Volstead's Law

"Stay away from bootleg hooch when you’re on a spree.

Take good care of yourself, you belong to me."

-- "Button Up Your Overcoat"


The "Great Experiment," Prohibition, was tossed onto the country almost on a lark. The First World War had ended in 1918 and America had come out of the scuffle a greater country than before, a winner who had beaten the German Hun and saved Liberty worldwide. Somehow, caught unawares, still glowing in its own power, Congress was made to believe by the Anti-Saloon League of America that to remain constant and God-fearing, the nation had to release its dependency on liquor. Booze had to go. By January 1919, the necessary number of states accepted the ratification of the bill that had been introduced by Senator Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota and his law became constitutional. As the Eighteenth Amendment, it was slated to go into effect on January 16, 1920.

Deanie was ready for it. In Prohibition he saw an opportunity of the likes of which comes every century, for at the doors of the underworld there suddenly appeared the goose with golden eggs aplenty. America was not and would never be ready for a dry life; the public would want -- nay, demand -- their daily liquid sustenance. Imagine, thought Deanie and others of his caliber, the revenue that awaited them in the black- market distribution and sales of beer and whiskey.

Even before the effective date, the mobs were making preparations. Deanie was no exception. He chose to concentrate on the provision of beer, but would, of course, partner with whiskey and gin distributors within the city to also meet that market’s demand. Months before Prohibition was effected, he made contacts with would-be underground beer suppliers in Canada and arranged for shipments to begin immediately. He realized that his customers -- those in the wards he served -- would want only the best and scoffed at the idea of utilizing the inferior products that would spring from local breweries.

Those who never drank, drank now. Like the tot who is told not to touch an object, but whose curiosity ignores parental warning, Americans thirsted for alcohol. Government enforcement of the new law proved futile, simply because no one really wanted it enforced. Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday describes the milieu as it existed. He writes, "The overwhelming flood of outlaw liquor introduced into the American scene a series of picturesque if unedifying phenomena: hip flasks uplifted above faces both masculine and feminine at the big football games; the speakeasy, equipped with a regular old-fashioned bar, serving cocktails made with gin turned out, perhaps, by a gang of Sicilian alky-cookers; well-born damsels with one foot on the brass rail, tossing off Martinis; the keg of grape juice simmering hopefully in the young couple’s bedroom closet..."

Meeting this demand was the objective. Any way possible. Spotting a truckload of Grommes & Ullrich whiskey idled at a stop sign in the Loop, Chicago’s downtown area, Deanie performed that city’s first liquor hijacking on December 19, 1921. Combustively, he entered the cab of the truck and pushed the startled driver out. He then turned the truck towards Maxwell Street, where he deposited the precious cargo with one Samuel J. Morton, whose garage served as a depot for stolen vehicles. Saloonkeepers who had no intention of ceasing their business, but would instead go underground, were willing to buy alcohol at exorbitant prices, and Deanie was able to sell the entire load in 20 minutes over Morton’s shop telephone.

At the advent of Prohibition, Deanie determined to remain one step ahead. A half-hearted attempt at this business would not be worth the battle, so he decided to create his own monarchy over the 42nd and 43rd wards as their sole provider of beer. With revolver, he and his boys eliminated any looming competition, including a local imbecile named Steve Wisniewski who hijacked an O’Banion truck weeks after Prohibition began. The poor chump received the unglamorous reputation as being Chicagoland’s first victim of the infamous "one-way ride," a term credited to Hymie Weiss.

Thanks to the O’Banion mob, the thousands of speakeasies on the North Side thrived and the Gold Coast’s hoi-polloi parties were kept wet. Within and around the vicinity of Lincoln Park, Deanie’s transporters moved beer and whiskey at all hours -- in refurbished milk trucks, in taxis, in leather-topped tin lizzies, on streetcars, and on foot. His promoters and scouts were everywhere, drumming up thousands of dollars of new business weekly and sniffing out new commercial channels. "I pay 10 percent of whatever we can sell it for," he would tell probable informants, "Nobody who tips me off ever gets implicated." Like the credo of any successful businessman, Deanie believed that the customer came first. what the customer wanted and when he wanted were ordained law.

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Judge Bob E. Crowe 
His power became extensive. With payoffs, the officials looked the other way. (After all, they were his clients.) And Deanie continued to control the vote. "Who holds the 42nd and 43rd wards...?" the public sang. "...O’Banion in his pistol pockets."

Curtis Johnson contributes an anecdote in Wicked City that clearly illustrates the sway Deanie O’Banion held over authorities in Chicago. Hymie Weiss was tried on larceny charges in January, 1920, but, after he was acquitted, Judge Robert E. Crowe (later state’s attorney) brashed him: "There is not enough evidence to convict you, I’m sorry to say...If you ever come before me again, and there is enough evidence to convict, I’ll give you the full limit." Adds Johnson, "Judicial prudence kept Judge Crowe from mentioning that only the night before the defendant and O’Banion had been at his home to plan election-day mayhem."

When a civic organization announced its abhorrence of the underworld’s conspicuously unchallenged activities, Deanie openly responded, "There’s $30 million worth of beer sold in Chicago every month and a million dollars a month is spread among police, politicians and federal agents to keep it flowing. Nobody in his right mind would turn his back on his share."

By 1922, his bootlegging business was well established and making in the neighborhood of $2 million per annum. The consuming public had expediently recognized Deanie’s high-quality beer stock..."the real McCoy," as he called it. According to figures estimated in The Dry and Lawless Years, written by hard-hitting, no-nonsense Judge John H. Lyle, "A barrel of bootleg beer cost $5 to brew and sold for $55. Chicago drank 20,000 barrels a week."

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"Two-Gun" Louis Alterie
Deanie’s personal entourage had grown in the interim; he had needed more trusty "swell fellows" to help him man his operations. One of these was old friend Sam "Nails" Morton, the fence in whose garage he had deposited his first load of hijacked whiskey. Morton feared nothing; he was a World War vet who had won the Croix de Guerre for bravery, but found life afterwards financially secure by disguising and selling stolen autos. To Morton, Deanie entrusted his whiskey disbursement. Another new disciple to the O’Banion cause was a novel, almost comical, figure named Louis "Two Gun" Alterie, a former gunner for the South Side’s Terry Druggan gang and union muscleman who loved the Western cowboy motif. He owned a vast ranch in Colorado. Ambling into speakeasies not yet selling O’Banion beer, he would throw his ten-gallon hat on the bar with a whoop, and like a Wyatt Earp cleaning up the town, proceed to "convince" the proprietor to sell their label. Along with the ever-faithful Weiss, Drucci and Moran, these rounded out Deanie’s band of principles.

All ran smoothly; Deanie suffered no interference, and the enterprise on the North Side ran without a hitch. But, he kept one apprehensive eye on the South Side where, he heard, two "dagos" named Johnny Torrio and Al Capone had set their own orbs tight on his own profitable Gold Coast.

1. Leprechaun

2. A Normal Childhood

3. Lads of Kilgubbin

4. Volstead's Law

5. Them Damn Sicilians

6. The Flower Shop

7. Crazy Deanie

8. Cicero

9. An Impractical Joke

10. 'Night, Swell Fellow

11. Hello, Mt. Carmel

12. Bibliography

13. The Author
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