3.10.2021 [archived ~ previously published 9.27.2021]
According to prohibition enforcement officials, “more than 50,000 women are engaged in some way in the business of evading the laws formulated in accordance with the prohibition amendment to the Constitution of the United States. They claim that the best smugglers of liquor over the borders of Mexico and Canada and through various ports of entry into the United States are members of the fairer sex. Some of the fair smugglers have had special garments made for them, which contain many pockets at points where they would not be especially noticeable.” [Bemidji Daily Pioneer 11-22-1921] This statement was made at the end of the second year of Prohibition. I wonder what the statistics were at the end, a dozen years later!
There were famous female bootleggers with names like ‘Queen of the Mountain Bootlegger,’ ‘Birdie Brown’ and the ‘Henhouse Bootlegger.’ Though there were plenty of women involved in the manufacturing, transporting, and selling of illegal alcohol in Minnesota, none were considered famous. The Princeton newspaper offered this editorial about women who made moonshine. “The dailies tell us that a woman bootlegger was captured in Chicago. We fancy woman ‘galosher’ would be a more correct appellation.” [Princeton Union 2-2-1922]
Whatever state they were arrested in, women were likely to receive lighter sentences. “In 1925, a woman in Milwaukee admitted earning $30,000 a year bootlegging. That is over $400,000 in today’s dollars. The court only fined her $200 and sentenced her to a month in jail. Another court sentenced a 22-year-old bootlegger in Denver, Esther Matson, to attend church every Sunday for two years. The President of the U.S. pardoned a Michigan woman bootlegger. Similarly, the governor of Ohio reduced a woman bootlegger’s sentence to only five days.” [www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org]
In Itasca County, most of the arrests of women breaking liquor laws (recorded in the newspapers) were living in towns on the Iron Range. On the western side of the county, where there were farms, the women who were caught with moonshine were assisting their husbands with the process. This column focuses on the women from the Iron Range but first a bit of humorous history. When William Jacob Stockey was arrested, his wife Pauline “Polly” came to his defense at his trial.
Moonshiner has Novel Excuse ~ Grand Rapids Herald-Review 4-4-1923
“All sorts of excuses and alibis have been offered by those who violate the liquor laws of this state and nation, but it remained for W.J. Stockey, who lives in the east part of the village of Grand Rapids, to spring an entirely new one. He claimed that his wife had made the mash discovered in his home and used it as medicine, benefitting from outward application.
“Acting upon information received, Sheriff O’Brien went out to the Stockey home last Sunday evening and arrested Mr. Stockey. A search of the premises revealed several jugs which had contained moonshine, and still held small quantities, a still concealed in the attic, and in the parlor of the home, nestled alongside the heating stove, a 50-gallon barrel nearly full of corn mash, sizzling away in good shape.
“Upon being arraigned before Judge Keo Leroux for a preliminary hearing Monday, Stockey denied all knowledge of the barrel of mash. His wife asked to be permitted to take the stand and said that she had made the mash to prepare medicine to relieve sore and aching feet. She found it hard to explain why 40 gallons of mash were necessary for the foot soaking process but claimed that she had derived much benefit from the novel remedy, which most users take internally.”
Widows Trying to Make Ends Meet
Nora Gallagher, one of the notable women bootleggers, was a widow with five children. When she was arrested for making moonshine in her kitchen, she explained that she needed the money to buy Easter outfits for her children. In our county, there were three widows with children arrested for violating liquor laws.
In March 1922, Mrs. Anna Sertich’s home in Keewatin was searched by a county deputy on suspicion that she was making illegal alcohol. Moonshine, mash, “and a still that has seen much use during a long period of time were seized. It is expected that the children will be taken care of under the direction of C.B. Webster, judge of probate, and the mother tried for violations of the liquor law. Moral conditions are said to be far from what they should be in this home, and there is little likelihood that the children would be permitted to remain there even if the violations of the liquor law were not involved.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 4-5-1922]
Anna (Krpon) Sertich was the wife of Emil. He worked in the mines and died before her youngest child’s second birthday. When she was arrested, she was caring for four children under the age of ten and her elderly father. Her children may have been placed in foster care while Anna completed her sentence, but according to the U.S. Census, they lived in Keewatin with her and her second husband, John Schimich, by1930.
Annie Chrep married Mike Tarbuck in 1914, ten years after she had immigrated with her family from Austria. Mike died in 1921, the same year their third child was born. With three small children, women in Annie’s position had little choice but to take in laundry and mending or do piecework of some sort in the home. That was often not enough to put food on the table.
Mrs. Tarbuck was arrested on liquor nuisance charges in Calumet twice in November 1923. She promptly paid the fines of $50 and $100. Liquor nuisance could be supplying alcohol by the glass. Perhaps she thought it would be less dangerous to pour drinks for those who came to her home, rather than making moonshine. By 1925, Annie had married Paul Santrach, and the number of children in the family had grown to five.
