Ban the Booze: Prohibition in the Rockies

Jan. 27, 2014

An excerpt from Ban the Booze: Prohibition in the Rockies by Betty Alt and Sandra Wells.The authors take a brief look at the 18 years of Prohibition in Colorado.  Its pages cover the purpose, problems and people involved in the “noble experiment” and the fascinating (sometimes amusing) stories of the making and distributing of “bootleg booze.” (Kindle Edition, 2013)

by Betty Alt and Sandra Wells

Selling watermelons filled with bootleg whiskey was a clever way for a Denver man to outwit law officers in Colorado, which in 1916 had adopted Prohibition four years before the rest of the nation followed suit.  Although America’s cultural past had always included the use of alcohol, temperance movements became active in the 1800s.  These included the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  One of the most notable temperance figures to come to Colorado was Carrie Nation, the “Kansas Saloon-Smasher” known for her “hatchetations” where she would enter a tavern and proceed to destroy it with a “glittering hatchet.”  Described as “six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache,” Nation was not hesitant to describe her actions:       

                        I ran behind the bar, smashed the mirror and all the bottles under it; then broke the faucets of the refrigerator; opened the door and cut the rubber tubes that conducted the beer . . . . opened the bungs of the beer kegs . . . .was completely saturated with beer . . . .

However, neither Carrie Nation’s efforts nor the enactment of Prohibition laws failed to curb the public’s desire to consume liquor.  

Since selling illegal liquor was so profitable, Colorado’s Mafia became involved in what were called “rum wars” which broke out between rival groups. In southeastern Colorado the Carlinos and the Dannas were the chief contenders for control of the liquor market. One of the most notorious confrontations between the two factions was the 1922 “Baxter Bridge shootout” east of Pueblo along the Arkansas River. The battle involved 11 men, lasted several hours, and necessitated the Dannas temporarily halting the fray in order to secure more bullets from Pueblo.  Two men were killed – Carlo Carlino and what was thought to be an “imported gunman” brought from the East to “get the Dannas.”

Two of the Dannas were eventually arrested at their homes in the farming community of Vineland and brought to trial. However, it was the Christmas season and the Dannas’s attorney made a strong plea for the wives and children of the defendants.  “I ask you gentlemen of the jury,” he said, “are the children of these good Vineland farmers to be nailed to the Black Hand cross of murder and brigandage?  Is it to be broadcast to the Black Hand headquarters in Chicago, Buffalo, and Cleveland that these good American farmers . . . are to be punished for slaying the Black Handers who attacked them?”  (Apparently the plea worked, for the trial ended in a hung jury with the defendants released and never retried.)

 By the late 1920s Sam and Pete Carlino had gained control of bootlegging in southern Colorado and moved north to challenge Joe Roma, Denver’s Mafia leader who was known as “little Caesar.” Although frequent gun battles broke out between the men allied with the two challengers, Sam Carlino was killed by one of his own men – teenager Bruno Mauro from Aguilar. Supposedly Carlino had not fulfilled a promise to take care of Mauro’s family financially when the father had been arrested for running a whiskey still for the Mafia boss. 

Fearing for his life, Pete Carlino fled east but then returned to Denver and was jailed.  Immediately, Joe Roma came to Pete’s aid, paying his $5,000 bail.  A photo appeared in the newspaper of the two rivals smiling and shaking hands and with Roma referring to Pete as his “good friend.”  (A few weeks later Pete’s body was found along a highway west of Pueblo, and it was speculated that either Roma or a surviving Danna had taken revenge.)    

However, it was not just organized crime involved in bootlegging. The ordinary citizen soon learned the intricacy of distilling various products into booze.  Almost anything could be turned into liquor.  All one needed was some type of grain, fruit, sugar, water, a large vat in which to cook the ingredients, and a domed lid with an attached copper coil. An enterprising Denver mechanic used parts of an old touring car plus a few Turkish towels in which to brew his concoction. A galvanized gas tank was the cooker with a length of gas pipe as the escape outlet for fumes. Towels caught the condensation and the liquid was wrung out into containers.

“Near beer” could be turned into the real thing by adding malt syrup. Anything containing alcohol – embalming fluid, rubbing alcohol, bay rum, antifreeze, iodine – was utilized for homemade brews.  Liquor shipped in from Mexico and known as “American” whiskey was made from a mixture of potatoes and cactus. Drinking a product could sometimes be hazardous as temporary blindness could result or in some cases the death of the consumer. For example, Raymond Wilcox, a salesman for the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, was found dead in a Lake City hotel. An autopsy showed that Wilcox died from drinking a mixture of carbolic acid and whiskey that “seared his throat and completely burned thru [sic] his stomach.”

For law enforcement, the task of locating an illegal still was nearly impossible. Take the example of two enterprising men who had set up their still in the bottom of an arroyo outside of Pueblo.  When sheriff deputies found them, the two piled on a horse and took off with the deputies in hot pursuit – just like a western movie.  (These two were finally caught.)

