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Bootlegging In America

Updated on February 20, 2018

Bootleggers were smugglers. Between January 1920 and April 1933, the National Prohibition Act also known as the Volstead Act was in effect in America. It prohibited the manufacture or sale of any beverages with an alcoholic content higher than 0.5%. This did not sit well with the general public. Canadian bootleggers, rumrunners and eventually mobsters cashed in on this dissatisfaction. The illegal sales of alcoholic beverages was big business. People were thirsty. Bootleggers and rumrunners were there to fill the need.


Prohibition had long been on the minds of those involved in the temperance movement As far back as the 1700s there were organized efforts to control the consumption of alcohol in the United States. At first most temperance groups advocated moderation rather than abstinence from drinking. Beginning in 1825 evangelical Protestants forged ahead with the temperance crusade claiming abstinence was the only way to deter drunkenness. Many women got involved in the movement and played a major role in the enactment of 1920s Prohibition. This was because they were often victims of alcohol abuse by their husbands leading to domestic violence.

Prohibition in the 1920s began as a reform measure pioneered by the Progressives. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party claimed a sizeable portion of Progressives at that time, What they were looking for were government solutions to social problems. The main goal of 1920s Prohibition was to rein in the drinking habits of workers. The business community, of course, agreed. They wanted sober hard working men to increase production.

The whole thing turned out to be a mess. Enforcement of 1920s Prohibition was a nightmare. Criminal elements saw huge profits in bootlegging. Law enforcement in general was viewed unfavorably by much of the population and organized crime organizations were thought to have many police officials on their payroll.


BOOTLEGGING - Bootlegging was the illegal transport and distribution of liquor usually from Canada or other foreign countries. The term comes from the practice of concealing flasks of illicit liquor in boots under pants legs. Bootlegging became a lucrative industry in America particularly for organized crime syndicates.

RUM RUNNERS - A rum runner was a bootlegger but the term more specifically refers to the ship or person engaged in bringing the prohibited liquor across the border or ashore. Rum runners were great sailors and hard to catch. When the Coast Guard got too close, rum runners would simply find other routes. They often managed to stay one step ahead of the law.

MOONSHINE - Moonshine is distilled liquor made in an unlicensed still. It gets its name from early smugglers and Appalachian distillers who secretly produced and distributed homemade whisky by moonlight. Also called hooch, mountain dew or white lightening, moonshine was big business during Prohibition. Agents who found and destroyed still during the 1920s were called "revenuers" as they initially were part of the IRS.

SPEAKEASIES - Speakeasies were illegal establishments that served beer, wine and alcohol during Prohibition. For a thirsty patron to enter one a secret password or special handshake or door knock was required. Within the walls of the speakeasies, a new culture arose. Women shed their corsets, smoked cigarettes and drank. Here also the "jazz age" blossomed. It was the era of Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael. Federal law enforcement had a full time job finding and busting speakeasies but they could never keep up.


It was called the "Noble Experiment". It was an attempt by the government to stop people from drinking. The experiment didn't work and only propelled organized crime into wealth by supplying the thirsty public with illegal booze. It all started when under pressure from temperance groups and religious organizations, the United States Senate proposed the 18th Amendment. This was on December 18, 1917. It was ratified on January 16, 1919 and went into effect on January 16, 1920. The National Prohibition Act known as the Volstead Act passed through Congress on October 28, 1919. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed it but it was passed anyway. The government could hardly enforce it. By 1925, there were over 50,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. On December 5, 1933, under President Franklin Roosevelt , the 18th Amendment was repealed.


WILLIAM MCCOY - William McCoy was Prohibition's most famous rum runner. A teetotaler himself, Captain McCoy was proud of the fact that he never paid a dime to politicians, organized crime or law enforcement for protection. McCoy was a talented American sea captain who was thought of as an "honest lawbreaker". He was known as selling only clean uncut alcohol. Captain McCoy was captured on November 23, 1923 by the U.S. Coast Guard.

JOE KENNEDY - Though it was never proven that Joe Kennedy did something illegal, he was once known as the "Baptist Bootlegger". A businessman and father of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy made a lot of money during Prohibition. He was a client of Rocco Perri who along with his wife ran much of the bootlegging activity from Canada. The day Prohibition ended, Kennedy sold all his stock legally and made millions of dollars in profit.

AL CAPONE - Al Capone was the most notorious of all the bootleggers. He thrived on bootleg alcohol sales as well as prostitution, racketeering, gambling and other illegal activity. As a Chicago mobster, Capone built a bootlegging empire. He specialized in Canadian scotch whiskey and he simply bought off anyone who got in his way. Al Capone got a lot of press in those days and was almost seen as a national emblem.

