Dennis Warren left his job as a coal shoveler on the New York Central Railroad in Albany to ship out to the First World War. His transport ship had a close call with a German submarine on the way over, but got there in time to take part in what one of the bloodiest military campaigns in American history.
For Americans after the war, the Argonne would mean what Normandy meant just 25 years later – sacrifice. Sadly, that sacrifice in the Argonne Forest was never repaid to Dennis Warren, who met the death of a smuggler – running from an officious and invasive law on a treacherous mountain road near Port Henry on Lake Champlain.
According to the newsman who reported his death at the age of 29, “Canadian Ale was spread across the road.”
It would be easy to think of Dennis Warren as a criminal. After all, in the era of Prohibition smuggling beer from Canada was a federal crime on par with smuggling, say, marijuana today. But sometimes, in the back woods of Northern New York during Prohibition, the subtleties of what is truly criminal and what is not required locals to be more than law-abiding moralists.
A large number of Americans rejected the National Prohibition Act not so much for its ban on the manufacture, transportation, and sale of beverages containing more than .05 percent alcohol, but because it was just plain awful to enforce. After all, a lot of people drank, especially while on vacation in the resorts of the north woods. Others saw it as an infringement of their constitutional rights.
It was also difficult to enforce. Moonshiners distilled illegal alcohol in hideaways large and small across the region, and bootleggers brought it over the Canadian border; together they stocked the speakeasies that were the bee’s knee’s to all the fellas, swells, dames and dolls – local and tourist alike. Towns across Northern New York have stories of the local resort, inn, tavern, bar, restaurant, or camp (great and small) that shared in the illegal liquor trade, or at least turned their back on it.
Many New York politicians turned their back on Prohibition as well. Once the National Prohibition Act went into effect New York’s Legislature passed, and Governor Al Smith proudly and defiantly signed, a law that proclaimed the state’s right to regulate itself in all matters booze by providing for the sale of 2.75 percent beer. The measure was immediately struck down by the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still a number of state legislators continued to argue that Prohibition was invasive and wrong. They pressed on, passing the Walker-Gillett Beer Bill which allowed for the sale of beer in restaurants and hotels in larger New York cities and declared that 2.75 beer was “non-intoxicating.” Two weeks later the United States Supreme Court struck that down as well. The legal wrangling made it clear that New Yorkers were ambivalent to say the least about criminalizing the bar room. By the time Dennis Warren met his fate in 1926 the state had largely stopped enforcing Prohibition and left that messy business to the federal government. From the beginning, smugglers, stills, speakeasies, and sneaking around the back corners of the North Country became the norm.
There were a number of reasons for the failures of Prohibition in the Northern New York. There was easy access to Canada and an extensive network of un-patrolled back roads. There was the lure of financial gain in an economically depressed area. There was a cultural affinity with the French-Canadian population, who along with lumbermen, supplied many a rum-runner and boot-legger as well.
Perhaps most importantly, there was a strong belief by locals (including moderate temperance advocates) that the Eighteenth Amendment was too strict and intrusive. Many locals believed Prohibition as an unfair law designed and enforced by outsiders, whether they were federal agents or the occasional State Trooper. The New York State Police held a place of special animosity to many Northern New Yorkers. The “Gray Riders” as they were known, were created in 1917 by a single vote during a heavily contested debate in the state legislature. During the four years it took to gain the political momentum for the new police agency the plan was heavily criticized for being a tool of industrialists and strike breakers. To many, they were outsiders who would invade local communities to enforce the law of outsiders.
In the late 1960s SUNY Plattsburgh History Professor Allan Everest recorded a number of interviews with aging Northern New York smugglers and law enforcement agents of the Prohibition era. The interviews, now held in the university’s special collections, are remarkable windows into North Country life in the 1920s and are as compelling as the best crime fiction. The old aged middle-management bootleggers, law officers, and customs agents remind us what the whole issue of Prohibition was really all about – crime.
