During Prohibition, bootleggers' boulevard ran through Laurel
By Kevin Leonard
Sep 08, 2015 | 6:00 AM
Maryland, and by extension, Laurel, presented a problem to federal officials during the Prohibition years 1920 to 1933. The controversy leading up to Prohibition's enactment divided the country into proponents of the law ("drys") and opponents ("wets"). Then-Gov. Albert Ritchie was a staunch wet and criticized the law as infringing on Maryland's right to pass and enforce its own liquor laws. In fact, Maryland was the only state that refused to pass an enforcement act. It was still against the law in Maryland, but enforcement was left to federal officials. Whenever state and local police were involved, it usually began with a speeding violation.
Many municipalities in Maryland, including Laurel, passed local prohibition laws, called "local option," several times in the years leading up to the federal Prohibition. But local option laws were always deemed failures. In 1906, when a local option law was on the ballot in Laurel, the Leader editorialized, "We are not what we pretend to be — holding ourselves out as a local option town, we are the opposite, for no less than six individuals in the town are doing business as retail liquor dealers under licenses issued by the United States Government. It is now an easy matter to obtain intoxicating drinks in Laurel, judging from the number of intoxicants seen on our streets."
When the measure passed, the Leader hoped it would "eradicate drunkenness in the town."
Perhaps because of the failure of the local options enacted around the state, by the time the federal Prohibition law was passed, public sentiment in Maryland was largely in favor of the wets, making enforcement much more difficult. Baltimore became a prime hub for the shipping and transportation of illegal liquor. Once again, owing to its location, Laurel was right in the middle.
During Prohibition, Route 1 (Washington Boulevard) through Laurel was the main conduit for shipments heading south from Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post regularly carried wild stories of federal agents chasing bootleggers through Laurel, which often resulted in crashes.
In 1921, the Sun reported that "after an exciting chase on Washington Road" through Laurel, a state police officer "captured an automobile, valued at $3,000, after it burst into flames. In the tonneau was found nearly 100 pints of 7-year-old whiskey bearing the label of the Canton Distilleries." Coincidentally just before Prohibition was enacted, the Canton Distilleries in Baltimore reported a huge robbery of its warehouse.
In 1925, federal agents engaged in a wild chase on Route 1, according to the Post: "The agents said a car passed them at high speed and turned off the boulevard into a side road near Laurel, Md. It threw out a volume of smoke …which dispersed when they returned to the boulevard." Two shots were fired at the car before it stopped. The agents determined that the car was a "trailer" that was meant to distract agents from a car ahead of them carrying a load of liquor, which escaped.
The Post reported in 1930 that "Four Federal agents were injured … when the machine in which they were riding skidded and upset on the Washington Boulevard 2 miles west of Laurel, Md." The agents were returning to Baltimore after making several raids in Southern Maryland when a bootlegger ran them off the road in Laurel.
Also in the Post, Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Glaser, of Washington, D.C., were arrested in 1931 when "a large number of cans of alcohol were found in the car driven by Glaser when it was caught after a twelve-mile chase on the Washington Boulevard near Laurel. The chase, sometimes reaching a speed of seventy miles an hour, ran from Waterloo, Md., to Laurel. There, Glaser skidded in making a turn, ran his car into a field, and was arrested."
An interesting story in the Post from 1932 concerned a rum-running mother who was arrested with her two children in the car. . Rose Marie Brown, 25, of Washington, was arrested on Route 1 in Laurel with 20 five-gallon cans of rye whiskey in the car. Faced with the problem of what to do with the children after arresting their mother, Prohibition Agent Lee Montgomery "stopped a bus going to Washington and told the driver to take the children into the Capital and then to send them to the home of a relative in a taxicab."
Many of these wild chases up and down Route 1 involved the use of smoke screens by the bootleggers. The smoke machines were very effective.
The Sun reported in 1929 that "For the third time within a week a rum-running automobile … escaped seizure by prohibition agents … by the use of a smoke screen. Yesterday's smoke screen was laid down in broad daylight … just outside of Laurel. So dense was the smoke screen … that many motorists were forced to stop or run off the roadway in efforts to avoid collision."
