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A Comparative Study of the Liquor Trade in Stockholm and New Orleans
1920 – 1940

By Hans Andersson

The prohibition era of the United States is certainly considered a formative period for
transnational organized crime, and has been analyzed in a number of well written essays,
more or less focused on the connections between crime and restrictions.1 The 1920s was also
a golden period for smuggling of alcohol in the Nordic waters, as similar systems of
prohibition were also established in Finland, Norway and on Iceland, while in Sweden an
intricate system of rationing was implemented in 1917.2

How this system of rationing affected crime in Sweden has not been the subject of much
scientific research.3 Today, such a study has, however, become more needed, because of the
establishment during the last decades, of what may be labeled as organized crime in Sweden.
The aim of my study is twofold, empirical and theoretical. Court records, newspapers and
other sources, such as memoirs, will be studied to examine the entrepreneurial methods
among smugglers and dealers in illegal liquor. Thereafter the concepts of organized crime and
illegal entrepreneurs will be discussed, as well as some practical implications of the use of
different theoretical concepts.

Two cities

Though there is a long history of organized crime, with early examples, such as piracy,
smuggling and trade in stolen goods in many parts of the world, a student of the topic cannot
fail to discover a starting point in late nineteenth century New Orleans. In the ethnic and
cultural setting of New Orleans, the Italian/Sicilian legal culture became the source of Mafia,
as a mode of conduct, or code of honor, rather than a criminal organization and after the
murder of the chief of police, Hennessey and the following lynching of several Italian
immigrants, as a construct of mass media. The choice of New Orleans as the point of
comparison is further motivated by several structural variables.

A systematic comparative analysis of Stockholm and New Orleans in the period 1920 – 1940
is based on similarities and differences regarding three subjects: population, function and

See for example: Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition : the Era of Excess, London, 1962; Joseph Albini, The
American Mafia. Genesie of a Legend, New York 1971; Kenneth Allsop, The Bootleggers: the Story of
Chicagos prohibition, London 1961; Thomas M Coffey, The Long Thirst. Porohibition in America 1920-1933,
New York 1975; Humbert S Nelli, The Business of Crime. Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States,
New York 1976; Lombardo, Robert M, [2000] The Gensis of Organized Crime in Chicago, – 23/8, 2000.
Per Ole Johansen, Markedet som ikke ville dö, forbudstiden og de illegale alkohol-markedene i Norge og
USA, Oslo 1994.
There are a few examples, such as “Den illegala rusdryckshanteringen”, Jill Björ, in Den svenska supen, en
historia om brännvin, Bratt och byråkrati, pp 190-228, mainly focused on the institutional development of the
control system.

1) The two cities were of about the same size, with slightly more than 400 000 inhabitants in
1920. But while the population of Stockholm as all Sweden may be regarded as ethnically
homogenous, New Orleans displays an unparalleled ethnic diversity, and at the time even
segregation. The dominant Anglo-Saxon legal culture formed the ideology of the official
society, but also featured popular behaviors (or rather misbehaviors) such as lynching.
2) Both cities were a major port, which is a good prerequisite for smuggling; Stockholm was
the capital of Sweden with a large sector of administration as opposed to New Orleans, an
economic center that was lacking significant administrative functions.
3) Furthermore there is a similarity in the coastline, with many small islands and bayous that
makes it extremely hard to patrol for the forces of police, customs and coast guards. There
is an obvious difference in climate, but more important is that New Orleans served as a
port to all the Midwest of USA, with many big cities, while Stockholm held a more
humble, largely rural hinterland.

Ethnicity may be regarded as a fertile soil for activities that may be considered as criminal,
anti state or social, or in any other way a manifestation of disparate legal cultures, in groups
with different status in the social hierarchy. Ethnicity has a long standing in the focus of
American research, but has, for obvious reasons, been less prominent in Sweden. There were
marginal groups, ethnically defined as gypsies and what in Swedish is labeled “tattare” (the
word is sometimes translated as “tinkers”, and is at least etymologically derived from tartars).
These were rumored for their criminal activities, and for forming loose network groups on
kinship basis. In Stockholm few gypsies or tinkers were registered, and as far as I have seen
they were not engaged in the illegal liquor trade.4 In certain rural localities they may have
been regarded as a threat, but there was no serious problem of organized crime in Sweden
before the end of the First World War.

Other aspects that will be focused are attitudes to violence and examples of corruption. The
danger of organized crime lies in the fact that it constitutes a threat on democratic values and
civil rights, such as legal security and the economic well being of both citizens and society.
Organized crime may thrive on corruption and exercise this threat both through violence, fear
and further resort to corruption of the politic system and the force of police, customs etc.

Several definitions of organized crime have been suggested, but what is of importance right
now is the common attitude towards these two features. For example the definition
established by Interpol states that organized crime is: ”Any group having a corporate structure
whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities, often surviving on fear
and corruption.” (Interpol’s first symposium on Organized Crime at St. Cloud, France, May
1998, Internet 27/4 1998).

There is a substantial study of crime in New Orleans during my research period: Louis
Vyhanek’s: Unorganized Crime – New Orleans in the 1920s. As the title amply suggests the
author argues that there was no organized crime in New Orleans at the time. Only after the
Second World War did the notorious gangster Frank Costello manage to gain control over the
entire under world of the city. The implications of this definition of organized crime is not
discussed, though few scholars would agree that the term is only valid if the organization

Birgitta Svensson, Bortom all ära och redlighet : tattarnas spel med rättvisan, Stockholm 1993. Official
statistics claims that only 32 gypsies and tattare (collectivly labelled with the French word bohemiens) were
registred as living in Stockholm in the early 1920s. The total number given for all Sweden is 773 persons. The
statisticians made a reservation, however, as ”this kind of people” are said to often elude registration. Statistisk
årsbok för Sverige 12:e årgången, Stockholm 1925, table 16.

reaches this level of control. Still there is lastly in the book a reference to modern research.
The historian Mark Haller is, among others, mentioned, who has shown that organized crime,
strictly defined is a quite rare and special case, in fact often a myth. Though reality is dramatic
enough, criminal activities are more often consisted of networks of illegal enterprise, or as I
would rather put it: illegal entrepreneurs.

