Rumrunning was a major industry that made its mark on local history.
Prohibition has the unique distinction of being the only amendment to the Constitution to have ever been undone.
The 18th Amendment was adopted in 1920. It banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. It was called the “Noble Experiment,” but noble or not, it was rapidly apparent that it was a complete fiasco. Just 13 years after the ban became law, the 21st Amendment was ratified to repeal it.
In a country where the liquor industry currently generates more than $250 billion annually, and in a time when cannabis has become mainstream, Prohibition may seem quaint and ridiculously old-fashioned, but it was a major political issue in its era and remains an important reminder about the law of unintended consequences.
“The Noble Experiment” had its roots in the same philosophical movement that advocated for abolition of slavery and votes for women. Many of the progressive Protestant religious sects that campaigned for social justice were opposed to alcohol, including the Methodist Church and the Society of Friends, better known as Quakers.
Alcohol was an integral part of early American culture. The Puritans brewed beer, and in a time when water-borne diseases like cholera wiped out entire towns, drinking beer or cider instead of water could be a matter of life or death.
The original idea of temperance was more about moderation than total abstinence. That changed in the 19th century as the issue of alcohol became more polarized. The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826, advocating for total abstinence but would go on to become a major voice for women’s votes. They were joined in the campaign to ban alcohol by the Washington Movement in 1840, and the Sons of Temperance, in 1842. The Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, ran a presidential candidate in 1872 on the “dry” platform, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1873, went on to have a major role in both the 18th and 19th Amendments.
Various states experimented with dry laws during the second half of the 19th century, but the national movement didn’t gain traction until World War I was on the horizon. The U.S. Senate proposed the 18th Amendment on December 18, 1917, but pushed through a temporary wartime ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages in 1918. Proponents argued that the grain used to make alcohol needed to be saved for the war effort.
The act was approved seven months after the war ended, and two months before the 18th Amendment was ratified by enough states to make it part of the Constitution.
The country went dry on January 17, 1920, putting whole swaths of industry out of business and creating a thriving black market for gangsters, bootleggers, and rumrunners.
Rumrunning rapidly became one of California’s most profitable industries. A 1926 article in the Los Angeles Times estimated that $10 million in Scotch whisky was imported annually just to Southern California—around 150,000 cases. The entire population of Los Angeles County in 1920 was just 576,673.
The Malibu coast and canyons like Topanga were already popular with opium smugglers and human traffickers transporting illegal immigrants from China. Prohibition made alcohol the number one illegal import.
Throughout the 1920s, there are newspaper accounts of “all-night searches” for drug and alcohol smugglers, and reports of mysterious lights signaling the shore.
On February 11, 1924, a gun battle reportedly erupted between smugglers and police officers off the Malibu coast. The Nevada State Journal reported the news that 800 gallons of alcohol and “high proof whiskey” were seized, and the boat, valued at $16,000, was being held. The sting was the result of a “72-hour watch.”
The illicit trade was so successful that the Coast Guard was called in to deal with the situation in 1925.
“Out on the trackless, watery waste of the Pacific Ocean…war is being waged in earnest against the fleet of rum-smuggling vessels that, for six years, has poured intoxicating liquor into the Southland,” a Los Angeles Times article states. Eight 75-foot boats, dubbed the “Wasp Fleet,” were transferred to California from the Atlantic to battle the rumrunners.
The Wasp Fleet doesn’t appear to have put much of a dent in the liquor trade. A 1928 Santa Monica Evening Outlook article reports “four big whaling vessels,” delivered a cargo of whiskey worth $800,000, to “a point above Point Dume.” “Fast Motor Boats Win in Race with Revenue Cutters,” the headline reads.
The presence of rumrunners on the coast dismayed May Knight Rindge, who owned the Malibu Rancho. She was a strict tea-totaler.
Topanga Beach was also a popular spot for bootlegging and rum running. In a bizarre 1925 sting, undercover law enforcement operatives posed as film actors seeking whiskey at a well-known speakeasy. The raid resulted in the arrest of Sheriff’s Deputy William Edward Harris and six others. A year later, a raid of the same speakeasy resulted in more arrests.
Just up the road in Rustic Canyon, a wealthier class of drinkers enjoyed their illicit whiskey undisturbed. The Uplifters Club near what is now Will Rogers State Park, attracted Hollywood A-listers, wealthy and influential residents, and even local politicians. The club evolved out of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which also owned much of lower Topanga Canyon in the 1920s. The location for the Uplifters Club was allegedly chosen in large part because it was too remote to attract the attention of Prohibition-era alcohol enforcement.
