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How Alcohol Still Seeped Into Los Angeles During Prohibition

Men and women raising their glasses at a bar | Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries
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As far back as the revolutionary war, Americans had a widespread romance with libations. Distilling rum and whiskey were well established during the Civil War.  The Anti-alcohol sentiment and The Temperance Movement gained momentum, yet heavy drinking continued to be the norm in the early 19th century.

The end of the Great War in 1918 gave Americans hope and reason to celebrate, but it was a short-lived party. Doughboys came home drunk on libations, often causing a rift in the family.

The Temperance Movement was organized to dissuade people, mostly men, from becoming intoxicated. Wives saw alcohol as a homewrecker. Constantly drunk husbands often led to abuse and poverty.  

An anti-saloon league was organized in 1893. Their call for prohibition began as a religious movement. Social reformers saw liquor as the cause of poverty, industrial accidents and the breakup of families. Others faulted immigrant ghettos, criminals and political corruption. Activists such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union were on the front line advocating for the repeal of alcohol, setting the stage for Prohibition.  They soon got their wish.

In 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, the18th Amendment’s liquor ban.

On January 20, 1920, The Los Angeles Times reported the symbolic dumping of 35,000 gallons of wine from the North Cucamonga Winery on Alameda Street down the drains by U.S. Revenue agents.

Despite the official implementation of the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act, the liquor continued to flow in the Southland, along with the sun and waves and a few secret tunnels.

Going Underground

Deep beneath the Civic Center lies a system of underground tunnels. Beginning in 1901, workers bore through Bunker and Hill Street to deal with congested streets in downtown. Years later, Pacific Electric's red passenger trolley cars began speeding through the 4,325-foot-long tunnel every day. By 1924, service had diminished. Those networks of decrepit tunnels dating back to the mid-1920s were then secretly used to sneak hooch and other illegal beverages into the speakeasies during The Noble Experiment.

A Pacific Electric Red Car leaves the building at 6th and Main Streets | Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries
A Pacific Electric Red Car leaves the building at 6th and Main Streets | Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection,University of Southern California Libraries

The tunnels that currently run under the Hall of Records and Hall of Administration were often used to move alcohol around town but also kept captured bootleggers and gangsters away from the eyes and cameras of the photographers up top.

“I find it a stretch to believe they were built expressly for that purpose,” said historian D.J. Waldie, referring to the underground tunnels. “Seems unlike a city government would spend millions of dollars in today’s money just to make it easier to break the law,” he added. “It’s more likely the tunnels under the original City Hall were used for slipping out of a long-running court session to grab a bite to eat across the street.”

While tunnels were a mainline for bringing spirits into the city,” the 19th-century tunnel system in old Chinatown connected brothels, gambling parlors and opium dens beneath the street north of the Central Plaza. According to Paul Young’s “L.A. Exposed: Strange Myths and Curious Legends in the City of Angels,” in the Hollywood Hills, several mansions had tunnels connecting to other houses where they could hide their libations.

Most speakeasies of the day required a secret code in order to enter. A word was whispered through a small slit in a wooden door in a shady back alley, allowing the revelry to begin.

King Eddy Saloon | Sandi Hemmerlein
King Eddy Saloon | Sandi Hemmerlein

In 1906, King Eddy’s Saloon opened as the high-class King Edward Hotel on E 5th Street. Its piano storefront was a cover during the dry years. The centuries-old boozy haunt on Skid Row continues to serve giggle water in the dark, dusty bar.

A few other gin mills from the lost era served a tipple or two such as the Townhouse in Venice. The oldest bar in L.A. was established by Italian Immigrant, Cesar Menotti from 1920-1933. The Del Monte was its speakeasy located in the basement with a trap door hidden underneath the produce and a dumbwaiter to ferry guests down two at a time.

With nowhere to go for a hooch in public, the tunnels were frequently used for moving booze around the heart of downtown. From 1921, Spring Street operators used them to share the protection of Mayor George Cryer, the thirty-second mayor of L.A. Mob boss crime syndicate Charles Crawford had his own private telephone line into city hall, noted Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Fratantoni in a 2012 Los Angeles Times article.

While his election was a close win for Cryer, who closely resembled President Woodrow Wilson, the new Mayor was surrounded by shady cronies. Former USC football star Kent Parrott and saloon keeper-racketeer Charlie Crawford were two of the more corrupt fellas.

Often dubbed “Parrot’s Parrot,” Cryer bowed to the demands of his campaign manager, Kent Kane Parrot. It was Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler, who felt threatened by Parrot’s increasing show of power, according to John Buntin’s “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.”

At the time, aside from being the main man behind the Los Angeles Times, Buntin notes that Chandler was “a member of more than 30 corporate boards; the hidden hand behind innumerable syndicates, secret trusts and dummy corporations; a land baron who owned or controlled roughly 300,000 acres in Southern California and, across the border in Mexico, an 860,00-acre ranching and farming operation that included the largest cotton plantation in the world.” When Parrot installed his own man as chief of police, it sent a clear message that the police were now firmly under Parrot’s control. Things escalated during the 1925 mayor election, which pit Cryer against a Chandler-picked candidate. Cryer won the election, which set off multiple exposes from the Los Angeles Times on the inner workings of “the City Hall Gang.” The two sides came to terms in 1926 and agreed to install James ‘Two Gun” Davis, as police chief as a sign of their accord.

