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1: Introduction

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     Many studies that trace alcohol trafficking during national prohibition focus on the large urban areas along the eastern seaboard and the United States border with Canada. This is not surprising since the more populous eastern cities and metropolitan areas along the Canadian border attracted the attention of U.S. law enforcement as well as hordes of illegal alcohol traffickers and smugglers who hoped to capitalize in these lucrative markets. Historians have analyzed extensively the enforcement conflicts associated with Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned domestic manufacture, sales and transportation of intoxicating liquors from 1920-1933.[1] There are, however, relatively few monographs that detail the substantial alcohol trade that existed along the Gulf Coast. The lack of historical study, however, belies the activity of alcohol trafficking in the southern region of the United States.

     The U.S. Gulf Coast indeed experienced an active rumrunning trade. Several factors contributed to this phenomenon, including the difficulties associated with enforcement along the southern coastline. The disproportionate federal government enforcement presence along the Gulf Coast was a key element. In 1920, federal government appropriations funded a prohibition force of only about 1,520 agents, which rose to about 2,800 by 1930. These agents combined forces with the Coast Guard, Customs Service and Immigration Service, but this still only provided enough personnel for one manned patrol every twelve miles along the 18,700-mile border of the United States.[2] The federal government, meanwhile, directed most of its initial enforcement resources to the larger population areas of the East and North, which left the South wide open to domestic and foreign smuggling activities.

     Federal government documents, including testimony from members of Congress and government personnel charged with enforcing prohibition, indicate that strained federal resources hampered attempts to stem large-scale movements of the illegal alcohol trade along the Gulf Coast. Coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi in particular featured heavy illegal alcohol distillations and rumrunning trades, and many coastal residents within these areas richly profited in the alcohol trade. In some instances, local police authorities forewarned illegal distillers and bootleggers of imminent federal raids thereby minimizing business disruptions. In the more populous Southern coastal regions, such as New Orleans, international underworld organizations shipped illicit cargo from Caribbean ports to Gulf Coast locations where they then employed natives to ferry the contraband inland.

     By 1925, smuggling along the Louisiana-Mississippi coastline was big business. Certainly, profit served as the prime motive for this furtive activity. By 1923, a rumrunner willing to assume the risks associated with smuggling liquor to the U.S. mainland could generate nearly $2,000 in wholesale profit on 100 cases of whiskey if the investment cargo passed through the federal enforcement net. Such high profits eventually attracted hosts of rum-laden boats, which hovered off the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts and darted around the Gulf of Mexico in efforts to elude patrolling federal cutters. The illicit trade became so rampant that the New Orleans-based custom inspectors altered their police sweeps to confiscate all intoxicating beverages on foreign as well as U.S. ships.[3]

     At times the U.S. policy of seizing foreign vessels led to international and diplomatic entanglements. The most vexing problem resulted from an incident when Coast Guard cutters sank the Canadian-registered schooner I'm Alone about 200 miles off the Louisiana coast in March 1929. The event touched off a diplomatic feud between the United States and Canada that attracted worldwide attention. More importantly, the I'm Alone case clearly revealed the scope of smuggling activities in southern waters, which were extensive indeed. Underworld organizations used the Gulf Coast as portals for the movement of tremendous investment from the Caribbean basin enroute to crime syndicates of Chicago and New York.[4] The organized groups typically used foreign-registered vessels to complicate policing efforts, which also conveniently strained the State Department's ability to conduct diplomacy relative to the Eighteenth Amendment.

     Many Gulf Coast areas played significant roles moving and trading distilled spirits. Several communities, in fact, garnered outside notoriety as distillers of their own liquors and home brew creations. The large Italian, Spanish and French-descendent groups that populated New Orleans and the coastal areas of southwest Louisiana helped to underpin a pervasive alcohol trade. Most of these groups did not oppose alcohol consumption and openly defied national prohibition. Not surprisingly, their moral indifference, or opposition, to anti-alcohol legislation easily positioned them as players in the burgeoning illegal alcohol trade. The illegal production and distribution of alcoholic beverages opened a window of opportunity for making quick money during the prohibition era. The heaviest rumrunning and illegal alcohol trafficking appeared mostly in parishes or counties that abutted or were located near marine areas. By contrast, north Louisiana--a Protestant stronghold--generally supported anti-alcohol legislation, and held in disdain the Catholic citizenry residing along the coast, especially in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, many of north Louisiana's mostly white Anglo-Saxon protestant population celebrated the prohibitionists' victory in 1919, which was in harmony with the nation's dry crusade of social and humanitarian reform.[5]

     Clearly, the illicit alcohol trade along the Gulf Coast deserves more than a passing glance. Prohibition set in motion an onslaught of illegal trafficking activity along many Gulf Coast parishes and counties. The federal government slowed, but failed to arrest coastal trafficking in the South. Alluring profits and, to a large extent, the moral acceptance of alcohol consumption underpinned the illegal trade, and eventually played a part in weakening the federal will to enforce prohibition.






     [1]The Eighteenth Amendment received the necessary approval of thirty-six states on January 16, 1919. On January 16, 1920 it went into operation, as did the Volstead Act of October 28, 1919, which defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than half of 1 percent alcohol; see Burl Noggle, Into the Twenties: The United States From Armistice to Normalcy, (Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 1974), 165.

     [2]Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1931), 248-49.

     [3]Times Picayune, June 9, 1923.

     [4]Times Picayune, March 28, 1929 and November 28, 1934; also see T. Harry Williams, Huey Long, (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), 253-4.

     [5]Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R., (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 297 and 290.

About the Author || 2: Prohibition and Enforcement >>