Alcohol smugglers and Mounted Police wage a perpetual battle of wits on the Quebec-U. S. border
GEORGE L. ELLIS
IN ENGLISH it is alcohol. The French call it alcool, or in its diluted state, whiskey blanc. But to its friends and close acquaintances, those casehardened tosspots who revel in its fiery potency, scorning wine, cocktails, Scotch, rum, gin and beer as sissy drinks fit only for amateur topers, it is known by French and English alike as ‘‘alky."
Pure, undefiled and legitimate, it is simply grain alcohol, usually ranging from sixty overproof to seventy-five overproof, which is absolute alcohol. Adulterated and smuggled, it may be anything from a mixture of grain alcohol and tap water to a deadly, blinding poison.
Tens of thousands of Canadians, mostly folks living in Quebec, Ontario and the Middle West, consume hundreds of thousands of gallons of alky, in one form or another, every year. They take it raw, or with water, or with water and a dash of lemon, with ginger ale or some other sweet carbonated drink. On occasion they spike a gallon of
native wine with a pint of alky, and so get caribou, a dynamic mixture fit to tame a Bengal tiger. Lumberjacks, miners, construction workers, ditch diggers, longshoremen, deckhands and dirt farmers drink alky. It has a certain intermittent vogue among the more earnest topers of some younger sets, who will try anything once just for the thrill; but for the most part it is the strong drink of strong men. It is cheap and it is powerful; therefore it is popular.
The Dominion Government imposes a heavy excise tax on legal alcohol. Provincial governments try to limit its free sale, requiring special permits for its purchase, or boosting retail prices to levels close to those of more orthodox alcoholic beverages. A gallon of sixty overproof alky will cost around $12 in provincial liquor dispensaries, twenty ounces of sixty-five overproof around $2; and these are high prices for alky, which can be manufactured at a basic cost as low as thirty-nine cents a gallon. So broad a price spread cannot but be attractive to the alky racketeer,
who comes into the picture at this point, either roaring over the border at seventy-five miles an hour behind the wheel of a specially constructed automobile, or sitting safely at a distant strategic point as a shrewd businessman backing a $50,000 illicit still.
Because smuggling is a Dominion matter, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are charged with the responsibility for holding in check the importation and manufacture of illegal alcohol. The records show that the Preventive Division of the R.C.M.P. is doing a good job of work, but the traffic goes on just the same. In the fiscal year ending March 31, 1937, there were 533 seizures of illicit stills, 785 seizures of illegal alcohol, and eighty-nine alky runners’ automobiles were confiscated. In the past twelve months, the haul of stills fell off considerably, but there were 141 more alky seizures than in the previous year, and the number of automobiles gathered in was only eight less. Business conditions in this outlawed industry fluctuate. When things get too hot along the border, illicit stills crop up all over the country. After the stills have been discovered, raided and destroyed, the alky crews take to the roads again.
Montreal a Focus of Traffic
rT"'HERE ARE three main areas in Canada where the -E illegal alcohol industry flourishes. The Montreal district, attacked from the other side of the American border by runners operating out of New York State and Vermont, the Toronto-Hamilton-Windsor area, and Winnipeg. Most of the seizures made by the Mounties are reported from one or another of these districts, and Montreal seems to have the doubtful honor of being the most important. This is a natural consequence of that city’s geographical situation. Not only is Montreal easy of access from New York and Vermont, but it affords every facility, by road, rail or water, for distribution to the ultimate consumer throughout Quebec, in eastern Ontario, and in the northern areas of both provinces. Illicit still seizures in the Montreal district numbered thirty-eight for the fiscal year of 1937, and thirty-seven for 1938. Seizures of illegal alcohol in this district were 145 and 217 respectively, and there were thirty-six alky cars captured in the fiscal year of 1938, against fifteen for the year previous. There is considerable significance in the fact that, out of eightyone alcohol-running automobiles captured by the Preventive Service throughout the entire Dominion in the 1938 fiscal year, thirty-six, or almost half, were confiscated in the Montreal area.
