Hell of a racket

America was thirsty, and Canadians like to help

“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...