Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties

By: Sara R.


  • Daily newspapers, magazines, radio and other media gave attention to the violent acts of criminals, the bribrery and collusion of police and the violation of the Volstead Act.
  • In 1929 and 1930, Detroiters were exposed to a steady diet of gang violence, murder and other liquor related crimes.
  • Cartoonist played a key role in the temperance and Prohibition movements – The evil influence of liquor.
  • March of Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Ann Arbor, 1909.
  • German brewers circulated colour advertisements extorting the virtues of lager beer to young children as well as adults.
  • The capture of Billingsley gang broke up the major whiskey smuggling ring that operated in Ohio and Michigan.
  • Thousands turned out for his evangelistic tirades against liquor.
  • Even before the Eighteenth Amendment took effect, opponents of Prohibition started a campaign for its repeal.
  • The Detroit Club hosted a special dinner to mark the fall of John Barleycorn on April 20, 1917.
  • After Prohibition was passed in Michigan, the Stroh Brewery converted its plants to produce ice cream, ginger ale, near bear, and a Pure Hopped Malt Syrup.

CHAPTER 2- THE EIGHTEENTH AMENDMENT- Prohibiting manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.

  • On June 11, 1917, the United States Senate adopted the Amendment by an overwhelming majority after thirteen hours of debate.
  • The next action of the Congress was the Volstead Act- it defined ‘ intoxicated liquors’ as any liquor containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol and, it allowed the sale of alcoholic beverages for medicinal, sacramental and industrial purposes –Organized opposition was weak.
  • Saloon keepers, brewers and distillers who were viewed as corruptors of state and local government had been widely discredited.
  • The entrance of the USA into the war with Germany added an important factor in winning support for Prohibition.
  • During the war years: rationing and the use of grain for soldier over beverages gained its support by the public- Anti-German feelings towards brewers and distillers claiming that the winners were the American families, churches, schools, workers, and the political system.
  • In the early years of Prohibition, the national media centered its attention on the smuggling operation off the East Coast, especially the role of Coast Guard vessels in capturing rumrunners.
  • There were places for smuggling alcohol especially: ‘The Detroit River’- that was a smuggling paradise.
  • Hours after the Volstead Act went into effect, the smuggling of liquor began on small scale and. When powerboats were used, rumrunners rushed across at all hours of the day.
  • In 1920, 900,000 cases of whiskey were shipped into the Windsor area from Quebec most of which were destined for the Detroit Market.
  • Many of the community’s palatial mansions were built with profits from rumrunning.
  • Rumrunners developed various devices such as flashing colored lights, flares, clothes hung on lines, telephones, and radios to signal gang members on the opposite. They also developed methods to speed up the delivery of contraband liquor and to avoid jeopardy of the organized effort. Some police were engaged in rumrunning activities or were on the payrolls of organized gangs.
  • Smugglers also developed underwater crossings. They dragged huge sleds, filled with cases of liquor, across the river bottom with the aid of steel cables and pulleys.
  • Smugglers also sold alcohol in egg basket ferry passengers carried into the USA containing whiskey.
  • The hundreds of miles of waterway between Ontario and New York, Ohio, and Michigan offered limitless opportunities for smugglers. The Detroit River- Lake St. route was used heavily by rumrunners.
  • The majority of rumrunners were American. Being the manufacture of whiskey the major industry in Ottawa.
  • In 1924, the USA and Canada signed a treaty designed to control some smuggling of liquor into the USA.
  • In 1928, Canadian authorities notified U.S. Customs of the clearance of five U.S. vessels from Detroit river export docks. Vessels named Ben, Rat, Rabbit, Bird, and Bat contained full cargoes of Canadian beer, wine, brandy, whiskey, and bourbon.
  • By 1930, public opinion was taken into consideration newspapers, magazines, radio and all media gave special attention to the violent acts of criminals and the Violations of the Volstead Act.
  • In 1929 and 1930, Detroiters were exposed to a steady diet of gang violence, murder, and other liquor - related crimes. St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 in Chicago- hijacking of a shipment of expensive Canadian whiskey.