Restaurateur Albertine During had a few reasons for serving liquor at her New Orleans establishment. It was illegal, sure, but as she told the judge, “I merely had it on hand for those patrons who still like a drink with their meals.” During’s 1930 trial, which saw her sentenced to ninety days in prison and fined $200, wasn’t unusual in Prohibition-era America. And though, as historian Tanya Marie Sanchez notes, “today the general public perceives Prohibition-era bootlegging as an overwhelmingly male activity dominated by gangsters” the reality was bootlegging women were as common.
In her research on the women bootleggers of New Orleans, Sanchez discovered some commonalities among them. Most were divorced, separated, or widowed, many were immigrants, and most were mothers. As Sanchez explains, “For working-class mothers, bootlegging was both a convenient and lucrative method of supplementing meager family income.” In short, women got involved in bootlegging for the same reason as men—money. In her research of bootleggers in Montana, historian Mary Murphy found much of the same pattern, and unsurprisingly, bootlegging, no matter where it was located, “allowed ethnic groups and women to capitalize on the underground economy.”
As Murphy explains, prior to Prohibition, saloons were spaces dominated by men, “Any woman who drank in a saloon was assumed to be a prostitute at worst, ‘loose’ at best.” Nice girls drank at home. Whether it was the thrill that comes with being an outlaw, a protest served over ice, or something else, this much was clear: “women began stepping up to the bar along with men, albeit in speakeasies and nightclubs rather than in the old corner saloons.” Not only were women in front of the bar, they were steadily showing up behind it, too, though the bars were, more often than not, run out of their homes. As Sanchez points out, most of the women who were picked up by the law “were arrested in their homes for manufacturing and selling home-brewed beer, wine, whiskey, or gin.”
One bootlegger, Marie Hoppe of New Orleans, was busted for home-brewing beer. There was a legal exception made for home brewing, provided it was strictly for personal consumption, but police seized 130 bottles from Hoppe’s house. When questioned about the large amount she had on hand, Hoppe told the judge “I have six good reasons for making beer. I have six small children.” And as for the personal use? She had an answer for that, too. “[S]he believed beer to be conducive to good health, being vital for a child’s muscle development,” so each child was given one glass a day while she had three.
Though Hoppe’s explanation was creative, she wasn’t alone in using bootlegging to support her kids. Many court records show that bootlegging was an alternative to starvation as women pleaded with judges to take mercy on them.
But not all women were doing it out of desperation. One woman, a doctor’s wife, was discovered to have a still in her home’s basement. Her husband destroyed it, but they came to an agreement, Murphy explains, in that he “allowed her to keep one gallon for her ladies club.” Another bootlegger also eschewed the desperate mother defense. She was described as “‘young and blond’ driving a ‘smart’ coupe,” Sanchez writes. When she faced a judge on charges of bringing five gallons of liquor to a saloon, she replied, “a woman should help her husband, even in bootlegging.” And though it seems like the pair were business partners, when her husband turned up an hour later to bail her out, he asked—in open court—where she’d gotten the liquor. Her response “was a big smile.”
Other enterprising women saw bootlegging as a way to supplement existing businesses like grocery stores or soda stands. A hidden liquor bottle or two, created “a far more extensive and profitable trade in alcohol than their home-based sisters in crime,” Sanchez writes. Still other women ran bottling plants from home, while some owned delivery services and some opened speakeasies. Prohibition, and its newly created underground economy, changed the way women lived, worked, and socialized. And though there might not be many direct corollaries to the Al Capones of the time, as Sanchez writes, “For every female bootlegger who left behind a record of her activities, there were many more whose stories will never be told.”
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