The Early Bird Gets the Moonshine

Oh, there was always something going on in Scott County, Iowa, in the roaring twenties, from dance marathons to gangsters.  At times, the place seemed more like Chicago than a collection of small towns surrounded by farms.

Looking back to January 17, 1923, we find a headline from the Davenport Daily Times proclaiming what had probably become an old local tradition by that time: more raids by police officers searching for stashes of illegal alcoholic beverages.

Prohibition, at least on the state level, had existed in different forms in Iowa for nearly 40 years before the Eighteenth Amendment was passed. And for the same amount of time, Scott County residents had been ignoring those laws.

But now that selling alcohol was a federal offense, searches usually included federal officers as well as the traditionally more lenient local police officers. In Davenport, as well as other Midwestern cities, these special groups had been nicknamed the “Sponge Squads.”

On the morning of January 17th, the Davenport squad descended on four Davenport soft drink establishments  at 5:30 a.m.—a variation from their usual afternoon or late night raids.  The establishments of four local Davenporters: Mr. Hilson, Mr. Bein, Mr. Thomson, and Mr. Alger, were searched just as they opened for daily business.

The raids struck moonshine at three of the four—at one establishment, the police even found a dumb waiter carrying alcohol between the different floors. It also proved useful to the police, allowing them to eavesdrop on a patron ordering alcohol as the voices carried through the shaft!

Mr. Hilson, at 1948 West First Street, was discovered to be storing what was described in the newspaper as a “generous quantity of home brew” behind the bar. Mr. Bein, at Rockingham and Howell Streets, was actually caught in the act of trying to pour liquor out.  And Mr. Alger was found with 1 ½ pints of moonshine whiskey.

Only Mr. Thomson’s business, at Sixth and Division Streets, was found to be clean.

Peter Bein was fined $100 and costs in the Police Magistrate court later that day. By the evening edition of the Daily Times, Mr. Alger had been arraigned on liquor charges and was awaiting federal charges of possessing liquor, and Mr. Hilson was still waiting to be arraigned.

Why did the “Sponge Squad” decide to mix up their raid times? The paper quoted one unnamed squad member as saying, “…at 5:30 o’clock in the morning, law violators are not too wide awake.”

A very good point indeed.

(posted by Amy D.)

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