A gender perspective has so far, contrary to mainstream social Science, not been salient in the
research on organized crime. Of course it may be argued that women play no important role in
organizations of crime, except as reduced to merchandise or symbols of status. How
manliness was constructed, in the press or popular culture, regarding features such as drinking
behavior and attitudes to violence, promises to be most fruitful in this field of research. In this
paper I will use two memoir books, one written by Gustaf Blomberg, chief of the police
“liquor squad” in Stockholm and the other by the notorious smuggler Algoth Niska.

Women did engage in the illegal liquor trade in both Stockholm and New Orleans, but their
activities will not be pursued in this study. The comparative aspect will also be left out and
the discussion limited to manliness and ideals of manhood in the Swedish setting.

Before getting down to the activities of the illegal entrepreneurs in the two cities, I will
describe temperance movement in Sweden, the brattsystem, and the referendum on
prohibition in the year 1922. Finally there are some comparative remarks and an outline of a
theoretical and practical discussion.

The Temperance Movement, Ivan Bratt and the Referendum

During the nineteenth century there was in most of Europe as well as in North America a
problem of heavy drinking. This was certainly the case in Sweden too. According to a study
of the apprentice culture in a medium sized, by Swedish standards early industrial town, the
average consumption for grown men was 2,6 liters of hard liquor a week, not included beer
and other beverages.5

For most part of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th there was a debate of and
frequent attacks on what was called “the ancient right and privilege of the peasants of Sweden
to distill their own brännvin”, as the typical Swedish liquor is called. For the state to acquire
monopoly over this industry or at least concentrate it to a few taxable sites or firms, would be
a great financial advantage. Technical development made it feasible to distill in brännvin in
factories, which made more economic use of the grain or potatoes to produce cheaper drink.
The goal was finally reached in the mid 1850.s, and soon the liquor-tax accounted for up to 20
% of the state revenue.6 Before this time there had been a quite insignificant popular
movement of temperance in Sweden. It was mainly regarded as a private affair, for people
who aimed at a sober living or temperance in their drinking habits.

During the second half of the 19th century the temperance movement got more involved in
politics. From about 1900 the issue of prohibition became salient to the temperance
movement and also in national politics. The socialist cause and workers movement gained

Lars Magnusson, Den bråkiga kulturen. Förläggare och smideshantverkare i Eskilstuna 1800-1850.
Stockholm 1988.
Tage Larsson, Reformen i brännvinslagstiftningen 1853-1854, Stockholm 1945-1947.

more influence, and was strongly linked to a more or less fanatical temperance movement. In
1909 there was a general strike – politically a failure but a poll was made during this and
indicated that 59 % of the people were in favor of a total prohibition on at least hard liquor.
This did give momentum to the temperance movement where the members saw an
opportunity to combine the demand of a more spread right to vote with the proposition to ban
liquor. Also it was noted, as should be no great surprise, that women were more inclined than
men to favor prohibition. The period gave rise to a more and more thorough democratic
system finally enfranchising both men and women on equal basis in the year of 1920.

The greatest threat, danger and damage of alcohol came through the popular brännvin. This
was the product to be taxed. The upper classes saw no reason to put heavy taxes on beverages
that they themselves preferred, such as finer wines, cognac or whisky. A winning argument
for a total prohibition on alcoholic beverage was that it would affect people form all social
strata in the same way.

The First World War made people used to rationing, in Sweden as well as many other
countries. During the war a physician in Stockholm, Ivan Bratt, proposed a line of
compromise: that alcoholic beverage should be rationed. People should be allowed to
purchase and consume in proportion to how much they could handle. The Bratt-system,
combining rationing with a state monopoly on the distribution of liquor was implemented in
the year 1917 and preserved until October 1955 – the abolishment nicknamed the “Swedish
October Revolution”.

In short, every respectable citizen was issued a book of account, called “motbok”. This
qualified him or her to buy a certain amount of hard liquor in one of the state shops. The
amount shifted with age and marital status. Unmarried men were allowed to buy two liters
and unmarried women one liter a month. Married men at the age of 30 could purchase even
more, three liters every month, while married women were not entitled to their own books. It
should also be noted that wine was to be purchased in any amount, but was at this time not
consumed by ordinary people in Sweden. Beer was only produced and sold with a rather low
percentage of alcohol (2,8 %).

In restaurants you were not allowed to drink without eating, or at least ordering food. The
amount of brännvin you were could buy while eating in a restaurant was limited to 7.5
centiliters at lunch and 15 centiliters at dinner. There was a habit though of going to different
places to get several meals and drinks, you could even just take a walk around the block, enter
the same restaurant and be served the same food again (as you were not requested to consume
what you had ordered) with a new set of drinks.

The Bratt system seems to have had the expected effect on the drinking habits of the Swedish
people. A brief sketch of a few criminal activities, gives ample proof that drinking decreased
during the first half of the 20th century.

Fig 1. Crime in Sweden 1906-1945.

Period Drunkenness Traffic offenses Other All crime
1906-10 50 536 - 39 168 89 704
1911-15 46 366 - 41 570 97 936
1916-20 24 361 - 65 624 89 985
1921-25 23 680 9 454 52 928 86 062

1926-30 21 635 22 733 47 217 91 585
1931-35 22 734 42 012 55 616 120 362
1936-40 23 665 55 196 60 329 139 881

Source: Hanns von Hofer, Brott och straff i Sverige [1984], tabell 5.1 och 5.2.

