The Vagabond – Local bootleg clean-ups in the 1920s


By Danny Crownover

Back in April of 1924, the mayors of Gadsden, Alabama City and Attalla issued proclamations for a clean-up week under the direction of Gadsden Mayor Erwin, who started out to make “a complete job of it” by going after the bootleggers and keepers of disorderly houses. At the time, Gadsden, Alabama City and Attalla were plagued with bootleggers and blind tigers.

Supported wholeheartedly by the Board of Alderman, Erwin employed the N.L. Pierce National Detective Agency of Birmingham to aid local police in their drive against the lawless element. Agency detectives made some remarkable raids, and as a result, the police court docket was jammed on the morning of April 11 with prohibition cases.

No less than 20 convictions were recorded for bootlegging, and each defendant was fined $100 and sentenced to six months at hard labor. Four persons were convicted of the charge of renting rooms for immoral purposes. Three of them were fined $100, while the fourth was assessed a $75 fine. Eight other cases for prohibition violation and one for renting rooms for immoral purposes were filed and the trials postponed to another day.

Erwin, who was one of the finest citizens in town, issued a warning that all dry violators and those dealing in immorality must quit the business or move out of town, adding that he had just begun to fight.

Gadsden lawyer Roy D. McCord, who was the city attorney at the time, he secured convictions after the detectives and the police had turned up sufficient evidence to make the cases stick.

Gadsden Mayor G.E. Christopher, a strong prohibitionist, levied heavy fines and added a few hard labor sentences, but in those days the raids on immoral houses and blind tigers in Gadsden were everyday occurrences. In Gadsden Mayor O. J. Stocks administration, city police and outside detectives, along with the aid of two assistant state attorneys general, conducted several raids, arresting as many as 55 persons in one day.

Alabama City was busy as well, Mayor R.A. Burns built a statewide reputation by personally directing raids on blind tiger operators. His problem was a serious one, and his job was probably the hardest so far as the three towns were concerned. Burns went at it in a fearless manner, however, and eventually achieved the desired result, which was a complete cleanup.

In later years police courts decided to not add hard labor sentences to any great extent to dry law violations for the simple reason that circuit court juries are reluctant to sustain such punishment in cases appealed to that court. Jurors apparently did not relish the idea of putting felon’s stripes on a man for selling illegal whiskey to the so-called better element.

At any rate, very few labor sentences were imposed by any of the local courts. Still the police of Attalla and Gadsden, along with the county sheriff, were making many arrests, more than during the sensational crusading period of 1924. Despite the fact that legal liquor could be had in nearby Birmingham, local bootleggers evidently became active as ever.

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