We associate Prohibition and rum running with the 1920's. This photo, however, shows Michigan State Police with vehicles confiscated from bootleggers - in 1918!
Michigan voters approved statewide prohibition in November, 1916 - over three years before national prohibition began (National prohibition officially began on January 16, 1920. It was established by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.). Addressing the voters' will, the Michigan legislature passed a state law (Michigan Public Act 161 of 1917) making alcohol illegal in Michigan. The law went into effect May 1, 1918.
Naturally, the new law presented "business opportunities" for some. The heaviest liquor smuggling traffic ran between Detroit and Toledo along the Dixie Highway (U.S. 25). The route soon became known as "the Avenue de Booze."
The Billingsley Brothers (owners of the confiscated cars pictured above) were among the most successful and notorious. Logan, Ora and Sherman Billingsley arrived in Detroit shortly before statewide Prohibition began. They opened a grocery store, as a front for their eventual smuggling operations. They also bought a garage on Detroit's Trumbull Avenue and a warehouse in Toledo. They kept the warehouse stocked with liquor, which they transported north in a fleet of vehicles. They bribed police officers to keep their cars from being stopped.
The Billengsley's entrepreneurial endeavors proved immensely successful. It is estimated that they sold an average of 100 cases of liquor a day in Detroit. They managed to squeeze out many smaller smuggling operations and gained a near monopoly.
It didn't last. Smugglers driven out of business by the Billingsleys started cooperating with police. A twenty-two year old agent of the Michigan State Food and Drug Department infiltrated the Billingsley organization as a driver. Acting on the information gained, State Police finally arrested the brothers near Monroe in September 1918. They seized the five cars pictured above, which were carrying 1,500 quarts of whiskey.
Michigan's early experiment with Prohibition ended on February 18, 1919. On that day, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the Michigan state Prohibition law unconstitutional. The state immediately became "wet" once again! It was only for a brief while, however. By then, the 18th Amendment to the United State Constitution - making alcoholic beverages illegal in the entire country - had already been ratified and would go into effect on January 16, 1920.
In writing this article, the author consulted Larry Engelman's Intemperance: The Lost War Against Liquor (New York: The Free Press, 1979) and Philip P. Mason's Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition on the Michigan-Ontario Waterway (Wayne State University Press, 1995). Copies of both books can be found in the Library of Michigan. Click Library of Michigan to visit the Library's web site.
The Archives of Michigan houses noteworthy resources on the Prohibition Era in Michigan. Records of Michigan governors and of the State Police provide interesting documentation of the era. The official copy of the 1917 Michigan state Prohibition law - signed by Governor Albert Sleeper - resides within the Archives, and photographs depict many aspects of the period.
-Bob Garrett, Archivist E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
Click Archives of Michigan to visit the Archives of Michigan Home Page.
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Archives of Michigan
Michigan Library and Historical Center
702 W. Kalamazoo Street
Lansing MI 48913
Phone: (517) 373-1408
This page is the Archives of Michigan Image of the Month page for June, 2006.