Albany, capital city of the State of New York, is an important centre for the manufacture of alcohol smuggled into Canada and distributed through Montreal, but there are alky plants in other towns situated conveniently in upper and middle New York. Practically all the New York alcohol comes in over roads located between Huntingdon, Que., and Lake Champlain. The Vermont product finds its way across the border through the area around Sherbrooke.
Mounted Police working these districts do not have an easy time of it. Between Huntingdon and Bedford, Que., on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain—a distance of approximately 100 miles of border country—there are something like twenty-four roads crossing the line from the United States into Canada on which no Canadian customs stations are established. All these highways have to be continually guarded by R.C.M.P. patrols, and in addition there are a number of bush roads, passable in dry weather.
Stationed in this area are seven detachments of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, each detachment consisting of two men and one car, a total of fourteen men and seven cars. On paper this might seem sufficient, but when one considers that the smugglers may use any one of the roads, and at any hour of the day or night, it is obvious that the successful patrol involves a task of no small order.
A comparison of the number of men on patrol on the United States side of the line with the number available on the Canadian side, serves to illustrate the point. Along a twenty-five-mile frontier, the Canadian border is patrolled by two R.C.M.P. officers, with one car. The same frontier on the American side is patrolled by six Customs patrol men with three cars, and six Immigration patrol men with three cars. The American patrol outnumbers the Canadian by twelve men to two, and six cars to one.
Outnumbered as they are, the men of the Preventive Service fight a perpetual battle of wits with the alky gangs. Your alky runner is not often a mental giant, but he is reckless. When caught, he usually turns out to be a spineless individual, with a broad yellow streak, who will whine and cringe; but he has been schooled to a certain daring which in an emergency leads him to take desperate chances, his mechanical equipment is the best money can buy. and he hates the law. Most of the men engaged in this business have criminal records on one side of the line or the other. The majority of them, the records show, are American citizens of foreign extraction. A few are Canadians, or ex-Canadians living in the States. They have one important item in common. They know every inch of the roads they travel.
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The smugglers take big risks. They have to. I f they are caught, fines are stiff, with a fair chance of a jail sentence on top. Some of the more greatly daring have been known to roar right through Canadian Customs stations at seventy or eighty miles an hour. Here is a case history taken from the annual report of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 1937:
“In the case of one smuggler by the name of Joseph Messier we were able to lay nine different charges, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to fines totalling $1,600, which fines were paid. In addition, his load of alcohol and a new car were confiscated. Bootleggers of the type of Messier are very expert drivers and travel in the latest model cars, which are specially sprung to take loads of from 150 to 200 gallons. These men will take any risk, and usually travel at the rate of from sixty to seventy miles an hour even if they are not being chased.”
Once caught, an alky runner is unlikely to take a chance on a second capture. He is glad to pay his fine and get out of Canada as fast as possible, because a second conviction means a jail sentence without the option of a fine. Once in a while the Mounties will land a man they know to be a Big Shot, but most of the automobile smugglers are merely employees of some higher-up racketeer, who pays them anywhere from $25 up to drive a load fifty miles into Montreal. The Mounties have their own name for these drivers. They call them monkeys.
The alky Dinners use spotters extensively to keep them informed of the probable movements of the R.C.M.P. patrols. They are cagey atout the men they select for this nefarious employment, since they have to be certain that their hired spies will not right-about-face and squeal on the smugglers. In most instances they depend upon the creed of the racketeer everywhere—“Money talks.” Once they have located a likely spotter on the Canadian side of the border, they hold out to him the lure of easy money. Each time lie answers a telephone call, he is to get a ten-s|X)t for his trouble. When the call comes, he simply has to tell the man at the other end of the line whether or not the Preventive patrol is operating in his neightorhood. If the answer is “No,” it will not to long before a high-powered car is thundering along the highway with its 200-gallon load of illicit alky, bound for Montreal.
Automobiles used by alcohol runners go through all sorts of reconstruction, in addition to the special springing noted in the R.C.M.P. report. A common trick is to remove the rear seat from a sedan to accommodate the cans, pack them snugly, and cover the whole with a black tarpaulin. Cans may be of two-and-a-half or fivegallon capacity, but the five-gallon can is usual in highway smuggling. The smaller size is easier to handle when power boats are used. Alky runners prefer to attempt the border crossing between the hours of three and seven in the morning, and most of the Preventive patrol work is done after midnight.
