Downriver Prohibition: Its People and Perspectives by Kathy Warnes by Kathy Warnes - Read Online
Downriver Prohibition
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To many ordinary Downriver Detroit, Monroe, Toledo, and across the Detroit River in Canada residents, Prohibition didn't mean the Purple Gang and criminal activity. Many Downriver residents needed bootlegging and rumrunning money to survive the Depression. To others smuggling liquor meant adventure, and to some, defying the Prohibition law meant showing the government their opinion of what they considered an unjust and intrusive law. Here are some of their stories.

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ISBN: 9781386626374
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Downriver Prohibition: Its People and Particulars

by Kathy Warnes


To Downriver, foundation block of America and its energetic, creative people.

Table of Contents

Downriver: Perfect Stage for Prohibition

Buy Your Equipment at the Local Store and Brew It Yourself at Home

Downriver Canada and Downriver Detroit-Creating the Windsor Detroit Funnel

Bootlegging Biographies

Downriver Eyewitnesses to Prohibition

Enforcing the Unenforceable -1920-1926

Enforcing the Unenforceable-1927-1933

Agents Give Their All

Agents as Adversaries

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat La Framboise- Allen Park and Brownstown Township (Flat Rock, Rockwood, and Woodhaven)

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat La Framboise – Ecorse

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat LaFramboise – Gibraltar

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat LaFramboise – Grosse Ile and Grosse Ile Township

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat LaFramboise – Lincoln Park, Melvindale, and River Rouge

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat LaFramboise- Romulus, Riverview, and Southgate

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat LaFramboise- Taylor, Trenton

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat LaFramboise -Wyandotte

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat LaFramboise– Monroe and Monroe County

The Prohibition Rambles of Muskrat LaFramboise- Toledo, Ohio

Prohibition Perspectives


JUST AS DOWNRIVER PEOPLE had established lives- many involving alcohol- before Prohibition, the Prohibition Law that changed their lives had many people and organizations creating its foundations. Following an Eighteenth Century where people generally accepted alcohol in a social, cultural, and financial role, the Nineteenth Century featured a change in attitudes toward alcohol. Reformist groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, the Temperance Movement from 1784 to 1933, and the influence of Protestant Churches, especially the Methodist Church, stressed the social evils that alcoholic beverages encouraged, including family violence, drunkenness, and political corruption. Most reformers truly believed they could establish a better society for everyone by eliminating the social problems stemming from alcohol use, and they were willing to take the time and make the effort to implement their reforms.

These different groups successfully agitated for Prohibition and gradually in the late 19th and early 20th centuries many communities introduced alcohol Prohibition and the drys who believed outlawing alcohol would produce a safer, kinder nation fought to make Prohibition a national law. People against Prohibition or wets, opposed the alcohol ban for reasons including its unenforceability, and the perception of the ban forcing Protestant ideas from rural America on urban, immigrant, and Catholic life. Other factors included the First World War, newly empowered women seeking to stop domestic abuse and alcoholism, and the clash of rural and urban life styles. The spirit of reform and revolution of the Progressive Era contributed to the spirit of demonizing alcohol.

The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 which aided the Prohibition cause by making the German beer industry and its culture suspect. German immigrants to the United States in the 19th Century founded most of the breweries and their German names such as Pabst, Schlitz, and Strohs made them suspect. But the anti-alcohol culture was even more influential than the anti-German sentiment in influencing the passage of the 18th Amendment.

In August 1917 Congress passed the Lever Act, banning distilled spirits production for the remainder of the War and reserving grain supplies for food production. On November 18, 1918, the United States Congress passed the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, banning the sale of alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content of more than 1.28 percent. Protestant churches and urban progressives believed alcohol encouraged poverty and social disintegration and division in American life and they determined to curb its influence and use. Henry Ford favored Prohibition because he believed it would benefit workers and produce a more efficient economy. The war-time prohibition measure blended these different prohibition factions into a social reform movement that produced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. [1]

By 1913, nine states had passed statewide prohibition laws and at least 31 others had local option laws. By January 16, 1919, 36 of the then 48 states had ratified the 18th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, prohibiting the making, transporting, and selling of alcoholic beverages. An enabling law called the Volstead Act was passed to enforce the 18th Amendment. The Volstead Act identified rules to enforce the Prohibition Amendment, defining the kinds of prohibited alcoholic drinks which translated to confusion in enforcing the law. The Act allowed religious uses of wine, and it did not make private ownership and drinking of alcohol illegal under federal law. In some states, local laws were stricter than the federal law and some states specifically banned possession of alcohol in any form.[2]

National Prohibition took effect on January 16, 1920. From its beginnings, the national Prohibition Amendment provoked controversy and resistance and rebellion and opportunity. Downriver people, including Muskrat LaFramboise were part of the resistance, rebellion, and in fewer numbers, obediently law-abiding participants in Prohibition. For some people, Prohibition presented an opportunity for upward mobility, for other people riches they had never imagined, and for other people, simply survival. Andrew Volstead himself observed in The Saturday Night, that Prohibition had brought a stream of gold to Ecorse and the other Downriver communities. Police in many Downriver communities ignored rumrunning and in some cases facilitated it by helping unload the bootlegged liquor and warning rumrunners when Federal agents were planning to raid both land or water liquor establishments.[3]

