As 2020 thankfully comes to a close, it’s hard to imagine packing more news into a single year. But buried beneath the dreaded COVID headlines was an anniversary that in any other year might have prompted some raucous reflection. That’s because 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of Prohibition, a wild time in history when New England suddenly became a hotbed for illegal liquor.
The 18th Amendment, which took effect in January 1920, banned the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” This so-called noble experiment was years in the making, and proponents of the new law hailed it for being a potential solution to many of society’s problems.
But while the national mandate outlawed the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, it didn’t make them go away. People still wanted to drink, so the business of booze went underground. Taverns and saloons were replaced by kitchen barrooms and speakeasies, and crime syndicates took over the sale and distribution of alcohol.
Off the coast of Cape Cod and beyond, ships carrying caseloads of liquor anchored in international waters, outside the jurisdiction of the US Coast Guard. This line of vessels, which stretched up and down the coast of New England, became known as “Rum Row.”
In the dark of night, rumrunners would zip across the water in speedboats to pick up cases of liquor from these ships and race them back to shore.
“We didn’t have any problem on the shore, because everybody was paid off,” a retired rumrunner said in an interview with the Eastham Historical Society in 1983. “Most of the town officials and the police, even the State Police, pretty much knew about it or were in on it.”
Protection payments were made to ensure the safe delivery of booze, because the threat of hijacking was real.
In South Boston, the Gustin Gang ruled the neighborhood rackets and made hijacking its specialty.
The members of the gang were Irish toughs who were known for taking over truckloads of booze, and in an effort to expand their power base, thought they could take on the Mafia.
Their rivalry with the Italians came to a head on Dec. 22, 1931, when Gustin Gang leader Frankie Wallace and his associate, Barney “DoDo” Walsh, went to the North End to have a meeting with Italian mob bosses at 317 Hanover St., which was the base of operations for Joseph Lombardo, a well-respected figure in Boston’s underworld. But Wallace and Walsh never made it out of that meeting alive, as they were gunned down soon after they arrived. The Mafia claimed victory and protected their turf in the bootlegging war.
At the top of the bootlegging chain was Charles “King” Solomon, a popular nightclub and theater owner who was charged with running a multimillion dollar liquor and drug smuggling ring that used pirate radio stations to communicate with ships on Rum Row. Solomon reportedly belonged to a powerful cartel known as the Big Seven, whose members included Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
Like Frankie Wallace, Solomon met an early demise when he was assassinated in an after-hours club in Roxbury on Jan. 24, 1933. Police initially put robbery as the motive, but Assistant US Attorney Leonard Greenstone said Solomon was “put on the spot to seal his lips.” Some believe that the Mafia ordered the hit on Solomon.
After Solomon was murdered, his business partners became targets. One of the first to go was Danny Walsh, who also belonged to the Big Seven. Walsh lived in Rhode Island and made a lot of money during the Prohibition years.
Like Solomon, Danny Walsh came from a modest background. As a young man he worked as a clerk at a hardware store and ran a produce shop in Pawtucket. He then went to Ayer, Mass., and ran a canteen at Camp Devens for a while, and eventually got into the trucking business and worked as a jitney driver — essentially for an illegal taxi service — and began hauling liquor for bootleggers.
Walsh later went into the bootlegging business for himself, and that’s how he made his fortune. He built a distribution network with his own fleet of boats and trucks, as well as an airplane.
Walsh fancied himself a gentleman farmer, and raised horses on his vast farm and bought a stagecoach that he named “Faugh A Ballagh,” which is an Irish battle cry that means “clear the way.”
But he didn’t get to enjoy his wealth for long. He was last seen alive on Feb. 2, 1933, at a dinner party at the Bank Cafe in Warwick. Some men who claimed to have kidnapped Walsh contacted his family demanding a steep ransom, which they paid.
But Danny Walsh never came home.
There was a rumor that Walsh’s killers put his body in concrete and dumped him in the ocean off Block Island. To this day, Walsh’s body has never been found. The mystery surrounding his fate has weighed on the Walsh family for nearly a century.
James Walsh III is the great-grandson of Danny Walsh. He has spent countless hours doing research about his infamous ancestor and wrote a screenplay about his life titled “Faugh A Ballagh.”
After Danny Walsh vanished, “[my grandfather] spent the rest of his life chasing leads,” the younger Walsh said. But those leads went nowhere.
Indeed, many other mysteries linger from the Prohibition era. One of the most persistent ones involves Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the political dynasty, who has long been rumored to have been involved in the bootleg liquor industry.
But that’s never been proven, according to author Daniel Okrent.
In his book “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” Okrent says there’s no reliable evidence that Kennedy did business in the illegal liquor trade.
“No one has ever turned up anything,” Okrent said in telephone interview with the Globe. “It’s just not there.”
But author T.J. English sees it differently. He says Kennedy was an importer and wholesaler of illegal booze during the dry years.
“He was a supplier…and he met with gang lords,” English said in a telephone interview. “He was a player on a very high level.”
One thing that Okrent and English do agree on is that Kennedy made a blockbuster liquor deal in September 1933, just before Prohibition ended, when he traveled to Europe with President Roosevelt’s son and scored the rights to import Dewar’s, Haig & Haig scotch whiskey, and Gordon’s gin into the United States.
The timing was perfect, because the 18th Amendment was about to be repealed. When Prohibition ended in December 1933, Kennedy was in a position to dominate the market for legal liquor.
Emily Sweeney is the author of “Boston Organized Crime” and “Gangland Boston.” For more information and photos about the history of organized crime in the Greater Boston area and beyond, visit her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/BostonOrganizedCrime.