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  • "Let the Federal Men Raid":Bootlegging and Prohibition Enforcement in Pittsburgh
  • Julien Comte (bio)

Mr. Ness, everybody knows where the booze is. The problem isn't finding it.

—Jim Malone, The Untouchables1

During his first four years in Pittsburgh, Prohibition Administrator John Pennington amassed an impressive record. A reporter estimated that between July 1926 and April 1930 Commander Pennington conducted more than fifteen thousand raids and arrested over eighteen thousand people. His agents closed down over three thousand distilleries and confiscated almost forty-five hundred individual stills with a total daily capacity in excess of three hundred and fifty thousand gallons. He shuttered sixteen regular breweries and raided more than four hundred wildcat breweries, forty-four alcohol plants, one hundred cutting plants, fifteen beer-shooting plants, and nearly two hundred storage plants. Pennington's men confiscated over eighteen hundred automobiles and seized 3.4 million gallons of mash, over one hundred and eighty thousand gallons of moonshine, one hundred and thirteen thousand gallons of alcohol, more than one hundred and ten thousand gallons [End Page 166] of wine, about six hundred and fifty thousand gallons of beer, and more than seven hundred and fifty thousand pounds of corn sugar.2 While these numbers may seem high at first glance, they only represent the tip of the colossal iceberg that was the Pittsburgh bootlegging scene. Between 1920 and 1933, Pittsburghers openly made, sold, and diverted alcohol in clear violation of the prohibition laws, earning Western Pennsylvania the reputation of "wettest spot in the United States."3 This title reflected not only the attitudes of most Pittsburghers regarding the prohibition issue but also the ineffectiveness of prohibition enforcement in the city.

This paper explores the failure of prohibition enforcement in Pittsburgh over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s. The failure of enforcement, on the one hand, and local indifference and resistance, on the other, were inextricably linked. Enforcement in Pittsburgh failed to stop the manufacture, transportation, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the city. Most Pittsburghers resented prohibition, and some found economic and political opportunities in violating it. Local resistance to prohibition played a crucial part in rendering the enforcement mechanism ineffective. Enforcement depended considerably on local officials; the lack of local support limited cooperation between city policemen and federal prohibition agents, which allowed bootleggers to diversify their sources of alcohol. In turn, the proliferation of sources and the resulting thriving market for illegal alcohol exacerbated the lack of coordination and cooperation between federal, state, and local authorities by creating opportunities for police and political corruption. Prohibition offered machine politicians opportunities to strengthen their organization. Pittsburgh's prohibition mayors welcomed the wet vote and cultivated it by letting ward bosses and police captains profit from prohibition through the allocations of liquor privileges in their community. The city police force was under no pressure from the mayor to enforce prohibition, and Pittsburghers responded to this policy favorably by casting their votes for the machine.

The historiography on prohibition emphasizes the ineffectiveness of federal and state authorities in upholding prohibition. Because the states and the federal government had concurrent power to enforce prohibition, each party attempted to shift the burden of enforcement to the other. When it came to prohibition, Andrew Sinclair writes, Presidents Harding and Coolidge were "masters of inaction" and an "amphibious" Congress followed their lead.4 With Washington's lack of interest in prohibition enforcement, federal prohibition agents were chronically underfunded and understaffed. State [End Page 167] legislatures showed a similar lack of commitment to prohibition and did not make its enforcement a priority.

Popular and academic books on prohibition stress the failure to coordinate the state and federal enforcement mechanisms over the failure of enforcement at the local level. In his study of the repeal of prohibition, for instance, David Kyvig deems it "essential" to "examine how national prohibition functioned [and] what was done to enforce the law."5 Yet, his chapter on enforcement deals mostly with the role of the three branches of the federal government in upholding the law. Even though enforcement is not the focus of Kyvig's study, his treatment of this central aspect of prohibition exemplifies a larger problem in the historiography...


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