Chapter One :  Downriver: Perfect Stage for Prohibition

ICY DETROIT RIVER- seagulls, fog.  Photograph by R.M. Hermen

Fog and ice on the Detroit River threatened to swallow him as soon as he pushed off from the Canadian shore into the Detroit River. With a sigh of relief, Muskrat LaFrambroise eased his row boat directly into the swirl of fog that smudged the outlines of the American shore. Coming from generations of river men, the river felt as comfortable and welcoming as the front porch where he had watched its changing face and moods for so many years of his life.  No Feds would be cruising his river looking for him tonight.

Muskrat darted a quick glance over his shoulder like a gull pecking food from the sandy beach and propelled the boat just as quickly around the ice cakes. The jute bags followed the movements of the rowboat, but none of the bottles crashed together and none of them broke.  His whiskey was safe. He could count on a sure profit on this shipment. Then just a few yards from the American shore a figure stepped out of the fog, pointing a revolver at him. A second figure detached itself from the first and now two revolvers stared him in the face. Muskrat did what he had planned to do in case such a catastrophe happened. He walked his fingers until they curled around the stopper resembling a bathtub plug in the bottom of his boat and he pulled it out. Quickly he swam to shore and stood with the Federal agents, watching his boat sink with the profitable whiskey, carefully noting the spot where they disappeared.

Flinging his hands in the air at their command, Muskrat followed the agents to the car they had parked by the riverbank. He would be back later to dive for the whiskey when he had paid his fine and the fog lifted and the ice melted.  The Detroit River which had provided his father and grandfather before him with transportation and food including the muskrat which gave him and his family food and furs to trade for money, his river, would preserve the bottles of whiskey until he returned for them. He would still make a profit.

According to Canadian historian Marty Gervais, a real rumrunner named Muskrat LaFramboise plied his trade on the Detroit River for both the bootleggers and the Mounties. His real name was Arthur, but everyone called him Muskrat because he trapped the plentiful muskrat on the Detroit River and made cooking, eating, and serving them an art. Muskrat and his brothers Sip, (Pete) and Whiskey Jack would travel up and down the Detroit River with his boat, sometimes on the side of the Mounties and other times with the bootleggers. He was riding both sides of the fence.  He could get away with it because he and his brothers knew how to gently twist arms and bribes. If he wanted a party, they gave him a party or else.[4]

Muskrat Laframboise (Windsor Star, 1939)

Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America

THE RIVERMEN ANCESTORS and descendants of Muskrat LaFramboise traveled the rivers and lakes of Downriver, including the Rouge River and Ecorse River for generations, later building narrow dusty country roads to take their farm products to market. During Prohibition, some of the contemporary generations of Muskrat’s family brewed their brews and carried their own and their neighbors’ brew to eager buyers. Muskrat trapped muskrats and appreciated the marshes and river wetlands, the richness of waterfowl and the lean, meaty taste of muskrats. People from around his home in Canada would order muskrat from him and he would catch, kill, skin and even cook them for their muskrat dinners. [5]

Muskrat had a boat with a plug in it like a bathtub. When customs agents or the police spotted him, he’d pull the plug and the boat would sink. Later when no one was around he’d go back to the boat and dive for the liquor. He and his helpers stored the whiskey in jute bags tied together at the tops like ears. When they had to dump the bottles overboard, a diver could later dive down, pick them up by the ears, and haul them to the surface. Muskrat quickly developed expertise at rum rescue, and at times, rumrunner betrayal. He truly had lived both sides of the story.

Muskrat and his fellow rumrunner and bootleggers operated against national and state Prohibition backdrops. The communities along the Detroit River south of Detroit called Downriver and Monroe and Toledo with their strategic rivers and locations on Lake Erie, forged their own Prohibition cultures that in many cases overshadowed surpassed the national Prohibition story. In varying degrees, Detroit, the entire Downriver area and its Monroe and Toledo links combined with Downriver Detroit River Canada to import and export most of the illegal Prohibition liquor to the rest of the United States. Historian Philip P. Mason wrote in Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties:  Prohibition on the Michigan-Ontario Waterway, that seventy-five percent of all illegal liquor brought into the United States was transported across the Detroit River from Canada, mainly along the thirty-five-mile stretch from Lake Erie to the St. Clair River. In fact, the city’s two major industries during this time were the manufacturing of automobiles and the distribution of Canadian liquor.[6]

