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Daniel Rubin: Prohibition Drove Philadelphians To "Medicine"


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Rooting around in my attic a couple of years ago, I discovered a dusty box of medicine bottles wrapped in a 1921 edition of the Public Ledger. The coolest things were the swollen pills and slimy tonics still sealed in these cobalt blue, emerald green, and pewter-capped relics.
Only a dull brown bottle of Rexall's Beef, Wine and Iron lay empty. I didn't really appreciate its significance until I read Daniel Okrent's book Last Call.

After passage of the 18th Amendment, which in 1920 banned the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages, Philadelphia, Okrent found, led the nation in criminal invention.

By phone from his Manhattan home, the author and former New York Times ombudsman said it was likely a previous owner of my house, Miss Mary Jackson, had more uses for the bottle than as a treatment for tired blood.

Key to Okrent was the Rexall bottle's alcoholic content: 19 percent.

"That's 38 proof!" he said. "There were many such patent remedies in the years before Prohibition that stuck around and did really well during Prohibition. These were usually a way for women to drink without drinking."

Though that particular tonic was made in New York, Philadelphia's speciality during Prohibition was the masking of liquor as alcohol intended only for industrial use.

"In this carnival," he wrote, "Philadelphia was the big top."

Some credit is due to geography: Philadelphia was close to the chemical factories surrounding the DuPont company. But the larger factor was the strength of the Seventh Street Gang, led by gambler and boxing promoter Max "Boo Boo" Hoff.

Hoff and his boys - operating under such anodyne handles as the Quaker Industrial Alcohol Co. or the Consolidated Ethyl Products Co. - controlled all aspects of the process, from manufacture to transport to refining in "cutting houses" where it was repackaged as brand-name hooch.

Hoff made millions at this racket. Over two weeks in 1925 he produced enough bootleg liquor to pack 40 freight cars headed west, Okrent found.

Going into the story Okrent knew a little about the flinty man hired to combat Philadelphia's flagrant lawlessness: Gen. Smedley P. Butler.

The 5-foot-4 Marine was nicknamed "Old Gimlet Eye" and "The Fighting Quaker." He'd commanded U.S. troops in China during the Boxer Rebellion as well as in Southeast Asia and South and Central America. He won two Medals of Honor.

Taking the Philadelphia job, Butler put saloon keepers, bootleggers, corrupt cops, and pols on notice that no one was untouchable.

"This story could end no other way," Okrent wrote. "Butler failed miserably."

Hoff turned out to have friends in all places. A grand jury estimated his annual graft payroll was $2 million in the Police Department alone. He paid off street cops and the chief detective. He owned federal agents. His lawyer was U.S. Rep. Benjamin Golder, a key player in the local Republican machine.

Hoff got the Union National Bank to launder his cash and the Reading Railroad to ship his supply to the Canadian border. To a prosecutor who came up short against him, Boo Boo was "a giant spider in the middle of a great web with eyes in front and behind."

Butler raised the white flag after he was denied permission to raid the Ritz-Carlton and Bellevue-Stratford Hotels. His orders to stay away came from none other than Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick.

Trying to enforce the law in Philadelphia, Butler said upon his return to action in China, "was worse than any battle I was ever in."

Okrent's history examines the forces that brought Prohibition upon this land, and those that showed it the door in 1933.

What happened to America's drinking habits has relevance today, Okrent noted, as Philadelphia officials contemplate loosening the enforcement of marijuana laws.

After a period of intense revelry once Prohibition was repealed, the amount of booze people drank fell.

Okrent thinks that could hold true for pot as well if it becomes legal and regulated.

"Very few states have laws against driving while stoned," he said. "If you legalize marijuana, you can guarantee there will be one."

News Hawk: Warbux 420 MAGAZINE
Source: The Philidelphia Inquirer
Author: Daniel Rubin
Contact: Philadelphia News, Sports, Weather, and more - Philadelphia Inquirer
Copyright: 2010 The Philidelphia Enquirer
Website: Daniel Rubin: Prohibition drove Philadelphians to "medicine" | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/03/2010
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