The Great American Alcohol Trials of the 1920’s

The Great American Alcohol Trials of the 1920’s

In the midst of the Prohibition Experiment, alcohol was blamed for almost every societal ill.  Women want to work?  Alcohol’s fault.  Marriages deteriorating, blame alcohol.  So maybe none of the resulting court cases were ever known as the trial of the century, but damn they were weird!

Why was Eugene Geary convicted of murder in 1921?  Well, according to his appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, that he murdered Harry Reckas in the Horn Palace Saloon was not his own fault, but the fault of syphilis and alcoholism.  Perhaps if you had been sentenced to death you would be willing to claim syphilis and alcohol made you do it, but still, now one hundred years later there are people reading this court opinion and judging you.  The facts of this case are almost too good to be true.  Apparently Geary was particularly upset that night because he had been served water instead of whiskey and “near beer” instead of the real deal and for that reason he shot Mr. Reckas.  If only a policeman hadn’t been drinking at the saloon at that exact moment he would have escaped arrest.

Alcohol and insanity worked no better for Edward Brislane.  Mr. Brislane was convicted of murder despite claiming that he was insane and so intoxicated that he talked to himself, refused to eat and was brought home helpless in a taxicab.  Apparently in the days prior to the murder, Brislane was continuously drinking whiskey—so obviously, he was not at the Horn Palace Saloon drinking water or ginger ale disguised as whiskey!  The court instructed the jury that if Brislane had voluntarily intoxicated himself then it could not be used in his own defense.  (Spoiler alert, the law is the same today, so do not try this in your own legal cases.)

Not all of the great cases during Prohibition were murder, of course.  Conspiracy to violate the Volstead Act was often charged and the facts of those cases look more like a “how to manual” for organizing your own business conglomerate.  For example, in one such case, in the federal court, Capriola v. US, the court stated, “an unusually large number of men were included in the alleged conspiracy.”  How many men is too many for an alleged conspiracy to violate Prohibition?  The plan included distributors, transporters, and ultimately sellers.  Other co-conspirators provided stills designed for use in private residences; others sold the raw ingredients needed to make liquor, while still others sold only the finished product.  The government alleged that in the “Italian Section” of Rockford, there were at least 95 illicit stills in residences, vats in basements and under garage floors and that the houses had unusual amounts of corn sugar and yeast present.  “No plausible explanation” was made for the amount of yeast.  To be fair, 300,000 pounds of yeast and 116 carloads of corn sugar purchased by one named defendant does seem to be unreasonable.  The key, though, to the court was that there was consistency in the prices being used.  In a capitalist country that could only mean that the fix was in and there was always one common distributor.

Case law has never been quite as American as a conspiracy busted because the prices were too equal!

Written Amy Williams

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