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Baltimore was thirsty during Prohibition, and the Kavanaghs stepped up

The bootlegging Kavanaghs at leisure: from left, seated are James Kavanagh, Eddie Kavanagh, Frank Kavanagh, Joseph A. Kavanagh, Guy Kavanagh (back to camera) shop employee Mr. Fairbanks. The boy is James Kavanagh Jr. The girl is Aunt Anna (Sister Mary Agnes), and the standing man is Leo Kavanagh.
The bootlegging Kavanaghs at leisure: from left, seated are James Kavanagh, Eddie Kavanagh, Frank Kavanagh, Joseph A. Kavanagh, Guy Kavanagh (back to camera) shop employee Mr. Fairbanks. The boy is James Kavanagh Jr. The girl is Aunt Anna (Sister Mary Agnes), and the standing man is Leo Kavanagh.(Handout)

Baltimore and the rest of the country fell under the rule of National Prohibition on Jan. 17, 1920. Could a city that produced and enjoyed so much beer and distilled spirits as ours go bone-dry?

Apparently not.

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The Kavanagh brothers, James, Eddie, Frank, Joseph and Guy, skilled coppersmiths, ran a metalsmithing works at 201 S. Central Ave. near Little Italy and today’s Harbor East. They custom-made specialty metal products, including stills and the copper pots used to make candy.

Their preserved records show the Kavanaghs served the city’s breweries, Bauernschmidt, George Brehm and Gunther; the distillers, Melvale, Wight and Monticello; and Baltimore industries such as Crown Cork and Seal and drug maker Sharp and Dohme.

Joseph Kavanagh, Eddie’s grandson and the family historian, remains in the metal bending and rolling business in Dundalk. He and his sister, Ann, own the the firm’s records and listened to the family stories over the years.

The family anticipated a revenue dip in 1920, when a family marriage afforded a new way to make a dollar.

One of the Kavanaghs, named Kitty, married James Connelly, aka the gangster Jack Hart, in 1918. The Kavanaghs broached the subject of bootlegging with Connelly at the shop’s Christmas Eve party in 1919, a few weeks before National Prohibition became law.

“They make a deal pretty quick. The shop at 201 S. Central Ave. makes the whiskey, Jack Hart and some of his friends picked it up, transport it and sold it,” Joseph Kavanagh said.

The system worked well enough until August 1922, when, in a holdup unrelated to the liquor selling, Jack Hart and his accomplices ambushed two payroll clerks at Madison and Park in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. A member of the Jack Hart gang shot and killed one of the clerks.

The daylight crime, not far from the Washington Monument, shocked the city. Newspaper coverage of the crime was intense.

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The Sun dubbed Jack Hart “Maryland’s most notorious gangster” and called him “the prison Houdini” for his ability to escape incarceration.

Police began calling at 201 S. Central Ave., the Kavanagh metal shop, as they searched for the elusive Hart.

“The Kavanaghs stayed out of making whiskey for a few years while Hart was in and out of jail,” Joseph Kavanagh said. “The police showed up regularly looking for him. My great-grandfather forbid his sons to make rye at the shop, but when the Depression hit so hard, they had no choice.”

The operation moved northward, to a residential neighborhood at Lakewood and Jefferson, east of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“My grandfather, Eddie Kavanagh started making rye on Lakewood Avenue. He lived at 434 N. Lakewood, but his wife was a prohibitionist, so he asked his neighbor, John Kellner, to help,” Joseph Kavanagh said. “He was OK with it and Eddie built a still in the basement of 436 N. Lakewood Ave. He started selling and found a market. He also made bathtub gin in the same basement.”

Eddie Kavanagh had a simple little system that worked well until Prohibition’s defeat in 1933.

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“People would call Eddie’s house and say, ‘I need my radio repaired.’ If they needed a clear tube, that was gin. If they needed the dark tube, that was rye whiskey," Joseph Kavanagh said.

Eddie Kavanagh also offered home delivery.

“He never carried more than four bottles in his briefcase. He didn’t want trouble with mobsters or whoever might compete with him,” his grandson said. "He drove around the city, mostly Northeast Baltimore, on an old Indian motorcycle.

“He delivered every day mostly to private individuals, but I was told some speakeasies too. The speakeasies were the ones who wanted the gin, my father told me. This lasted past the repeal of Prohibition as the money was good. They stopped all bootlegging in 1936.”

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