Experience has taught the Mounties quickly to mark down a smuggler’s car. They get suspicious of automobiles travelling at high speeds over back roads. Heavily loaded, the alky car rides low and develops a wide sway, especially on the curves. The drivers themselves are, after a time, easily recognizable. Prison men usually are.
Most of the illicit alcohol brought into Canada from the United States travels by automobile. Some years ago airplanes were used extensively, but a close watch on possible landing fields by the Mounties. and the difficulty of getting hold of pilots willing to risk their lives and their licenses in the racket, have combined to eliminate
this method as impracticable. At times the railroads have been fooled into transporting alky over their lines in oil tanks for which fraudulent bills of lading were supplied, but a couple of seizures and a flock of heavy fines stopped that cumbersome and dangerous method.
The business is seasonal, and right now is at its peak. Only hard winter that closes the side roads to traffic can halt it completely. From spring until late fall there is a more or less continuous flow. June, July and August are active months in the traffic, and it always picks up again in October, just before the first snows come.
Gun Fights Not Uncommon
"D.C.M.P. patrols have developed considerable cunning of their own to combat the alky runners, and some of their methods are, of necessity, pretty drastic. G un fights are not uncommon, when some desperate smuggler defies orders to halt, with the Mounties shooting the tires off the speeding alky carrier. There have been casualties on both sides. Pete Colombe, of Plattsburg, N.Y., an alky driver, was shot in the leg, after he had driven his car full speed at a group of R.C.M.P. officers who had barred his progress. Corporal J. W. Furlong, of St. Jean, Que., was knocked down and injured, but Colombe’s car turned turtle and the smuggler was caught and convicted. Constable Dubard, of Lacolle, Que., was hit by an alky car and suffered three fractured ribs. That car got away, tost October a smuggler named Boardway was shot and severely wounded by Constable Maloney, of Clarenceville. Çue., as he tried to run through an R.C.M.P. blockade on a New York-Montreal highway. Collisions between police cars and smugglers’ automobiles are not infrequent.
After several experiments with roadblocking devices, the R.C.M.P. patrols have developed an effective method which is successful nine times out of ten. They call it spiking. Into a heavy' plank they drive a number of thick, sharp-pointed spikes. At the approach of a car known to be carrying alky, the police car is drawn up on one side of the crown of the road. Across the open side the spiked plank is laid, spikes upward. If the car obeys the police command to pull up, well and good. But, should the driver attempt to make a break for it, he has to drive over the sharp points of the exposed spikes, which are certain to puncture all four tires. He cannot go very far in safety, running on the rims.
A spiked board is six inches wide, and the spikes are three inches long. One R.C.M.P. legend has it that the idea was developed from a study of pictures of Indian fakirs, lying on similarly spiked boards to demonstrate their immunity to pain. Wherever it came from, the spikes liave proved an effective deterrent to desperate alky runners attempting to escai» from a police trap at seventy-five miles an hour.
As a defense against the spike-board trap, some of the more daring runners have had recourse to a sensationally daring driving manoeuvre, occasionally successful, hut always attempted at the risk of the driver’s life. Once they recognize the danger ahead of them—-as they often do— they make a quick turnabout and head back for the border. On a gravel road, at a speed of sixty miles an hour, this bit of trickery calls for plenty of nerve, but the alky drivers attempt it. and sometimes they get away with it. A sudden application of the brakes will swing the heavily loaded car completely around in a wide skid, so that it faces toward the border. With the engine in second and the motor racing, they are ready for a quick pick-up at around forty miles an hour, sufficient speed to give them a fair start on the Mounties.
The alky runners do not hesitate to resort to bribery and threats in protection of their trade. It is common knowledge among the patrols that farmers on both sides of the border assist the smugglers in devious ways in return for either money or protection. The 1937 report, quoted previously, states that: “The bootleggers are also greatly assisted by local farmers who will keep them advised of the movements of our patrols, and who will allow them to hide their cars in their barns.”