Muskrat La Frambroise and his fellow rumrunners had reasons for their trade which were as complex as Prohibition itself.   Most Downriver bootleggers themselves were ordinary Downriver residents. Detroit gangs like the notorious Purple Gang and local offshoots like the Giannolas and Vitales grabbed much of the publicity as did alcohol smuggling activities in Downriver communities, but for the most part, Downriver bootleggers were ordinary residents who disagreed with the Prohibition law enough to defy it, desperately needed the money they earned from bootlegging, or were unwilling to give up the comfort and custom of their beer, wine, and mixed drinks. As one rumrunner remarked, It was common people. They weren’t gangsters. The majority of the guys that were buying the whisky were all people like us that would go out and buy, invest their money, to try to make a little bit on it. It was all common people and neighbors together and one neighbor would land at another neighbor’s place and so forth. They never thought there was nothing criminal about it.[7]

Ordinary Downriver people were caught up in a volatile time. They faced warring factions on each side of the Prohibition question, the enabling and enticing tangle of Downriver geography, uneven enforcement, and unsettling undercurrents of changes to the world they knew. These realities and others in their personal lives created complexity and confusion and often downright support and enthusiasm for the bootleggers defying the 18th Amendment that had brought bootlegging to their Downriver worlds. Prohibition especially resonated in the experiences of people living along the Detroit River and Lake Erie within a shot glass length of Canada and within Canada itself.

Michigan and Detroit – Prohibition Laboratory

Eighteenth century religious, business and community leaders fought to destroy what they considered the evil of selling beer and alcoholic drinks in saloons and to private thirsty buyers, believing that if they erased alcohol’s influence family life and work place productivity would increase and crime would diminish. By 1911, forty of Michigan’s 83 counties had gone dry and their more than six-decade campaign finally succeeded in 1916, when Michigan residents approved a prohibition amendment to the state constitution. The new Prohibition law meant that Michigan was saloon and not liquor dry, but a federal law made it illegal to buy or make alcoholic beverages in any state where the sale was illegal, so Michigan citizens quickly streamed to the Ohio border to buy their alcoholic beverages.

During the year before Michigan Prohibition became binding on May 1, 1917, bootleggers and smugglers practiced and perfected their craft. Bootleggers established customer lists and created ingenious ways to smuggle their wares. Some bootleggers joined forces to form networks that worked together to smuggle liquor and to brainstorm ways to outwit the police, unworried by the law and fines against liquor. They smuggled liquor in from Toledo because Ohio alcohol remained legal until it 1919, and the Prohibition law and the profits from the smuggling far outweighed the risks.

When Ohio went dry, bootleggers eyed Canada’s favorable liquor laws and began to transport liquor across the Canadian border into Michigan down the Detroit River and its connecting rivers to Lake Erie, an area that smuggler quickly dubbed the Windsor-Detroit Funnel. By the time Prohibition became national law in 1920, Michigan and Ontario residents were either silent observers or active participants in bootlegging, and as the Prohibition years progressed, 75-percent of the alcohol smuggled into the United States during Prohibition arrived through the Windsor-Detroit Funnel.

The Detroit News estimated that in 1928, between 16,000 and 25,000 speakeasies did business in the Detroit area and by 1929, rumrunning had exploded into Detroit’s second largest industry, totaling about $215 million per year. Illegal distilleries in the metropolitan Detroit area produced even more liquor, supplying Detroit, its surrounding cities and ultimately, the entire country.

Legislators and law enforcement agencies didn’t have the resources to stop or even significantly slow down the tsunami of liquor from Canada, and many citizens and government and law enforcement officials didn’t feel morally obligated to obey the Prohibition laws. A Michigan State Police raid on the Deutches Haus speakeasy exposed 800 people, including a sheriff, a Michigan congressman and Detroit Mayor John Smith! By the mid-1920s, gangs, including the Detroit Purple Gang, took over a major part of the smuggling operations and violent crime increased as they fought for turf and profits from the liquor. By the mid-1920s, law abiding citizens who used the River and its connecting waterways for recreation were accustomed to invasions by vigilant law enforcement groups and the peril of being shot as bootleggers.[8]

The stock market crashed on Tuesday, October 1929, and the following Depression hit Michigan a body blow, with unemployment in the state skyrocketing to 34 percent compared to 26 percent for the entire country. The automobile industry, one of its key employers, fishtailed. Between 1928 and 1932, employment at General Motors was cut in half and workers including those who had migrated to Michigan and settled in Downriver communities suffered. There was no unemployment insurance, Social Security, no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to protect bank savings and very little welfare funds to help with food and clothing. By 1932, foreclosures, bankruptcies, evictions, and repossessions were commonplace and despair settled over Detroit and Downriver. During Prohibition, Downriver people had geographic opportunity, economic motivations, and traditions and resourcefulness to become excellent active and passive bootleggers and many of them did exactly that.

Prohibition created mixed reactions in Downriver Detroit and Canada, and Monroe, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio for several reasons. The ethnically diverse and mostly working-class populations, the willingness and often enthusiasm of the middle and upper classes to establish new drinking habits, and as the years worn on, the economic hardships of the Depression impacted the effectiveness of Prohibition on the lives of Downriver people.

Downriver:  Diverse Demography, Drinking Habits, and Geography