Title: Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition
Author: Karen Blumenthal
ISBN: 9781596434493
Pages: 154 pages
Publisher/Date: Roaring Book Press, c2011.

Sometime after 10 a.m. on this shivery-cold and windy Chicago morning, seven men gathered in a nondescript garage warehouse on Clark Street.
Most of them were wearing hats and coats against the chill of the nearly empty warehouse as they waited, maybe for a big shipment of smuggled whiskey, maybe for a special meeting. These were no Boy Scouts. All had ties to a criminal gang run by George “Bugs” Moran […]. Most of them had done some jail time. […]
On the snow-dusted street outside, a black Cadillac with a police gong, siren, and gun rack—the type usually driven by police detectives—pulled up to the curb. Four or five men emerged, two dressed like police officers, and went into the warehouse. Seeing the “officers” and apparently thinking local cops were conducting a routine alcohol raid, the seven men inside lined up against the back wall and put their hands in the air.
They were still in that vulnerable position when two machine guns started firing. (1-2)

So begins Karen Blumenthal’s book about the Prohibition movement. Tracing back forty-five years to the very beginnings of the push against alcohol, Blumenthal creates a thorough account of how the 18th Amendment was added to the Constitution. After its enactment in 1919, the nation spent over a decade fighting against people who continued to traffic and sell what had become an illegal substance. With no clear way or agency willing to enforce the new law, a growing industry evolved in distributing alcohol. As public and political opinion shifted sides, the push began to repeal the law that was meant to save the nation from lawlessness.

I’d heard rave reviews of this book from multiple journals, and the sub-title gives the impression of a story of corruption that would rival the Sopranos or the Godfather. While Blumenthal does an admirable job presenting the history of the amendment and stays relatively neutral (there are some slips), it’s not the gang bang, violence filled account that you expect by the title. Besides the opening account of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (which is mentioned again later on) and some actions by Al Capone that are added almost as asides, less than 25% of the book covers the era the amendment was in affect, much less the deadly aspects of that decade.

Mostly detailing the campaigns to first invoke and then revoke the amendment, it also brings to light the audacity of the public to flaunt the system, as Blumenthal writes:

In grocery and department stores, packages of dehydrated grapes were sold with labels that read something like this: “WARNING! If the contents of this package are added to 5 gallons of water, 5 lbs. of sugar, and 1 cake of yeast, the result will be an intoxicating beverage which is illegal in the United States.” A brick of grape concentrate, customers were told, shouldn’t be put in a jug, corked, and set in a dark place for three weeks or shaken once a day because—hint, hint—it would turn into wine. (82)

It’s those little “winks” that make me question or objectivity towards the subject, but as I said she presented quite a bit more background information than most books on the subject contain.

Abundant black and white pictures give readers a window into life during the late 1800s and early 1900s. An extremely thorough bibliography and source notes also follow the text, however most of the books appear quite old based on their copyright dates, and I wonder how easily accessible they are to readers looking for more information. Since the book is being recommended for teenage audiences, I also would have appreciated some sort of indication as to which sources were appropriate for that age group. The inclusion of a timeline in the accompanying material would have also been nice.

Overall it appears to be a well researched book about Prohibition, good for projects but probably not so appealing to the merely curious.

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