In ways remarkably similar to the current war on drugs, a battle was waged in the North Country against participants in the liquor crime. Enforcement agents of one sort or another participated in an untold number of raids, searches, seizures, arrests, and imprisonments of New Yorkers in Northern New York during the Prohibition years. The exact numbers will never be known, but in just the first year of Prohibition ten million dollars in liquor and beer, 800 autos, and 3,000 stills were seized, and 10,000 people were arrested in New York and New England alone according to Everest, who assembled his findings in Rum Across the Border (Syracuse Univ. Press, 1978).
A review of newspapers from the time reveals that throughout the North Country law-breakers led enforcement agents on chases that sometimes ended in shootouts and arrests. There were nearly one hundred incidents of violence in Essex, Clinton, Franklin, and St. Lawrence counties over the course of the fourteen years. In those four counties enforcers hunted criminals who did their best to evade capture. Seventy percent of the 1,411 bootleggers caught along the border between 1920 and 1933 where from Essex, Clinton, Franklin and St. Lawrence counties.
The men Everest talked to about their Prohibition experiences were mostly on the side of the law. He drew on seven: Philip Auer joined the Border Patrol in 1926, two years after it was established, and eventually served as Captain; Roy Delano served in the Customs Service for 47 years beginning in 1902. When he was interviewed in 1966, Robert Halstead was still serving as Inspector of Customs, a post he had held since 1926; Ralph Chilton was a Customs agent for twenty-five years beginning in 1920; The length of service of John Ross and Walter Connelly is unclear but both men also served as Customs agents; Henry Thwaits, perhaps the most rabid enforcer Everest interviewed, served as a special agent of the Internal Revenue Service in charge of Prohibition violations.
To this group we must add two other men who Everest called attorneys: Robert Booth may have been an attorney, but he served as Plattsburgh city judge during Prohibition. The second attorney, Jeremiah Davern, was appointed Assistant District Attorney 1917, prosecuted the first group of Prohibition violators in the Northern District of New York in 1918, and then tried the first jury case under National Prohibition. When he left the district attorney’s office and returned to Plattsburgh, his practice found him defending several bootleggers. He made his opinion of them clear though: “of course you had to be either a racketeer, or there was once in a while some very decent people got mixed up [in smuggling].”
To balance the perspective of these nine interviewees with enforcement sympathies, it was necessary for Everest to ask bootleggers for their point of view and he eventually consulted with three. He didn’t record his session with “active bootlegger” Leo Filion, but instead produced a one page recollection of the interview after the fact. The only bootlegger Everest interviewed at any length was Francis “Sam” Racicot. Racicot was best known for three times robbing the storage room of the Rouses Point Customs House with Bucky Ladd, the son of the head of Customs in that town. A third bootlegger Gaston Monette, was later briefly interviewed by Racicot.
One of the most important ways the interviewees differed was in the tone of their reminiscing. Harmless happenstance and humorous tales dominate the stories of the enforcement officials. This is reasonably explained by recognizing that these men had the least to fear regarding Prohibition.
Of the forty incidents of injury or death resulting from the enforcement of Prohibition and reported on by the Plattsburgh Republican, the bootleggers took the worst of it by far. Eight bootleggers died, six were “unintentionally” shot and killed by federal agents, one drowned, the other was Dennis Warren, killed in an automobile accident while running from the law. Fourteen more bootleggers were shot and survived and at least five were beaten by police.
By way of contrast, only three enforcement agents were killed, two accidentally (one car crash, one drowning), and one was shot by bootleggers. Eight other agents suffered minor gunshot wounds. None of the nearly 100 incidents of violence reported on by the Plattsburgh Republican between 1919 and 1933 involved bystanders.
