A superb 2004 master’s thesis completed in the University of Idaho’s history department by Donna Krulitz Smith examines how prohibition – first at the statewide level, imposed on January 1, 1916, and later, nationwide prohibition, imposed on January 17, 1920 – played out in the rough-and-ready environs of the Coeur d’Alene Mining District of Idaho’s northern panhandle.(1) The core sections of Smith’s narrative tell the story of two important trials. The first prosecuted town officials and other involved parties from Mullan, a village just six miles west of the Idaho-Montana border; the second prosecuted a like group of defendants from Wallace, Shoshone County’s county seat, six miles west of Mullan on U.S. Hwy 10 (now Interstate-90). Both sets of city leaders were accused of condoning, protecting, and illegally benefiting from illicit liquor trade during prohibition. An alleged conspiracy conducted by these defendants imposed illegal taxes, fines, or fees on bogus “soft drink” establishments and other alcohol-vending businesses, including the district’s ample supply of sporting houses. But there was an important twist to the story: The tribute system in Mullan and Wallace – unlike the sprawling graft and corruption schemes spawned by prohibition in the nation’s large urban centers – did not find municipal officials personally profiting from the arrangement. Instead, all revenue thus derived went straight into the two cities’ respective treasuries.
Satirical cartoon published June 4, 1921 after discovery of still in local mine, from Smith (2004)
Town leadership saw the tribute system they erected as a workable device for resolving three key structural problems: First, there was the problem of insufficient sources of municipal revenue. Second, there was the problem of the inevitability of a brisk alcohol trade in town continuing during prohibition, driven by the district’s large corps of work-parched, hardrock silver and lead miners. Third, there was the problem of the ongoing police-related, court-related, and other municipal costs associated with, and amplified by, the presence of so large a population of young, unattached, and high-spirited men within the city limits. City leadership figured that so long as no one profited personally from their specially crafted tribute mechanism – which came to be termed the “license by fine” system – their approach represented a workable (albeit somewhat risky) exercise in administrative and fiscal realism. The absence of personal profit made all the difference, as that factor allowed for the engagement of the tacit support of most townspeople — who by-and-large shared the view that the system made the best of an awkward and difficult situation. Indeed, townsfolk rallied to the aid of their officials when those charged with federal liquor trafficking violations went to trial and, thereafter, helped support the families of convicted defendants when the latter were carted off to federal prison to serve their terms.
Shoshone County offered many resources and opportunities for profitable bootlegging and moonshining. First, there was the ready supply of customers offered by the miners. Next – and during most of the period of Idaho’s statewide prohibition – there was still-wet Montana only a stone’s throw away. Schemes abounded for hiding a cargo of booze for the trip from Montana back into Idaho. Hot water bottles and clanking suitcases filled with product made the train trip back from towns close-by on the Montana side of the border. “One enterprising expert skier,” wrote Smith, “…skied down to Mullan from Lookout Pass rigged with [a] harness he had fashioned that held 24 pint bottles of whiskey” (p. 83). When Montana adopted statewide prohibition in 1919 bootleggers turned their attentions to not-so-distant Canada, making use of export houses placed conveniently close to the border on the Canadian side. Clever ways to secret booze shipments or the payment of bribes to border guards made transit a relatively low-risk enterprise. Moonshining was also well served by Shoshone County’s location and geography. Both the county’s isolation and its mountainous landscape helped conceal illicit stills. The Bitterroot range’s mountains, valleys, and deep canyons combined with sparse human settlement made conditions ideal for moonshine production. Old mining and timber roads provided access and abandoned mines, observed Smith, “furnished optimum environments for clandestine operations” (p. 82). Another institution emerged to supply beer to the thirsty local market. Wives and widows in the county – incidentally, in a structural arrangement not unlike what Meacham (2) described in colonial Chesapeake – supplemented their incomes from taking in boarders or laundry by offering homebrew for sale.
Unfortunately, U.S. Attorney H.E. Ray did not appreciate the harmony and mutual benefit residing in Shoshone County’s tribute system. An initial raid, in the early morning hours of August 14, 1929, seized “over 600 gallons of bootleg and Canadian liquor” in Mullan, Wallace, and Kellogg. Ray settled on Mullan and its Ordinance No. 105, which structured the “license by fine” system, as the first target for aggregate prosecution. On November 11, 1929, the grand jury in Moscow “swore a complaint against soft drink proprietors, prostitutes, the entire Mullan board of trustees, Deputy Sheriff Charles Bloom, and Sheriff R.E. Weniger” for violating the National Prohibition Act (p. 111). “Many residents,” wrote Smith, “declared their support of the village’s officials,” (p. 112), which support was also reflected in a letter by City Clerk, Joseph L. Martin, to the Mullan Daily News. “It is deeply regretted by the citizens of Mullan,” wrote Martin, “that the grand jury for northern and central Idaho found indictments against some of our best citizens. . . .”
