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Windsor Went Wild in the Roaring Twenties

by Elaine Weeks

Click here for a larger view of the above image.

From top right, counter-clockwise: 1. This beer-laden smuggler’s truck was too heavy for the Lake St. Clair ice.1933 (Detroit News); 2. Jalopies were used to pick up contraband Canadian liquor from vessels in Lake St. Clair (Great Lakes Museum); 3. Detroit Police at river patrol headquarters, foot of Riopelle St.1932 (Detroit News); 4. A waterfall of booze pours through windows of a still on Gratiot Ave (Detroit News); 5. Rum runner leaving export dock at Amherstburg (Rum Running & The Roaring Twenties, Philip P. Mason); 6. Rum runner Jim Cooper’s Walkerville mansion. Also pictured at bottom left are cases of liquor packed in jute bags so they would sink when thrown overboard.

1920:
Canada and the United States were witnessing the dawning of the modern age. In the U.S., the 1920 census reported for the first time a majority of Americans living in urban areas. An explosion of new inventions and technological breakthroughs would soon transform popular lifestyles. Jazz, Wall Street speculation, women’s suffrage, radio, Hollywood, shorter work weeks and increased wages would lead to a revolution in communications, transportation and recreation.

On January 16, 1920, the U.S. Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale, manufacture or transportation of “intoxicating liquor” took effect. An atmosphere of general lawlessness was bred by prohibition, bootleggers and gamblers. Gangsters fought to secure a share of the lucrative business and corrupt politicians turned a blind eye as mobsters like Al Capone terrorized entire cities.
Most Canadian provinces went dry at the same time the Eighteenth Amendment came into place. The Liquor Control Act in Ontario (LCA) forbid public or hotel drinking but did not prohibit the manufacture and export of liquor.

For border cities like Windsor, this loophole in the Act would set the course for a wild decade never seen before or since. Opposite Windsor was big parched Detroit and beyond, the entire U.S. with its tongue hanging out. It didn’t take long for enterprising businessmen in Windsor to set up export docks to supply those thirsty Americans.

The docks were simple frame sheds, which dotted every possible location from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie along the Detroit River. Every inlet, every bank that would support a dock was used. It was the perfect setup to make a quick buck or an easy million.
The liquor moved to the docks by trucks, protected by the B-13 customs form, for liquor in transit. Consigned to someone in Mexico, Cuba, Bermuda or St. Pierre de Miquelon, the liquor was loaded in speedboats or rowboats, which theoretically, then headed for Cuba or Mexico.

In reality, these boats made the short trip across the Detroit River and the liquor was then smuggled into the U.S. When a boat cleared for Cuba in the morning, and returned in the afternoon to clear for St. Pierre, nobody asked any questions.
At the turn of the 20th century, Petit Cote, six miles west of Windsor was a quiet village where people spoke French and attended church on Sunday. On weekdays they cultivated their radish patches.

The radish-growers soon learned that if they rowed to Detroit with a bottle of whisky they could double their investment. Soon they were selling cases instead of bottles and had launches instead of rowboats. They built big docks and imposing houses and even changed the name of one section of Petit Cote to LaSalle, which sounded swankier.

At one point, it was said that more liquor moved across a couple of miles of waterfront at LaSalle than across any other couple of miles on earth.

Local police were aware of these operations and it was their job to ensure that the liquor did not get “short-circuited” back to Windsor’s blind-pigs once it left the docks.

In 1953, Windsor Police Chief Carl Farrow recounted to the Windsor Daily Star his experiences as a Provincial Constable in the late 20s. “One day you’d see a fellow rowing across the river from Detroit, in a small rowboat. He’d buy a couple of cases of liquor, and then row back. In a little while, he’d row back over to the Canadian side and buy three or four cases. Next day, when he came over, his boat would be powered with a shiny new outboard motor. He’d buy more liquor and make more trips. Then one day he’d show up in a big speedboat. He’d keep making his trips then suddenly disappear. Months later, he’d come back with his rowboat and start all over again. This sort of thing was happening all the time.”

Farrow also described how things were done in the winter. “In Amherstburg, they’d take an old sedan, put chains on it, cut the top off it and load it up with whisky. They crossed the ice of Lake Erie and carried planks to help them across cracks in the ice – it would be black with cars…heading for the States. The highways all along the riverfront were just black with trucks carting liquor to the export docks.”

Around Windsor, inns sprouted up overnight and were packed. This outraged Rev. Leslie Spracklin of Howard Avenue Mission whose impassioned speeches induced authorities to appoint him a “special temperance enforcement officer” with the right to carry a gun.

Spraklin swaggered around with armed bodyguards raiding inns. They once raided a private yacht without a warrant. The owner sued them for the illegal search and was awarded nominal damages by Mr. Justice Latchford of the Ontario Supreme Court, who commented that Spracklin and his pals, boarding the yacht, “displayed their pistols like veritable pirates.”

In 1921, Spracklin and his men climbed through the windows of the Chappell House and were surprised by Babe Trumbull, the proprietor. After an argument, Spracklin shot Trumbull dead. Charged with murder, he testified that Trumbull had moved a hand as though reaching for a gun. He was acquitted on a plea of self-defense although it was shown that Trumbull had not been armed.
Constable Farrow recalls meeting two of the biggest Chicago gangsters: the notorious Al Capone and Bugs Moran. While they ran outside the law in their own country, they came to Windsor as two gentlemen in speedboats, conducting a simple business transaction.

American crooks sought control of the export business and gang warfare broke out across the border, especially by the Purple Gang. Things also turned nasty along the Windsor waterfront. Horace Wilde, a photographer for the Windsor Daily Star, was taking pictures at the Amherstburg export docks, when he was roughed up and his camera smashed. He was abducted, and shackled in chains and would have ended up at the bottom of the river, but was saved at the last moment. Constable Farrow arrested one of the men convicted of the abduction.

The government soon cracked down on the exporters. There was debate over what “in transit” meant. Farrow participated in raiding parties and began seizing export docks and the liquor stored in them. On one occasion, he watched highjackers working from the river and boats, attempt to steal the stock an export dock. The thieves tossed their guns into the river when police approached.

Click here to read on and learn more about some of the fascinating local chararcters who made this decade wild!

Click here to read the next article in the prohibition 2 issue

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