Alton Prohibition Stories - Part 5
- Category: History at Hayner
- Created: Wednesday, 27 April 2016 12:40
- Written by Lacy S. McDonald
By Ann Davidson, Genealogy & Local History Volunteer
Woman seated at a soda fountain table is pouring alcohol into a cup from a cane, during Prohibition; with a large Coca-Cola advertisement on the wall, February 1922
In the fall of 1927, officers captured 28-year-old John Giannola, a “boss booze manufacturer and distributor” who had come to Alton from St. Louis after his brother Vito was murdered there in a “booze sellers’ gang-war.”33 Giannola was found with a still behind a false wall in the basement of 1130‒32 East Broadway. The Telegraph reported he was wearing $15,000 ($199,000 in 2015 dollars) in jewelry, mainly diamonds. At the time, police reported that sinister persons from St. Louis with high-powered weapons were hunting for Giannola in Alton. Officials transferred Giannola to the Edwardsville jail. The following July he was free on bail in Alton. Several years later, the Telegraph reported that Giannola said he had retired from his life of crime to run his fruit stand on Fourth Street between Belle and Piasa, a block from the Jennie D. Hayner Library building, which houses the Genealogy & Local History Library today. The fruit stand was probably a front for his bootlegging business. Although Giannola was accused of numerous crimes, including bootlegging, extortion, and murder, he was never convicted of a crime. Eventually he moved to Detroit. He died of tuberculosis in St. Louis in 1938.34
Merry Christmas, Alton!
The tentacles of Prohibition reached around many corners. For example, if a vehicle was seized during a raid, a $2,000 bond could be placed on it ($22,000 in 2015 dollars).35 Police went to local dances to search for booze in vehicles on several occasions but came up empty-handed. If police found booze in a building during a raid, the property owner who had rented out the space could be fined, and the building could be forced to lie idle for one year.
As the people of the 1920s partied on, law enforcement raided many Alton addresses, including these on December 27, 1927.36
409 Belle Street
523 Belle Street
204 State Street
136 West Broadway
108 West Broadway
500 East Broadway
Sixth & Ridge
Broadway & Henry
Washington & Bozza
1700 East Broadway
2404 East Broadway
2200 East Broadway
“The Wettest County in the Country”
According to federal Prohibition administrator John Madden, Madison County was the wettest county in the country for its size in 1927.37 Under his watch, agents had already made 350 arrests. Madden oversaw what he called the biggest case in one county to date in Prohibition history, the Madison County booze conspiracy. Investigators had been tipped off by a series of signed articles detailing the operation of the graft ring in a St. Louis newspaper by Orason O. O’Brien, an East Alton magistrate who masterminded the plot. Seven federal agents had staked out the county for one year, visiting every saloon, speakeasy, and soft drink parlor in Alton, Madison, Granite City, and Venice, where they were able to purchase liquor in nearly every one.
The investigation resulted in a suit against 105 men for violating and conspiracy to violate the Prohibition law.38 Judge Louis Fitzhenry tried all 105 with one jury in Springfield.39 Nine members of local law enforcement (four from East Alton, two from Alton, and one each from Granite City, Hartford, and Wood River) were indicted.39 Eight received fines and jail sentences; one of the convicted was a disabled Alton constable who was given probation. The mastermind got a $5,000 fine ($66,000 in 2015 dollars) and 18 months at Fort Leavenworth prison.40 Sixty-seven defendants pled guilty and received fines. The judge handed out $30,000 ($400,000) in fines. Most fines were in the $300 range ($4,000 in 2015 dollars). At the end of the trial, Madden said that he believed Madison County was 75 percent dry.
The Morning After—Prohibition Is Repealed
By the early 1930s, America had had its fill of Prohibition. In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition. America was wet again. The law cost the United States $11 billion in lost tax revenues and $300 million to enforce the law.41 Before Prohibition, much government revenue came from excise taxes on liquor sales. After Prohibition, income tax became a more important source of revenue for many states as well as the federal government.
Alcohol use is still tightly regulated. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 withholds federal funds from states that allow the purchase of alcohol by persons under the age of 21. In Illinois in 2016, alcohol consumption is illegal for anyone under the age of 21.42 Police enforce underage drinking laws closely. They hire young people to try to buy liquor and, upon success, charge illegal sellers. This program has been curtailed by the current budget crisis in Illinois.43 Alcohol sales in bars have limited hours as well. Penalties for driving under the influence are growing stiffer. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is a major force in society today.
The Debate Goes On
Since the repeal of Prohibition, public debates about the use of mood-altering substances have shifted to other drugs. Baby Boomers recall seeing “Reefer Madness,” a 1930s anti-cannabis-use film re-released in theaters in the 1970s, the same decade in which President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. In 1983, the Los Angeles police department and the LA school district instituted the ubiquitous D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. Presently, marijuana laws are changing across the country. Looking back on 180 years of Alton history makes one wonder what our descendants will think about the laws we make today when they look back on us a century or two from now. It also provokes thoughts about the issues they will need to tackle in the future.
33. “Booze King in Cellar with Whisky Still,” Alton Evening Telegraph, November 14, 1927, p. 1, c. 1.
34. “Death Closes Spotty Career of J. Giannola,” Alton Evening Telegraph, January 6, 1938,
p. 2, c. 3.
35. “Confiscation of Autos Carrying Booze Planned,” Alton Evening Telegraph, July 11, 1925, p. 1, c. 4.
36. “13 Places Are to be Closed by Padlock,” Alton Evening Telegraph, December 28, 1928,
p. 1, c. 6.
37. “Seven Agents Worked for a Year to Break Up Booze Graft in Madison County,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 1, 1928, p.1, c. 4.
38. “100 Altonians Arrested on Indictments Returned by the Federal Grand Jury,” Alton Evening Telegraph, November 15, 1927, p. 1, c. 8.
39. “8 Jail Sentences in Madison County Liquor Graft,” Alton Evening Telegraph, March 1, 1928, p.1, c. 5.
43. “Enforcement of Underage Drinking Slows During Budget Impasse,” Alton Evening Telegraph, November 28, 2015. http://thetelegraph.com/news/74488/enforcement-of-underage-drinking-slows-during-budget-impasse.