Looking Back at Newark During Prohibition Era

by Nat Bodian


If You grew up in Newark and are too young to collect Social Security, you probably have no conception of how a federal law -- the 18th Amendment -- affected Newarkers during an era called "Prohibition."

The Prohibition era lasted for 13 years from 1920 to 1933, during which the sale, manufacture, or import of alcoholic beverages was a violation of Federal law.

The law1, which became effective on January 16, 1920, directly impacted nearly 2,000 Newarkers working in various local breweries, and Newark's 1,400 saloons and restaurants that relied heavily on the sale of alcoholic beverages.

The law gave rise to a new illicit industry: bootlegging -- the illegal sale and transport of alcoholic beverages.

In the Prohibition era, Newark became the bootleg capital of the United States. According to a Federal crime hearing in Washington in 1951 (Kefauver Committee) during the Prohibition era 40 percent of all illegal alcohol was funneled into the United States through a Newark bootleg kingpin.

Why was bootlegging so successful, and how did Newark become its capital?

First of all, the law was largely unpopular and loosely enforced. In Newark, a Federal enforcement agency was opened at the corner of Broad and West Kinney Streets. However, its small staff was virtually helpless to stem the flow of illegal alcohol in and through Newark.

Local law enforcement was also hampered by the almost open co-operation of police, prosecutors, and the courts, who were in the pay of the bootleggers, or otherwise uninterested in enforcing the law2.

Newark's Bootleg Kingpin

The virtual czar of bootlegging in most of the city of Newark was Abner (Longy) Zwillman, whose criminal activities also included gambling and control of labor unions heavily involved with Newark's economy, including the retail clerk's union. He also had a grip on cigarette vending machines in New York and New Jersey.

Part of Newark's territorial control of liquor distribution was shared with First Ward crime boss "Ritchie the Boot" Biordo after a brief gang war.

As a result of that war, Zwillman convinced Biordo that they would thrive better through cooperation, and Biordo carried two bullets in his body permanently as a reminder of that war.

A Look Behind Zwillman's Success

What contributed largely to Zwillman's success was that, despite the fact that his operations involved lots of 'muscle' and every type of crime including murder, his criminal enterprises, especially in his home Third Ward, a heavily-Jewish neighborhood, had a sort of romantic aura, and Zwillman was viewed by many as a successful businessman, who was generous in his Third Ward neighborhood, and to Newark's poor and needy.

Liquor Importation from Canada

Zwillman was linked to international syndicates that brought liquor to America, and especially New Jersey, from Canada and Smuggling it ashore.

The liquor-laden ships came up to the 12-mile line offshore from where it was transferred to speedboats, and brought ashore to be loaded on waiting trucks operated by bootleggers. The New Jersey shore was referred to as "Rum Row."

The Ship-to-Shore Speed Boats

The speed boats were mostly operated by fishermen and provided them with supplemental income. They provided ship to shore transport from the 12-mile limit in boats equipped with high-speed engines, sometimes muffled for sound, and usually painted gray so they could not be easily seen or heard.

Typical were boats of 50 to 80 feet in length, capable of doing 33 miles per hour, and fast enough to outrun Coast Guard interceptors.

The Shore-to-Warehouse Trucks

Longy became the principle supplier for hundreds of speak easies that sprung up in and around Newark.

His trucks for transporting the offloaded liquor shipment from the boats were a fleet of three Mack Bulldog (AC Model) trucks, originally built as armored vehicles for use in the first World War.

The offloading was done at night at both Newark Bay and Long Branch, and trucked back to the Third Ward warehouse near Prince Street for offloading.

Young Third Ward toughs were picked up in the neighborhood for these nighttime runs, and were paid $20 for a night's work -- the equivalent of a week's salary for many Newark factory jobs.

One captain who secured and handled the men for the night truck runs was a Newark boxer from Prince Street, who was paid $50 for each run.

Longy's men rode shotgun on these runs to protect the trucks from highjackers. After each run, they'd walk over to a nearby Turkish bath house, where they'd shower, grab a bite, then nap until morning and leave.

Other Newarkers in Bootlegging

Many other Newarkers were involved in various aspects of bootlegging. One former Newarker recalled that his father, resident in the Weequahic Section on Lehigh Avenue during Prohibition, had been a bootlegger, coloring and bottling illicit alcohol, and that "the whole street on Lehigh Avenue was in on it."3

Such was the prevalence of bootlegging in the Weequahic-Clinton Hill area, that a merchant on Clinton Place operated a bottle store where bootleggers could purchase whiskey bottles in a variety of shapes and styles.

The Social Side of Zwillman

So public was Zwillman's persona, that in 1927, he established in his Third Ward neighborhood at 88 Waverly Avenue a political club which became a clearing house for city businessmen and politicians, and a place where jobs and favors were freely dispensed.

The Third Ward Political Club had several hundred members and celebrated its first anniversary in 1928 with a dinner dance.4

The Political Club was one of two bases of operations for Zwillman. The Club was mainly for social and political contacts. His business operations were conducted from an office in the Hotel Riviera at the intersection of High Street and Clinton Avenue, where he also had his residence.

End of Prohibition

A repeal of the 18th Amendment, known as the 21st Amendment, was signed into law on March 22, 1933, ending Prohibition after 13 years.

In Newark, as elsewhere, breweries were allowed to sell 3.2 percent beer on April 7, 1933. In Newark, only the Krueger Brewery of the many Newark breweries was ready for manufacture, and, on the stroke of midnight, April 6, 1933, the Krueger Brewery at 75 Belmont Avenue opened its brewery doors to the awaiting crowds and permitted them to take away as much beer as their stomachs could carry.

It took two days to restore the street in front of the brewery back to normal.

Zwillman After Prohibition

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Zwillman, still a young 29, switched from being a bootlegging kingpin to gambling as his major source of income, and mainly to legitimate businesses that were connected with liquor. These included liquor wholesalers, a liquor store retail chain, night clubs, and even the famous Tavern Restaurant in Newark.

Some Prohibition-Era Slang

Smuggler of Alcoholic beverages: Rumrunner

Bootleg liquor/alcohol: Booze, brew, giggle water, hooch, jake-leg, vino

Moonshine: Home-made whiskey (sometimes made in outdoor stills by the light of the moon).

Bathtub Gin: Alcohol mixed in bottles too tall to be filled from a sink tap and commonly filled under a bathtub tap.

Saloon: Boozery

Illegal Saloon: Speakeasy, gin mill, whoopee parlor. (The 'speakeasy' got its name because one had to whisper a code word or name through a slot in a locked door to gain admittance).

Drunken bum: Rummy

Drink liquor: Booze up

Being drunk: Bent, blotto, crocked, fried, juiced, lushed, ossified, splifficated

Rum dum: Constantly drunk


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