One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Sunday, October 03, 2010
1920 - THE DRINKS ARE ON THE HOUSE
I have the feeling that Prohibition was just a bad idea whose time had come. On the day the 18th Amendment became the national law of the land, January 16, 1920, 65% of America was already “dry”, including 19 entire states. The Amendment merely banned the sale of “intoxicating liquors”, but then Congressman Andrew J. Volstead, made it worse. He put his name to a law that specifically defined what an “intoxicating liquor” was; any beverage containing more than 0.05% alcohol, less than the current legal limit to drive. Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Voltstead Act, but the pandering politicians in Congress over powered the weakened President in less than 12 hours. It was a national "Last Call".
It was the will of the public, certainly the public will in Massachusetts, which was one of the first states to ratify the 18th Amendment. Ex-baseball player and evangelical preacher Billy Sunday staged a funeral for “John Barlycorn", asserting “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and jails into storehouses."
It did not happen that way. The problem would prove to be that the public were hypocrites. What they condemned in church and the polling booth, they practiced in private. Comedian Will Rogers, noting the popularity of temperance amongst southern politicians, put it this way, “The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls.”
Lots of people in Boston saw the business opportunities in the prohibition hypocrisy. Russian immigrant Charles Solomon (AKA the “King”) who ran the vice in Boston’s West End considered illegal booze to be a natural extension of his drugs, gambling and prostitution operations. And in 1920 Phil (Filippo) Buccola arrived from Sicily, and immediately began to “organize” the Boston water front to smuggle in illegal booze, and anything else he could hijack. But the fastest rising of the prohibition mobsters in Boston were the Wallace brothers from the neighborhood once known as Dorchester Neck.
Separated by the potato famine from their Irish homeland, tens of thousands of Catholic immigrants had been confronted on arrival in Boston by signs reading “No Irish Need Apply”, for an apartment or a job. The descendants of English Protestants forced the "Papists" into tenements south of the East Point Channel, a section which became known as South Boston, or Southie. In the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, Catholics in Boston were as despised, feared and hated as Muslims are today, and for all of the same reasons.
South Boston was connected by the Old Colony Rail line to Boston proper, but the locals were not encouraged to mix with the Brahmins of the old town or the Back Bay. Southie became a vast industrial park of iron foundries, machine shops and shipyards, embedded amongst the tenements of the workers who serviced them. And here, on the very ground where George Washington had planted the artillery that drove the English out of Boston, Steve, Frank and Jimmy Wallace found their pot of gold.
They adopted the title of the Gustin Gang, after a block long appendage of Damrell Street, south of Old Colony Avenue. Before the revolution it had been the farm of John Gustin. But in 1920 Gustin Street had only two businesses, William Lynch at number 15, and William Baker at Number 14. They were both barrel dealers, part of a dirty pragmatic business district that was the heart of Southie, a name that would come to inspire equal parts of pride, shame, hatred and love in its residents.
Frank Williams was the brains and Steve, the ex-boxer, was the enforcer. By the second decade of the twentieth century they were known locally as the “Tailboard Thieves”, who looted delivery vans when they paused at Southie intersections. The brothers quickly took the next step, hijacking the entire rig and unloading it elsewhere. From there they moved to armed robberies, and protection rackets. With the arrival of Prohibition they transitioned into using these same methods to supply their Speakeasies with booze and broads. This same transition was made by mobsters in every city in America.
The name "speakeasies" came from the way you were expected to utter the password which admitted you to the now illegal bar; speak easily or softly. Women, rarely seen in pre-prohibition taverns, were frequent customers in the Speakeasies, such as “The Spotlight”, run by brother Jimmy Wallace, or “Kelly’s Cork and Bull”, at 232 Old Colony.
Eventually the Gustin Street Gang were operating their own fleet of boats, which steamed from the harbor every afternoon, to restock from “Rum Row”, the fleet of alcohol laden supply ships that circled just beyond the three mile limit, in international waters. Then, under cover of darkness, the boats would return, carrying their now illegal cargo, and smuggle it ashore, much as Sam Adams had smuggled tea under the noses of the lobster backs in King George III’s custom house.
Being illegal, the profits were tax free. And being illegal, the competitors like King Solomon, could not call a cop when the Gustin Street Gang hijacked one of their boats off shore, and stole an entire shipment. And being illegal, murder was worth the risk to steal your competitor's profits, because the profits were huge. A beer, which before prohibition had cost a nickle, was now half water and cost a quarter.
The higher prices were, in part, required, because of the graft which was now paid the police to look the other way, to finance the politicians who refused to fund more prohibition agents, and to hire the “muscle” that discouraged any civilians who felt morally bound to report distilleries and speakieses in their neighborhoods. It is interesting to note that several times during the 1920’s Frank Wallace was arrested for assault and battery, breaking and entering, gambling, larceny and trespassing, but he was never convicted. By the end of 1920, the Gustin Street Gang had so many politicians in their pocket that the Wallace Brothers had come close to running South Boston.
Mrs. White, manager of the Elizabeth Peabody Settlement House, in South Boston would later note that neighborhood dances had to be abandoned because after prohibition so many young men were showing up with hip-flasks, which they passed around. She also noted that many poor families had gone into the production of “bathtub gin”, so called not because it was mixed in the bathtub, but because the bottles were too tall to be watered down from the faucet in the kitchen sink.
In Boston, with a population of 106,000 in 1920, during the first year of national prohibition, 21,800 people were arrested for public drunkenness. In 1922 that number would jump to 30, 987; by 1922 it would be 37,500. And by 1925 it would rise to almost 40,000.
Within a year, Congressman Volstead would be rejected by the voters of his home state, but the Williams brothers and their ilk in every city in America, would be around for a lot longer than that.