The Post's account of the same incident was even more spectacular: "During the exciting chase, the suspected rum-runner careened from side to side along the highway, weaving through the lines of vehicles to escape smashes by inches, and trailing its smoke blanket to the danger and discomfiture of many." The bootleggers got away.
The residents of Laurel were no different than the rest of the state. The law was looked at with contempt.
George P. McCeney, Laurel's mayor at the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, felt "no compulsion to enforce" the law, according to his grandson of the same name. On the first day that Prohibition went into effect, state police pulled over a truck and discovered it was full of Canadian whiskey and champagne. Since the truck was pulled over in Laurel, the mayor was called to advise on what to do. As the younger McCeney remembers the story, his grandfather told the police to park the truck in his backyard until they figured it out. "He finished the last bottle when the law was repealed" 13 years later, said McCeney.
Former Mayor Joe Robison recalled that a house at Ninth and Main Streets, across from the old Ninth Street bridge that washed away in Hurricane Agnes in 1972, was a storehouse for bootleggers. He recalled playing in the house as a young boy.
Laurel stills were plentiful as chronicled in the Post and Sun. In 1928 the Post wrote: "Four home brew plants were raided and dismantled by Federal prohibition agents today. One of those was at the Haller farm, near Laurel, Md., and another at a farmhouse nearby." And in 1924, "agents seized 400 gallons of mash and other equipment on the farm of James Fenwick at Laurel.…"
According to the Sun in 1932: "Four prohibition agents arrested three men and seized 9,000 gallons of mash, a still, and 250 gallons of alleged liquor in a raid last night in a wood on the Patuxent River, about 3 miles east of Laurel. John G. Smith, 27, and Joseph Johnson, 21, were held … on charges of manufacture and possession of liquor." And this whopper in 1924: "Prohibition raids yesterday resulted in the seizure of a 2,000-gallon still, said to be the largest found in Maryland since passage of the Volstead law, alleged whiskey, home brew, smaller stills, and quantities of mash, and the arrest of three men. The 2,000-gallon still was found on the farm of Sylvester Smith, two and a half miles north of Laurel, on Bond Mill Road."
Not everyone in town agreed that the law should be ignored. In a 1932 Laurel Leader letter to the editor, Everard E. Hatch claimed to be passing on comments from fellow residents: "The lady looked with utmost disgust at the loafers and then towards the well-known bootlegging joints and said: 'There is no law in Laurel-Lawless Laurel.' " In the letter he also claimed a city official told him "You can violate any law in Laurel except to run through the red light." He asked "Does anyone remember that Laurel a generation ago voted a local option law? What has become of this law?"
In his book "Brass Buttons & Gun Leather, A History of the Laurel Police Department," author and former Laurel police Sgt. Rick McGill described some Prohibition stories culled from Laurel city and police records from the 1920s. In 1930, residents of the Grove complained about bootleggers doing business there. "Said there was a bootlegger who regularly delivered liquor out in that section of Laurel and that there were 6 or 7 houses selling liquor. Said they wanted protection, somebody to help them. Said the officer in the Grove was doing his duty. Said they would help the Mayor and City Council any way they can to apprehend the guilty parties."
One of Laurel's own became a key player in Prohibition enforcement. Fred Billard moved to a house on Main Street with his family in 1880, where he spent most of his youth. He attended the old Number One School in Laurel, before attending Baltimore City College. He left Laurel in 1894 to enlist in the Coast Guard. By the time Prohibition was in force, Billard was a rear admiral and the U.S. Coast Guard commandant. The Coast Guard played a major role in patrolling the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for smugglers and bootleggers.
In December 1933, Prohibition was repealed with the ratification of the 21st amendment to the Constitution. A few businesses in Laurel wasted no time capitalizing on the legal sale of liquor. The first three businesses to legally offer liquor were The Spot, run by M.A. Thompson and offering "Blatz Beer on Tap"; Griffin's Restaurant, one mile south of Laurel on Route 1; and the notorious Laurel Hotel, on the corner of Route 1 and Main Street. The Laurel Hotel proprietors set up a separate company, The Laurel Wine and Liquor Co., which offered "High Grade Foreign and Domestic Wines, Liquors, and Cordials" at the hotel.
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society. Contact Kevin Leonard at email@example.com or 301-776-9260.