A Little Illegal Holiday Cheer

by Stephen R. Powell

Can you imagine a time when it was against the law to have a beer? In the 1920’s during Prohibition you could drink it, but you couldn’t have it. How does that work? Simple, Congress prohibited the manufacture of drinkable alcohol in America and outlawed possession of it. For some reason (probibly issues of personal freedom) they left the act of drinking it alone.

Powerful anti-drinking groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union lobbied Congress to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution (Prohibition). In 1920, after years of work they succeeded. The Amendment became law, and all forms of drinkable alcohol became illegal.

The problem was that many people in Buffalo and across the country didn’t want their liquor taken away. One big factor was that cities like Buffalo had large immigrant populations (the largest section of which were Germans). Many European groups including the Germans,Italians, and Poles had cultures that revolved around drinking, and they knew how to drink in moderation (after all, they had hundreds of years of experience). Many supporters of Prohibition blamed cultures that had drinking at its center for all of society’s ills.

Buffalo has always been a big drinking town, which at times had one of the highest per capita drinking rates in America. Even Buffalo’s Prohibition Era mayor F.X. Schwab pleaded "no contest" to charges of bootlegging. To show just how much Buffalonians opposed Prohibition in their town, Schwab was re-elected to a second term. According to Schwab, Buffalo had 8,000 "soft drink" places which he suspected functioned as speakeasies. To help cut down on the numbers of these places Schwab suggested that they be licensed and taxed.

To stem the tide of booze washing up in Buffalo the "authorities" staged raids that in retrospect seemed all too predictable. During election season raids were reported in almost every days newspaper. The Christmas and New Year season predictably brought more raids. The Buffalo Courier of December 31, 1920 reported efforts of local authorities to squash the fun of New Years celebrators in the downtown area:

DRY AGENTS RAID 8 SALOONS; GRAB GALLONS OF BOOZE--------------

Five Buffalo Places Visited--Three in Tonawanda Called on.--------------

Coincident with sharp controversy over the enforcement of the Prohibition law in this vacinity came the raiding of five Buffalo saloons and three Tonawanda places yesterday afternoon and last night by Chief Prohibition gent Edwin Waters and Agents Hanson, Trzybinski, Quinn and Bluenstein.The Buffalo raids were made by Waters and Hanson alone, armed in each instance with a search warrant...

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The List

The establishments raided last night and the amount of intoxicating liquors alleged to have been seized were as follows:

Place run by Michael M. Schwarziner at No. 644 Jefferson street. Seven bottles of whisky, six bottles of wine and four jugs of whisky were said to have been found. Proprietor was arrested.

Place run by Andrew J. Schuler at No. 466 Sycamore street. Agents reported they captured two bottles of whisky and two bottles of wine. Proprietor arrested.

Place run by Joseph Marshall at No. 543 Broadway. Waters and Hanson reported they bought a drink of hard liquor. They attempted to get the bottle, but the bartender succeeded in breaking it, it was stated. A barrel of wine, found in a rear room, was confiscated, the agents said. Proprietor arrested.

Establishment conducted by Michael Lutkowski at No. 425 Military road. Agents said they seized nine quart bittles of whisky and two bottles of gin. Proprietor arrested.

Place conducted by Anthony Ruta at No. 429 Military road. Two five gallon cans of alcohol and a bottle of whisky and one of wine, said to have been found, were seized. Proprietor arrested.

Agents Tryzbinski, Quinn and Bluestein were in Tonawanda yesterday seeking rasinjack stills. Three men were arrested on charges of manufacturing liquor.

George Sapowich, No. 141 Niagara street, Tonawanda, was arrested on charge of having a 25-gallon still, three barrels of mash and some alleged finished product.

Barnie Jaksie, No.11 Stark street, Tonawanda, was charged with having a 15-gallon still, a barrel of raisin mash, and six gallons of liquor.

Peter Savich, No. 102 Cleveland street, Tonawanda was arrested on charge of having a 15 gallon still, a 25 gallon keg of liquor and a barrel of mash.

The prisoners were taken to the Tonawanda police station pending arraignment before a federal commissioner.

Buffalo was said by some to be one of the "wettest" (wet referred to a pro-liquor stance) cities in America. There was so much illegal booze around that authorities must have felt like they were trying to empty a bathtub filled with liquor one shot-glass at a time. The speakeasies were like the crack houses of their time, with an important difference; many people didn’t see them as such a bad thing...

All material copyright” 1996-2001

by Stephen R. Powell. All rights reserved




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