era and the exploits of Canada’s bootleggers and rum-runners have been the subject of countless books and memoirs. Tense nighttime forays to deliver booze, gun battles between rival bootlegging gangs, high-speed chases at sea as smugglers tried to outrun American customs agents—the drama and danger made for good newspaper copy then and have become fodder for great stories now.
In Dying for a Drink, Patrick Brode, a lawyer and prolific chronicler of Windsor’s history, zeroes in on a fatal shooting in 1920 at the Chappell House, an illegal bar in Sandwich and a magnet for drinkers from the opposite side of the Detroit River. The victim was the bar’s owner, Beverley “Babe” Trumble, but his assailant was not a disgruntled customer or a rival bootlegger. It was Reverend Joseph Spracklin, a Methodist minister working as a Prohibition enforcement officer for the Ontario government, who pulled the trigger.
Did Spracklin fire in self defence, or was Trumble murdered in cold blood? That’s the mystery at the heart of Brode’s book. Trumble was a shady character and his rowdy bar was openly flouting Ontario’s restrictions on the sale of alcohol. But Spracklin, known as the “Fighting Pastor,” was a religious zealot and loose cannon who would stop at nothing to stamp out the trade in demon rum.
To explain how a fanatic like Spracklin wound up with a gun and a mandate to root out illegal liquor, Brode provides the bigger picture. The United Farmers of Ontario, an upstart third party catapulted into power in 1919, was determined to enforce Prohibition and make the province as dry as the United States. The Trumbles of Ontario and their customers were just as determined to sell and enjoy their favourite beverages, even if this meant breaking the law. “It was a collision between evangelical Ontario, which considered the consumption of alcohol to be an unforgivable evil,” Brode writes, “and a modern society that welcomed a more liberal lifestyle.”
This cultural clash ultimately left a man dead and a clergyman-turned-law enforcement officer facing trial on a charge of manslaughter. Brode weighs the conflicting evidence with the admirable fair-mindedness of a lawyer. Claims that Trumble was brandishing a pistol are balanced against disturbing evidence that he was unarmed when Spracklin shot him at point-blank range.
Equally disturbing was the government’s complicity in the death. Spracklin was ill-suited to the role of a liquor cop and should never have been hired. The “Fighting Pastor” lacked police training, cared little for the civil rights of his targets, and routinely searched cars and premises for alcohol without obtaining a warrant. He recruited deputies who robbed and blackmailed those caught with alcohol, and showed up to testify before a committee of the legislature with a loaded gun in his pocket. Yet J.D. Flavelle, chair of the board that enforced Ontario’s liquor laws, defended him as “a vigorous young man” and asserted that “extreme measures have been demanded by extreme conditions.” The province’s attorney general, W.E. Raney, added fuel to the fire by declaring bootleggers to be public enemies. Spracklin and other enforcement officers must “fight illegal liquor business as they might fight other crime” and “chase down whisky-runners as they would a murderer.”
The story of Spracklin’s reign of terror and Trumble’s death has been told before, most recently by Vancouver writer Daniel Francis in his 2014 book Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-Runners, and Border Wars (Douglas & McIntyre). But Brode brings to his account a wealth of local knowledge about Windsor and its Prohibition-era past, including the links between the families of the men who confronted each other in the Chappell House—Trumble and Spracklin were almost the same age and both grew up in the southern Ontario city of Woodstock.
The senseless shooting of Babe Trumble was “the high-water mark of the temperance movement,” Brode argues, and the manslaughter prosecution spelled the end of Spracklin’s career as a cartoonish version of Capone’s nemesis, Eliot Ness. While Ontario remained in the grips of Prohibition until 1927—when the provincial government took control of liquor sales and distribution—booze was easy to find and continued to flow into the U.S. through the Windsor area. “Spracklin’s brief crusade,” Brode notes, “accomplished nothing beyond costing one man his life and reminding people of the price of fanaticism.”
Don’t Never Tell Nobody Nothin’ No How shifts the Prohibition-era action to the West Coast, where writer and maritime historian Rick James has dug deep into newspaper accounts, archival records, and rum-runner memoirs to recount B.C.’s role in smuggling booze across the border.
Unlike Ontario, B.C. abandoned Prohibition early, in 1921, shifting the focus of the illegal liquor trade to the export market. The southern tip of Vancouver Island was an ideal smuggling base, James explains in a memorable phrase, “since it sticks out like a boot kicking the exposed butt of Washington State.” The narrow strait separating the two countries, with its maze of islands, became “a veritable floating liquor marketplace where Canadian boats delivered up orders to their American counterparts in relative safety.”