One of the most successful local rumrunners who may well have supplied the alcohol served in places like the Topanga speakeasy and the Uplifters Club, was Anthony Cornero, better known as “Tony the Hat.”
Cornero was born in 1899 in the Piedmont region of Italy. Cornero’s father died not long after the family arrived in California, and his mother married a former admirer named Stralla. When Cornero left home in his teens to become a sailor on merchant ships plying the Pacific, he often used his stepfather’s name.
When prohibition went into effect, Cornero took up smuggling. By the time he turned 25 he was a millionaire. He studied the coast carefully and landed his cargo in secluded coves, undetected by the Coast Guard. The sparsely populated Malibu coast, with its numerous small coves and steep cliffs, offered many ideal smuggling sites.
The definitive chronicle of Cornero’s career in crime is Noir Afloat: Tony Cornero and the Notorious Gambling Ships of Southern California, by Ernest Marquez.
Marquez describes Cornero as a perfectionist, “a man who had to be in charge of everything he touched.” He documents the gangster’s career from obscure beginning to gambling kingpin.
Despite many skirmishes with the law, charges almost always failed to stick. However, on March 12, 1925, Cornero’s luck began to run out. The Los Angeles Times reported that a cargo of Scotch whiskey, champagne and wine valued at $75,000 owned by Cornero had been confiscated.
The cargo, loaded onto a clipper in Vancouver, and unloaded onto small boats outside the three-mile limit and secretly brought to shore, was transported by truck to Los Angeles, where it was intercepted by law enforcement.
On his way to jail, Cornero is said to have quipped that he only smuggled alcohol to save people from being poisoned by bathtub gin.
In August 1925, buoyed by Cornero’s arrest and conviction, newspaper headlines proclaimed that his “reign of terror” was at an end. The assistant district attorney is quoted saying, “killers and gunmen must go.”
It doesn’t seem to have had much effect on Cornero. He made a daring escape from prison, prudently returning to L.A. and turning himself in after Prohibition was repealed.
Cornero went on to run gambling boats off the coast and opened the Green Meadows, one of the first casinos in Las Vegas. A fictionalized version of Cornero appears in Raymond Chandler’s 1940 mystery novel, Farewell My Lovely.
Prohibition-era gangsters like Cornero and Chicago’s infamous Al Capone who made fortunes in the bootlegging business have spawned their own genre of crime dramas, but most rum running was a grim and dangerous business. Census mortality statistics indicate homicide rates increased during Prohibition, and while Cornero may have claimed to be trying to save his clients from bathtub gin, many bootleggers cut their product with industrial methanol, causing alcohol poisoning deaths to increase dramatically. Cocktails were invented long before Prohibition, but they gained tremendous popularity as a way to hide the taste of bathtub gin.
In February of 1928, Topanga Beach was in the news for a gun battle involving sheriff’s deputies and a trio of rumrunners. Two were captured, one escaped. In 1930, five boys under the age of 18 were arrested after a party involving bootlegged liquor in a Topanga cabin. They left a 16-year-old girl behind in the back of an automobile. She was “intoxicated and the apparent victim of attack.” The case was used as testimony during the 1930 Congressional hearings on whether Prohibition should be repealed, but all the horror stories in the world wouldn’t stop the push for repeal.
The 21st Amendment passed with astonishing speed.
In an open letter in 1932, wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. summed up the feelings of many: “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
The 21st Amendment was proposed by Congress on February 20, 1933, and was ratified by the requisite number of states on December 5, 1933. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the 21st Amendment into law he is famously said to have quipped, “What America needs now is a drink.”
The repeal was less about morals and more about tax revenue in a country reeling from the stock market crash of 1928 and mired in the Great Depression.
In his book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, author Daniel Okrent finds that the repeal was a lifeline for the federal government, which collected more than $258 million in alcohol taxes in just the first year after repeal—nine percent of the total tax revenue for that year.
Okrent suggests that Roosevelt’s New Deal was funded in large part through the repeal of Prohibition—social reform funded by the repeal of an amendment sponsored by social reformers.
He also suggests the ultimate Prohibition irony, that repealing the 19th Amendment actually made it more difficult to buy alcohol in many states, because with the return of legality came new rules and regulations. Some states still have strict regulations on the sale of alcohol, but the prohibition debate is now focused not on alcohol but on the legalization of drugs like cannabis.
The 19th Amendment is a reminder that American democracy is a work in progress, and that not every experiment has a predictable outcome.