The biddies revisit the story of Prohibition with a Women’s History Month lens, and women are ALL over prohibition. They were some of the most successful bootleggers, including one worth hundreds of millions of dollars by the end of her career. As many know, women’s temperance groups helped start Prohibition, but the biddies also learn that a group of campaigning women also ended it. Tune into Prohibition, round two (and this sequel is better than the first!).



Study Notes for the Queen of the Bootleggers:

This is really the women’s history version of prohibition

Women for Prohibition

  • Much talked about are women’s temperance leagues like the WCTU
  • A tie to violence against women – many women who suffered at the hands of violent husbands were supportive
    • A woman named Carrie Nation was known for attacking saloons with an ax
  • It was believed that it would be easier to ban alcohol than it would be to ban violence against women

But Certainly Not ALL Women Supported Prohibition

  • Opponents of women’s suffrage tied the two campaigns together (banning alcohol and having women vote)
  • Most women’s rights activists like Susan B Anthony were adamant about keeping the two issues separate
  • Sidenote: “Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan were big temperance supporters that rallied hard for Prohibition. To them, saloons and other drinking establishments encouraged people to mingle and cross gender, class and race divides. It’s a pretty good rule that anything the KKK endorses is a bad idea”

Prohibition Passes

  • “In January 1920, America became a dry country.”
    • Women got the right to vote later that year – but not all women, black and native american women could not vote until 1965
  • It was illegal to sell, import, transport and make alcohol – but not to consume it 
    • Didn’t change too much for most women, since they had always done their drinking at home anyway
      • “Prohibition ended up being one of the best things for drinking women in America because it turned the gendered rules of drinking upside down and brought everyone to where women drank.”
    • Could also drink at speakeasies but they were CRAZY SPENSIVE
      • Bottle of champagne at a speakeasy would be equivalent of $380 USD today (probably more with inflation)
      • Also had really good food and entertainment
      • Women were encouraged to join in at speakeasies because it made establishments looks less suspect to the authorities
    • We also get the birth of the american cocktail party
      • Stores began selling all the accouterments for home mixology

All This Alcohol Has to Come From Somewhere

  • We have moonshiners, making bad alcohol in the US. Most of it was terrible since it had no time to be aged
  • So then we have bootlegging, or bringing in alcohol illegally
    • “From distillers to transporters, it was believed that female bootleggers outsold men five to one.”
      • Clothes were convenient for hiding alcohol
      • In some states women couldn’t be searched at all by male agents
      • In all states there were a lot of places men couldn’t properly search
    • Government finally starts hiring women agents
      • It was until 1929 that they got a woman agent on the Canadian border
        •  Within her first 3 months she found about 700 bottles under women’s dresses
  • Bootlegging extremely profitable
    • Some female bootleggers made $30K, equivalent to $450K in 2020

Women Bootleggers

  • Enjoyed many advantages over men.
    • Many states had laws protecting women from search
    • Sometimes they would hide alcohol and taunt police then threaten to sue officers if they actually did
  • Potentially far more women than men who were bootleggers
    • Could have sold as much as five times the quantity
  • Juries were also reluctant to convict mothers, grandmothers of bootlegging
    • A woman in Milwaukee admitted earning $30,000/year (equivalent to $400,000 in today’s dollars). She was only fined $200 and a month in jail
    • Esther Matson (Denver) was sentenced to attending church every Sunday for two years
    • Susie Gallagher Kerr was arrested with two men for an illegal still. When she told them the operation was hers, they refused to believe her
    • Maggie Bailey (Clovertown, Kentucky) aka the Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers who used her profits to give food and other help to families in need so was often looked kindly on during hearings by juries
    • Esther Clark (Kansas) aka the Henhouse Bootlegger because she stored her moonshine in her chicken coop
    • Josephine Doody (The Bootleg Lady of Glacier Park) – her best customers were railway workers and when a train was stopping at her siding, each toot of the horn indicated an order for one gallon of moonshine

Introducing Cleo

  • Gertrude Lythgoe was born in Bowling Green, Ohio to English and Scottish parents
    • Called Cleo because maybe she looked like Cleopatra
    • Very smart and worked as a stenographer in San Fran and then in New York City at the American post of a London-based liquor exporter
    • When Prohibition happened, she lost her job, but the company offered her a job supplying their alcohol to the US via the Bahamas
      • She never said who the company was but it’s thought she worked for Haig and McTavish – two ultra premium Scotch brands
  • A lot of distillers and businessmen refused to work with her because she was a woman, they spread rumors that she was an agent with the IRS
    • She put an end to that
  • By 1923, Cleo was selling millions of gallons of whiskey a year
  • Teamed up with Bill McCoy, the phrase the real McCoy comes from the notion that his customers knew they were drinking real whiskey, not moonshine
    • There was a 3-mile jurisdictional limit from the shore so they would load the boats with booze and wait there
  • There were risks from the authorities and also other bootleggers who might hijack shipments
  • It’s believed that Cleo was worth millions by the end of her career (1 million = 50 million today)
    • Most successful and also the most famous
    • British reporter published an article “Cleopatra, Queen of the Bootleggers” and she became a “media darling”
      • Described as “truly a wonderful personality. A woman of cultivated tastes, who can talk on books and who travels with the best music in her trunks, and shows such artistic taste in dress…”
  • Told a different story about her upbringing whenever she was asked – “concocting stories about being from countries like Greece, Russia, India or Egypt”

Women Enforcing Prohibition: Mabel Willebrandt

  • Mabel was appointed the Assistant Attorney General and tasked with enforcing Prohibition
    • “Besides the fact that she was extremely qualified for the job, her appointment as assistant attorney general was widely believed to both reward American women for supporting Prohibition… and to hold them accountable for it if it didn’t work out”
  • Mabel took the job very seriously and bolstered the Coast Guard
  • Some of Cleo’s workers were caught in 1925, and she was arrested in Miami shortly thereafter
    • Offered a plea deal if she gave up the names of other smugglers, she accepted and went free – but we don’t know who she ratted out
    • Cleo retired afterwards and lived in hotels for the rest of her life
    • Her memoir was published in 1965

Women Ending Prohibition: Pauline Sabin

  • Wealthy woman and founder of the Women’s National Republican Club, Paula Sabin makes it her mission to end Prohibition
    • Many women were growing concerned with the effects of bad alcohol (and potential of their sons drinking it) and with organized crime
  • Pauline organizes the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal (WONPR)
    • Politically neutral: it’s single focus was to end Prohibition
    • “That’s right. It wasn’t a group of hard drinkers, bootleggers, smugglers, or cocktail enthusiasts that had suddenly become Prohibition’s most powerful opponents, it was a legion of mothers.”
  • WONPR organized itself across every state with a national advisory council, Sabin traveled around the country speaking
  • Sabin appeared at the 1932 Democratic National Convention after the republicans wouldn’t add repeal to their platform
  • WONPR took on the WCTU – Sabin positioned Repeal as the position for the reasonable American citizen, advocating for true temperance, not abstinence
  • On December 5, 1933, Prohibition ended, WONPR disbanded