Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties: Illegal booze spills across the border

Special to the PRESS/NEWS

The “Roaring Twenties,” one could say, created a pandemic for those that were afflicted with the consumption of liquor.  But it was also considered an era of progress, and Rio Grande Valley experienced tremendous growth in business and population during that period of time.

“Life” magazine called it a Cultural Revolution, a decade on the move—”leaving the shadows of WWI behind and entering the decade with new attitudes, with new trends in fashion, new music, and different ways of having fun.  This is a time when parties were wild, the jazz was hot, the fads were completely off the wall—and there was a new topic: sex.”

Within the decade, also came the passage of the Volstead Act—prohibiting the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages.  This caused disenchantment among those that made a living selling the “evil water.”

The law induced a nationwide relentless pursuit to obtain illegal liquor. It was not only the gangsters, or the moonshiners that were in the trade, but it was also enticing to the ordinary citizen.  

Liquor crosses the Rio Grande

Closer to home, the proximity to the boundary line with Mexico was one-way locals could get their hands on illegal booze. The following is a story of two smugglers from Matamoros that attempted to cross— decked out with a load of evil spirits:  

R.D. Brown was the customs inspector at International Bridge in Brownsville in the summer of 1922.   On one occasion, two smugglers crossed the bridge undetected.  

Brown was suspicious enough to follow them to their destination, Harlingen.  The given photo shows a walking bootlegger caught in the act and was referred to as a, “walking barroom.” 

Upon questioning, he said, “I’m on my way to a fiesta in Harlingen to drop off some liquor.  While in Harlingen, Brown ran across another would-be bootlegger, Juan Chavez. There was an intoxication scent about Chavez that led Brown to say the following: 

“Chavez appeared to be faring well and was growing fat, so fat in fact, that it aroused suspicion that his extended growth could be attributed to something besides frijoles and tortillas.”

Brown decided to investigate, which led him to believe that Chavez was literally a walking barroom. Chavez was accompanied by a friend, who also appeared to be a fit subject for “the weight reducing” cure.  

Garcia, who is shown in the photo, had 11 quarters upon him and Chavez, who was a much smaller man, was able to conceal seven. 

Fashion trend setters

The bootleggers were dressed for the occasion—with a well-designed jacket that could conceal up to 20 quarts of liquor.  As a learning experience, Brown brought the men to Brownsville so his colleagues could, in the future, identify the method of concealment. 

The bootleggers could supply any party or dance, which were frequent during the era, with a variety of booze, which was carried in a cunningly arranged belt around their waist and over their shoulders. 

Editor’s Note: Rene Torres is a retired assistant professor from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and Texas Southmost College. He has a long history in the Rio Grande Valley as an educator, sports historian, and humanitarian with a wealth of community service to his credit.

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