B.C.’s boat owners and crews, James discovered, believed they were engaged in a legitimate enterprise. And they were pleased to serve customers willing to pay dearly for their product. Most anchored on the Canadian side of the border and transferred their cargoes of booze to American boats, who ran the border and took all the risks.
Rum-running became a booming business, with large corporations set up to operate fleets of vessels and dispatch liquor by the shipload. To comply with Canadian export laws, James explains, owners claimed their cargoes were headed for foreign ports—Tahiti was a popular phony destination, and some captains actually made the long voyage to the island to authenticate their paperwork—but the shipments wound up on rum row, off the Washington and California coasts.
Don’t Never Tell Nobody Nothin’ No How—the title comes from the phrase that, according to Fraser Miles, who worked as a wireless operator on a smuggling vessel, was the “rum-runner’s motto”—has a murder of its own. Hijackings were a constant threat, and in 1924 three Americans and a Canadian accomplice attacked and killed a B.C. rum-runner and his teenaged son, dumping their bodies at sea and seizing their cargo. The assailants were caught and two were hanged.
While there were other robberies and occasional gun battles, the double-murder was an anomaly. Rum-running on the Pacific Coast was conducted “in a very civilized and politely Canadian manner,” James writes, and liquor was “just another export shipping enterprise working out of the ports of Vancouver and Victoria.”
“We considered ourselves philanthropists,” claimed one smuggler quoted in James’s book. “We supplied good liquor to poor thirsty Americans who were poisoning themselves with rotten moonshine…and brought prosperity back to the harbour of Vancouver.”
But there was, of course, a dark side to Canada’s illegal trade in booze. Drinkers were willing to pay sky-high prices for illegal alcohol, and the dizzying profits financed the rise of organized crime on both sides of the border. Government attempts to stamp out one vice created mob bosses such as Capone and led to open warfare on the streets of many American cities as rival gangs competed for customers and turf. Easy money corrupted police and customs enforcement officers and encouraged them to look the other way. Innocent people could be caught in the crossfire, even in Canada—Brode describes how the crackle of gunfire was heard on many nights along the Detroit River, as bootleggers fought over caches or boatloads of liquor.
Worse, ordinary citizens were transformed into lawbreakers. Anyone who drank alcohol in defiance of Prohibition—and millions of dollars in bootlegging profits prove there were plenty of people who did—was complicit. So were the respected businessmen in the Windsor area who supplied boats, equipment and riverside real estate to rum-runners or joined the business themselves. The Hiram Walker distillery near Windsor continued to operate throughout the Prohibition years and much of the trademark Canadian Club whisky it produced was served in illegal bars across America. Many otherwise law-abiding citizens thought nothing of smuggling or selling liquor and thumbing their noses at Prohibition laws they did not support or respect.
These books are well researched and peppered with fascinating characters. There’s plenty of material for crafting dramatic incidents and scenes, but the authors could have made better use of the storytelling possibilities. An opening chapter ending with a cliff-hanger as Spracklin was about to shoot Trumble, or a suspenseful retelling of one of the hijackings off the B.C. coast would have immersed readers in the gritty, dangerous world of bootlegging and smuggling. And more of this kind of real-time storytelling would keep them turning the pages.
Both Brode and James do portray the futility of Prohibition. The law can be a blunt instrument when it seeks to control morality, and in hindsight any effort to ban the distribution and sale of a commonly used and easily manufactured substance such as alcohol was doomed. Canadians found ways to obtain liquor, despised the holier-than-thou politicians and Spracklins who were trying to keep it away from them, and created an entire export industry to get it into the hands and glasses of like-minded Americans.
It’s instructive to revisit this era of flouted laws at a time when another form of prohibition is coming to an end. Canada’s restrictions on the sale and possession of cannabis date to the 1920s and Rick James draws the obvious comparison between the two enforcement regimes. (As he notes in the introduction to his book, his research into rum-running reminded him of his student days in Victoria, when friends with boats smuggled in pot and hashish from the U.S.) Ottawa’s legalization of the recreational use of cannabis this fall follows the pattern set almost a century ago in the wake of the failed experiment of banning alcohol, with governments controlling production, distribution, and sales. Legalizing cannabis will bring new challenges, just as the abuse of alcohol can lead to health risks and reckless or even criminal behaviour. But ending this form of prohibition also ensures that fewer Canadians will be branded as lawbreakers—as many of their ancestors were—for indulging in an intoxicating substance that has long been in widespread use.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (HarperCollins Canada), the true story of a brazen 1920s Chicago swindler and his escape to Canada. He teaches in the MFA in creative nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.