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Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal

February 27, 2012

cover of Bootleg by Karen BlumenthalUnforeseen consequences.

I’m sure most, if not all, of us have done something with good intentions, only to see things turn out…not how we expected.

Supporters of prohibition hoped that outlawing “the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor” would “forever end drunkenness, reduce crime, and make life better for American families.” (p. 3)

That’s not what happened after the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. Ordinary people willfully broke the law, smuggling alcohol into the United States or brewing it themselves. Policemen and politicians accepted bribes while gangsters fought for bigger shares of the suddenly-illegal alcohol distribution trade.

In Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition, Karen Blumenthal delves into the history of Prohibition, its causes, and its effects. This makes the book’s title somewhat misleading, since the scope of Blumenthal’s narrative is broader than just bootlegging and gangs. So don’t be surprised when the book begins with an account of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, but doesn’t return to the incident for another eight chapters.

Blumenthal instead explains why Prohibition became law by first discussing the history of alcohol production and consumption in America (did you know that Americans drank more alcohol, per person, in the early 19th century than at any other time in the country’s history?), the temperance movement (which initially advocated only drinking in moderation), and the lobbying and political machinations that led to the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment. Only then does she go into detail about the smuggling, gangs, (lack of) law enforcement, and so on. Blumenthal covers a lot of ground, considering the relatively short length of the book. Bluementhal’s writing is accessible, and the narrative organized mostly in chronological order, which helps all the names and information straight. Most of all, Blumenthal excels at providing context, such as the influence on World War I on the prohibition campaign, giving readers a deeper understanding of the topic. Along the way, Blumenthal also reveals the origins of the words teetotalers and speakeasies, that Al Capone’s brother once worked as a federal agent, how some children and teenagers broke the law themselves while Prohibition was in effect, and much more.

The book’s design is simple but effective, featuring numerous black and white photographs and illustrations. I do wish a timeline was included with the backmatter, which is otherwise extensive and includes a glossary, bibliography and source notes, and an index.

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

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