The total number of reported crimes runs rather steady up to 1930. There is a balance of a
decreasing number of charges for drunkenness, especially in the early periods, and an increase
in the break of traffic regulations, which of course were becoming more frequent. The falling
rate of charges for drunkenness could be related to the Bratt-system, but the temperance
movement was divided. Was this to be regarded as a step towards a total prohibition of
alcoholic beverages? To many of the brotherhood it was seen as a compromise that would
mean that the final goal never could be reached. Still they were making progress in pressing
forward their demand for a referendum. The opposition against the prohibition was quite late
in organizing itself. An alliance was formed among producers, mainly brewers, and some
formidable cultural figures among, such as the prominent conservative writer and artist Albert

The prohibition side was lost referendum by the, with a very slight marginal. The female
votes had a little bit over 50 % in favor of prohibition, while the men had just a fraction of a
percentage more, saying NO. A lot of the propaganda of the time was represented by catchy
slogans on posters. Albert Engström made the most famous poster, claiming that crawfish
demanded schnapps (“Kräftor kräva dessa drycker!”)

Not only married women, but also a lot of men, such as drunkards, thieves and other convicts,
were not entitled to have their own motbok. Also to many men, two or three liters of hard
liquor, even if there was a possibility to add it’s equivalent in other forms of alcohol than the
traditional brännvin, was not considered enough for a months consumption. The restrictions
therefore gave a good incitement to smugglers, moonshiners and dealers in illegal liquor,
which will here be described before a short discussion of the concept of organized crime.

Smugglers and the Liquor Squad

The smuggling of the period seems to have been concentrated in a few regions, most notably
the Stockholm area. According to the writer Olof Monthan 75 % of the smuggled liquor got
in to the country through the Stockholm archipelago, with its thousands of islands.7 The
illegal trade in liquor in the Stockholm region during the period between the world wars was
organized in the following ways:

German and Estonian ships were often lying outside the Swedish territorial waters with a
cargo of industrial alcohol that might have been bought in Hamburg or Copenhagen. Swedish
or foreign entrepreneurs could quite legally own these ships and their cargo.

The actual smuggling was carried out with fast motorboats, which went out to these ships.
They purchased liquor, for about one Swedish krona a liter, and carried up to 3 000 liters, into
the Stockholm archipelago. The geography of the area made it possible to hide the contraband
Olof Monthan: “I Dalarö talar man alltjämt om smuggling”, STF:s årsskrift 1979, Södermanland. There is,
however, no account given for where this figure comes from, how this estimate is calculated.

in small lagoons. The shipments could be submerged fitted with floats in bags of salt. By
calculating the time for the salt to dissolve into the water you could make the floats appear at
the right time. The liquor was then picked up and transported into Stockholm by boat or

These operations could be arranged in several ways, two were most common. A professional
smuggler would go out in a boat of his own, with a few hands to do the job. But more often a
businessman, who had a boat, would lend or hire it to a loosely organized crew. In the city the
retail price of industrial liquor, carrying something like 95 % of alcohol, was around ten
kronas per liter. Prices and the amount that was purchased of course changed over time. My
examples are taken from the memoirs of Captain Blomberg, who at the time was chief of the
“liquor squad” of the Stockholm Police department.9 They are, however, supported by the
court records and other material.

There are also examples of this middle class of entrepreneurs carrying out the whole line of
transport in smaller boats. Again it could be either a professional smuggler in a boat of his
own, or a boat that was supplied by a wealthy citizen, who may have been financing the
whole trip, while out by other men carried the actual transport.

In the last line there were smaller scale entrepreneurs, who bought the industrial alcohol,
bottled it and mixed it with water, and maybe adding some flavor. These bottles were sold at
something like four kronas each in the streets. As one liter of industrial alcohol was good for
up to eight bottles, there was a nice profit to be made even on this smaller scale. The dealers
do not seem to have been organized in anything except very loose networks. It was necessary
to know where to get the industrial liquor and other supplies, as well as how to sell it without
getting caught. These dealers also seem to have been socializing a lot with each other and
sometimes sharing small apartments. Their age was usually over 30 years and they rarely had
any other kind of occupation.

A contemporary “participant observation” study suggests that beggars, pimps and dealers in
illegal liquor frequented the flophouses of Stockholm.10 Sailors or travelers that had brought
in smaller amounts of alcohol, or independent importers, usually established businessmen
either supplied the liquor. Sometimes the dealers got liquor on credit, which could give rise to
conflicts; there is no evidence, however, that the entrepreneurs resorted to violence in settling
their accounts.

Aside from smuggling, there was a moonshine production of alcohol. During the First World
War there was a lot of homemade liquor on the black market of Stockholm, but according to
Blomberg it became less popular during the time. The criminal statistics point the same way,
at least in the cities. In the countryside people, on the other hand, continued to produce illegal
liquor. This was almost the only crime that was more frequent in rural areas than in towns.

The smuggling of liquor in Stockholm may be compared to the total criminality in the
country, by use of the official statistics. This has only been done for the years 1923-1924. In

The rate of the krona was somewhere around 3.76 to a dollar, in 1924 and during most of the period, Sveriges
riksbank 1668-1924… Bd V, Statistiska tabeller B. Växelkurserna, sid 166. Stockholm 1931.
Gustaf Blomberg, Bakom polisens kulisser, Stockholm 1968.
Langare och langarekunder : Några iakttagelser rörande den olaga sprithandeln / ed Sammanslutningen för
smugglingens bekämpande, Stockholm 1927.

the beginning of 1923, there were 125 rural courts (“häradsrätt”) in Sweden, and 89 cities or
towns with their own jurisdiction. The registered amount of crime was almost 10 times higher
per capita in towns than in the countryside.11

The best estimate of the smuggling of liquor in Stockholm and its surroundings are given
from the records of custom cases in the second department of the magistrates of Stockholm.
While there are a few cases concerned with cigarettes, coffee and even automobiles, the great
majority, and the only kind of smuggling that really worried the authorities and (part of) the
public opinion was alcohol.

In the Stockholm area, the top year of smuggling, or at least confiscations, was 1924. When
about 75 000 liters of industrial liquor was sized.12 Blomberg, however, writes in his memoirs
that at least twice this amount ran past “the noses” of the customs and police officers. I should
say that this is a very modest estimate. One liter cost just about one krona, when purchased
outside the territorial waters. From one liter the dealer in Stockholm could make seven bottles
of drink that was sold at four kronor each. According to this careful estimate the illegal liquor
trade in Stockholm would bring over four millions kronor.

