The cultural, political, and social changes of 1920s North America present the historian with a rich tapestry from which to draw inspiration. Rapid urbanization was accompanied by the rise of the speakeasy, the advent of jazz, and the origins of organized crime, helmed by such notorious figures as Al Capone. And the background to these processes in the USA was Prohibition, lasting from 1920 to 1933. Of course, the thirst for alcohol among millions of Americans remained throughout this period, and many were quick to recognise the potential riches that were on offer, if alcohol could be supplied.

As a result, Prohibition prompted the rise of the bootlegger, or alcohol smuggler. Writing in April 1923, William McNulty estimated that 1 million bottles a week were brought into the USA during the previous year.[1] Europe and the Caribbean were important suppliers, but the vast majority of imported alcohol came south, from Canada. What’s more, an estimated 75% of all liquor supplied to the USA during Prohibition, entered across the Detroit River, St Clair River, and Lake St Clair, a mere 135km stretch.[2] I therefore used this geographic lens as an entry point for my further research.

There are a number of reasons why the volume of smuggling between Ontario and Michigan was so high. The Damon Act had prohibited alcohol in Michigan since 1917, so there was a history of alcohol smuggling from both Ohio & Canada. Furthermore, the Detroit River is narrow and dotted with inlets and islands, making it easy to evade Prohibition enforcers, and when the river froze, bootleggers could drive back and forth with astonishing ease. Huge supplies of whisky were also readily available on the Canadian side of the border, in distilleries such as Hiram Walker’s. The city of Detroit acted as the perfect node from which to distribute alcohol to many of America’s major urban centres. By the late twenties the predominantly Jewish Purple Gang were in the ascendancy amongst Detroit bootleggers, ruling the city through violence and intimidation, and supplying whisky to Capone’s Chicago outfit. Equally significant though, was the self proclaimed “King Canada”, Blaise Diesbourg, whose operations just across the river in Windsor brought him both enormous prosperity, and great notoriety.

Even from this early analysis, it becomes apparent that it is not only possible but necessary to view illegal alcohol smuggling, an inherently transnational activity, through a dual American-Canadian lens. Canadian political measures offer an intriguing counterpoint to those of the USA. All but one of the Canadian provinces abandoned Prohibition during the 1920s. What’s more, the Canadian government later in the decade introduced a scheme of government distribution, having deduced that complete Prohibition was ineffective. Commentators of the time offered fascinating insights into the relationship between the two countries, but in subsequent decades this was neglected, as Prohibition became central to the American national narrative. As part of this project I will seek to reframe bootlegging, not as part of the American phenomenon of Prohibition, but within the broader US-Canadian border processes of the time.

There is extensive secondary literature which will be valuable in guiding my thoughts, some of which I have begun to explore. S. T. Moore’s Bootleggers and Borders: The Paradox of Prohibition on a Canada-U.S. Borderland is an inspiring analysis of bootlegging in British Columbia, which recognizes the permeability of the border as an inescapable theme. Other works such as Philip Mason’s Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition on the Michigan-Ontario Waterway, will also be hugely informative. The digitised archives available through the library offer a wealth of journal articles from across the period, while the Library of Congress allows access to American newspapers up to 1922. Even a cursory glance at the Michigan newspapers of the early twenties reveals the extent to which Prohibition was, as Leuchtenburg puts it, “the most avidly discussed question of the day.”[3] I have also been able to find similar contemporary Canadian sources, which will be useful in providing the balanced analysis I hope to achieve. Records from the bootleggers themselves are, of course, not available.

I have, therefore, framed my research intentions with the availability of sources as a major consideration. While I cannot be sure of the extent of bootlegging activity, I can be sure of how the bootleggers and their activities were framed within public debate of the time. Making heavy use of newspaper and journal sources from both sides of the Michigan-Ontario border, this project will aim to analyse the place of the bootlegger in the public sphere of the borderland.

[1] McNulty, William J. ‘Smuggling Whisky from Canada,’ Current History (New York) 18.1 (Apr 1, 1923) p. 123


[3] Leuchtenburg, William, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-32 (Chicago and London, 1958) p. 235

Project Proposal: The Place of the Bootlegger in the Public Sphere of the Michigan-Ontario Borderland

One thought on “Project Proposal: The Place of the Bootlegger in the Public Sphere of the Michigan-Ontario Borderland

  • March 3, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    Andrew and I had an interesting discussion during the class on how to find an entry point into our projects. One of my questions I had at the start of the class was to do with how historians choose certain events – ‘snapshots’ if you will – to contribute to the construction of their overarching argument?

    It could be useful to use a particular anecdote of bootlegging in action over this 135km stretch of the Detroit River, St Clair Rive, and Lake St Clair as an entry point to begin with. Perhaps a page of narrative could be constructed from cross-referencing newspaper and police reports. This could be similar to the approach used by Heather Streets-Salter in the ‘Singapore Mutiny’ article. You could then interweave the actors and agents within the analysis itself, giving you the means by which to zoom-in or out.

    The way in which this would be done depends on the argument that you are trying to make. From what I’ve read of your project so far, and what we’ve discussed, it seems that there is this overarching theme of relations between neighbouring states. Bootlegging is your way in, but perhaps your argument fits into this class of the history of neighbouring state relations. Or, more precisely, why does the relationship between Canada and the USA matter? This also flags up questions of identity; it would seem that huge portions of the population in this ‘bootlegging node’ had closer connections with each other than their ‘compatriots’ outside of this region. Perhaps this is where those ‘agents’ from the opening anecdote would come in. I see a lot of scope here for the use of the tools of network analysis to paint this particular border region as nodal point, neither ‘Canadian’ or ‘American’. This in itself flags up broader issues with national identity, and the weakness of the ‘state’ in its inability to interfere.

    Ultimately, I think your argument will define the best way to link the micro with the macro, and how to zoom between the two. From the class today though, it would seem that ‘bootlegging’ should be seen as the ‘facilitator’, a ‘way-in’ to explore your larger argument. I am fascinated by the possibilities here, and I look forward to seeing in which direction you will take this.

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