The Greatest Gang of Criminals

Arlington never gave rise to an Al Capone or a Nucky Thompson, but it was teeming with bootleggers during Prohibition. And most of them were average joes.

The engineer drivers of these speedy delivery vehicles (who, it should be noted, went on to form NASCAR) often made their runs en masse, deploying multiple cars simultaneously in order to confuse and evade the authorities. Such was the case in one high-speed chase on May 4, 1923. As police in Rosslyn apprehended one of five booze-filled cars headed for the District, the others sped off, leaking trails of liquor in their wake—the result of bullets fired by Prohibition agents.

Sometimes the bullets exchanged in gunfights hit more than barrels of gin. On February 12, 1930, officer Raymond Crack was struck in the face by a bootlegger’s bullet while chasing a convertible that had come screaming across the Key Bridge, loaded up with 17 cases of liquor. Crack survived; he was treated while fellow police continued the chase to Occoquan. There, the bootleggers finally abandoned the vehicle and fled into the woods. Both men were ultimately arrested and served time in jail.

By the late 1920s, the public began to realize that the so-called “Noble Experiment” wasn’t working. Arlington’s jail was overcrowded with dry law offenders, and citizens were tiring of what they perceived as heavy-handed law enforcement that infringed on their personal liberties.

Public disenchantment was palpable at one political debate hosted at Washington-Lee High School in October 1928, during which Republican U.S. District Attorney Leo Rover proclaimed: “The prohibition law is being enforced in Washington and Arlington County. Ask the people of this county if it isn’t.”

When his statement was met by jeers, he retorted, “If it is not, it is because the people do not want it enforced.”

Other signs of Prohibition’s unraveling were soon to follow. Among the most notable was former Commonwealth’s Attorney Crandal Mackey’s run for U.S. Congress in 1930, during which he revised his staunch position on Prohibition. Calling for a repeal of the 18th Amendment, he suggested that federal oversight be replaced by statewide control of liquor. (He lost the Democratic primary to Howard Smith, who represented Arlington until 1967.)

Shortly thereafter, a store owned and operated by Mackey’s son Darlington was raided near Chain Bridge in 1931. Mackey leapt to his son’s defense, claiming that agents had conducted the raid without a warrant and that the man who sold them liquor was not an employee. “I am confident that my son does not sell liquor there, and I shall defend him to the utmost,” Mackey said in a statement. This didn’t seem to help. Darlington was released on bond but indicted by a grand jury.

As the “wet” cause ascended and Democratic and Republican candidates considered adopting wet planks to their platforms for the 1932 presidential election, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union dug in its heels. In April of that year, leaders of the organization’s Alexandria City–Arlington chapter held a meeting at the Clarendon Methodist Church, during which they advised local women to boycott the polls rather than vote for a party that supported repeal. The once-powerful group was in denial as its influence slipped away.

Weeks later, Sarah Lee Fain, one of the first two women elected to the Virginia legislature, addressed Arlington Democrats at the Arlington County Courthouse and lambasted the 18th Amendment. “I am not for whiskey. I am against it,” she said. “But I have been conclusively shown that the use cannot be prohibited and the only way to control it is to handle it legally through government dispensaries.”

“I am a defender of Prohibition,” Fain continued. “I thought it would bring about temperance. It won’t. It has given birth to the greatest gang of criminals this country has known.”

Citizens tended to agree, although in their view the greatest offenders were elected officials. Voters were especially soured by a Congress that continued to drink under the table, all the while funding Prohibition enforcement. When Washington’s infamous congressional bootlegger George Cassiday (aka “the Man in the Green Hat”) spilled the beans in 1930 to The Washington Post, he estimated that four out of five congressmen and senators were drinkers.

It wasn’t hypocrisy, but rather economics that ultimately ended the nation’s ban on alcohol. With the onset of the Great Depression, the country desperately needed the jobs and taxes from liquor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a wet Democratic Congress were elected on the promise of repeal, and the 21st Amendment was dispatched to the states for ratification. Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933.

On the matter of regulating the legalized distribution of booze, Delegate Fain and candidate Mackey proved prescient. Virginia adopted state control over distilled spirits and maintains that authority to this day.

Arlington has only six state-run ABC stores that sell liquor to the county’s 208,000 residents—which explains why some Arlingtonians still race across the bridges to buy their spirits in D.C., where they say the selection is broader and the prices are sometimes better. They might get a speeding ticket along the way, but not jail time.

Arlington resident Garrett Peck is the author of Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t, and The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. He also leads the Temperance Tour of Prohibition-related sites in D.C.

Bottoms Up

Want to party like it’s 1929? Have your guests enter through the back door and serve these oldies but goodies.

The Rickey
Created in the 1880s in honor of Col. Joseph Rickey, the Democratic lobbyist who owned the legendary Shoomaker’s bar in D.C., the “Rickey” was nicknamed “air conditioning in a glass”—a perfect antidote to Washington’s sultry summers.

1.5 oz. gin or whiskey
Juice of ½ lime
Club soda

Add gin or whiskey to a highball glass. Squeeze in the lime juice, then drop in the lime shell. Add ice, top with club soda and give it a quick stir.

Virginian Whiskey Punch
If Virginia has a native spirit, it is whiskey. Although it was originally made with rye in George Washington’s day, distillers later switched to corn (moonshine is un-aged corn whiskey). This cocktail is a nice balance of sweet and sour.

1 oz. simple syrup (add two parts sugar to one part boiling water; stir until the sugar dissolves, then cool)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 ½ oz. rye whiskey or bourbon

Fill a highball glass or goblet one-third full of crushed ice. Lightly dust the top with sugar. Add simple syrup and stir hard. Add lemon juice, more ice and whiskey. Stir and stir, gradually adding more crushed ice until the glass is filled to the top and the outside is frosty.

Recipes from Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t.


Categories: Local History
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