We’ve written several articles about bootlegging during prohibition, because frankly, it’s fascinating. Fewer time periods have been more misrepresented in film, television and literature. It wasn’t all shootouts and car chases—it was generally much calmer. It was a doctor prescribing whiskey to a patient, or more often than not, it involved buying booze from a woman.
Did you know that at one point during prohibition, federal agents estimated that women bootleggers were outselling men five to one? Beyond the still, women excelled at smuggling, storing and selling spirits. Why? They were simply harder to catch. In his highly-readable book, Whiskey Women, Fred Minnick explains:
“Even the most rookie of bootleggers practiced tried-and-true systems to fool the police. If a Revenue officer showed up on her front doorsteps, a woman bootlegger pretended to faint on his shoulders. Coming to, the lady batted her eyelashes, flirted with the lawman, letting him known how handsome and strong he was. Should he not buy her act and want to search the premises, the woman screamed as if she were being violated.”
“Young, pretty females transported small quantities of whiskey in baby carriages, beneath skirts, and in their blouses. Male Revenue agents were so nervous, or perhaps gentlemanly, that they rarely checked under a dress or in her blouse. In some states, men were not allowed to search women. Ohio police officers could suspect a woman wearing a puffy dress of storing a case of whiskey between her thighs, but could not physically search her.”
Even in cases where women were caught transporting massive quantities of alcohol, it was hard for authorities to make their cases stick, and fines and jail time were often significantly reduced. Frequently, the jury would take pity on women, who were often working to support their families. But many of these women had a defense in place before cases even reached court. Bootleggers would usually keep highly accurate paper trails of their dealings with various politicians, federal agents and prominent citizens. Many found it advantageous to let the bootlegger off without consequence rather than shine a light on all involved. It was a remarkable period in American history, and as is always the case, the fact is more interesting than the fiction.
Minnick, Fred. Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.