Heady days as a whiskey bootlegger for Big Al Capone

Lee Johnson

August 22, 1991|By Lee Johnson

Jack Davidson, a nonagenarian who lives in Hagerstown, told this story to Lee Johnson, also of Hagerstown. Johnson is a retired salesman. WHEN YOU PASS 90, the things you used to take for granted become more and more important with each passing year. Such is the case with my occasional Sunday afternoon rides over territory that once was exquisitely familiar but now is barely recognizable. I'm talking about the routes and places I knew 60 years ago while I was delivering illegal whiskey for Al Capone.

Capone and I met in Cumberland and decided on a hiding place for the first 1,000 cases of Canadian whiskey. Big Al (he liked to be called that) and I had discussed our Western Maryland hideout at some length, and he, with his usual thoroughness, had arranged for shipments by boat from Canada to the port of Baltimore. The movement from there to our hidden storage near Cumberland was up to me.

At first I considered shipments by train, but the more I thought about it, the less the idea appealed to me. For one thing, the number of people involved in loading 1,000 cases of whiskey on a train could make for a very leaky secret. I discussed my dilemma with Big Al, and he quickly pointed out that my truck-driving background was the reason he had hired me in the first place.

As I was already employed as a driver on the Cumberland-to-Baltimore run, the solution was obvious -- scary but obvious. It's one thing to be behind the scenes in an illegal activity and another to be in the driver's seat -- literally.

My job with the Cumberland trucking company usually got me out of town by 9 p.m. and into Baltimore by 7 the next morning. It usually took most of the day to load my 1929 International truck, so I had part of the day to myself. I was getting $25 a week for three round trips, plus $7 for expenses, including gas. It doesn't seem like much now, but my wife back in Cumberland and I were doing OK. The additional cash promised by Capone could make for a very nice life indeed. But in spite of the lure of a quick buck, I sure was scared.

The loading in Baltimore went off without a hitch, and I quickly found myself on Route 40 heading for home. That route was just about deserted west of central Maryland, so I figured any problems that might nip my budding career as a bootlegger would occur before Hagerstown. After that it was hilly and slow-going but the territory was uninhabited -- a feature that I was beginning to find most appealing.

It turned out to be easier than I thought. Looking back, I can only assume that the "revenuers" must have figured that illegal whiskey from Canada would come across Lake Ontario and land in upstate New York. They probably assigned their agents accordingly. In my year and a half of trucking bootleg whiskey to Cumberland, no one ever paid me the slightest heed except for an occasional friendly wave, which I always promptly returned.

FTC Actually, it's surprising I was never caught, because as the trips became more and more routine, I became increasingly casual and once even picked up a late-night hitchhiker. She had a sister living in Baltimore and a brother in Frederick and was on her way to see him. That's another story, though, and this is just about all the confessing I'm up for right now.

A couple of years before Prohibition, Capone went to prison for income tax evasion, and my bootlegging came to an end. There was some whiskey left in the hiding place. I never went back for it. I guess after more than 60 years that good Canadian bootleg remains undisturbed.

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