The Prohibition Act was rarely given mention by the enforcement agents Everest interviewed, but for violators like Dennis Warren, subverting Prohibition could be dangerous business. When Sam Racicot interviewed fellow bootlegger Gaston Monette the fear the two men felt while facing the possibility of prison, or worse, must have been palatable. Racicot, apparently sensing the tension, quickly got off the topic.
Enforcement officials had a different take on the dangers bootleggers faced. Railroad inspector Connelly said, “Well, I think people were taking a chance.” Inspector of Customs Robert Halstead responded to the comment, “you make this sound like a game to some of these people,” by saying: “Well at times it did seem to be a game, particularly in cases when the quantity being smuggled was quite small. A good many very smart people were of the opinion that customs officers didn’t know too much at times, and they would try, just to be smart.”
The result of this perspective is a focus on the “how” of smuggling, rather than the larger questions of who violated Prohibition and why. The enforcers testimony consists mostly of two categories of stories: humorous tales of smuggler’s, or more frequently agent’s ingenious methods; and lamentations on difficult working conditions, long hours and low pay.
Only rarely did they hint at such issues as successful large trafficking, law enforcement corruption, or violence perpetrated by themselves or other officials on bootleggers, or the ruined lives of those caught violating the liquor law, even though all these elements are a documented part of Prohibition in Northern New York. In particular, official violence against bootleggers was noticeably absent, but some did make clear statements about where they stood on the issue of shooting at bootleggers during pursuits. Border patrolman Paul Auer stories offers an example of the tone of the others in this regard:
Everest: “You had powerful cars as they did, then, to catch up with them didn’t you?”
Auer: “Well, no, we didn’t have. The equipment wasn’t of the best, but of course they were loaded and they didn’t make the speed that they ordinarily would have. And of course we used a shotgun and that helped us a lot because we slowed them down considerably when we knocked a tire off them.”
Everest: “You were always aiming for the tires, were you?”
Auer: “I always did. I remember one night, however, I didn’t do so well. My buddy, LeBlanc, he was driving, and he says, “Well knock off that tire.” So I took good aim and I fired and I knocked the headlight off.”
Everest: “Did some of these end up in accidents or could you stop the cars and take over?”
Auer: “Well in most cases they’d leave their car in a field. Sometimes there would be an accident but most of the time they’d leave their car and run through the field. In fact, another man rode with me one evening and we were chasing a car and this fellow jumped out and started to run and he took aim with his pistol and then I threw a hand on him. “Jes’m,” I says, “no man’s life is worth a load of booze.” And I think I learned him a lesson that night.”
When the topic of police violence came up between the two bootleggers, they gave a hint of some of the terror they felt being chased and what they thought of the idea that enforcers didn’t fire at them but at their cars.
Racicot: “Well I knew one that was shot. He was young LaFountain. “
Monette: “Oh, young LaFountain was caught?”
Racicot: “He’s dead.”
Monette: “Well tell me, did you ever get shot at while you were–?”
Racicot: “Oh yes often.”
Monette: “Scared like hell huh?”
Racicot: “Oh, it didn’t feel too good.”
Monette: “Do you think they were shooting directly at you or were they just trying to frighten you?”
Racicot: “I believe they were”
Monette: “Shooting directly at you?”
Racicot: “Oh, yes. When the bullets hit the cars –
Monette: “Oh you had your car hit huh?”
Racicot: “Huh?, Oh yes.”
Monette: “Oh gosh. Did you ever get a tire shot off or anything like that?”
Racicot: “Yes, I have had tires shot off, tanks shot out.”
Monette: “Where was the most dangerous part of the road?”
Racicot: “Anywheres along the road. You’d never know where you’d meet em’. Anywheres.”
The threat of violence by police as related by the bootleggers is contradictory to the stories related by enforcement officials. Monette suggested that some officers were not only violent but crooked as well, including one man who would “just as soon kill a man as to look at him” who was eventually arrested for corruption.
