Dec22 History Lesson

In this 1931 photo by Angus B. McVicar, Jennie Justo — Madison’s most famous bootlegger, whose name graces a bottle of sorghum whiskey at Old Sugar Distillery today — hugs her mother (on the left) goodbye before serving a year in jail. Justo came home from the Milwaukee House of Corrections, got arrested again and served another 10 months. After her second release, her hometown supporters threw her a parade.

Exactly 100 years ago, starting in November 1922, authorities began a series of crackdowns on the bootleggers and moonshiners in Madison’s Greenbush neighborhood, and Justo ultimately got caught up in the dragnet. Across 75 raids during one two-month period, police seized 4,000 gallons of contraband alcohol from the speakeasies and basement taverns of the flourishing, mostly law-abiding immigrant community. Prohibition had been in effect for nearly three years and violent crime between rival gangs was on the rise, but up until that point most arrests had resulted in light fines, and folks were fed up. “Time to Send Somebody to Jail!” hollered a front-page headline in the zealously prohibitionist Capital Times, according to two 2011 Isthmus articles by Madison’s resident historian, Stu Levitan.

Levitan’s work details some of the dark nuances of the nearly 14-year Prohibition era (particularly the racism and classism that have always existed, and which led to the local birth of the Ku Klux Klan), many of which have been forgotten, erased, argued about or glamorized. There are many layers, for those looking. (One that caught my eye was a “fourth-wettest campus in the country” proclamation — which wasn’t a 2022 link to yet another national meme on binge drinking, but rather a 1931 survey referring to the ’Bush-adjacent University of Wisconsin–Madison.) There were fatal poisonings from industrial-grade alcohol, but most deaths during Prohibition were the result of violence between rival gangs. Which created more destruction, alcohol or the criminalization of alcohol? Some say there was never a question.

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior editor at Madison Magazine.