JAY GATSBY - Jay Gatsby is a fictional character in F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby but he represents the lifestyle attained by prominent bootleggers during Prohibition. None of the other characters in the novel question his shady past but rather absorb the decadent society where wealth and status are king. Jay Gatsby's life is an allegory for a superficial time when you could get really rich really fast by smuggling booze.

The Bootlegger's Lament

I was going down the river to my little cabin home

The revenue man was waiting there for me

I was coming up the hill when they caught me with the still.

Now I'll see you when the roses bloom again.

They took me to the courthouse. The old judge was there.

He didn't show me any sympathy

Said "you were feeling very frisky when they caught you with the whiskey",

Now I'll see you when the roses bloom again.

They took me to the jailhouse to serve my ninety days

And now I'm on the county rolls to stay.

I was feeling very fine when they caught me with my wine.

Now I'll see you when the roses bloom again.

When the roses bloom again beside the river,

And the revenue men all have gone to rest,

Then I know I'll soon have wine, so be patient, pal of mine,

And I'll see you when the roses bloom again.

When the roses bloom again beside the river,

And the robin redbreast sings his melody,

Then my heart will fill with cheer for I know I'll soon have beer,

And I'll see you when the roses bloom again.

For more about American history, please read these Hubs -


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    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Harpreet - suziecat7 on HubPages is fine and you can leave a link.

    • profile image

      Harpreet 6 years ago

      Hey I want to use this article for my research paper.But I don't know author's name. help?

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you all for reading and commenting.

      Billy - making money was one reason for sure. But it was also a way of getting around the government mandates.

    • profile image

      billymchintosh18 6 years ago

      why did people engage in bootlegging though? was it just to make a living?

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      really interesting- I did not realise that prohibition lasted so long - I thought it was merely a couple of years. An interesting hub voted up and interesting

    • profile image

      Rene 6 years ago

      I love the article but i think u guys forgot to mention roy olmstead and how wiretaping was.introduced into our society in these times as our constatutional rights started to be violated in order to uphold the law

    • platinumOwl4 profile image

      platinumOwl4 7 years ago


      This is another great hub. I was just thinking about this subject as I was listening to a news report recently. The report indicates that after 40 years the war on drug is a complete failure. The amount of resources wasted for that amount of time is mind altering.

    • Mr Tindle profile image

      Mr Tindle 7 years ago


      Great hub! The undeniable failure of Prohibition is a strong example of how unnecessary regulations and too much government hurt legitimate businesses and create opportunities for criminal enterprises.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Bootlegging in Kentucky can mean making moonshine or it can also mean selling alcoholic beverages in a dry county.

      Many 'bootleggers' visit an adjoining wet county, stock up on beer and booze, and then sell it out their home, usually via a convenient window. Lots of people would rather pay a few bucks more for booze so they don't have to drive 20 miles to buy it legally (you can transport your own booze into a dry county, but not if it's for sale...that makes you a bootlegger!)

      When I was there, Kentucky bootleggers were seldom busted unless they tried to cheat the law out of their cut! :-)

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      WillStarr - I never came across hat in all my research. Thanks for adding this information.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks, Awesome77 - it was great of you to stop by.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      When I lived in Kentucky, a friend and I stumbled on hundreds of empty plastic milk jugs on his farm. Without a word, he turned and walked away. It seems that moonshiners use them to bottle their goods, and most landowners pretend they never saw a thing. It's healthier, and the polite moonshiner will leave either cash or moonshine on the landowner's doorstep as a reward for silence.

      Good Hub Suziecat!

    • profile image

      awesome77 7 years ago

      Sometimes i think the govt policies are the problem. Look at all the lives that was wasted to implement that prohibition. You write so well and the pictures confirms the theory, time sure do fly! good job!

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you all for coming by. It's appreciated.

    • gusripper profile image

      gusripper 7 years ago

      Wow fantastic,the article and the photos are awesome.

    • Tiffany Latte profile image

      TiffanyLatte 7 years ago from USA

      Very good hub, very informative.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Akirchmer - the photos are always fun. Thanks for reading.

    • valeriebelew profile image

      valeriebelew 7 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

      Well informed documentory, as I've come to expect from you. Actually, the same thing is happening with the drug trade today. The so called "war on drugs" is only working to create many wealthy smugglers. Just more proof that legalized morality does not create or promote a moral culture. Thanks for a well written informative hub. (:v

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      SIJO1 - Thank you for your comment.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Melpor - Thanks for stopping by.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      mquee - thank you so much for your kind words.

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 7 years ago from Texas

      Prohibition sounds a lot like Obama Healthcare Legislation! LOL! I hope they repeal it too! I always thought old Joe Kennedy's money was tainted...he always seemed bent on buying legitamacy for the family name. I guess he is the only bootlegger to have a son who made it to the Presidency! Good Write! WB

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      You encapsulated neatly a part of our U.S. history that is forever etched into amendments of our constitution. Nicely done and this gets a vote of useful and up!

