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Crime Seen: Prohibition in LA

Prohibition in LA
Prohibition in LA: Sherrif’s deputies dispose of bootleg alcohol, Christmas Eve, 1920’s

America is almost unique among developed countries for its ban on alcohol, beginning in January 1920 (104 years ago this month) with the passage of the Volstead Act, which is known as Prohibition. Although it’s now synonymous with the corruption and organized crime that it later spawned, at the time the intention was to address the harm inflicted on society by excessive consumption of alcohol. However the effect of Prohibition was almost the exact opposite of what was intended: alcohol consumption did not end, it just went underground, where it could be controlled by organized crime (which in turn became hugely wealthy because of it).

Prohibition in LA is of particular interest because of the effect it had on organized crime, the police force, and the connection between them both. That connection was especially visible here in the 1920’s and 30’s. In fact, the two opposing elements – police and organized crime – were very much acting together in Los Angeles during the period, as you can see in the life stories of some key figures of Prohibition era LA: a bootlegger, a cop and a gambler.

The Rum-Runner

One of the most famous bootleggers (essentially alcohol smugglers) of the time was a man named Anthony Correro. Originally from Italy, Correro’s family left the old country when his father lost the family farm in a card game, and by 1923 Correro had become a rum-runner in California. Under the cover of a shrimping business, Correro used a fleet of ships to transport Canadian whiskey and rum down the coast. The largest of his ships, the SS Lilly, could transport up to four thousand cases of liquor at a time.

In 1926, he was intercepted by the nascent FBI, while returning from Mexico with a thousand cases of rum. Correro escaped the train that was transporting him to jail and spent three years hiding out in Europe, before eventually returning to Los Angeles in 1929.

After serving two years in jail Correro was released, and by 1938 (after an early investment in a Las Vegas casino) he’d embarked on a new nautical venture: floating casinos. By outfitting large ships with every vice known to man, and then dropping anchor just over three miles off the coast of both Long Beach and Santa Monica, Correro was able to make a (financial) killing without risking arrest or further incarceration (because the ships were outside the three mile limit of U.S. territorial waters). Wealthy Angelenos would take water taxis for the 15-minute ride out to the ships, under the noses of the powerless police.

He became such a famous figure in Los Angeles that he made regular appearances in news-reels and newspaper articles, even inspiring a character (a villain of course) in the novel Farewell My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. Correro’s fame only increased further when he offered a day’s takings from his ships to the Los Angeles Zoo, which was in financial crisis at the time. The Zoo, under serious pressure from the press, refused the donation, but Correro came out of it looking like a modern-day Robin Hood, which was undoubtedly his intention.

Documentary about 1930’s LA, featuring the SS Rex

Eventually California moved the territorial limit further out to sea (in 1946) and, after a 3-day sea battle with the U.S. Coastguard, Correro lost his navy. He later moved to Las Vegas, where he died in 1955, allegedly from a heart attack.

Good-Time Charlie and String-Bean

An only slightly less flamboyant jazz-age inhabitant of Los Angeles was Guy ‘String Bean’ McAfee. He was a former police officer and fireman who was suspended from the force in 1917 for running a game of craps at a police station. He appealed of course and was eventually placed in the vice squad (the Captain must have thought he could bring a lot of personal experience to his work), where his love of gambling and lack of scruples allowed him to expand his craps business from LAPD headquarters to the wider Los Angeles area.

He had a knack for making friends amongst the criminal fraternity of the city, due in no small part to a useful ability to alert his underworld friends before their hideouts were raided. After quitting the police force, McAfee took up residence in the famous Biltmore Hotel (in downtown), and began working with perhaps the most influential crime figure during the era of Prohibition in LA, Charles Crawford.

