This old photograph shows a raid on the Blind Pig, with its liquor barrels emptied into Elk Lake in Ontario during prohibition in Canada. (submitted)

T.W. Paterson column: Canada’s ‘noble experiment’ was a bust

100 years ago the U.S. followed Canada’s failed example to ban booze

100 years ago the U.S. followed Canada’s failed example to ban booze with what has become known as the Prohibition Era.

Today’s so-called war on drugs has an interesting parallel in history. In 1917 after a contested and controversial referendum, Prohibition was declared and, overnight, Canada Dry became more than a popular soft drink.

Officially, at any rate; in practice, it often was more a case of business as usual, despite the efforts of police.

This should have come as no surprise in Nanaimo, a working man’s town long known for its many watering holes. In fact, when a Royal Commission investigating the sale of intoxicants and attendant problems had toured the country back in 1892, they were struck by the fact that the Hub City “had far more licensed premises than any place they had visited”.

Such is the way John Cass, Nanaimo’s late historian emeritus, put it some years ago. He also noted that the commissioners were “impressed with the way the city’s barkeepers, constables and magistrates dealt with those with a drinking problem”.

However, come Prohibition some 25 years later, the police were much less tolerant. Mr. Cass told a great yarn about a bootlegger known to the authorities as John X. Smith. For some time they were convinced that Smith was operating a still and selling whisky so good that some claimed that it rivalled that of legitimate distillers.

During the weeks that they’d had his rural property under surveillance, they’d noted that Smith never left his property on Sundays. This meant, Customs and Excise Officer John Shaw was sure, that on the Sabbath, Smith, rather than resting, was tending his still. Shaw and Chief Constable David Stephenson chose early Sunday morning, April 6, 1919 to strike.

With Constables Mustart and Russel, and a search warrant, they attempted to sneak up on Smith but were foiled by his barking dogs. Casting aside further attempts at surprise, they charged forward. After a careful search of the property, they discovered the well-concealed still which they rated as having a daily production capacity of 25 gallons of whisky and 160 gallons of beer.

Smith had flown the coop, having been warned of their approach by his ingenious alarm system. He’d posted four dogs about his property. By each dog’s bark he could tell from which direction the “revenooers” were coming, and act accordingly.

A warrant was issued for his arrest. Smith surrendered to police a week later and stood before a Nanaimo magistrate to face the charges of illegally operating a still and having kept four loaded rifles on his property.

To the bootlegging charge, Smith pleaded guilty. But he flatly denied knowing anything about loaded guns. He had no idea how they came to be found on his property.

Cleared of the weapons charge but convicted of operating a still, he was fined $500 or six months in jail. John X. Smith chose to do the time and, upon release, disappeared from public record.

Canada’s flirtation with legislated temperance, by the way, lasted only until 1920 when the Americans, obviously having learned nothing from our experiment with righteousness, launched their own Prohibition, a sour legacy of which was the enrichment and entrenchment of organized crime.

We in British Columbia, on the other hand, have gone to the other extreme — legalized liquor, gambling and marijuana. Some of our forefathers must be spinning in their graves. After all their efforts to police vice and keep society on the straight and narrow, here we are, with our own provincial government the biggest purveyor of booze and gambling in the business!

Which only goes to show how far we’ve come since November 1919, when the front-page news told of the busting of a Chemainus area farmer and a local drugstore for bootlegging.

First to face Magistrate Beevor Potts, in an evening court session, was R.H. Gardner, charged with having “an enormous quantity of fermented fruits on his farm”. He and his wife insisted that it was all meant for their pigs. Asked why so much feed for so few hogs, Mrs. Gardner testified that her husband had contemplated a trip of two or three weeks’ duration to Vancouver and the 150 gallons of liquified “pig’s food” was meant to tide the animals over until his return.

Suspicion seems to have come down on the Gardners over a period of five months, police having learned of their purchasing 300 pounds of sugar for just two adults and one child. At first Mrs. Gardner denied knowledge of such quantities, then suddenly remembered having supplied some sugar to Japanese fishermen.

Next morning, a Ladysmith grocer named Tassin was called to the witness stand to identify a bill for sugar paid by the accused. He partially corroborated Mrs. Gardner’s story by saying that he was aware that some of the sugar was being resold to the Japanese.

In summing up, Beevor Potts said that it was a “case entailing many curious features,” that he’d given both the prosecution and the defence considerable latitude. Nevertheless, it was clear to him that the evidence against Gardner, whom he’d known personally for years, had done business with and “had always believed him to be upright in his dealings,” was overwhelming.

Rather than the maximum penalty of $500, he fined Gardner $300 or three months’ hard labour. And all liquor and liquor-making materials found on the Gardner property to be seized.

Drug merchants J.B. Hodgins Ltd. fared as poorly in court next day. It must be pointed out to readers that, during Prohibition, one could get a bottle of government-dispensed booze with a doctor’s prescription — medicinal purposes only, you understand. This firm’s crime was that they’d followed a practice of accepting orders over the phone, not having them confirmed in writing by the doctor in question until after the fact. One of the prescriptions in question had been issued by Dr. Lane who, rather than go to the trouble of submitting a new prescription, asked that the druggist reuse one which had already been made out and filled.

“Now this is a direct violation of the law by the doctor,” ruled Beevor Potts, “and renders the sale by the druggist who is party to this method of procedure an illegal sale. In other words, these acts taken together affect the bona fides of the prescription. How, therefore, can Hodgins Ltd., which is a party to this illegal method shelter itself on the strength of a prescription filled before the patient is personally seen by the doctor..?”

Beevor Potts continued: “Only one sale and only one delivery can lawfully be made on the same prescription to the patient for whom the liquor is prescribed… Here…there is evidence of different sales and deliveries to different persons to whom the prescriptions were given. There is substantial evidence of three illegal sales at least by Hodgins Ltd., on Oct. 3 last, of which no explanation is forthcoming.”

Although proprietor Hodgins claimed to know nothing of any such sales, laying full responsibility for unauthorized telephone orders on his assistant, the magistrate could “only come to one conclusion and that is that Hodgins Ltd. have wilfully violated Section 14 of the Prohibition Act which gives it special privileges in dispensing intoxicating liquor to invalids, and the acts of the employees are the acts of the company, as I think the surrounding circumstances point too clearly to the fact that Hodgins’ assistant was only carrying out the policy of the company with the full knowledge of J.B. Hodgins, the manager…”

Ergo, he fined the firm $1,000. Hodgins left the courtroom, vowing to appeal.

Today, of course, we don’t need a doctor’s prescriptions to have our medications filled at the government liquor store. They’ve cut out the middle man!


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