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. 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. 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.” 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.
 McNulty, William J. ‘Smuggling Whisky from Canada,’ Current History (New York) 18.1 (Apr 1, 1923) p. 123
 Leuchtenburg, William, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-32 (Chicago and London, 1958) p. 235