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Dahoglund - Yes bootlegging is still alive and well. Music and movies are common bootlegs today. It's always nice to see you here.

    • profile image

      Fiddleman 7 years ago

      My grandpa made shine and got caught, he spent about 6 months in jail for his crime.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Caseworker - Thanks so much for commenting.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Carolina - thanks - bootlegging did keep people afloat.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      sabreblade - yup, I probably did too.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Prasetio - Hugs to you too - I am always honored by your visits.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Satomko - Thanks so much for reading.

      Ken - Thanks for the thumbs up.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Sweetie Pie - thanks so much for your comment. You are right, drunk driving is a problem. But I must say that I believe the government cannot solve social problems by passing laws.

    • profile image

      loriamoore 7 years ago

      Bootlegging has always been romanticized in movies. Enjoyed your article.

    • Seakay profile image

      Seakay 7 years ago from Florida

      Hey, suziecat7,

      Good read and well written! Could add a couple of my own stories from Jersey Bootleggers! LOL

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Ralwus - you have to do what you have to do. Thanks for stopping by.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Patricia Rae - The Niagra area was indeed a hotspot for bootlegging. How cool that the golf course took advantage of this. Thanks so much for your comment.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Hi Gordon - Glad you enjoyed.

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 7 years ago from Washington

      Love the photos most of all - great piece!

    • SIJO1 profile image

      SIJO1 7 years ago

      wow really interesting read here i didn't know that much about this subject but its really been well told.Great Hub!!!

    • melpor profile image

      Melvin Porter 7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Good hub. It was quite informative.

    • mquee profile image

      mquee 7 years ago from Columbia, SC

      A very well written and researched hub. This I know because I was researching the same topic awhile ago. This is a part of American history that included many and varied aspects of our society. Very well done and very informative.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I believe bootleggers are alive and well. Cigarettes are probably one of the items being smuggled from one place to another depending on the tax in the various states.That's not to mention drugs.

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 7 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      great hub,well done

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 7 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      Bootlegging had a tremendous impact on our state, especially. Great post!!!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Good morning, Suzanne. I never know about this and "bootlegging" is totally a new word for me. But thanks for share with us. Good work, my friend. I love something about history. I just want to say "congratulations" for your top score. I hope you always keep on writing and come up with the new one. Thank you very much.

      Blessing and hugs,

    • sabrebIade profile image

      sabrebIade 7 years ago from Pennsylvania

      LOL...I had relatives that ran "shine" up in the hills of NC

    • Ken R. Abell profile image

      Ken R. Abell 7 years ago from ON THE ROAD

      Very interesting. Thank you for a fine read. I gave it a big thumb's up.

    • satomko profile image

      Seth Tomko 7 years ago from Macon, GA

      Good overview and insights into bootlegging and the era that pushed it into prominence.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 7 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I can understand how at the time prohibition seemed like a good idea, but just like the war on drugs, it is very hard for law enforcement to keep in check. We do need to educate the public about how drinking is dangerous, as even today there are many social drunks who think it is a okay to get behind the wheel after three drinks. Unfortunately, several people died in our community because they were hit by drunk drivers.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Hi Quill - nice to see you here. I do enjoy history. Thanks you so much for visiting.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Coolmom - I'm glad you were able to learn something new. Thanks for commenting.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Drbj, thank you as always for your comment. Google put an ad on here for "Bad Idea" t-shirts. How apt.

    • profile image

      ralwus 7 years ago

      I got a chuckle or two from this. My family kept their heads afloat during the Great Depression from bootlegging.

    • Patricia Rae profile image

      Patricia Rae 7 years ago from Crystal Beach, Ontario, Canada

      Great Suziecat7. I really enjoyed it. I live in the Niagara Pennisula in Canada and there is a lot of history in this area and not just between the United States and British Troops during the War of 1812, but with smuggling liquor. In fact the golf course where my husband and I play is named Whiskey Run and all the holes have names using smuggling terms. Thanks for the article.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image

      Gordon Hamilton 7 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      I have of course heard of prohibition in the USA but have trebled my knowledge of it by reading this Hub. Fantastic piece of work!


    • profile image

      "Quill" 7 years ago

      Interesting article Suziecat... many a movie has been made of the occupation of making shine... love all the history you have attached to this article.

      Blessings and Hugs

    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      Good article and well written. I learned a few things from your article on Prohibition.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 7 years ago from south Florida

      Thanks, suziecat, for the realistic retelling of Prohibition and the photos which tell a story by themselves.


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