LAPD Vice cop and crime boss Guy McAfee was more sinister than his cronies with eyes set on controlling The Spring Street mob dubbed The System, a low-profile syndicate that ran prostitution and bootlegging rackets along with protecting Mayor Cryer, according to J. Michael Niotta, crime journalist and L.A. historian.

“Non-Italian political racketeers such as Parrot, Crawford and Guy McAfee, ran Los Angeles through Mayor George Cryer’s office using the Wright Act to their advantage,’ said Niotta. The California Wright Act gave the power to wield over all forms of law enforcement in the county to its District Attorney so he could enforce the stipulations laid down in the Volstead Act. 

Liquor By Sea

Rum running ships scurry out to the "mother ship" to load up and slink back, often under cover of fog with full cargo | Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries
Rum running ships scurry out to the "mother ship" to load up and slink back, often under cover of fog with full cargo | Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries

A large amount of the illicit liquor trade could be found in the South Bay. The Johanna Smith, one of many small powerboats, embarked from Long Beach sailing 20 miles off the coast to get wasted on Floating Speakeasies, confirmed Branden Werts, archivist at the Historical Society of Long Beach. 

The coastline between San Diego and Santa Barbara was the focal point of Rum Runner operations in the Pacific. Ventura, San Pedro and Long Beach were also deemed “Rum Row” “A Huge Rum Fleet, Carrying Cargoes Valued at Several Million Dollars, Is Lying Off Southern California,” the Los Angeles Times reported in May 1925.

“There were more rum runners from Mexico, which made it easier to connect and were faster too,” noted Waldie.  “What one saw in the ‘20s was a significant flow of Californians and tourists crossing the border to drink and bring back some elicit concoction not found by customs officers – with fast, small boats, Mexico was easier to get to,” Waldie added. The coastline was relatively unpopulated, making it easier to bribe guardians along the route. At the same time, a considerable amount of liquor was moving northward.

Anthony Cornero, known as “The Admiral from Italy” and “Tony the Hat,” bootlegged liquor across the Southland.  He used a shrimping business to corral a fleet of legal gambling ships into Canada to smuggle Canadian Whiskey into Southern California.

The Italian Connection

Another avenue for liquor turned out to be the Italian community.  The Italians played a pivotal role in the 19th-century wine business. In the 1900s, an influx of Italian immigrants flowed into the City of Angels, bringing their secret homemade grape recipes from the old country. Wineries began opening across the southland from Sierra Madre Vintage Co. in Lamanda Park to Crescent Valley and Cucamonga, where The Italian Vineyard Co. was founded by Italian Secondo Guasti.

“The Italians also brought in the genuine article by ship,” noted Niotta. “They had a myriad of hidden liquor stills as far as South Nevada.”

In 1917, Santo Cambianica, an Italian immigrant from the northern Italy province of Lombardy, founded the San Antonio Winery on Lamar Street, east of Chinatown. Like many others, Santo got around the Prohibition issue by making wines for sacramental and ceremonial purposes at the behest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  San Antonio Winery continues to be one of the largest suppliers of sacramental wine in the country.

Three Wise Guys

During prohibition, a trio of wise guys banded together to take advantage of the increased profitability of illicit liquor.

Jack Dragna, a member of the American Mafia, was born in Corleone, Sicily in 1891.  He came to prominence through bootlegging, politics and gambling. Dragna was Niotta’s great-grandfather. The author’s other great grandfather, George Niotta was an entrepreneur. The founder of Italian Wholesale Grocery in Boyle Heights, supplied raw goods, namely sugar, for illegal bootleg liquor production.

Frank Borgia was a close friend who handled management and the logistics of unloading ships carrying liquor from Canada and other locations. “He associated with these men. It was a family affair,” said historian Niotta. Borgia was related to Joe "Iron Man" Ardizzone, a streetwise Italian who took over leadership of the American mafia in the middle of Prohibition along with Dragna. Together, the two formed the Italian Welfare League, an influential social and political club that had such a strong pull within the Italian community that they were able to help elect Mayor Franklin Shaw and take over much of the criminal activity in Los Angeles. Dragna took over from Ardizzone shortly before his “disappearance’ on October 15, 1931, becoming the West Coast version of The Godfather until his death of natural causes in 1956.

The Results of L.A.’s Noble Experiment

By 1927, an estimated 30,000 illegal speakeasies were in business. Twice the number of legal bars before Prohibition. Major crime greatly increased as did divorces, litigation and the high cost of living. In 1919, more than 700 wineries were in operation in California. By the end of 1933, only 380 wineries existed.  

A loophole in the law allowed each home to make “200 gallons of non-intoxicating cider and fruit juice per year,” allowing thousands of Americans to make their own wine at home.

California supported Prohibition at the start believing it would improve health, safety and reduce crime. Instead, it caused more problems. Although alcohol was legally prescribed for medical complaints, inebriated drunkards were dying from strange concoctions mixed by bootleggers. They unknowingly consumed hair tonics, creosote, lead and embalming fluid.

Intending to free society of the evils of drinking, The Great Experiment was a dud. By 1939 with Jack Dragna still at the helm, the remaining bootleggers and gamblers couldn’t hack it in Los Angeles and left for Las Vegas. According to Dragna’s great-grandson, J. Michael, “They became Las Vegas’ founding fathers.”

Top Image: Men and women raising their glasses at a bar | Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries 

Correction: Dec 6, 2019.

We removed the aforementioned distance of the coastline between San Diego and Santa Barbara which was incorrect.

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