Fig 2. Custom cases 1911 – 1945.

That the towns had so much higher registered criminality than the countryside was explained, in the comments
on the statistics, by the more efficient social control in the urban setting. The argument may be questioned, as
some categories of crime, most notably illegal production of liquor, were more frequently reported in the rural
courts. For the time being there is not much else to say than that the reported crime was very high in Stockholm.
Blomberg, 1968, p 116-117.

Source: diaries for custom cases at the Magistrate Court of Stockholm, second department
(Stockholms rådhusrätt, andra avdelningen, rådhusrättens arkiv), Stockholm City Archives.

In the period before and during the First World War there were only few custom cases.
Moonshine and illegal trade in liquor was however frequent. After the armistice and in the
peacetime the homemade liquor was substituted by imported industrial alcohol from Germany
and Estonia. According to Blomberg the smugglers were more hard-boiled than the
moonshiners. Those who came from the other side of the Baltic often shot at the police and
custom officers on duty.

The Swedish police was reorganized during the 1920s. The government tried to get a firmer
grip of the somewhat unruly force. Among the novelties was the Customs police, or Liquor
Squad, established in 1923. There was a strong private and economical incitement for the
officers. They had the right to one third of the value of confiscated goods, as well as vehicles
or other equipment that was being used by the smugglers they managed to catch. Frequently
they invested money in boats or motorcycles for themselves to be more efficient in their

The confiscated liquor and vehicles could bring a good profit for the police officers.
Blomberg, however, complained that when the fines got higher than about 400 kronor the
smugglers or dealers preferred going to jail for a month or two. Especially during wintertime,
the sentence was viewed as a form of vacation. He also claims that while the police and
custom officers could sometimes make some good extra money, the smugglers made fortunes.

One such example is the smuggler Algoth Niska whose profits Blomberg calculates as half a
million kronor.

One consequence of the system was a lack of cooperation between the police and customs
officers. Both wanted to make the catch themselves and collect the money from the
confiscated goods. This incitement and the fierce competition were, however, not decreasing
the efficiency of the struggle against smuggling. Blomberg was not very fond of this system,
mainly because the customs had better boats that could outrun the police. The smugglers
however, as usual, owned the fastest boats.

The notorious smuggler Algoth Niska was born in Viborg, Finland in 1888. He was thus over
thirty years old when the era of smuggling started. According to his autobiography he was
active as a smuggler, with his own ship in 1921. He does not seem to have had any past
criminal record, and held a license as first mate. He served a sentence of one year and later
another half year, for smuggling, in Finnish prisons during the late 1920s. He then retired in
Stockholm to write his memoirs. It seems to have been difficult to quit the habit though, and
during 1932 he was indicted three times for smuggling.13

In the early 1930s Niska sailed out to the “liquor ship” Vilmos, with a motorboat that he had
bought for 25 000 Finnish marks (money earned on the movie rights on his memoirs),. The
ship was lying outside the Swedish territorial waters and there was industrial liquor for sale at
1.50 a liter. According to Niska, he had gone there to look for a fisherman’s son that had run
away from his home. He also claims to have bought petrol and oil, which he transported back
into the archipelago in the kind of canisters that were normally used by liquor smugglers. For
some reason, he had hidden these canisters on a small island close to a summerhouse he was
renting. The canisters had been found empty and the court did not believe his story. Niska was
sentenced for unlawfully having taken into the country 240 liters of liquor and one bottle of
cognac. He was sentenced to three months of hard labor and his motorboat confiscated.
Furthermore as the liquor was not found it was assumed that he had sold it and he should
reimburse the crown with 1 083 kronor, and another 84 for the cost of a horse ride for one of
the witnesses. Niska pleaded guilty on only one of the charges. He confessed that he had
bought five bottles of cognac at the Vilmos, but claimed that he had given four of these away
to the passengers of another motorboat, before entering Swedish territorial waters.14

In the other case Niska is accused of having, together with a group of younger fishermen from
the island Möja, taken almost 20 000 liters of liquor into the country. Besides industrial liquor
the cargo consisted of seven or eight cases of cognac and whisky. It may be noted that a
janitor, with a heavy criminal record figures in this case. He had been sentenced three times,
for theft or burglary, and several attempts of smuggling. This is a rather rare example of an
ex-convict getting in to the business of smuggling. In a third case Niska was suspected of
smuggling another 400 liters of industrial alcohol, as well as a few bottles of cognac and
champagne, all together valued at 1 838 kronor.15

In all cities, Stockholm as well as Chicago, there exists according to Niska, a form of
cooperation between the police officers and their opponents. For example, the police
detectives are using squealers to collect evidence necessary to solve murder or burglary cases.
Second department of the Magistrate Court of Stockholm, 1932, Stockholm City Archives
Case 290, second department of the Magistrate Court of Stockholm, 1932, Stockholm City Archives.
Case no 571, second department of the Magistrate Court of Stockholm, 1932, Stockholm City Archives.

These kind of activities are real crimes, the smuggler argues, contrary to his own trade, which
in view of the popular opinion is not criminal. In this respect, Blomberg, who writes that
ordinary people did not consider it a crime to distill a little brännvin, or even smuggle liquor
into the country, actually supports him. Nobody was regarded as less decent if they were
caught and convicted for these offenses.16

There are cases, however, where the ethics and code of honor of Niska was seriously upset. A
dishonest businessman, called Silk Olav (“Siden Olle”) is told to have been a great illegal
importer of liquor, but the police overlooked his activities because he sometimes helped them
to catch his colleagues and competitors.

