The Manhattan Bootleg Wars

The Manhattan Bootleg Wars

Managing a craft distillery today may be challenging, but it’s no where near as complicated as it was in the 20’s.  Distillers today worry about compliance.  Those of past worried less about following the rules…In fact, most of the time it was a war between rival gangs about who made the rules.

The Manhattan Bootleg Wars were a series of bloody fights between rival gangs for control of the illegal booze trade during Prohibition. Several rival gangs, mobsters, or anyone willing to kill for a buck shot it out to be top of the heap.

The bloodiest parts were between the Irish and Italian Mobs, though each one of these had their own internal factions fighting it out for a bigger cut. Each one of these groups was an entrenched force that called New York home.

The Italians had the better organization, which left the Irish with more dead bodies. The Mafia that we know and love from books and movies, like The Godfather, are the ones that came out ahead, and it used that success to build a global criminal empire.

Politics and Contraband

Not to gloss over it, but The Manhattan Bootleg War was mostly the politics of contraband. But, instead of voting and elections to make changes, power struggles and regime changes were handled with guns and bullets. Sure, there were the bosses who called the shots, but once there was action that needed to be taken, out came the forty fives and Tommy guns.

The Faces of Bootlegging

One of the biggest reasons this era still fascinates people are the larger than life characters who did all the action. People like Charles "Vannie" Higgins, William "Big Bill" Dwyer, Jack "Legs" Diamond, and Dutch Schultz all worked hard to not only smuggle illegal booze to thirsty Manhattanites, but to also build up a public persona and reputation.

Criminal enterprises need marketing too. It’s kind of like today, with gangsta’s like Ice-T. If Auto-Tune and sampling had been a thing back in the 1920’s, it’s a good bet that Lucky Luciano (the mobster, not the rapper) would have cut a jazz album.

Mobsters in the Media

Many of the big time guys would talk to the press and smile for the camera. They may not have been heroes, in the truest sense, but they captured the imagination of a hard working public eager for an escape from the daily toil of work.

These gangsters led lives of adventure and wealth. Who doesn’t want that? Never mind that most of them came to a violent end. If you look into this part of history long enough, you see the names of a lot of people who were machineguned to death. Their last meal, a lead salad.

The Significance of the Tommy Gun

Ever wonder why so many gangsters had Tommy guns, during prohibition? It’s because anyone could walk into nearly any hardware store and buy one for $125.00. No ID required. That’s around $1700.00, in today’s money.

It wasn’t cheap, but being able to get one of the most advanced weapons of the day, no questions asked, made things easy for mobsters looking to rub out the competition. Besides, with the kind of money organized crime was bringing in running booze to all the speakeasies, the more successful ones could afford it.

Keep in mind, the .45 ACP round that the Tommy gun used was designed, in part, to stagger a charging horse. (People hadn’t quite yet comprehended how machineguns and charging horses don’t mix.) Imagine getting a rapid fire hosing down, with a nearly half inch wide bullet.