The few tales of real violence that are retold by spectators are not about law and the outlaw or even right and wrong but about community outsiders. The story Trefle Trombly of Champlain saw fit to tell was about his neighbor’s battle with smugglers from the south:
“Until 1926, Angelo Larouque owned the old Kellogg home on Route 9. He used it as a stopping station for rum running. Liquor was brought from Canada and unloaded at his farm, and then was picked up by rum runners from the south and carried away. One day he brought his neighbor by the name of Taylor to help him load. When the liquor was all loaded, the runners refused to pay. In the ensuing scuffle, Mr. Larouque was shot in the knee, and proudly carried the bullet behind his kneecap for the rest of his life. Mr Taylor came to his aid and was shot in the stomach and died that night. Hearing the shots, Mrs. Larouque, from an upstairs window, shot and killed one of the rum runners.”
What would have been the relatively minor crime of theft before Prohibition had turned terribly violent and resulted in two deaths and the wounding of another. This story highlights a common theme in the stories of Prohibition spectators. It is largely the story of truly criminal outsiders “from the south” who got what was coming to them from Larouque’s sure-shot wife in the second story window. Many of the stories told by spectators include as their fundamental element locals (bootleggers and spectators) fending off what bootlegger Sam Racicot called the “true criminals;” community outsiders who had come to Northern New York to take advantage of the Volstead Act.
Enforcement officials and spectators were free with their assumptions about bootlegger motivations and successes during their interviews. Border Patrol officer Philip Auer said, for instance: “Yes, they were all young men, young fellows, and as I understand it they’d be hired out to drive a load down to Plattsburgh, maybe for fifteen, twenty dollars, and that was a jawbone and some of the kids, that’s about all they were, the kids probably’d be owed $50 or $100 but they probably never got it…. There was a few of them in town there– I don’t want to mention any names— but they made some money and held onto it, but 95% of them, I imagine, spent it as they went. It was a case of easy come easy go.”
The idea that the adventure of bootlegging was as or more important than the money to be made may have been true for some smugglers like Bucky Ladd, of whom Everest said: “Bucky Ladd, whose father was a respected head of customs at Rouses Point, had a profitable brokerage business there which he neglected in favor of the more risky profits of bootlegging.” One has too wonder however, how representative Ladd and Sam Racicot were of other bootleggers who did not hang around the customs office, or have the connections they did. Understanding that none of the group that they smuggled with were either arrested or injured during the period, their perspective on this is probably more tainted. On the other hand, when Racicot asked Gaston Monette what he thought other bootleggers like themselves were motivated by, the answer had a different angle:
Racicot: “It was mostly for the adventure of it, that and having to do something that was unpopular law: that’s the reason most of the fellows up around here went into it.”
Gaston: “Oh, yeah well it’s the only reason why, and the money that was in it.”
Racicot: “But I don’t think very many people saved their money, did they?”
Gaston: “No. There’s a few, but not to many.”
Gaston: “A few saved their money out of it.”
Racicot had actually suggested this bootlegger success himself during his own testimonial:
“There are many so called fortunes, I don’t know, maybe not millions, but substantial amounts were made and kept by some of the big bootleggers in Rouses Point, couple others, and Champlain particularly and Plattsburgh and Elizabethtown. All the way down the line there were people who made a lot of money and there are people today whose fortune, if you can call it that, is based on the profits they made during the bootlegging days. There are quite a few of them. As a matter of fact, in Champlain there are people who are in legitimate business whose parents, and probably individuals themselves, did make their money from bootlegging. I wouldn’t say that they made the fortunes that some of the gangs made, the New York gangs where the gangsters made the big bootleggers. But there was a lot of money made and it was comparatively easily made…”
This statement is also interesting for another reason. The hierarchy of violators of the Volstead Act is suggested by nearly every interviewee, but the two bootleggers draw sharp contrasts between themselves and the “real criminals.” Racicot noted:
“Well in the first place, most of the bootleggers considered that it was an unfair law and a law that had been foisted on us which had no validity…and we knew that it wasn’t being supported by the general public, that it was disliked, and that we didn’t feel that we were lawbreakers. Of course, I think most of us realized that anything which is illegal, this type, led to other evils such as gangsters, and people going to night clubs and getting drunk, all these things, and we realized that there were a lot of people that would be, by association with this deal, would be criminals, true criminals; we didn’t feel that we were breaking the law…”
In the language of the era, people who smuggled illegal beverages fell into two categories depending on their modus operandi: rumrunner or smugglers, and bootleggers. The term rumrunner came into use to describe the smugglers who brought large amounts of rum through coastal blockades by boat. By contrast, the bootlegger was a small time supplier who smuggled the offending beverage in their boot, or the trunk of a car. The interviews reveal that rumrunners and smugglers were generally regarded as an organized force that supplied major markets in places like New York City and Albany, while bootleggers were largely more harmless locals who supplied themselves and their friends.