Silk Olav preferred to pay for liquor that the smugglers had sunk in some distant lagoon. He
only wanted to be provided with a rough map to make it possible for him or his men to collect
the cargo. This kind of sketches, are frequently mentioned in the story of smuggling. Another
peculiar trait was that he often finished his sayings with an “Ugh, Ugh.” Niska was doing
business with Silk Olav though he had heard rumors of his double play. Suddenly the
smugglers were surrounded by Police officers, who open fire. Niska’s men surrendered, while
Olav’s men were allowed to escape. His way of talking, however, had made Niska think about
Indian books: “maybe my white brother talks with double tongues?” He therefore had made
some precautions and slipped into the cold water. Niska himself managed to swim to an
island, where a woman that he knew lived, and was helped to reach security. Two of his
companions were put to prison for a couple of months.17

Blomberg give a different account of the kind of informants that the police were relying on.
Very often old women spread gossip to harm personal enemies. Even if the police did not find
anything in a raid, it was bad for the reputation of a person to have his house or home
searched. This argument is contradictory to the one given above. He also talks about mad
temperance fanatics, whose efforts contributed to disturbing the workings of the Liquor

If the cooperation between police and certain criminals was as elaborate as Niska claims,
there may be reason to say that there existed a degree of corruption within the police of
Stockholm at the time. There are further indices of corrupt behavior, but usually limited to
small-scale incidents without connection to the illegal liquor trade. Some examples will be
given in the comparative analysis.

The autobiography of Algoth Niska starts out with a poem: As the autumn winds are blowing,
every true smuggler gets an itch to go out in his motor boat to meet the vessels that are lying
in wait outside the territorial waters. Their cargoes of the magical liquid will bring glamour
and joy to the homes in Nordic countries. Spinsters of both sexes, sitting in parliament had in
their folly denied the people this elixir. Niska and his brave colleagues, (though some may
have less noble motives than himself), in the spirit of Vikings, Phoenicians and other daring
voyageurs of the seven seas.19 Otherwise he is quite positive in his picture of women – they

Blomberg 1968, pp. 98.
Niska 1931, pp 80-90.
Blomberg 1968, p 114.
Niska 1931, free quote.

have a role as admirers, mistresses and helpers who hid him when, he was chased by the
police among the islands.

Blomberg on the other hand gives different picture of women – when they appear in his book
they are either described as obstacles to the work of the police or as informants, that he finds
despicable, he frequently uses derogatory expressions etc. This is even more pronounced in
the chapter where he describes prostitution and female police officer.20 While the attitude
towards women expressed in the two books is different, the ideal of manliness displayed is
quite similar. Both Niska and Blomberg describe themselves as independent, adventurous,
reliable and self-reliant.

In their memoirs, Niska and Blomberg both display an attitude of boy’s story romantic lust for
adventure. Niska portrays himself as a knight, struggling against the oppression in the dull
republic of stamp collectors (referring to Finland). The Finnish Encyclopedia puts only a mild
critique to this picture, claiming that: Niska “may not have been driven only by altruistic
motives.” Blomberg also sees to love the hide and seek game played with the smugglers,
spiced with an occasional brawl or gunfight. Their style of narration is in sharp contrast to the
dry accounts of court material and police reports.

New Orleans

Tradition claims that New Orleans throughout its history has been a center of vice:
prostitution, gambling, drinking and violence. The city was founded in 1718 by French
explorers, during some decades in Spanish possession and sold to the United States in 1803,
together with a vast stretch of land up to the Canadian border and even the Pacific Ocean. The
Creole heritage and Anglo-American rule, together with slavery entailed an ethnic mixture
further enhanced by Italian and Irish immigration.

In the mid 19th century, according to a local newspaper, murder happened almost daily in the
city. The record of one deed of blood had hardly dried upon the paper when another recital of
crime had to follow it; each chapter a brutal and bloody continuation of the preceding. 21 A
non-scholarly account of violence in New Orleans claims that the situation got even worse
after the Civil War. Most murders were, however, ordinary robberies where both victim and
perpetrator were strangers. But also common were city officials who used their guns, in duty
or private.22

The chief of Police David Hennesey tried to clean up the city, but was shot to death on
October 15th 1890. In a hysteria kindled and stirred up by the press, Italian immigrants and the
Mafia were blamed for this deed. A large number of Italians were arrested, for no other reason
except their ethnic origin. Lack of evidence made the court proceedings futile. The prison
was, however stormed by a mob and eleven Italian prisoners, some without any connection
with the murder, were lynched. The incident and the moral panic gave rise to the perception
of the Mafia as a large secret criminal organization.23
Blomberg, 1968, pp 81-84.
The True Delta, 25/12 1859. New Orleans City Archives.
Robert Tallant, Ready to Hang – Seven Famous New Orleans Murders, New York 1952
This murder as well as the moral panic that followed in its wake is described by Christopher Duggan in
Fascism and the Mafia (page 43-45) as well as by Humbert S. Nelli in The Business of Crime, Italians and

A good example of how the idea of the Mafia was constructed is given in what has been
labeled the last of the Mafia murders. Mr. Peter Lamana, an Italian undertaker, had received
several blackmail letters. But one Saturday evening his seven-year-old son disappeared, and a
new letter soon arrived: ”We want money or your children will not be safe” signed with a
skull and crossed bones, in a childish drawing.

At midnight the police was called, the neighborhood was searched on Sunday and then a new
letter of extortion, mailed in Bogelusa not far from New Orleans and with a demand of 6 000
$. Soon quite a lot of arrests were made, among others of a certain Mr. Costa, who is said to
have been confused. Letters signed Black Hand kept coming in. And two other persons,
Gebbia and Gendusa confessed that they have been accomplishes of Costa. The author
attributes this to the ”vigourous examinations” of the New Orleans police, which usually
managed to make people speak.24 The house of a Mr. Campisciano in St Rose was
surrounded, and by threat of lynching he was made to admit that the boy was dead.25 Two
judges and several policemen take part in this irregular interrogation.26

The terrible murder does not give the impression of being a deed of a great criminal
organization. It rather seems to have been carried out in an amateurish way, though the
kidnappers tried to use the name of a feared criminal organization to intimidate the victim’s

During the following decades criminal syndicates developed in many American cities. New
Orleans was run, from 1904 to 1920 and again in 1926, by a political machine, ”the Old
Regulars”, headed by the Mayor Martin Behrman. Officially he was pro prohibition, but his
opponents accused him of taking bribes from illegal dealers of liquor as well as from brothels
and gambling.27

Prohibition was federal law, and there was little or no reason for local police to try to work on
upholding it. Rather there were frequent signs of disagreements between the federal
prohibition agents and the locals. In April 1922 three agents stopped a car suspected of
transporting liquor, but was actually driven by a police captain in his civilian clothes. Police
chief Guy Molony was very upset and tried to get them indicted for their action.