One family thought they had found the perfect hiding place for their still – a cellar dug under a chicken and goat pen.  However, agents eventually discovered this location and emptied the barrels of illegal booze in the family’s yard.  Both the goats and chickens began drinking the liquid which resulted in some inebriated animals.

Although some distilleries produced only small quantities of illegal liquor, this was not always the case. South of Denver at Castle Rock, Vincennes and Tony Lombardi and Carmen DeCola had a huge operation from an “elaborately constructed cave-like operation in a ravine” with concrete foundations laid for the distilling equipment. It was estimated that the trio had invested nearly $5,000 for the still which produced approximately 500 gallons of whiskey a day.

Distributing a supply of bootleg booze could also create problems, and those involved had to be innovative. One individual painted clear glass milk bottles white to look like milk delivered to homes and filled the bottles with liquor. A Pueblo man had a still disguised as a gas burner in his stove. When the “pet cock” on a jet was turned, whiskey spurted out instead of gas – a very good grade of whiskey, an officer stated.  Another man had hidden his still under a dog kennel in his yard. The still was eventually discovered, and it was reported that his dog was “standing guard” over 175 gallons of whiskey.

It should be pointed out that not all consumption of liquor was prohibited. Colorado’s law permitted the use of liquor for medicinal purposes. Physicians frequently prescribed alcohol (usually whiskey or brandy) for all types of ailments, including snake bite, diabetes, cancer, dyspepsia, anemia, high blood pressure, pneumonia, tuberculosis, etc.  Under the new law, individuals could get a prescription for four-ounce doses on each form from their doctor and purchase the product at a drugstore.  It is interesting to note that in Denver, just after the law went into effect, 16,000 prescription forms were provided by doctors for those patients needing “medicinal” liquor. Use of various types of liquor was also legal for religious ceremonies. Still, one might question the real reason a Denver congregation consumed 400 gallons of “sacramental wine” in one month. 

Of course, these are only a few examples of the problems encountered during Colorado’s Prohibition days.  Local, state and eventually federal agents attempted to stop the illegal consumption of liquor. The Ku Klux Klan volunteered to help combat bootlegging, and the Klan not only infiltrated the Denver Police Department but also reached into the court system. Many bootleggers were arrested, but in attempting to mete out punishment, the courts were often overwhelmed by sheer numbers. For a first offense, a bootlegger was usually given a small fine which could easily be recovered by merely going home and making more illegal product. Repeat offenders might be given a short jail or prison sentence.  However, the amount of money that could be made usually offset the risk of capture and imprisonment.

Then, too, sometimes those in law enforcement were bootleggers themselves. In 1924 the mayor and night police chief of Walsenburg were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to violate the Prohibition law by possessing and selling liquor. In Canon City the district attorney arrested the county attorney and the former city manager and filed charges of “violation of the Prohibition law in the unlawful possession of intoxicating liquor.” The former city manager leased a house where officers found several gallons of liquor concealed in an old stove in a bedroom.

A Denver grand jury “severely condemned” a number of that city’s police department when evidence disclosed that they had been taking bribes from bootleggers.  In Pueblo, law enforcement was accused of ignoring the illegal movement of liquor through the town.  Supposedly, freight trains with 10 million gallons of wine were being shipped through the city “without a murmur from the local police or other minions of the law.”          

Whether people were involved in producing illegal liquor or merely not making much effort to stop its production, the bottom line was Coloradoans wanted to drink and would find ways to do so. If the product was not available locally, it could be brought into the state from neighboring “wet” countries and states. Booze was easily obtained by driving across the state border to New Mexico or Wyoming, where Colorado liquor producers and distributors had been forced to relocate after 1916 when Colorado became “dry.”

Sometimes people would go as far as Canada which had no prohibition against booze.  In fact, it was said that when the Prince of Wales visited Canada in 1919, he heard a “ditty” about Americans buying liquor north of the U.S. border.  It said:

                        A bunch of Americans feeling very dry.

                        Went up to Canada to get a taste of rye.

                        When the booze was poured, the Yanks began to sing.

                        God bless America, and God bless the King!

Finally, in 1933, Prohibition ended in Colorado and nationwide, and people could legally partake of their favorite alcoholic beverage. However, Colorado had some new rules for the saloons.  They could no longer be called “saloons,” which had a negative connotation.  New names such as bars, taverns, cafes, or pubs became more acceptable. Hours of operation were put into effect, and the establishments were required to serve food.  This brought in the use of the “rubber sandwich.” whereby bar owners prepared one sandwich which made its way to each new customer and then back to the kitchen.  Another crafty tavern owner placed a crust of bread and some crumbs in front of a drinker who could tell anyone – especially law enforcement agents looking for a violation – that he’d already eaten his sandwich. 

Of course, bootlegging or the making of “moonshine,” as it is called, still occurs today. A recent crackdown on this practice revealed a multimillion-dollar operation in the hills of Virginia.  “It really hasn’t changed that much,” said assistant Special Agent Earl Driskill, Jr. of the Virginia Department of Alcohol Control.  “I think you have fewer people in bootlegging in bigger ways.”

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