It would be wrong to say that there was a bootlegger on every street in West Terre Haute. But the town that prior to Prohibition had many more saloons than churches had its fair share, and more. It was, after all, a thirsty town. Even before Prohibition there did not seem to be enough legal hours in the day to slake the town’s thirst. Town marshals were constantly on the prowl to enforce closing laws, as in 1904 when Marshal Ramsey Gess went on a crusade to dry up illegal sales.
The subject of bootleggers (the term is thought to originate from the days when sailors would hide contraband in their tall boots to spirit a little comfort onto their ships for the long sea journey) came up during a recent oral history with C. Joseph Anderson. Joe, as he is known, is a prominent attorney, legislator and judge from West Terre Haute. He readily talked about his father “Peck” Anderson being a noted bootlegger. Peck was something of an entrepreneur. He owned several businesses, including a saloon, and was an early example of a house flipper.
Though I had long heard that Peck distilled and sold his own booze, I was a little shocked to hear about one of the town’s other noted bootleggers, Acle Ellingsworth. Acle, you see, was father-in-law to both my uncle Art Chrisman and my aunt Eileen Ellingsworth. I knew Acle as only a man sitting quietly at gatherings. To hear that this taciturn man had an “infamous” past was quite a surprise.
I had planned to visit Aunt Eileen anyway, but I drove immediately to see her. Now you must understand that my aunt is one of the sweetest ladies on earth. She is loath to speak or think ill of anyone. I assumed she would say little about it, or even deny it.
Almost my first words to her were, “Aunt Eileen, you never told me you were a bootlegger’s daughter-in-law!” To my surprise, she did not look surprised or embarrassed. Instead, she almost beamed as she replied, Yes, didn’t you know that?”
She told me the story with a certain amount of relish. Acle, indeed, was a bootlegger. Being a tinsmith, it was nothing for him to whip up a still in his shed and set about being a minor Jack Daniels. He was not a gangster she averred. He made and sold small batches of whiskey, mainly to sell or give to his neighbors, or for his own consumption. He was not one who distilled great amounts to sell to rumrunners or supply a string of speakeasies, of which there were many in Vigo County. Some just up the street from his Paris Avenue home. And she proudly said, “He never used any money he made bootlegging for himself. He would use it to help out neighbors or family in need.” I almost thought she was describing a latter day Robin Hood, but if my Aunt Eileen tells you something, you know she believes it to be true.
There were other small time “leggers” in West Terre Haute. Several times a month local papers would tell of another arrest of a West Terre Haute bootlegger. There was Andy Harper, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail for concocting his own potent potables, Leonard Hollobaugh who arrested for selling alcohol to 3 teenagers, one of whom was shot and killed as they raced down Fruitridge Avenur in attempt to evade the police, and even a woman, Helen Kintz.
Like Peck and Acle, the small timers were mainly being entrepreneurial. But there was a much darker side to Prohibition.
Regular readers know that I believe Prohibition to have been an ill-conceived, benighted, stupid and foolhardy attempt at social engineering. Foisted upon the majority by oft-times honestly concerned, but by a sometimes holier-than-thou vocal minority, it was not only an abject failure, but a disaster for the nation. (At this point do you get the feeling I do not think much of Prohibition?).
There are many reasons that, as a professional historian, I take this view. One is that the amendment immediately made millions of Americans, those who drank and those who made booze, criminals. Millions who had previously respected the law, became instant lawbreakers. Debates still rage as to how much this taste of disdain for the law effected future generations. If one winked at prohibition laws as one sipped a cocktail, what laws would one disregard in the future?
The other major reason Prohibition was a disaster was the role in played in the rise of organized crime as we know it today. Yes, there were loosely organized gangs throughout America before Prohibition. But they were local. Prohibition was the crazy glue that cemented local gangs into a national web of organized crime. Of course, there were gang rivalries and untold slaughter along the way (for a fine history of this in Chicago see the excellent new book by Jonathan Eig, Get Capone), but ultimately the cooler gangland bosses learned to divide territories and work together. Thus was born modern organized crime (which, by the way only got worse nationally because J. Edgar Hoover did not believe existed until too late because he was too busy chasing supposed Commies).
And this fitful rise of gangs and violence also played out on the street of West Terre Haute during Prohibition.
In July, 1926, two West Terre Haute bootleggers, Oscar Moore and Alek Leclerq, were snatched off South Seventh Street. They were released the next day but returned home mum about what happened. They knew silence was not only golden, but their key to survival. Speculation was that they may have hijacked a load of booze belonging to a powerful, terroristic St. Louis gang known as the Egan Rats.
In August, the still breathing Moore was speeding along a road in south Chicago with two companions, a Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Ronan. When police stopped them they found two pistols and a shotgun. They also found 60 gallons of illegal booze that the trio admitted they were transferring from Indiana (from the West Terre Haute area?) to gangs in Chicago.
Ronan, it was quickly leaned, was an alias for longtime criminal Joseph Roman. Roman’s criminal career began with a stint in an Ohio reformatory in 1908. He was a well-known safecracker (he was credited with teaching that art to “Henry Fernekes, midget bandit”) who took up rum-running. His wife, Josephine Edna Akers, formerly a waitress in Terre Haute, claimed she did not know of his past as they had only been married a scant time before in Sullivan. Moore told police he lived at 20 S. Sumner in West Terre Haute. Jail awaited the trio, whom Terre Haute police claimed were part of a gang of “rum runners and hi-jackers whose activities have been numerous here in recent months.”
Thus was West Terre Haute a minor pivot point in the gangland empires.