The force that was supposed to uphold and supervise prohibition in Louisiana and New
Orleans was inadequate. They also suffered from intern quarrels and at one point two of the
chiefs got into a fistfight at Delmonico’s restaurant at St. Charles Street.28 The agents, as well
as the policemen, were poorly paid, at about the same level as garbage men, and actually
somewhat below of what the authorities regarded as necessary to support a family. Therefore
they were prone to take bribes.29

Syndicate Crime in the United States, New York 1976.
Tallant 1952, p 109.
Tallant 1952, p 111.
Tallant 1952, with reference to the Times-Picayune 3/6 –07.
See for example: Times-Picayune, 17/1 1920. New Orleans City Archives.
States 9 and 11/11; Times-Picayune 3/9 1921; 12/10 and 10/11 1922. New Orleans City Archives.
Vyhanek, Unorganized Crime, New Orleans in the 1920.s, 1998, pp 84-86.

It seemed quite unreal that prohibition should manage to close down over 5 000 bars
overnight in New Orleans. The city was labeled the wettest city in dry America. An unofficial
survey appointed New Orleans as the city where you could obtain a drink the fastest, only 35
seconds after stepping out of the train.30

New Orleans was an important port of import for illegal alcohol and the control, especially
during the first half of the 1920s, seems to have been inefficient. Cargoes of liquor entered
through the bayous and shipped via New Orleans up the Mississippi. The city did not serve
only as a point of consumption but also supplied the large midwestern cities. These transports
could have been organized and financed either of gangsters or, as Vyhanek puts it, honest
businessmen. Liquor worth millions of dollars was confiscated and destroyed, but this did not
stop the trade.31

Illegal alcohol reached New Orleans from Cuba, Bahamas or British Honduras. Entrepreneurs
bought the liquor in these places from Europeans and then made connections with dealers in
New Orleans (articles in States 22/4 –23 and Times-Picayune the same date). On international
waters the cargo was transferred to smaller boats that could bring it in to the delta and swamps
on routes unknown, or at least hard to keep surveillance of. The lower delta served as a haven
for bootleggers and moonshiners. Locals aided the traders with the actual smuggling, and got
paid with $ 100-500 for each run.

Some examples can be given to show the scale of the illegal liquor trade, a St. Louis
connection was discovered in 1925. Thousands of cases with whisky and other brands were
hidden in barrels of paint, and was estimated to have given a profit of five millions dollars.32
At another occasion a bootlegger called Jack Sheenhan was arrested, but had to be released
even though the federal agents had confiscated liquor worth between $ 80 000 and 150 000.
This cargo had to be transported back to his warehouse since the agents had failed to get a
proper search warrant for his house. The cargo was confiscated in late December 1921 and
returned in June 1922. This shows a legal security on an absurd level, in sharp contrast to
other cases, where the popular legal culture, with roots in the British rough music, gives its
verdict or forces confessions and even executions on rather weak evidences, the typical
American lynching.33

An alternative way to supply alcoholic beverages was to produce them inside the country.
This source, moonshine whisky or crude wine and beer, was getting more important towards
the end of the 1920.s, according to Vyhanek. Right or wrong, the only evidence supplied for
this proposition is an article in Times-Picayune (30/12 1928), which in no way is questioned.34

The reason given for this change in the market is that the customs and coast guard should
have become more efficient. The homemade liquor was of a lower quality than the imported
and brought new hazards to the consumers. Several people died in New Orleans after having

Joy Jackson, ”Prohibition in New Orleans : the Unlikeliest Crusade”, Louisiana History, 1978:XIX, 3, p 269.
Vyhanek 1998.
Item 25/7, 9/8 and 20/11 1925; Times-Picayune 25/7, 3/10 and 21/11 –25. New Orleans City Archives.
Vyhanek 1998, or Times Picayune?

drunk, poisonous alcohol. The local entrepreneurs that manufactured the liquor lacked interest
in using correct and scientific methods of distilling.

The efficiency of the police force in New Orleans is according to Vyhanek correlated to the
specific chiefs of police. Under the Chief of Police Molony the force became more motorized
and the organization improved. The total number of arrests during 1924 was as great as during
three years under his predecessor Mooney35. One form of illegal gambling, so called
handbooks, the number of arrests increased from 121 to 389 through the period 1921-1924
(each year). Likewise, the number of arrests for holding immoral houses rose from 50 to 159.
Vyhanek does not discuss whether the rise could have been due to an increasing rate of
criminality rather than a more efficient police force. Neither is the obvious tendency, of every
new police chief at the beginning of his term, to aim at a higher level of efficiency,
mentioned. The Behrman political machine (to which Mooney belonged) probably preferred
to take bribes from madams and gamblers than put them in jail, but there should be some
caution regarding the source of information, as the Times-Picayune was in the opposite
political camp.

There is also, as Vyhanek points out, a problem of the rate between arrests and convictions.
The local law seems to have put very great demand on the proofs in cases concerning
gambling and prostitution. Several newspapers give evidence that gamblers despised the legal
system and laughed at it.36 The arrests might therefore be understood as harassments on
smaller scale illegal entrepreneurs, to make them pay the police for protection. The degree of
corruption among the power of order is a good example of market force that did not give any
room for organized crime in the field of racketeering.

