In 1920, all of America went dry as the federal government outlawed the manufacture, transportation or sale of alcoholic beverages. And almost immediately, a huge number of Americans thumbed their collective noses at Washington.
In the early 1900s in Alabama, there was a constant battle between the wets and the prohibitionists. When statewide prohibition was suggested, a group of Mobilians led by bank president N.J. McDermott wired their legislator in Montgomery a note that read, “Unless anti-prohibitionists win, please give notice that Mobile is prepared to secede from the State of Alabama!”
In 1907, Alabama’s Governor Braxton B. Comer happily signed into law a prohibition measure that took effect in 1909. Comer was no fan of the Port City’s revelry and had once even threatened to impeach Mobile’s sheriff for not arresting anyone caught playing baseball on Sunday.
Only two years later, prohibition was repealed with Comer’s 1911 departure from office, a respite that lasted until 1915 when the law was reinstated. By the time the rest of the nation came under the unpopular edict, Mobile was wetter than ever.
Rumrunners were just as busy as blockade runners had been during the Civil War. Larger vessels could safely anchor off the coast while small, fast boats brought the liquor ashore. A dock on Mon Louis Island south of town was declared “one of the best places in the U.S. to land liquor.”
Although much of the illicit booze merely passed through Mobile, much of it stayed. Countless corner grocery stores opened with minimal groceries in front and a mountain of liquor in the back. One bootlegger offered home delivery: Each bottle filled a shoe box while his truck bore the name of a nonexistent shoe store.
A waterfront dive called “The Inkwell” sold shots of booze in ink bottles. A well-stocked bar on wheels over at the Cawthon Hotel could be rolled into an elevator should an unfriendly man of the law visit. The elevator was stopped between floors, its doors adorned with an out of order sign. Once the coast was clear, out rolled the cart.
The Raid of 1923
Apparently things were a bit too wide open for some. A federal prohibition agent named Izzy Einstein, dubbed “the Sherlock Holmes of enforcement officers, ” came to town in 1923 wearing an array of disguises.
And what did Izzy find? After three weeks he declared, “I came, I saw, I mopped up. … I have never seen such a variety of booze in all my experience. I have tried everything from the rarest vintages that are worth three figures a pint to the vilest shinny that would kill an elephant.” Mobile’s protection racket involved in this illicit trade was as sophisticated as any found in Detroit or Chicago.
Realizing that Mobile’s finest were looking the other way, more than 50 federal agents armed with 85 search warrants arrived from New Orleans. After raiding warehouses, a Royal Street tire store and dockside vessels, they confiscated more than $100, 000 worth of liquor, including more than 400 cases at one address alone. A total of 117 people were indicted, including the Mobile County sheriff and five of his deputies.
When Mobile’s police chief, P.J. O’Shaughnessy, discovered he was to be included in that number, he took a train to New Orleans, explaining he “wanted a drink.” He was promptly arrested in the Crescent City and brought home.
Frank Boykin, the son of a sharecropper who would ultimately end up as one of the largest landowners in the state, figured prominently in the case. He was accused of filling turpentine barrels with hooch and shipping them to Midwestern markets. Like most of the accused, Boykin never actually served a day in jail and would go on to represent the First District of Alabama as a congressman.
Though the raid of 1923 put a dent in Mobile’s liquor traffic, the flow soon returned. Prohibition legislation had never provided funding for adequate enforcement, and there was never a way to replace the millions of dollars lost in liquor taxes.
A decade after Mobile’s famous raid, President Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed the unpopular law. America’s “noble experiment” had been a colossal flop.
For more on the Port City’s boozy history, see “Mobile Spirits.”
Text by Tom McGehee