Mary (also called Zivka) Bogdonovich was another widow from Calumet struggling to make ends meet. Her husband, John, had died in the early 1920s leaving Mary with five school-age children. Her two adult sons contributed when they could but also had their own families. In September 1924, Mary was found guilty of maintaining a liquor nuisance and was fined $50 and costs. Mary did not remarry. She died in 1932 when her youngest was thirteen.
Mr. and Mrs. Arrested
Edna Giard was another notable bootlegger. She married a bootlegger, and they were both involved in the manufacturing and distribution of alcohol from Chicago to the northern states for Al Capone. From the Iron Range, there were five couples arrested at the same time for manufacture, transport, or sale of alcohol.
~ “Rosie Wuckovich, who had her place of manufacturing south of Keewatin, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days in the county jail. She will begin her term in 45 days, as her husband is already serving a 90-day sentence in St. Louis County for a similar offense, and the wife was allowed to remain at home until his release, in order to care for the family.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 4-21-1924]
It appears that Rosie wanted to drink with friends one last time before going to jail. As luck would have it, she was arrested. She pled guilty to a liquor nuisance charge and started serving her extended sentence immediately.
~ “Mr. and Mrs. Ed Wills, of Bovey, were arrested up in Lawrence Township and charged with transporting liquor. They pleaded guilty. Mrs. Wills was fined and began her jail sentence. Mr. Wills will start his jail term of 30 days when she is released.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 10-15-1924]
~ “George and Rose Mandich of Calumet, both old offenders, pleaded guilty when confronted with the evidence obtained by members of the sheriff’s squad. They had liquor in possession with intent to sell. Fines of $200 each were levied on Mr. and Mrs. Mandich, and both will be compelled to serve thirty days in the county jail.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 5-25-1927]
~ “Judge Stanton sentenced several persons who desired to plead guilty to violating the liquor laws of the state. Rex Morrow of Lawrence Lake, an old offender, was given a jail term of 90 days and a fine of $300, with 60 days additional if the fine is not paid. His wife, Anna Morrow, arrested at the same time drew 30 days and a fine of $150, with 30 days additional if the fine is not paid. Mrs. Morrow will serve her sentence, then return to their home to care for the farm while her husband does his time.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 7-15-1925]
~ Nick and Sarah Skorich of Calumet were arrested at different times but started their jail sentence on the same day. “Sheriff Harmond and his deputies raided many places in this country during the past week, with the result that the flow of illicit liquor was still further dammed up. Some are in jail. Some paid heavy fines. Others are out on bail awaiting trial in district court. Nick Skorich of Calumet was arrested on a charge of manufacturing moonshine, waived examination, and furnished bail in the sum of $1000 to ensure his appearance in district court.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 8-3-1927]
~ “Sarah Skorich of Calumet was bound over under bail of $1000 when charged with having intoxicating liquor in possession with intent to sell. Bail is not yet furnished.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 8-31-1927] A few weeks later, Sarah was given a sentence of 30 days and $100 fine. Nick received a sentence of 60 days and a $150 fine.
Though women had always imbibed, they rarely did so in public before Prohibition. In small towns, there were no places for women to drink anonymously. With Prohibition, it was easier for women to set a place up in their home for others to assemble, drink homemade liquor, and perhaps dance. Here are three examples of ‘home speaks’ (speakeasy drinking establishments) on the Iron Range.
~ “Mrs. Delia Hagen was arrested in Calumet on Sunday, and a gallon of moonshine was found in her possession. She pleaded guilty to a liquor nuisance charge on Monday before Judge Leroux and was given a jail sentence of 60 days, without the option of a fine.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 2-6-1924]
~ “Monotony of the daily grist of the law violations was broken in justice court on Tuesday when Mrs. Sam Dimich of Bovey pleaded guilty to maintaining a liquor nuisance at her home there. The arrest was made by Sheriff O’Brien and Deputy Dickie. Upon her plea of guilty, Mrs. Dimich was assessed a fine of $100 and costs, with an alternative of 30 days in the county jail.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 5-28-1924] Mrs. Dimich’s first name was Katherine.
~ “Mrs. Selma Rikala of Nashwauk was arrested last Saturday by Phil Griffin, deputy sheriff, and accused of dabbling in illicit sales of liquor. Upon being arraigned before Judge Leroux in Grand Rapids, Mrs. Rikala pleaded guilty to maintaining a liquor nuisance, and was fined $100 and costs, which she paid.” [Grand Rapids Herald-Review 7-29-1925] Selma’s maiden name was Vesola, and her husband’s name was Isaac.
Fascinating. I never considered that women were bootleggers too, but I should have because women are very resourceful too! It was interesting how little punishment they received in compared to the men.