Comparative remarks

The actual smuggling of alcohol was carried out largely in the same way in Stockholm with
its archipelago and New Orleans and the swamps and bayous along its coast. Liquor ships
were lying in wait outside the territorial waters and small, rather fast motorboats brought the
cargo ashore. In the states however, it seems more usual that one person remained as owner of
the liquor during this process, while in Sweden the men that brought the contraband in first
bought it from the mother ships and then sold it in the city. Linked to this is the habit of
hiding cargoes of liquor in lagoons, as was frequently done in the Stockholm archipelago, this
would not have been necessary if the same owner was transporting, or arranging the transport
in the next phase.

Here will be considered two important issues of violence and corruption, crucial to the
concept of organized crime. According to Vyhanek violence and corruption were more
prominent features in cities like Chicago and New York, than in New Orleans.

The attitude towards violence was quite different in Sweden and Southern USA. This is
shown by the rates of homicides, which were almost 18 times higher in New Orleans than in
Stockholm during the 1920s. But for both cities the homicides were, to a quite small degree
connected with “organized crime” or the affairs of illegal entrepreneurs.

Vyhanek 1998, p 24. The figures are taken from an article in Times-Picayune 1/5 1925
Some kind of proof, please!

Fig 4. Average number of homicides in Stockholm and New Orleans 1911-1940.

Period Stockholm New Orleans
1911-1920 8,4 72,6
1921-1930 5,2 92,6
1931-1940 7,5 80,5
1911-1940 7,0 82,2

Source: Statistisk årsbok för Stockholm 1945, table 54. New Orleans Police Department,
Reports on Homicides, microfilm in New Orleans City Archives.

Note: The reports for the first and last decade are not complete in the New Orleans material,
but consit of only four and five years respectivly.

On Saturday night, October the 9th 1925, in New Orleans, there was an incident that may have
been related to illegal entrepreneurs in the liquor trade. The Prohibition agent Patrick
Needham riding in a car operated by the vegetable merchant Frank Clesi followed two other
cars, a Studebaker and a Cadillac. Upon reaching St Claude and Louisa the Cadillac stopped
and three men with revolvers ordered Clesi to stop as well. Needham hollered at the men in
the Cadillac that he was a prohibition agent they immediately opened fire, wounding Clesi.
After stopping the car Needham drew his revolver and started shooting back. The Studebaker
returned to the scene, and as it stopped three other men started shooting and Needham fired
some shots at them too. The two cars then made their escape along different roads, leaving
two men behind. The Cadillac was later found with a dead man inside.37

Even between the members of the police force violence occurred in New Orleans. One
incident followed when a police officer, William Elder, walked in to the office of a colleague,
named Sellers. Elder told him he should spend more time in the streets and less in his chair.
Sellers was annoyed, but went outside together with Elder. Sellers suddenly drew his gun and
fired two shots at close range, mortally wounding Elder. Elder had time however to pull his
own gun and shot Sellers in the stomach.38

In Stockholm, Blomberg claims that it was a matter of honor for the dealers in illegal liquor,
that were caught, not to press charges if the police beat them up. On the other hand it never
would occur to the officers to report smaller fights that took place between them and dealers
or smugglers.

Among persons engaged in the illegal liquor trade, or what was called organized crime, it was
reported that unwritten laws demanded that a squealer must die.39 Most of the story under this
headline is however loosely linked to what has actually happened and fits better into a
perspective of “organized crime” as being a social construct, with the media fueling
something of a moral panic.

Reports on homicides, New Orleans police department, New Orleans City Archives.
Times-Picayune, 10/10 1924. New Orleans City Archives.
Times-Picayune, 30/8 1925. New Orleans City Archives.

Niska never describes himself or his crew as violent. They do, however, carry guns aboard
their boats. At one point when they had unloaded a cargo at one of the small docks in the
archipelago a customs ship showed up. One of the crew, called Canadian Jack, then brought
their arsenal out of the cabin. This consisted of two shotguns, one Parabellum and one
Browning. Niska was shocked: You don’t intend to shoot at them do you? But it’s only an
“Indian trick” made up by Canadian Jack. The smugglers fired several volleys in the air,
thereby attracting he attention of the custom officers that took up the chase. Thus they
managed to lure the custom ship away from the dock, and when the distance was safe enough,
they put on full speed and left the customs behind.40

Blomberg, in his stories, reveals a more positive attitude towards violence than Niska. He
likes to give account of wild brawls with notorious dealers. Once an ex boxer tries to kill
Blomberg with an ax, calling him “damned pound cop” and worse things that he does not
want to write down. Pound (or “pund”) was a nickname for beer bottles, used to sell industrial
alcohol mixed with water. Blomberg tells that he had recently undergone surgery, for a
bleeding gastritis. Nevertheless, he managed to stay alive and keep a hold of the suspect,
while they were rolling around in a dimly lit coal cellar. At last his colleague appears and
ends the fight with a sharp blow. Blomberg also has a colorful tale of gunfights on the ice at
night, while chasing suspected smugglers on primitive snow scooters (“sparkstöttingar”,
equipped with light engines).

The newspaper reports on smuggling frequently tried to give a more dramatic twist to
incidents in the archipelago than is seen in the court records. For example the wild life and
gunfights between Estonian smugglers and competing illegal enterprises may boil down to a
fistfight and the possibility of one fired shot.41

In Blomberg’s book he tells a story of how he and his colleagues overlooked the criminal
activities of an old fisherman, called Ante. While scouting in the archipelago one summer day
the Liquor Squad took a break and lay sun bathing on a small island. “Gammel-Ante” walks
up to them and starts to talk about liquor dealing. It appears that he has found a cargo of
industrial alcohol hidden in a bay nearby, and then has moved this to another lagoon, to sell to
people that visits his island. When he discovers that he has been dealing with the police, he
begs them to let him go. This is the only example that I have seen so far of illegal
entrepreneurs stealing liquor from each other. Blomberg tells the story to show how noble he
was, and there is no reason to doubt what he says about his own actions, that were clearly
against the law. Regarding how Ante had obtained the liquor, on the other hand, there is no
evidence, that it had occurred as he did tell Blomberg. Another reason, also given by
Blomberg, why the Police may not have been interested in arresting Ante, was that his boat
was (also) very old and would bring no profit if confiscated (Blomberg 1968, sid 1139 ff).