The Millennium Biltmore Hotel, in DTLA

Crawford collected names the way some people collect stamps, but his most famous were ‘The Gray Wolf of Spring Street’ and ‘Good-time Charlie’. He was particularly known for having helped orchestrate the election of Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer, who was largely seen as a stooge for organized crime. Indeed, Crawford would use his influence with Cryer to expand his business (chiefly casinos and bordellos) across Los Angeles, and to form important connections and partnerships with other criminal elements (including the aforementioned McAfee).

Crawford was certainly a distinctive figure during the Roaring Twenties. At least according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, which gives us this very interesting description:

Although physically imposing, Crawford had an effeminate voice and an Adam’s apple that bobbed uncontrollably. His notorious viciousness and cunning helped take public corruption to a new level in Los Angeles city government in the 1920s.

Los Angeles Times

In 1929 Cryer declined to run for office again, having come under harsh criticism for his connection to the notorious Crawford. With his mayoral influence gone, Crawford began to fade from prominence and he converted to Christianity (allegedly) the next year, famously dropping his diamond-studded ring, worth $3,500, into the collections plate at his baptism.

When later indicted on bribery charges he donated $25,000 to build a parish hall, although he insisted that there was no connection between the two events. Apparently they were completely unrelated.

It must have put the Church into something of a moral quandary, but it seems to have been able to put any qualms aside. The Reverend Gustav Briegleb later responded to criticism from the press of his acceptance of such a valuable gift from a known criminal:

If you know of any more sinners who have $25,000, send ’em along; I can use it.

End of Prohibition Era in LA

Crawford was shot and killed in 1931 by David Clark, a former prosecutor and, at that time, candidate for judge. A newspaper investigation after his death reported that Crawford was the owner of cars and jewelry worth nearly $300,000, as well as a residence in Beverly Hills and an entire block on Sunset Boulevard. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

At Crawford’s funeral a thousand mourners filled Saint Paul’s Presbyterian Church and 6,000 more waited outside, so he was definitely a popular figure. Several policemen and members of the press served as pall-bearers.

“Through tear-dimmed eyes”, the Reverend Briegleb delivered the eulogy for his “true friend”, telling the congregation of Crawford’s generosity to the church. He continued by comparing the slain sinner to the Apostle Matthew who, gasp, started life as a politician, but had subsequently found religion and become a true believer. It was said that Crawford had remembered the Church in his will, but even if true, it surely had no impact on the Reverend’s thinking. As he said: “We ought to let the dead sleep”. Wise words.

Clark was later acquitted in a sensational trial, when the jury decided that it was highly likely that Crawford had been blackmailing him in a corrupt scheme to kill the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (you couldn’t make this stuff up).

Crawford’s wife, Joan (no relation to the movie star), would go on to build the landmark Hollywood building Crossroads of the World, on Sunset Boulevard, at the exact spot that Crawford had died. Around the same time Prohibition in LA came to an end, along with the rest of the U.S., with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933. The only U.S. constitutional amendment to ever be repealed.

Prohibition in LA
Celebration of the repeal of the 18th Amendment

And what of old String Bean?

The usual story – he married a Hollywood starlet and invested in a Las Vegas casino. He’s famous for being the person who gave the name ‘The Strip’ to the main Las Vegas drag with all the big casinos. Naming it after the Sunset Strip, in what’s now West Hollywood, where all the illegal gambling shops in Los Angeles were at that time. McAfee died in 1960, in the arms of his third wife, a brothel owner.

Prohibition in LA Today

So, while many of these men’s names have faded from memory, yet the Los Angeles that they inhabited is still present around us – in the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, at the Crossroads of the World and along the Sunset Strip – if you know where to look. Quite a few of the speakeasies from the prohibition era are still operating today, often hiding in plain sight.

DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost Tour, Biltmore Hotel
DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost Tour, Biltmore Hotel

We talk about some of these characters, and visit some of their favorite haunts, on both our DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost Tour and the Sunset Strip: True Crime & Ghost Tour.

If you have any feedback on Crime Seen: Prohibition in LA please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Grant Jossi (Twitter) and Damien Blackshaw. (Twitter)

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