PERU — Rumors of bootlegging North Country ancestors that got got caught can probably be verified in “Bullets, Booze, Bootleggers, and Beer: The Story of Prohibition in Northern New York, Volume 1:1920-1926.”
Written by award-winning author/Bloated Toe publisher Lawrence Gooley, it was seven years in the making.
“This will be my 23rd book and a lot of it has been about regional history,” Gooley said.
“I actually grew up in Champlain, which is within a mile of the border. I heard a lot of stories when I was younger.
“Many of the people who ran alcohol in all of its different forms back and forth across the border did it at Champlain and Rouses Point in the Clinton County area, and Mooers too, very heavy coverage in Mooers.”
As a kid, he called them the old bootleggers.
“I knew a few of them,” Gooley said.
“The difficulty in that is if you were really good then you weren't caught and because it was criminal you didn't take pictures of it or advertise it.
“Eventually at different points I would discover like there was one in my hometown who I had never even heard of until he was caught. He was very successful. He certainly made a lot of money. There are a few like that in the different towns.”
Geographically, the book encompasses Lake Ontario to Lake Champlain and from the borderlands of New York State and Canada to the Capital Region.
“There is a lot of coverage of every town,” Gooley said.
“It's a very large book. Most of my books are 6 x 9 but this is 8 x 10, hardcover and it's 472 pages. This is volume one of two. I was trying to figure out a way to do this because there is so much material. Instead of say half million to a million words of research, I was way beyond 3 million, and I gave up counting.”
Gooley collected tens of thousands newspaper articles, read books by people involved in smuggling, and books by officials running the U.S. Prohibition Office and New York State Office.
“Many of those people wrote books back then,” he said.
“I read everything that they wrote. I read the mentions in the newspapers. Government mentions of captures that were made. They have to give official notices. So, I made use of a lot of those through government auctions. So a wide range of materials.”
Bootleggers included a LaFontaine from Champlain, a Laventure from Champlain/Mooers, a Lagree from Churubusco and a Smallman from Malone.
There were many locals involved in bootlegging, and there were many different ways they were involved.
“Stills were very common,” Gooley said.
“In fact some people I talked to was surprised at that, but it was a very common thing to do. If the enforcement officers were so busy chasing bootleggers, they didn't have lot of time to spend visiting everybody's house and finding stills.”
Law enforcement did find very many of them, but many stills went unnoticed.
“You could produce for your own use at home, and then a lot of them began selling to local establishments,” Gooley said.
“The term speakeasy most people would think of a place in New York City where you would knock on a door. It's a secret place. But back in Prohibition really it was applied to almost any place where you could get alcohol.”
Locally, people could secure a private drink in the back rooms of a barbershop or tailor shop.
MOLLS OF SMUGGLING
Bootlegging was an equal opportunity enterprise.
“There were fewer women, but there were women,” he said.
“A few of them became well known. Most of the time, women were treated differently. This is when women had just gotten the right to vote.”
If women were arrested, law enforcement might laugh it off and let them go.
Typically, men were locked up and had to pay a fine.
There is a chapter on humorous, odd and unusual stories.
“Some of them involve very young bootleggers or cases where maybe a mom and baby were locked up in jail over night,” Gooley said.
Bootleggers' imaginations went wild inventing ways to move alcohol while avoiding detection from law enforcement.
Alcohol was hidden within tires and even hollowed-out eggs that were shipped.
“A local well known officer had pulled a car over,” Gooley said.
“He was very suspicious that it was a bootleg vehicle and he just couldn't seem to find anything. He searched inside and out. He just happened to lean on the car, and he thought he heard a strange noise. So, he pushed it harder and he heard a sloshing sound. They were actually using the frame of the car to hold the alcohol.”
The book is illustrated by photographs sourced from old books and the Library of Congress.
“Most people again, you're committing crimes so it's not something you took pictures of,” he said.
“I used a lot of newspaper headlines as my illustration to help tell the story.”
Volume I covers the first seven years of Prohibition., which began in January 1920.
“But we did have wartime Prohibition towards the end of World War I,” Gooley said.
“The government wanted wheat or anything that might be used to make alcohol, they wanted that all used to aid our troops and feed our troops. They managed to pass Prohibition during the end of the war, and then we finally passed the big one in 1919 and it took effect a year later in 1920.”
Bootleggers ran beer, ale, whiskey and champagne.
“Every liquor imaginable,” he said.
“The largest quantities were generally whiskey and beer. While they are looking at cars crossing the border, there might be a rail car loaded with 500 cases of beer. If that went by unnoticed that was a big boon to the bootleggers of course.”
Many locals in the borderlands were runners.
“They lived here and they knew the area pretty well,” he said.
“They would be hired to go into Canada. Get whatever it was a person wanted. Sneak it into the U.S. and maybe deliver it to somewhere near the border or near Plattsburgh or further south. Then, there would be pickup points where others would come in and move it further south.”
Route 9 was known as the “Bootleg Trail,” which ran from the border to Albany to an endpoint at Broadway in New York City.
The way was fraught with lawmen out to get their man, those who wanted a piece of the action, wild chases, shootouts, murder and collateral damage of innocents.
Cars back then were a new technology with speeds topping at 50 or 60 mph.
“Some were faster,” Gooley said.
“Of course, a lot of the bootleggers souped up their cars to go even faster. The lawmen did the same thing. Sometimes, they would take a captured bootleg car and use that as a pursuit vehicle. But they all drove some of the really fancy cars, and they would hold sometimes up to 40 cases of whiskey.”
Gooley talked to relatives of bootleggers and got enough material to fill several books.
“Volume 2: 1927-1933” will be published in 2020 as the United States marks the 100th anniversary of Prohibition.
“I did an annual review,” Gooley said.
“I wrote how bootlegging in the North Country affected things on the state level and national level and vice versa,” he said.
“The federal government had their eye on northern New York all the time because it was one of the worst places for smuggling in the entire country.”
“FIRST IN ARRESTS/FINES
There were two places in New York they needed to shut down.
One was called Rum Row, which was a line of boats off Long Island and off the Jersey Shore.
“They would be in international waters, and you could go out and pick up what you needed or someone could bring it in and hopefully three out of four boats would make it through,” Gooley said.
The Feds were trying to stop that and when they did they realized that a tremendous amount was crossing in northern New York. A lot on the St. Lawrence but the worst of all for them there is it's about 65 miles of land border from Fort Covington to Rouses Point. That was considered one of the worst in the entire country.”
The northern district of New York state had the highest arrest rate and the highest fine rate in the entire country.
“It was really a big deal,” Gooley said.
“I knew it was big, but it was even bigger than I imagined and it was so much fun learning all about it and dissecting everything.”
Email Robin Caudell:
WHAT: "Bullets, Booze, Bootleggers, and Beer: The Story of Prohibition in Northern New York, Volume 1: 1920-1926. ISBN: 978-1-939216-62-5 Hardcover, 472 pp. $32.
ADDRESS: Bloated Toe Enterprises, P.O. Box 324, Peru, NY 12972