According to Blomberg, there was an illegal still found in the basement of the police house in
central Stockholm. Apparently no owner could be defined, as he does not tell of any
consequences. Niska also gives indications of prevalent corruption: custom officers taking
bribes, and a rural sheriff (”fjärdingsman”), who was hiding one thousand liters of industrial
Niska 1931, p. 28.
Stockholms Tidningen, 21/5 1922; Dagens Nyheter, 17/6 1922. The Estonian smuggler demanded 2 000
kronor in damages, mainly for lost earnings. The court does not approve of this, but the Swedish man who has
beaten him up is fined 200 kronor, a sum that is rapidly collected among inhabitants of the archipelago who
have come in to Stockholm for the trial.

liquor. Some illegal entrepreneurs managed to acquire a supply of bottles and labels from the
state monopoly, that makes it possible to manufacture cognac.42

New Orleans has had a long reputation for corruption in politics as well as the police force.
An example of the prevailing corruption is three police officers, who were suspended in 1924
after taking bribes from Italian gangsters.43

The local or state police and administration often paid no attention to prostitution and
bootlegging, if not to make their own profit from it. At least the latter was regarded as an
honorable trade and if not all together without its perils, it gave a good profit. The greatest
risk was, however not the police but highjackers. Stealing cargo of illegal liquor was not
regarded with the same tolerance and sometimes smugglers even tried to sue the highjackers.

I have not seen any evidence that the Police in USA should have had gained any substantial
rewards from being efficient in their struggle against the bootleggers. Their poor salaries
made them inclined to take bribes. But in Sweden the competition between forces in gaining
the rewards, a third of the value of goods confiscated as well as fines, provided a good
incitement for their efforts.

It would of course be of greatest interest to know the range of smuggling, in value as well as
quantity, both in Stockholm and New Orleans. As information is available on prices at
different levels of transport, how much it cost at sea, what the truck drivers got, the prices in
the street etc. There are also figures on how much liquor was confiscated by police and
customs, and estimates on their efficiency as well of the grand profits of the illegal trade.

Vyhanek is a bit sketchy and impressionistic, different price on different amounts seem to
have been collected and is presented haphazardly. In 1923 the total profit on this trade is said
to have been 2 000 000 $.44 In New Orleans there was from May 1923 till the end of 1925 30
000 gallons of liquor confiscated, as well as 50 000 gallons of wine. 45 If the liquor was 40 %
and the wine 12 %, that would account for 18 000 gallons of pure alcohol in 32 months,
equals 25 650 liters a year. In Stockholm 1923 was the top year with, 74 116 liters of
industrial alcohol confiscated.46 The value of liquor smuggled into America was greater
though, as the imports were regular brands, of mainly rum or whisky.

The dollar was worth 3.76 SEK (Sveriges riksbank 1668-1924… Bd V, Statistiska tabeller B.
Växelkurserna, sid 166. Stockholm 1931), which means that the illegal market in New
Orleans does not have to have been much greater than its counterpart in Stockholm. Then one
should remember that every male keeper of a “motbok”, if he was married and over 30 years
of age, was entitled to buy three liters of hard liquor each month. And also any amount of
wine and whatever he could consume at restaurants. In New Orleans, on the other hand, there
was virtually no legal means to acquire alcoholic beverages.

Stockholms rådhusrätt...
Times-Picayune, 15/10 1924. New Orleans City Archives.
Vyhanek 1998, p 56, and note 20, with reference to the States, 15/12 – 21 and 22/4 1923.
Vyhanek 1998, page 77.
Blomberg, 1968.

There were several differences between the smuggling in Stockholm and New Orleans: in
what kind of alcohol that was brought in to the cities; the ownership of the cargo; and the
reliance on corruption to carry out the trade. The legal culture in the two cities varied
greatly in terms of violence, but in neither case, there seems to have been much violence
among the smugglers. Finally, the extent of the market does not seem to have determined
the way illegal entrepreneurs work and organize.


The definition of the concept of organized crime is not only an academic question. It is also
important for politicians and lawyers, for example in determining connections with organized
crime, which may be considered as a reason for harder punishments. I will here discuss two
different ways to define the term “organized crime”.

There are several incidents showing that the Swedish system was not free from the plague of
corruption. Still the examples are quite of another range than the political machine of Martin
Behrman in New Orleans. His opponents were blaming him for taking bribes from the illegal
gambling and the semi-illegal prostitution, even before prohibition.47 Another example of
corruption is that three police officers were suspended in 1924 for taking bribes from Italian

In both Stockholm and New Orleans the smuggling started when alcoholic beverage was
legally acquired abroad and then transported on a mother ship that went to a certain point
outside the respective territorial waters. The cargo could be owned by the person or syndicate
that later was to distribute it inside the country. Local entrepreneurs usually carried out the
actual smuggling. In New Orleans the owners paid the smugglers to bring in the liquor, and
then had it loaded on trucks. In Stockholm it seems like the smugglers bought the liquor at the
ships, brought it in and then sold it to street dealers who changed it from industrial alcohol to
a more palatable drink. The dealers seem to have been completely unorganized, independent
entrepreneurs, though relying on networks – to be able to find buyers and sellers – in order to
make a living on their illegal affairs. In New Orleans there was established, as in the rest of
USA, a system of illegal retail places, either so called speakeasies, or camouflaged as soft
drink stands. These different ways of distribution may probably best be explained by
institutional differences – in Sweden there were legal bars and restaurants, but they were to
closely watched and controlled to function as a basis for illegal distribution; in USA the lack
of legal opportunities to sell liquor together with the prevalent corruption made it both
necessary and possible to establish illegal bars and liquor stores.

Times-Picayune, 17/1 1920. New Orleans City Archives.
Times-Picayune, 15/10 1924. New Orleans City Archives.