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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Moonshine and Money

Before national prohibition was enacted in 1920, each Wisconsin community voted on whether or not to permit alcohol within its borders. Up north in Forest County, towns often voted dry to put on a proper moral front. It was a well-orchestrated farce, though, since residents counted on homemade liquor from outlying townships to be widely available.

"Blind-pigs" (illegal saloons) could be found all over the county. Many poor families looked at moonshine as an opportunity to make a living, and there was enough demand to meet the considerable supply. Bootlegging provided jobs for more than just the moonshiners. Women prepared the alcohol for delivery by men. Deliveries attracted thieves who waylaid the couriers on their way to customers. This necessitated the hiring of bodyguards. Local police collected thousands of dollars in fines from lawbreakers, and made additional profits by charging the county more than it cost to feed and house them. Meanwhile, local businessman William Connor Jr. noted, "it was possible to get a whiff of liquor from every other man you talked to."

State officials joined the local police in trying to suppress vice. In 1913, a legislative committee chaired by Sen. Howard Teasdale of Sparta sent hundreds of questionnaires to civic leaders around the state, examined 605 witnesses at hearings in 13 Wisconsin cities, conducted interviews with 311 leaders in 30 other towns, and took testimony from everyone from priests to bartenders. Although more concerned with prostitution than drinking, Teasdale's committee recognized the close connection between the two and sent undercover investigators into taverns all around the state. Their descriptions of blind pigs begin at the bottom of page 98 in its final report.

Private temperance advocates such as the Wisconsin Anti-Saloon League assisted local and state investigators. Established in 1897 to unify anti-alcohol sentiment, enforce temperance laws, and advocate for prohibition, the Anti-Saloon League sent undercover agents into illegal taverns around the state in 1917-1918. We've put two of their detectives' reports on "blind pigs" online at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. The first is from Delavan, in Walworth Co., where a private investigator describes a carnival-like atmosphere of wild dancing, excessive drinking, lewd behavior, and prostitution. The second contains detective H.W. Hubbard's reports of his undercover investigations in the northeastern Wisconsin mill town of Oconto Falls, with detailed descriptions and diagrams of the Flatley Saloon and subsequent legal action against John J. Flatley.

After alcohol became illegal throughout the United States in 1920, drinking simply went further underground. In 1929, federal investigator Frank Buckley found that our state was "commonly regarded as a Gibraltar of the wets -- sort of a Utopia where everyone drinks their fill and John Barleycorn still holds forth in splendor."

After ten years of national prohibition, he found that in Madison "the section of the city known as the Bush is made up of Sicilian Italians of the worst sort, most of whom are bootleggers. ... The queen of bootleggers, an attractive young Italian girl [shown here headed for jail in 1933], caters exclusively to a fraternity-house clientele. While in Madison the writer visited the local chapter of his national fraternity (D. K. E.) one morning about 9 o'clock. Quite a commotion was observed at the time, as a result of an attempt to induce two of the brethren, who had apparently imbibed well but not wisely the night before, to get up for morning classes."

Other cities were even more decadent than Madison. Buckley wrote that Hurley, "tucked away up in the wild lumber and iron section of northern Wisconsin, right on the Michigan State line, has the distinction of being the worst community in the State. Conditions in Hurley are not unlike those of settlements like Dawson City, Cripple Creek, El Dorado, Borger, and other boom communities. Gambling, prostitution, bootlegging, and dope are about the chief occupations of the place. Saloons there function with barmaids who serve the dual capacity of soda dispenser and prostitute."

Of course, by the time poor Frank Buckley visited Hurley in 1929, the world had known 10,000 years of gambling, drinking, and prostitution, and no mere amendment to the U.S. Constitution was likely to change this aspect of human nature. Besides, as historian Mark Davis concluded, illegal liquor sales were crucially important to local economies, with only farming and lumbering spreading more dollars around northern towns.

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 10, 2010

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