Prohibition resulted in surge of illegal stills, bootleggers

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The Ontario Temperance Act (OTA), introduced in 1916 as a war measure and made permanent in 1919, encountered difficulties in the early 1920s. 

It was not a total prohibition measure: consumers could still drink beer with a strength of 2.5% alcohol or less, or secure a doctor’s permit for alcohol for “medicinal use.” Ontario-made wine was exempt. And consumption of anything was legal in a private home.

Nevertheless, wholesale violations of the law began soon after it came into force, and increased after the province outlawed importation from other provinces in 1921. For the first years, the transgressors tended to be small operators: hotel keepers and private citizens caught with liquor in public places.

By the 1920s, though, the scale and nature of the violations changed. E.C. Drury, the premier during the 1919-1923 United Farmers government, was a vehement prohibitionist, as was his attorney general W.E. Raney, who, incidentally, sat for the riding of East Wellington.

Raney restructured the Ontario Provincial Police force, making the enforcement of the OTA its primary activity. In pushing his agenda, Raney undermined morale, forcing officers to enforce strictly a law that many did not support personally. As well, the force declined in the esteem of a significant portion of Ontario’s population.

By 1921, an army of full-time bootleggers were in business in Ontario. Rather than work from their homes or other fixed premises, many of them used motor cars to distribute their products, setting up regular routes that frequently covered wide geographic areas.

In the fall of 1921 Raney restructured the OPP, setting up districts for the enforcement of the OTA and assigning a significant portion of the force exclusively to liquor enforcement. The major initial task for those men was to clamp down on the mobile distributors.

One of the first to be caught in this area was Joseph Sullivan of Toronto. In January 1922 authorities caught him in a driveway in Orangeville. He had 58 bottles of whiskey and a bottle of gin stashed in three sacks in his car. Sullivan claimed that he had been on his way to Fergus but turned back due to snowdrifts. Though they had no proof, the constables believed that he had been selling bottles from his car in Orangeville. He may well have had Fergus customers to visit later in the day.

In any case, Magistrate Falconer fined him $1,000 plus costs for “having liquor in a place other than a private residence without a licence.” Sullivan asked for a week to raise the money, which he did with no difficulty.

Operating on a smaller scale was William Bell of Listowel. In the last week of November 1921 he hopped on a train to Palmerston, accompanied by his wife and infant son, with a couple of suitcases. They stayed with some friends overnight. 

Apparently, he made some deliveries in Palmerston, then told his wife that he would go to Toronto, taking his son. She objected, and soon the two were enmeshed in a noisy and violent domestic dispute. Their host fetched some neighbours to help mediate the fight. Unsuccessful in restoring peace, he then called Palmerston’s Constable Wilson.

When he arrived, Wilson scratched his head. There was something familiar about this fellow. A while later Wilson remembered that Bell had previous contact with authorities, and he immediately contacted Inspector Beckett, the OPP officer in charge of liquor enforcement for this area. Beckett happened to be in Palmerston. The two returned to the house with a search warrant, but found no liquor. Acting on some tips, they went to another house where Mrs. Bell had taken refuge. There they found two suitcases, containing about a gallon of liquor, along with some empty bottles, labels and bottle seals. By then Bell had fled town.

Some liquor stories are best recorded as apocryphal. In November of 1921 a travelling bootlegger supposedly arrived in Fergus, with a plentiful supply of liquor at $10 a bottle. He did a good trade and then moved on. When customers uncorked their purchases, they found that they had purchased cold tea. No one admitted to being fleeced; all accounts were second and third hand. As well, descriptions of the man and his car were extremely vague.

True or not, the Fergus tale shows the risks of the liquor trade at that time to unsuspecting buyers. And despite the efforts of Raney, the courts and the OPP, offences seemed to be increasing steadily and in every quarter. Some raids late in 1921 turned up liquor in three county jails in Ontario.

As well as the small-time bootleggers, the liquor business began to attract bigger operators, and increasingly a hard-core criminal element, attracted by the quick and immense profits to be made in the illicit booze business.

During November and December 1921 authorities made a swoop through Waterloo County, acting on tips, evidence from those already caught and information supplied by their agents who posed as customers. They uncovered 35 stills in that period, and prosecuted most of the operators successfully.

On Jan. 3, 1922, OPP and federal revenue authorities conducted a raid on what was the largest local operation found up to that time. The still was on a farm rented by Stephen Smejr of Kitchener, in the western corner of Guelph Township near Ariss. They arrested Smejr on the premises, and an hour later nabbed his partner, Walter Targost, at a house in Guelph used as a distribution centre. Targost was from Detroit, and was an experienced hand in the underground liquor trade and other illegal activities.

The still near Ariss was a well-made apparatus, capable of producing 10 gallons of liquor a day. At Guelph, Targost had several large leather-covered containers shaped like suitcases, but enclosing copper compartments. With these Targost could transport liquor in public without attracting attention.

The two men kept a good set of books, which revealed that they sold their liquor for $15 per gallon, invariably in wholesale quantities to other distributors. Their still had been in operation for five months. Total income for that period was in excess of $20,000. That was big money at a time when most people earned less than $1,200 per year.

Targost was fined $250 on a charge of transporting liquor illegally, but both he and Smejr were sentenced to jail terms on other charges.

Some of the small-time operators made frequent appearances in magistrate’s court. And some magistrates were reluctant to levy more than the minimum fines against the perpetrators. Phil Forbes, who operated in the area from Acton north and west into Nassagaweya, Eramosa and Erin Townships, was one such offender.

Caught selling liquor in Acton in November 1922, he was fined $100. Two months later he was caught again, selling liquor from his father’s farm south of Rockwood. That cost him $200 plus costs, or three months of hard labour. Forbes paid the fine at once in cash.

At Forbes’s second trial, a character witness, J.D. McDonald, appeared on his behalf. It was a foolish move on his part. McDonald had been in court the previous June, and had been fined $200 for permitting a still to operate on his farm. McDonald had paid $150 of the fine, then disappeared until he showed up in court to help his pal Forbes. Police arrested him as he left the courtroom, but his friends, including Forbes, chipped in to pay the remaining $50 of the fine.

Such cases show the impossibility of enforcing the Ontario Temperance Act, in the face of reluctant enforcement and increasing contempt by a large portion of the public for both the law and its enforcement officials.

Though they did not realize it at the time, Raney and his prohibitionist supporters had passed the peak of public support by 1923. The trend in Canada against prohibition first appeared in British Columbia, which voted in October 1920 to allow liquor sales under tight government control. In Toronto, a group of influential citizens formed the anti-prohibition Citizens Liberty League. A frequent speaker at their meetings was the popular humourist Stephen Leacock. And even the clergy had second thoughts about prohibition. Rev. T.C.S. Macklem, Provost of Trinity College, advocated temperance, not prohibition. 

“Prohibition is bad for the cause of temperance and detrimental to health and morals,” he said.

Change was on its way for Ontario after the defeat of Drury’s UFO government in 1923, and the end of Raney’s enforcement campaign.

(Next week: Liquor returns to Ontario.)

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Oct. 7, 2005.

Thorning Revisited