The first trial convened on December 16, 1929 in the federal district court in the City of Coeur d’Alene, presided over by Judge J. Stanley Webster. For prosecutor Ray much rode on obtaining a conviction. Ray framed the case in a conspiracy charge, thus allowing the introduction of otherwise inadmissible hearsay evidence. The courtroom was packed, overflow spectators lined the walls, and extra color was added to the proceedings by fashionably attired women defendants. “An almost festive atmosphere pervaded the court room,” wrote Smith, “as the spectators eagerly awaited the lurid details of gambling, liquor, and sex that the trial promised.” Ray questioned a number of witnesses about the manner in which the tribute system functioned, the easy flow of alcohol in Mullan, and the absence of prohibition-related municipal prosecutions. The defense employed a three-part strategy in response, with testimony affirming the “upstanding reputations” of elected officials, the absence of any material evidence of conspiracy, and the unreliability of prosecution witnesses. One line of attack that particularly amused the assembled gathering centered on countercharges by the defense that undercover agents actively participated in the very vices they were ostensibly gathering evidence against. Regarding agent Richard Cooper, for example, Smith described: “Chambermaids, bellboys, and clerks testified that Cooper had to be helped to his room a number of times because he was too drunk to manage, and another hotel employee said Cooper ‘was offensive to patrons’” (pp. 137-138). The trial also raised a number of nettlesome questions of legal interpretation, including whether mere nonenforcement of federal prohibition laws constituted illegal conduct on the part of municipal and county authorities or instead reflected little more than a legitimate expression of local disinclination.
Mine personnel and visitors, Hecla mine near Mullan, 1927
Defense attorney C.H. Potts’ summation drew upon the deeper historical roots of Mullan’s special cultural circumstances. Potts argued that the village’s origins as a mining camp, peopled with prospectors “who follow adventure, with their free-and-easy life and desire for entertainment” provided the relevant context for the town’s special relationship to prohibition. Smith added regarding Potts’ special plea: “After a long, dangerous day a thousand feet underground miners sought amusement, and to accommodate them, establishments with liquor, gambling, and prostitutes catered to their needs. How, he asked, could the present officials be responsible for these conditions?” (p. 143). In the end, however, it was all to no avail. Ray won his treasured convictions. One tacit message thus sent by the jury was that supportive community sentiment so prevalent in the mining district was not also available in the City of Coeur d’Alene, 56 miles westward. This sort of localism was evidenced in other ways as well. When Ray’s subsequent prosecution convicted a similar array of defendants from Wallace, Spokane’s newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, described the mining town as a “modern Sodom” (p. 180). Spokane, it seems — some 85 miles west of Wallace and even though it was the beneficiary of the mining district’s massive historical contribution to the region’s wealth — had little moral support to offer besieged Wallace. Shoshone County citizenry reacted angrily to the slur. A resolution in The Wallace-Press Times noted that 100 local businessmen in the county “voted to stop subscriptions to Spokane newspapers and boycott Spokane businesses that supported the dailies” (p. 180). A separate resolution out of the Shoshone County Board of Trade shot back at the Spokesman-Review and Spokane as well:
In this period of adversity we have learned something about our neighbors. We have found that a great community, built and supported largely by the wealth which our pioneers and their sturdy successors have uncovered in the hills of the Coeur d’Alenes, is not our friend in this hour, but rather in its fanatical adherences to the principle of making men righteous by law has rejoiced in our misfortune and been ready to heap opprobrium upon us. (quoted in Smith, p. 181)
Yet Ray’s vigorous prosecutions ultimately unraveled. The convictions of some Wallace defendants were reversed on appeal, causing Ray, magnanimously, to free the other convicted Wallace defendants as well. The convictions of Mullan defendants Sheriff Weniger and Deputy Bloom were overturned in 1931. Prominent district figures sent letters to President Hoover urging pardons for all. Smith noted that even national WCTU president, Ella A. Boole, wrote the U.S. Attorney General in 1931 requesting that ‘“if there are any extenuating circumstances that justify the pardon of these politicians” to let her know’ (p. 206). The blessing of full pardons was finally delivered by President Roosevelt on August 16, 1934.
The tale Smith recounts so beautifully left a lasting imprint on Shoshone County’s mining district, with implications and effects that stretch far beyond the turbulent era of alcohol prohibition. Because local sentiment backed the “license by fine” system, the prosecutions, convictions, and incarcerations of prominent and respected members of the community left an enduring imprint that even today still shapes local culture and attitudes toward outsiders, whether relatively nearby in Coeur d’Alene City or Spokane, or farther off in Washington, D.C. Donna Krulitz Smith’s well told and richly documented account nicely bridges the gap between the 1929 trials and Shoshone County’s larger cultural disposition. Incidentally, Smith’s concluding chapter notes that the Coeur d’Alene Mining District’s situation in relation to prohibition was by no means unique. Many small communities around the West with natural resources-based work forces evolved similar tribute systems with similar popular support and makeshift legitimacy. These also on occasion fell victim to federal prosecutions, with varying results, as Smith recounts.
In a recent email exchange about Smith’s thesis with local historian and retired judge, Richard Magnuson, (3) he offered the following observation:
It is no wonder we are entranced by the stories of the people who walked the gulches of our mining district. They were a special breed, which are hard for outsiders to understand. [Yet] their history seems so logical to us.
Warmest thanks are due local historians Dick Caron and Tom Harman for bringing Smith’s thesis to my attention and for making a copy on loan from the University of Idaho library available to me.
(1) Donna Krulitz Smith, “It Will All Come Out in the Courtroom”: Prohibition in Shoshone County, Idaho, Master’s Thesis, History, University of Idaho, Moscow, 2004. (I was saddened to learn that Smith passed away in December, 2009.)
(2) Sarah Hand Meacham, Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
(3) Richard G. Magnuson, Coeur d’Alene Diary: The First Ten Years of Hardrock Mining in North Idaho, Portland, OR: Binford & Mort Publishing, 1968/1983.