Friday, December 5

PROHIBITION IN DC

The Capital Underworld, 1932 - "Compared with New York and Chicago, Washington is not a wicked city. It experiences brief flashes of gang warfare which the local press tries to play up as important. It revels in the murder mysteries of Mary Baker, Navy Department clerk, and of Virginia McPherson, daughter-in-law of the assistant to the Secretary of War. It is baffled by the robbery of the Salvadorian Legation, accomplished as a larger consignment of Scotch whisky had arrived and was piled up in the rear garden. And it is horrified at the nocturnal operations of more than a hundred Negro degenerates who swooped down regularly upon the encamped Bonus Army as soon as it became dark. Compared with the big-time racketeering of New York and Chicago all of this probably is puerile and petty, but it plays an important and influential part in the life of the nation's capital. Furthermore, Washington's underworld has two or three distinctions of which in a modest sort of way it can really boast. One of these is the ease of securing immunity. The capital may witness few crimes, but in few cases is the culprit ever brought to justice. Another distinction is the complete and unrestrained freedom of the neighboring counties of Maryland, where an amazing White Slave traffic, operating through a chain of tea houses, furnishes recreation to capital residents. Finally, Washington probably boasts more small, independent bootleggers per capita than any other city in the country and has established a unique and universal system of liquor distribution. . . . Police occasionally interrupt these too-obvious law-breakers, but the great rank and file of bootleggers and petty criminals who ply their trade in the nation's capital enjoy an immunity almost unsurpassed even in New York and Chicago. This is due to three factors. The first is the influence of Henry Mencken's Free State of Maryland, which surrounds the District of Columbia on three sides. The second is the natural laziness of the capital police. The third is the prestige and pull exercised by so large a number of those enjoying official status, a factor which makes convictions difficult and disrupts police morale."

Izzy Einstein, the famous prohibition agent, keeps a record of how long it takes to get a drink in various cities. DC comes out badly. Not only does it take an hour (as opposed to 11 minutes in Pittsburgh and 17 in Atlanta) but he has to ask directions from a cop.

Emmitt "Little Man" Warring and his brothers Leo Paul and Charles "Rags" run the numbers in the late 1930s. According to a Washington Post article by Nancy Lewis [3/1/87], "Emmitt, the ninth of 10 children born to a Foggy Bottom barrel maker and his Irish immigrant wife, was the leader of the brothers' numbers business. Before then, in Prohibition, Warring had run the Washington area's version of "Thunder Road," bringing rye and corn whiskey from Prince George's County and southern Maryland stills to the city's "liquor drops," using Georgetown teen-agers who drove "high-powered touring cars" for $50 to $100 a trip. The Warrings' shift from illegal booze to illegal numbers -- which they preferred to call the "commission brokerage business" -- was soon bringing in $2 million a year, and Emmitt's "Little Man" moniker described only his 5-foot 4 1/2 inch stature . . . The brothers operated out of a third-floor room at 2423 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, but their domain was all of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, and by 1936 they had at least 56 employees - the number listed on their income tax returns." The brothers are indicted on tax evasion charges in 1938, but the trial ends in a hung jury. The second trial ends in a mistrial after the judge reports that Emmitt Warring has offered a juror $600 and given whiskey to a US Marshal to pass to the jury. The third trial ends after two months, when all three brothers pleaded guilty. The business keeps on and is earning at least $7.5 million a year by the late 1940s.

Progressive Review - There was a club on the edge of town owned by Jimmy LaFontaine. It was a club with standards, as Gaillard Hunt described in a Prohibition era novel:

Couldn't sit here all night, tho. Have to do something, Do the usual thing -- the best thing. Whatever happens eleven and ten is still twenty-one and aces still beat kings.

He slipped the bottle into his coat pocket and stood out in the street. Far down the street a taxi was coming. It slowed down as it got closer, then stopped. He got in and said, "Jimmy Lafontaine's."

About the time the taxi turned into Bladensburg road the whisky began to hit him. It made him less mad and the knot in his belly began to loosen, By the time they got to the place he was feeling almost good.

The doorman looked at him sharply, then shook his head. Peter tried to argue with him, but he only said, "You know the house rules. No one been drinking can get in." He whistled to the taxi which was loitering in the drive and shut the door.

Peter got back in the taxi and. said, "Son of a. bitch. That guy's idea of a drunk is same as Volstead's. Let's go back to town."

The doorman was as famous as LaFontaine, as Shirley Povich described in a 1989 Washington Post article:

In the 1920s and '30s there were also in Washington indoor sports such as dice-throwing, poker games, blackjack and track odds on the races everywhere. One temple of chance, located in Bladensburg, just across the District line, was known as "Jimmy's;" it was impeccably conducted by the legendary Jimmy LaFontaine, who stood for no nonsense by anybody and was proud of a clientele that included many stylish Washington names.

At Jimmy's a huge fellow named Josh Licarione frisked everybody at the door to help keep the peace. Licarione, it seems, had played football for a time at George Washington University. The story goes that after an especially heroic victory at Griffith Stadium, the president of GW was overjoyed enough to visit the team in the locker room and not only praised the gladiators but continued told them, "Any of you boys who are in the vicinity of my office, come in and pass the time of day with me." That was when Licarione said, "By the way, where is that school of yours?"

Povich was wrong about one thing: the club wasn't over the city line; it was on it. We had sometimes heard that one advantage of this was that if, for example, a raid were pending from the Maryland side, LaFontaine would simply lock the Maryland gates, giving his customers time to evacuate through the DC entrance. But Tom Kelly, who covered the beat, tells us it wasn't as complicated: if there were reports of illegal activities, the called police department would simply say (with at least 50% certainty) that it wasn't in their jurisdiction.


A Washingtonian who grew up in Brookland remembers hearing about the club and its ten to twelve foot wooden walls. He says a relative who once won a lot of money at the club was driven home by Fontaine's security people to make sure he made it safely.

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