Prohibition: Pain, Shame and Ill-gotten Gain  
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, with several takes on American history to his credit, came up with another PBS feature, “Prohibition,” at the top of the month.

The TV presentation addressed the national hodgepodge brought by adoption of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Prohibition became the law of the land Jan. 16, 1920, and was repealed some 13 years later.

Prohibition subsequently held the public's interest, becoming a “must read” compilation for people of my generation. The made-for-TV film, with Lynn Novik as co-director, overlaid my image of the failed social experiment. It was more deadly and vicious than area statistics might lead people hereabouts to imagine.

Still, it's fair to suggest that the national ban on the manufacture and distribution of liquor brought pain, shame and ill-gotten gain to families in this vicinity. Arrest records confirms this: The names, then and now, are similar.

Organized crime moved into the no-liquor vacuum, took on administrative formats, buying the support of high officials to cops on corner beats, suggests the film. Murder and mayhem became a national problem. My take on local governance suggest that it was a quiet participant, with little proven either way.

Area police really didn't have the legal numbers to combat the illegal numbers. Bootleggers formed a major force. Their totals were never verified, but federal Prohibition agents, state police and local cops were active through the 13 years of Prohibition, scoring some pretty impressive hits.

Tell-tale signs of the manufacture of bathtub booze came from unlikely places. For example, the Webster sewer commissioner said they couldn't keep downtown sewer mains open at times because they were frequently clogged with mash and similar liquor making byproducts.

Locally, anti-liquor forces advocated Prohibition from the 1880s. Hugh Montgomery, a nationally known temperance crusader, was the speaker at Music Hall in Webster on Oct. 22, 1881.
He called for election of legislators supporting the movement.

Webster Friends of Prohibition, following a Montgomery proposal, opened public reading rooms in a downtown block less than four months later to improve the lives of town residents. Seen as a counter to saloons, it was moderately successful, attracting people who seemed more interested in library services.

Town saloons were not affected.

“Prohibition made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun,” said a promotion for the PBS film. If a police station might be seen as a main link in the system, the Webster Police Department failed an enforcement test on June 25, 1925, probably because the jailhouse was closed from midnight to 6 a.m. most nights. The downtown beat officer checked on the facility as time and circumstances allowed.

Three of the five holding cells had been filled with different kinds of liquor in different-size bottles, cases of beer, gambling machines, capping machines and labels for a popular brand of Canadian whiskey.

Everything in the station was locked from without and within, the night beat man was the only officer with access keys, and everything in the cellblock disappeared. A Boston newsman inquired of the day desk officer nearly a week later, and the officer suggested: “Must have evaporated.”

There was never any followup information, but the nighttime heist hounded police for years, cited even in national news magazines.

Local judges dealt with liquor-law violators in unusual manners at times. Chris George went to jail Jan. 19, 1929, after his wife, Margaret, pleaded guilty in District Court to a charge of keeping liquor with intent to sell. Police first raided the George store on Pleasant Street in Webster in October 1928. Mr. George was placed on probation for three months after admitting to liquor-law violations. Mrs. George was on the premises when police returned 2.5 months later. Judge Louis O. Rieutord revoked George's probation, giving the same suspended sentence to his wife.

District Court convened in Southbridge on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and in Webster on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and there was seldom a liquor-free docket. Common drunkenness was a frequent charge; transporting alcohol, selling or displaying liquor for sale were other complaints.

A still capable of producing 3,500 gallons of moonshine in a week was found by Webster Police in January 1929 at 13-1/2 Mechanic St. The still had an unusual history, local police learned. It had been hijacked four times from different locations in New England. It had new parts and fittings when discovered here. Officers Maxime Millette, Delphis Nadeau and Roy C. Burns reduced the still to junk parts and kindling.

While the 18th Amendment spawned all kinds of illegal activities in Webster, Dudley and vicinity, including operation of several speakeasies, illegal activity didn't go away with the return of legal liquor sales. Gambling took seed with Prohibition, and the sounds of slot machines could be heard in the back rooms of licensed bars, restaurants and other places for another 15 or so years, until a major state police raid crippled slot and bookie operations on Kentucky Derby Day in 1948.

The state subsequently tried to fill the gap throughout the Commonwealth, offering all types of game tickets, even random numbers games, scratch tickets and other gambling inducements. Now, Statehouse and Senate leaders in Boston seem ready for a full-bore approach to gambling. No one knows where technology might take us in the short-term future, but another documentary filmmaker might eventually offer a TV series on the pains of a state-managed gambling system.

-Courtesy Of
Telegram & Gazette

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