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Recalling cops and rum runners in Prohibition

The Story

Machine Gun Kelly loved his job. The jolly Canada Customs agent, and others like him, braved the high seas and made sure there were no Al Capones in Nova Scotia's rum running racket in the 1920s. Smugglers managed to get about 90 per cent of their booze booty through, he says, but at least on the Canadian side it was a pretty collegial business. In this 1970 CBC Radio clip, four men who saw action smuggling alcohol during Prohibition tell their tales of daring on the high seas, and more than one of them would love to do it all over again.

Medium: Radio
Program: Between Ourselves
Broadcast Date: Sept. 10, 1970
Guest(s): Lloyd Hysler, J.C. Kelly, Henri Morrissee, Art Murphy
Interviewer: Ted North
Narrator: Don Tremaine
Duration: 46:18
Photo: Arrest in 1916 / John Boyd / Library and Archives Canada / PA-069901

Did You know?

• Rum runners refers to smugglers that specialized in moving illegal alcohol across borders, often by ship. They plied their trade on both coasts and across Canada between 1920 and 1933. The largest operations on water ran between Vancouver and Los Angeles, between Windsor, Ont. and Detroit, and between Lunenburg, N.S. and New York.

• Canadian rum runners generally bought alcohol from domestic manufacturers, sometimes claiming it was for export to destinations where it was legal, such as Mexico. In reality, they would take their illicit cargo just outside U.S. coastal waters to await American buyers, who took the booze ashore. In the U.S., the smuggling business was quickly dominated by organized crime, most notably Al Capone out of Chicago, and Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky in New York.

• Temperance movements in Canada, Britain and the U.S. began agitating for a ban on alcoholic beverages in the early part of the 19th century. In Canada, Prohibition lasted only a few years and never amounted to a total ban on alcohol. Although municipalities and provinces could prohibit the retail sale of booze beginning in 1864, it was only during the First World War that provincial temperance acts forbade the sale of beer and spirits (wine was exempt in some places) for anything other than medicinal, scientific, sacramental or artistic uses.

• Pharmacists became the prime distributors of alcohol, and particularly during the Christmas season there were long lineups to fill prescriptions for holiday cheer. Distillers and breweries were also still permitted to manufacture their products for sale outside their own province. In most cases, these laws were repealed by 1924. In their place, provincial liquor control boards were empowered to take up the strict regulation and sale of alcohol. 

• Prohibition in the U.S. was much stricter, forbidding the sale, manufacture, transportation and importation of alcohol in every state in the union. A blanket ban came into effect on Jan. 25, 1920. An elaborate international network of smugglers soon arose to take over what had once been a legal trade in alcohol.

• In 1933, after 13 bloody and fruitless years of trying to enforce Prohibition, the ban was repealed, putting gangsters across the U.S. out of the liquor smuggling game. However, organized crime's capacity for smuggling booze was quickly converted into a lucrative traffic in illegal drugs. Just about this time, heroin, cocaine and cannabis were progressively coming under international treaty and prohibition.

• The "supercargo" on a rum running ship was the person charged with overseeing the cargo and all commercial transactions on the voyage. As mentioned several times in this clip, the supercargo made all the money, as they were the representatives of the businesses that chartered the boats, purchased the liquor and made arrangements with the party on the other side of the border to complete the smuggling route.

• In Canada, the supercargoes generally represented legitimate business interests, whereas on the U.S. side the receivers of illicit cargo were largely representatives of organized crime. Hamilton-based smuggler Rocco Perri and his common-law wife Bessie Stark, and a few others, proved the exception to this rule. Often considered Canada's first Mafia boss, Perri and his outspoken partner ran liquor primarily by land and rail to Detroit and Chicago.



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