Sunday, March 22, 2015
When the Confederate elite fled the South they did not leave empty handed. They could not take their slaves with them, for any destination they wished to immigrate to had already outlawed the institution, but they could transport more liquid assets overseas. Privately owned banks throughout the South vanished between 1916 and 1917 as their owners closed down shop and absconded with the assets. A few of these were apprehended but even then the money was confiscated by occupation authorities and if it ever saw its lawful owner again it was pennies on the dollar.
The Bank of Georgia, owned by the State of Georgia, was the largest of the vanishing banks. In November 1916, when it closed its doors, its central bank in Atlanta held more than a million dollars in cash and gold. With the fall of the C.S.A., paper currency was all but worthless. The gold was another matter. It was swooped away by the bank’s regional manager, Reginald Louis, who promptly fled to New Grenada with two hundred thousand dollars worth of gold. The fleeing bank managers earned the disparaging name ‘Robber Baron’ for once they robbed the bank they lived like barons in a foreign land off the earnings of honest citizens.
Oddly enough, the small time bank robber was not condemned, for they struck at the Northern banks that filled the void. These were seen by Southern civilians as ‘the enemy’. A number of banks, Wells Fargo and US Bank being the largest, lent freely to would be farmers and those civilians trying to rebuild their lives. They were equally quick in seizing assets when bills were not promptly paid. When average citizens struck back against the bank, they were hailed as folk heroes.
The most notorious of them was John Dillinger, who was not even a Southern. Dillinger started his criminal career in Indiana, robbing a grocery store in Mooresville. With the whole of fifty dollar he managed to escape with, he fled Indiana for Alabama, one step ahead of the law. It was in Huntsville that he robbed his first bank in 1920, followed by another in Decatur the following year and Montgomery in 1922. In Montgomery, he was cornered by occupation authorities, narrowly escaping in a shootout over the corpses of two of his fellow gang members.
Thinking he would be safe in Florida, he high-tailed it to the State boundary. Unlike civilian police, the United States’ Army held a world-wide jurisdiction and word of his escape quickly reached authorities in Pensacola. Instead of striking the first bank he saw, Dillinger managed to get in contact with a friend from his Navy days, who hid him throughout 1922. His friend, Jim ‘Mackey’ McDonald had friends of his own in high places. He was an enforcer in the Jackson Company, a fancy name for an organized crime syndicate operating out of Pensacola.
The Jackson Family, headed by Thomas Jefferson Jackson former CS Army Sergeant and his brother Robert, controlled the flow of alcohol and other drugs from Cuba and beyond into the Deep South. They were reluctant to take on a face as familiar to the law as Dillinger, despite his abilities. One did not stay in the smuggling business long without remaining low key. They did agree to smuggle him to Havana where he could lay low. Unfortunately, the temptation to rob banks was too great. A month after arriving in Havana, Dillinger targeted a branch of US Bank in neighboring Jacksonville, where he was killed in a shootout with the bank’s hired guns.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
Long before the start of the Great War, much of the Deep South were dry States. That is, the production, transportation and selling of alcohol was banned. Totally prohibition was a goal of many morally self-righteous crusaders in Alabama or Florida but it was against the ways of life in the western States and in Cuba. In Texas, for example, only some of the eastern counties were dry by 1913. Whiskey and tequila were so culturally ingrained in Texas, Jefferson and Sonora that banning them was quite impossible. The same proved true for most of Cuba and rum, though the city of Jacksonville was nominally dry.
After the defeat of the Confederate States, temperance grew in strength. Crippled soldiers, men who lost limbs and their ability to earn a living began to slowly drink themselves to death. Even those men who came back from the front physically in tact suffered from a rising epidemic of alcoholism. The wives of these veterans grew tired of their husbands spending their rent and grocery money in the saloon on Saturday night. Even in supposedly dry States, it was not that difficult to get ones hands on bath tub gin. Or, after occupation began, purchasing it from Yankee soldiers who ignored the local laws.
As civilian government were still suspended in 1918, it was impossible for any States to ban alcohol. With city and county governments still functional, albeit under close Union supervision, the Crusade against Drunkenness decided to tackle the problem from below. In 1919, Tennessee managed to ban alcohol by making every county dry. Virginia followed suit in 1920. Even the western States saw some of their counties grow dry. The growing movement began to protest the occupational authority as well.
Still under martial law, local commanders were well within their rights to break up any protest with little or no reason. The new Hughes Administration issued the ordered that provided the protests did not turn violent and in no way impeded the Army then they should be tolerated. After all, it was better to let the Southerner vent their steam in protests than keep it bottled up like gasoline fumes, waiting for a spark to ignite it. Orders were issued from military governors, forcing soldiers to respect local laws. This did not mean they ceased drinking on base, only that they would now be punished for selling liquor to civilians.
Punishment was no deterrence for privates with salaries of thirty-five dollars a month earning two hundred on the side for selling a few bottles of whiskey. As with any extralegal activity, the foolish ones were the first to fall. Any private with a gold pocket watch was suspect. The more cunning and enterprising enlisted personnel began to organize themselves, pay off local authorities and above all keep a low key. To accommodate the extra income, unauthorized or crooked banks opened their doors to the Yankee.
Alcoholism was not confined to the South. The North had its fair share of cripples, physically and mentally. The rise in consumption was not immediate as most soldiers remained on occupation duty. As National Guard units demobilized and returned home, saloons and pubs began to see record business. Out of work veterans had little else to do with their time than drink it away.
The temperance movement took hold in the Midwest, with Kansas, Nebraska, Lakota, Iowa and Illinois passing prohibition laws in the 1920s. With the power of hindsight, modern scholars often criticize these lawmakers, saying it was they who allowed organized crime to grown from petty thugs to a multi-State enterprise. There is some truth to it but in the context of the age, alcoholism among the nation’s youth was a very serious problem. These young men, for most veterans were under the age of twenty-five, still had their lives ahead of them. Drinking their lives away was viewed as a waste.
When a dry State lived next to a wet one, it almost made the laws moot. The most infamous case was that of Cuba, where vulture capitalists seized control of the rum industry following the end of the war. Profiting off the suffering of the Southern people was one of the prime causes for making the name Kennedy hated so much in the former Confederacy. For the rum runners, it was only a short boat ride from Havana to Pensacola, Mobile or New Orleans. Each of these four cities saw a spike in violent crime as various gangs struggled for domination of the booze trade.
Alcohol was not the only product they had to offer. Among the millions of wounded in the war, some developed an addiction to pain killers. Chief among the analgesic drugs was morphine and later its replacement heroin, which was ironically developed as a non-addictive alternative. Opioid drugs proves a little harder to manufacture than rot-gut booze but its higher price made it a worthwhile investment in the black market expanding across the South.
The 1920s drug trade was conducted not only by those who sought quick riches but also by a number of terrorist organization in the South. The Sons of the Confederacy were quick to get into the business, using the profits generated to purchase weapons and turn them on the Yankees. To their dismay, these Southerners found themselves facing off against other well-armed Southern gangs. Their rivals for the booze trade ranged from former comrades to former slaves. It took only a few weeks of the trade for many Sons of the Confederacy to give up avenging themselves upon the Yankees in favor of quick wealth.