Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Gamblers & Rum-Runners: 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 during the 1920’s, known as ‘Prohibition’. Although it’s now synonymous with the corruption and organized crime that it spawned, at the time it was intended to address the harm inflicted on society by excessive consumption of alcohol. This is of particular interest at the moment, as California legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2016, and there’s been a renewed debate about the role of police in society. Prohibition is of interest in both cases because of the effect it had on organized crime, the police force, and the connection between the two. This connection was particularly visible here in the 1920’s. So what was the effect of Prohibition in LA?

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, 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).

In doing so, he became a famous figure in Los Angeles, appearing in news-reels, newspaper articles and even inspiring a key character in the novel Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler.

Wealthy Angelenos would take water taxis for the 15-minute ride out to the ships, under the noses of the police who could do nothing. Correro even offered a day’s takings to the Los Angeles Zoo, which was in financial crisis at the time, although, under pressure, the offer was refused. Eventually California moved the territorial limit (in 1946) and, after a 3-day sea battle, Correro lost his ships.

Documentary about 1930’s LA, featuring SS Rex

Correro 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 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 his unerring ability to alert his criminal friends before their hideouts were raided. After quitting the police force, he took up residence in the famous Biltmore Hotel (in downtown), and began working with perhaps the most influential crime figure of Prohibition in LA, Charles H. 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 E. 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 Mcafee). 

Charles H Crawford
Charles H. Crawford

In 1929 Cryer declined to run for office again, having come under harsh criticism for his connection to 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 into the collections plate at his baptism. It must have put the Church in something of a moral quandary, but it seems that they were able to put this aside.

Crawford was shot and killed in 1931 by David H. Clark, a former prosecutor and candidate for judge. Clark was acquitted in a sensational trial, when the jury decided that it was highly likely that Crawford had been blackmailing him (you couldn’t make this up).

Crawford’s wife would go on to build the famous Hollywood landmark the Crossroads of the World, on Sunset Boulevard, on 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 Volstead Act that created it, in 1933.

movies that were made in Hollywood
Crossroads of the Word complex, on Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood

And old String Bean? He married a Hollywood starlet and invested in a Las Vegas casino. He’s famous for being the one who gave the name ‘The Strip’ to the main Las Vegas drag with 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. He died in 1960, in the arms of his third wife, a brothel owner.

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

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. We talk about some of these characters, and visit some of their favorite haunts, on our DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost and Sunset Strip tours.

If you have any feedback on Gamblers & Rum-Runners: Prohibition in LA please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Grant Jossi (Twitter)

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