How About a Shot of Hair Tonic, Ma’am?

How About a Shot of Hair Tonic, Ma’am?

The 1920’s saw women bob their hair and raise their hemlines, of course, but in the post World War I era, women wanted more.  While most famous bootleggers and gangsters were men, women were having a moment, too.

The political and economic climate of the 1920’s was the perfect storm for enterprising women.  Forced into the work force by necessity during World War I and earning the right to vote, many women were not giving up rights bestowed upon wage earners.  They took to their automobiles and joined the men in bootlegging across the nation.  Older women, in particular, made industrious careers out of Prohibition.  Grace Nuzzo, for example, was fifty years old when she was arrested for distributing moonshine.  While she was held on $1,000 bond, she was visited by her granddaughter and claimed that the liquid wasn’t moonshine at all, but hair tonic.  Hair tonic with ninety-three percent alcohol.

The oldest known woman bootlegger was Mrs. Fred Witt, a German immigrant that was arrested for selling liquor to her friends. She would have, perhaps, avoided press and prosecution but for selling moonshine to teenagers that were immediately involved in a car accident.  Her defense wasn’t that she hadn’t sold the booze, if there were any doubt in that, her husband’s withdrawal shakes gave her away.  Rather, she claimed she hadn’t sold them enough to cause a car accident.

Perhaps, none of the female bootleggers would want the record held by Stella Hukowleski, though.  Stella was arrested twice in the same day on charges of bootlegging.  Forty-five minutes after she was released on bond, she was arrested at her home when federal agents still conducting surveillance on the home caught her selling moonshine to a man.

Others, known only by the descriptions of the 1920’s, like the “truculent blonde with a nickel plated pistol” as described by the Chicago Tribune, merely helped bootleggers escape police chases or did favors for husbands and boyfriends.  Evelyn McCabe (a/k/a Evelyn McDonnell) was arrested in Pennsylvania with a vehicle full of scotch.  Her fiancé, a resident of Chicago, told the Tribune he’d help her out and though he didn’t know she was rum running in his car, he had asked her to bring back a bottle or two from father’s stock.

Not all the ladies were running rum, though.  Daisy Simpson was a once-famous federal Prohibition agent.  Daisy had grown up rough with known criminals and a dicey past with illegal drug abuse in San Francisco.  While J. Edgar Hoover may not have willingly hired female agents, he needed them.  It was illegal for a male agent to frisk a woman, and obviously, the women were in the game.  Daisy worked in federal field offices in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York over the course of her career, and most notably seized 8,000 gallons of wine in one raid.

Daisy ran up against charges of entrapment frequently over the case of her career, faking a stomachache and then arresting a Good Samaritan that brought her medicinal whiskey.

Less Chicago history belong entirely to the men, if you’re drinking moonshine poolside this summer, raise a glass to the ladies.

Written by Amy Williams

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