Illegal sales of beer and distilled liquor in Wellington are as old as the first settlements in the county, and they continued to be common until the later decades of the 20th century, when liquor regulations became more open and binge drinking declined dramatically.
In the 19th century, governments increasingly viewed beverage alcohol as a reliable source of revenue. From the other direction, pressure from temperance groups to shut the liquor industry down grew decade by decade. The result was a constant confrontation that kept the selling of liquor at the top of the political, legal, and social agendas.
Temperance forces gained successes after 1900 in plebiscites in several municipalities. Provincially, prohibition was in effect from 1915 until 1927. Those developments provided the circumstances for illegal sales to flourish. The provincial law had many loopholes. As a concession to the grape growing industry, the manufacture and sale of wine was never banned.
With beer and liquor, only selling was prohibited under the Ontario law. Distillers continued to manufacture for export and for medicinal purposes. That provision soon led to all manner of irregularities. As well, consuming liquor was never illegal. Some doctors gladly filled out prescriptions for liquor for their thirsty patients.
Bootleggers had little difficulty finding suppliers of beer and spirits during the prohibition period. The authorities took a dim view of this commercial activity, particularly during the government of the United Farmers of Ontario, from 1919 to 1923, when Attorney General W.E. Raney used the Ontario Provincial Police as the crusader against booze.
Despite vast resources devoted to shutting down the liquor industry, convictions were not as common as might be suspected. In particular, witnesses were hard to find. Many people thought it unsporting to turn in neighbours who were selling booze, and the customers of illegal vendors were hardly likely to rat out their suppliers.
Enforcing the law was a continuing challenge to the authorities, but occasionally they did succeed in getting a conviction. In 1920, for example, Licence Inspector Gordon cast a suspicious eye on a fellow known as Jack Marcus, who lived near the Canadian Pacific station in Arthur. During a four week period in the summer of 1920, Gordon discovered that Marcus had received 60 bottles of liquor, shipped, quite legally, from a distributor outside the province.
On Aug. 14, Gordon decided to drop the net, concluding that no household could consume two bottles of whiskey every day. He raided the Marcus residence, and discovered several empty bottles, and two partially full ones. There was no sign of the majority of the liquor that Marcus had received. Gordon’s suspicions that the balance of it had been sold seemed to be confirmed. He had Marcus charged with violation of the Ontario Temperance Act.
Magistrate Scott of Moorefield heard the case in the Arthur council chamber, which was pressed into service as a court room. Marcus did not deny receiving 60 bottles of whiskey in a four week span. He explained to the magistrate that the liquor had been enjoyed by himself and his guests. At one party, he boasted, the whiskey “had flowed like water.”
Marcus had witnesses to back up that argument. One stated that he visited his friend Marcus frequently, and that on such occasions they usually polished off two or three bottles.
Inspector Gordon, Crown Attorney J.M. Kearns, and the police could provide no evidence that Marcus actually sold liquor, but Magistrate Scott doubted that Marcus was as hospitable host as he claimed. He fined Marcus $200 plus costs, a huge sum in an era of 18 and 20-cent-per-hour wages.
A.S. Clarke, the Mount Forest lawyer who defended Marcus, announced that he would appeal the conviction, but he seems to have changed his mind. Men such as Marcus, when charged with liquor violations, typically attempted a clever defence, which, in most cases, failed to convince the courts.
Illegal vendors continued in business after legal alcohol sales returned in 1927. That was hardly surprising. Initially, legal sales applied only to beer, and only in municipalities that had voted to permit the return of alcoholic beverages. The government liberalized rules and regulations very slowly over the following decades. That permitted plenty of room for bootleggers and “blind pig” bars to operate. And they operated widely, well into the 1960s and in some cases even later.
Operators of those dens continued to offer ingenious explanations when they appeared in court, but such strategies seldom met with success. A good example is the case of Mel Williams, of Elora, who was charged with selling beer in late August 1938. Two brothers named Moyer, had turned him in, telling the police that they had purchased beer from Williams.
Williams was not home when OPP Constable Oldfield raided his house. He found 56 bottles of cold beer, all in an ice box in a bedroom. The ice box contained nothing but beer. But more incriminating was an account book, listing a number of names with notations beside each, noting various numbers of pints at 25 cents each. Mrs. Williams explained to the constable that the book recorded purchases of milk she had made in previous weeks.
Mel Williams had the misfortune to appear before Magistrate Frederick Watt in Guelph. Watt was a notoriously hard-nosed and humourless judge, though a sarcastic streak frequently ran through his remarks.
In reviewing the account book, he commented that “the price of milk in Elora seems excessive to say the least.”
In 1938, milk sold in the range of 10 to 12 cents per quart, not 25 cents per pint. The magistrate even commented on the bookkeeping, stating that the accounts “were roughly kept.”
Watt took a dim view of the fact that Williams, after he was charged, visited each of the Moyer brothers accompanied by two of his friends. Watt regarded that as a clear attempt to intimidate the witnesses, and “an exceedingly improper thing for Williams to have done.”
After hearing the witnesses, Watt adjourned the case for two weeks to evaluate the evidence. It was clear, though, that Williams stood little chance of getting a break.
Watt found him guilty of selling liquor, and declared his house to be a public place, permitting the police much more leeway in keeping an eye on him. It would be a while, though, before Williams could attempt to resume sales of beer. Watt sent him to jail for two months.
In 1938, when Williams was convicted, locals residents could slake their thirst for beer at either the old Iroquois Hotel or at the Elora Legion’s beverage room. Nevertheless, some drinkers preferred a more private place to do their drinking: they did not want to be seen imbibing or entering a beverage room by their employers or by members of their families.
Others wanted to take a bottle or two of beer home, something not permitted at the beverage rooms. As well, there were underage drinkers looking for a glass of beer, and others who had been banned from the public beverage rooms for various reasons.
Though they tried to be discrete, vendors often catered to youths and to those on the banned list, which was known, in the politically incorrect terminology of that era, as “The Indian List.”
Other bootleggers refused to serve minors and those on “banned” lists, desiring to comply with community standards as much as possible. For example, when Elora resident Fred McDowell was charged a couple of years after Williams, he received little public sympathy because he served beer on Sunday mornings when people were going to church.
The Williams and Marcus cases are only two from the first half of the 20th century, but they typify the liquor cases heard by the courts during those decades. Today, with liquor so widely available, they truly seem like incidents from another era.