During the interviews conducted by Everest and his colleagues, not once did a former smuggler ever use the term rumrunner. Throughout Everest’s lengthy interview with Sam Racicot he continually preferred to use bootlegger even when the interviewer’s question led him by using the other term. Later when Racicot interviewed smuggler Gaston Monette neither men used the term rumrunner although they talked at length about smuggling by boat. Monette did however, use the words gangster and gang to describe outsiders. Joe Warren, the brother of Dennis Warren, did not consider his brother a criminal at all, and so used none of these terms. By contrast, enforcement officials tended to prefer the terms rumrunner, runners, or smugglers but occasionally substituted bootlegger as well.
Thousands of men and women were incarcerated during Prohibition. They were housed, fed, lived, and in some cases died in a social system generally foreign to their lives. Still, we know virtually nothing of their experiences, let alone the outcomes of those imprisonments. The motivations of violators have also remained, at worst, unaddressed, at best, reduced to a cheap thrill. While community responses to the effects of Prohibition are argued ad infinitum, the impact on violators who as law breakers often fall outside the community circle is seldom, if ever, discussed. There is also relative silence on the matter of friend and family responses to violators’ arrest and incarceration. These points are missing because few records exist that can relate them.
A romantic view of bootlegging has developed over the years that fails to include the diverse stories of violators of the Volstead Act and the tragedy that their lives sometimes became. This is in part do to the limited number of geographically concentrated studies that could investigate the lives of individual bootleggers like Dennis Warren.
As the case of the Northern New York Prohibition experience exhibits however, it is more the result of a problem that is typical of historical representations criminal justice issues generally: We are forever using police and authority orientated sources to identify what the lives of offenders are like. As a result of this source bias, a romantic interpretation of National Prohibition in Northern New York has evolved that has never seriously reflected on the motivations of violators, the impact of enforcement on their lives, and has removed the agency from those who actually smuggled illegal beverages across the border.
Prohibition also gave rise to “organized” criminals and hence, organized crime. It was this crime, along with overzealous enforcement of smaller time Prohibition violators, that contributed to turning public opinion firmly against the 18th Amendment and it was overturned by the 21st Amendment in 1933 – the only amendment to the U.S. Constitution to have ever been repealed.
With all that in mind, the once courageous life of Dennis Warren, young veteran of the Argonne, seems wasted.
You can read more stories about Prohibition here.
Illustrations, form above: A recreated chase of bootleggers in Chestertown, NY in 2013 (photo by John Warren); Dennis Warren in World War One uniform from the private collection of John Warren); Allan Everest’s 1978 book Rum Across The Border: The Prohibition Era in Northern New York; “After a thrilling chase through the busiest streets of Washington, a couple of bootleggers and their car come to grief at the hands of the Capitol police,” January 1922 (Library of Congress); An automobile showing bullet holes taken on East 25th Street pier for Inspector Noonon, October 27, 1926 by E. Tobin (NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives); and the US Customs House at Rouses Point, NY from a ca. 1930s postcard.