has always been a way of life in the Border Cities. During prohibition,
sneaking liquor across the border was almost a badge of honour.
It was estimated that up to 25% of the local population was involved
in some form of smuggling alcohol into Detroit.
Here are several anecdotes:
from The Rumrunners – a prohibition scrapbook,
by C.H. (Marty) Gervais
Legend of the Egg Smuggler
The end of Prohibition in Ontario in
June 1927 brought hundreds of Windsorites to provincial liquor
stores. This resident is waiting patiently in line for her
supply of whisky.
(photo: The Windsor Star)
story has come down through the years that illustrates the length
to which liquor smugglers would go. U.S. Customs officers noted
an increase in the export of eggs from Windsor to Detroit. One day
in May 1920, a man carrying a large market basket disembarked from
the Windsor ferry and was struck by a taxicab near the foot of Woodward
A crowd gathered. There was an unmistakeable aroma of whisky in
the air. Several dozen eggs were spread out on the pavement. The
man, not seriously hurt, was obviously ill at ease. As soon as a
police officer approached, he took off. The basket, with some eggs
intact, remained in the middle of the pavement. Upon examination,
the basket contents revealed eggs filled with liquor and carefully
resealed. From that day on, all baskets of eggs were suspect.
Mrs. Nell Rhoades posed for a Detroit
Times photographer in the 1930s showing how young women smuggled
liquor (photo: RumRunning and the Roaring Twenties, Philip
used to take bottles across. My lady had a rig she would put bottles
in. She had belts she’d strap to her body, beneath her dress.
One time, we got to the border and they asked us to get out. She
got out on her side, I got out on mine and we were looking at each
other over the roof of the car while the Customs man searched the
car. All of sudden she got a terrified look on her face…smash
smash smash…one of the belts let go.”
La Framboise had one of those boats with a plug in it like a
bathtub. When the police spotted him, he’d just pull the plug
and the boat would sink. He’d go back to where it was later
on when no one was around and he’d dive for the stuff. He
was really good at this, and with the whisky being in these jute
bags and tied together at the top, the bags had these ears on them.
When they were dumped overboard, you could dive down and pick them
up by the ears and haul them to the surface.”
of the Trade
smugglers) were just like ants. And a lot of them went through the
ice. In June 1928, we fished out of the Detroit River and Lake Erie
about 28 bodies. They had either fallen through the ice into the
water, or out of their boats, or they had been hijacked. If they
had gone into the river up around the Windsor end, by the time they
would be recovered they would be around Amherstburg or out further
in Lake Erie. It got to be quite a job pulling them out and it wasn’t
percent of all liquor illegally imported into Michigan was by boat.
They differed widely in size, type, shape and appearance. Steamers,
tugs, fast motorboats, sailboats, rowboats and even canoes were
employed. All had one purpose: using high-speed, evasive tactics,
camouflage and surprise to dodge US Revenue cutters and police boats
waiting on the far shore.”
rumrunner hauled liquor in a Studebaker – he had the back
seat taken out. One day he pulled up to Customs and said: “I’d
like to speak to you fellows.” The bootlegger asked if a deal
could be struck. “I come over loaded, and I will give you
so much per case.”
The Customs officer was very honest, and he also thought he was
quite clever, so he agreed that next time the bootlegger came across,
he would give him the go-ahead sign and let him through Customs.
At the appointed time, the bootlegger drove over, and Customs agents
were ready for him. They searched the car from one end to the other
and tore out the front seats. Someone got underneath and they looked
under the hood.
Nothing – not a drop of liquor.
The Customs agent asked the bootlegger: “I thought you said
you were going to bring over a load?”
The smiling bootlegger replied: ”No, the day I was talking
to you was the day I had the load.”
Spirits Inside! Smugglers went to
great lengths to sneak hooch through Customs.
Left: Whisky stored inside a watermelon, poured into a bottle.
Above: A search of this hearse uncovered some real “spirits”.
here to read the next article in the prohibition 3 issue
to prohibition main