It would not be fair to blame the conniving agriculturalists too severely. The attraction of easy money is in many cases of less concern to them than the threats of damage to their property, crops and livestock should they refuse cooperation. It often happens that officers of the Preventive Service will approach a border-country farmer known to be assisting alky runners, with an offer of payment for information concerning their movements. In some cases as high as twenty-five per cent of the fine has been offered. The reply is almost always the same: “D’you think I want my barns
There can be no such thing as a stable price for smuggled alcohol, and the comparative success or failure of the Preventive Service’s efforts to smother the traffic is at all times a powerful factor. Two years ago, at the beginning of the summer of 1936, the police report says, the bootleggers were having the best of the struggle for a time. Two-and-a-half-gallon cans of illicit alcohol were then selling in Quebec for $12, or about $5 a gallon. Intensive efforts by the Mounties cut down the supply drastically, and before the summer was over the price had risen to between $18 and $20 a can, or $8 a gallon; but even at that figure, there is plenty of room for a profit to the alky racketeer, since legal alcohol is priced in the liquor stores at something like $12 a gallon, which would make it $30 for a two-and-a-half-gallon can.
'“PHERE IS no rest for the Preventive -*■ Service. When they are not running down alky smugglers who shoot the stuff across the border, they have to hunt out illicit stills, which have a habit of cropping up in the most unlikely places, some of them large, well-organized alcohol plants of commercial proportions. In April of this year the Mounties seized and destroyed a still with a capacity of 500 gallons in the rear of a bakery in Rosemount, an industrial-residential suburb of Montreal. The equipment and construction cost of such a plant runs to around $50.000, a considerable investment in a risky, illegal enterprise. but the police figure that a still of that size would pay for itself in a month’s operation. In the Montreal area other equally astonishing evidences of the huge proportions to which this traffic has grown have been uncovered during the last year. One illicit still, running full blast, was found in a vacant house at Montreal West, a high-class residential district where most of the people own their own homes. Another was discovered in Outremont, another residential suburb. That one was disguised as a lumber yard, with a front office, stacks of lumber drying out and a big sign across the front. In and around Montreal other important still seizures have been made at Pont David, Ville to Salle, on Clarke Street, and at Ste. Agathe and Ste. Sophie in the tourentians. Most of the alky sold in the Middle West is either made in or smuggled through Winnipeg. A few months ago the R.C.M.P. raided premises operating under the name of an oil refining company in that city, and demolished another $50.000 alky plant. Another one, with a capacity of
1.000 gallons daily, was found in a grain elevator. In addition to these large-scale operations, dozens of illicit stills are discovered and demolished every month, hidden in basements, outhouses and barns; but these are comparatively small potatoes.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have every reason to be proud of their record of alcohol and still seizures since they took over the duties of the Preventive Service four years ago. Their higher officers rre not so well pleased with their record of convictions. There can be no doubt that the alky business in Canada is a highly organized racket, and there can be no doubt that it is being financed and controlled by wealthy racketeers whose headquarters are in the United States. But capture of individual smugglers, or of illicit stills, does not mean tracing the illegal business to its real source. Drivers or agents are only underlings in the racket, and the men picked up in a raid on a still are never anything more. In the case of
the Montreal West raid, the only individual caught was a woman who said rhe had been hired merely as a caretaker, although the house had been gutted to its bare walls to make way for the elaborate distilling plant. Often, too, R.C.M.P. officials state, lines have been inadequate, and some cases have been dismissed on technicalities.
It is for this reason that the Mounties have recently attempted to establish charges of conspiracy to defraud, in addition to the lesser charges of owning, selling or manufacturing illicit alcohol. On the conspiracy count, the police have far greater scope for questioning and uncovering leading evidence. This procedure was adopted by the United States Federal authorities in the prosecution of prohibition violations during the period of the Eighteenth Amendment, and it has been successfully employed by the Preventive Service in Canada in uncovering drugand silk-smuggling rings with their roots across the border.