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Updated on July 7, 2010

Bootlegging is the illicit manufacture and distribution of liquor. Originally derived from the American frontier practice of smuggling whiskey in boot tops to Indians, the term was common by the 1880's, when Kansas became the first state to prohibit the sale of liquor. A long crusade by rural, dry America to check the influence and to police the morals of urban, wet America was climaxed in 1919 by the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which instituted national prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, the years the amendment was in effect, bootlegging was a major American industry.

In the early 1920's, bootleggers schemed to supply "stuff right off the boat" from Europe. Exploiting America's vast coastline, rumrunners operating from Nassau, the "Klondike of the Bootleggers," and from St. Pierre and Miquelon evaded U. S. Coast Guard cutters in everything from sponge boats and garbage scows to submarines. Most imaginative was the schooner Rosie, which fired whiskey-filled torpedoes shoreward. Landlubber bootleggers smuggled liquor by road over the Canadian and Mexican borders.

Bootleggers could secure alcohol already in the country by forging doctors' prescriptions for medicinal whiskey, but a more productive supply was denatured alcohol. Available by permit for industrial use, an estimated 15 million gallons (57 million liters) annually was diverted into bootleg channels. After cooking off poisonous chemicals, the bootlegger added flavor and color and marketed it as gin, scotch, or bourbon.

By the late 1920's, the bootleggers' major source was liquor distilled from easily obtained corn sugar, yeast, and malt syrup. Production was farmed out to "alky cookers" or was undertaken in large, concealed distilleries. The resulting liquor sometimes contained aldehydes, fusel oil, or salts from the metal coils of the still, and earned the names "rotgut", "coffin varnish", "squirrel juice" or "strike-me-dead". Careless drinking could result in death, blindness, or paralysis.

Gradually, the small entrepreneurs and the hit-and-run hijackers were eased out by organized gangs. Using machine guns, armed cars, object killings, and mass murders (for example, the St. Valentine's Day massacre), leaders like Chicago's Al Capone eliminated competition, bought police, controlled elections, and created bootlegging empires. In 1929 a meeting in Atlantic City, N. J., of Capone, Detroit's Purple Gang, and other territorial czars agreed to a nationwide division of the spoils. The 1,550 federal prohibition agents were helpless before the organized bootleggers, especially in the face of public connivance and official apathy.

Gangland excess and corruption in government helped to bring the repeal of prohibition by the 21st Amendment in 1933. Bootlegging diminished, but in 1935 federal agents seized 16,680 stills, and in the 1960's an estimated 50,000 bootleggers were still operating.


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