Smugglers Kept Boozers Happy During Prohibition: Lewis Lapham

The start of U.S. Prohibition in 1920 had many unintended consequences, including the creation of a class of inventive, booze-smuggling entrepreneurs. By 1923, a motley collection of ships was sitting up and down the east coast on “Rum Row,” just outside the three-mile limit. Floating warehouses, they got supplies from the Bahamas and then fed a flotilla of smaller boats.

“You knew right away when a man stopped fishing and started running rum,” said one Massachusetts woman. “His family began to eat proper.” If a smuggler encountered the rare law enforcement official not on the take, he’d dump the cargo overboard. Packed in burlap bags filled with salt, the liquor bottles could easily be retrieved when the salt melted and the bags rose to the surface.

At night, the ships’ lights were so concentrated the ocean resembled a vast cityscape. It may have seemed like a siege, but, in fact, it was the opposite: “Rum Row” was there to provide Americans with the alcohol they wanted but were forbidden by law to have.

I spoke with Daniel Okrent, author of “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” (Scribner), on the following topics:

1. Temperance & Income Tax

2. Brewers, Saloons & the Free Lunch

Source: Simon & Schuster via Bloomberg

The book jacket for "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," by author Daniel Okrent. Close

The book jacket for "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," by author Daniel Okrent.

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Source: Simon & Schuster via Bloomberg

The book jacket for "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," by author Daniel Okrent.

3. The Roaring Twenties

4. Rum Row

5. Repeal Fever

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

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