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Sneaky Smugglers

Smuggling 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

The 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)

A 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 in Detroit.

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.

The Belt System

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 P. Mason)

“We 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.”

Pulling the Plug

“Muskrat 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.”

Harzards of the Trade

“(The 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 very pleasant.”

Sea Cruise

“Ninety 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.”

Tempting Fate

One 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”.

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