Bootleggers faced heavy fines and jail in early 20th century

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.


Stephen Thorning