Bootlegging and Rum-Running in Jacksonville

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Advocates for prohibition thought that once liquor licenses were revoked, reform organizations and churches could persuade the American public not to drink, smugglers would not oppose the new law, and saloons would disappear. However, the opposite effect would happen.

The Whisper Sisters

During Prohibition, Jacksonville was a major port of entry and manufacturing center for hooch.  It was a very easy way to turn $200 into $2,000, according to one North Florida still operator.  What is not known is that for every male in the business, there was an opportunistic female to meet his match.  It can be argued that the Whisper Sisters were the best.  

Virtually impossible to apprehend, the Whisper Sisters brewed beer in private dwellings, often renting fashionable apartments solely for that purpose.  The Times-Union said the Whisper Sisters made "quite good" beer, the reporters having a professional obligation to find out for themselves.

Nobody could get into the apartments without a search warrant, the agents complained.  The law protects many a dwelling that shelters a flagrant violator of the Volstead Act," the Times-Union said.
Source: The Florida-Times Union archives

Lyndall McMurray

You can't have a story about Prohibition and not mention Springfield, one of Jacksonville's most colorful historic neighborhoods.  In 1926, Mrs. Lyndall McMurray became a Prohibition-era celebrity among First Coast women.  Mrs. McMurray was known to sell soda pop in front of a Main Street tent, and hooch out the back.  It was said she shot her man to death on a Springfield street because he mistreated her after she stole ten cases of whiskey from him.  She was found not guilty in front of a courtroom packed with women.

Mrs. Lyndall McMurray, Who Shot Mail Carrier 'to Save Son And Self,' Not Guilty

Jacksonville, August 19-(AP)_ Mrs. Lyndall McMurray, alias Born, charged with the slaying here in June of Adolphus S. Ward, rural mail carrier, was found "not guilty" in circuit court late yesterday. The jury was out in 40 minutes.

Ward was shot on a residential street June 13.  He died a week later in a local hospital.  Mrs. McMurray testified during the trial that she shot at Ward to protect her 14-year-old son, John, as well as herself.  Mrs. McMurray was taken into custody at Nashville, Tenn., several days after the shooting.  She was the first white woman tried for murder in court here in a number of years.,429981

Sheriff W.H. "Ham" Dowling

Ham Dowling was a man who thought he was above the law.  Dowling, a former SAL train conductor and son of a Baptist minister, was elected Duval County sheriff in 1912 on a strong law-and-order campaign against "a carnival of crime."  In 1917, Governor Sidney Catts suspended him for lax enforcement of anti-liquor laws but he was reinstated a few months later.  Five years later, he was suspended by Governor Cary Hardee on a conspiracy charge but was later reinstated.  In 1928, W.B. Cahoon was elected over the long-time sheriff and commenced bare-knuckle law enforcement that Jacksonville had not seen during most of the Prohibition era under Dowling.

Not surprisingly, two years later Dowling was in the news again.  This time for being busted for the ownership of two stills with 14,000 gallons of beer, 250 gallons of whiskey and 79 bottles of home brew.  Dowling ended up being sentenced in 1931 to two years in a federal prison in Atlanta.

A 1930s-era moonshine still busted by Sheriff W.B. Cahoon.  Below, Sheriff W.B. Cahoon destroys a downtown still.

Sheriff W.B. Cahoon images courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Dowling wasn't the only public official busted during prohibition. Practically the entire South Jacksonville city administration, including the mayor, the chief of police, the president of the city council, the city commissioner, and the fire chief, were indicted by a federal grand jury as well.

Henry "Skimp" Tillman

Skimp Tillman was one of the most notorious one-eyed barkeeps in Jacksonville during the 1930s.  Tillman was known to use fists, guns and knives to settle disputes in downtown Jacksonville. Over a course of 20 years, he had been charged with assault to murder, to protect his well being six times, including shooting a customer to death in 1935.  Skimp's luck of getting away with murder would end with the Court of Circuit Judge Bryan Simpson in 1948, after the shooting death of another customer.

Inside Jimmy Mains bar in 1933.

The appellant-defendant, Henry V. (Skimp) Tillman, was indicted in the Circuit Court of Duval County, Florida, for the murder of Frank E. Wood. Shortly thereafter he was placed upon trial in the same court and a jury, after hearing all the testimony, returned a verdict of murder in the first degree, without recommendation as to mercy. The trial court denied defendant's motion for a new trial and the death sentence was imposed. The defendant appealed. It appears that Frank E. Wood was shot at the corner of State and Main Streets in the City of Jacksonville about 2:30 p.m., August 12, 1948, and languished until November 28, 1948, and died. Wood lived three months and sixteen days after the appellant-defendant shot hom.

The record discloses that the appellant operated a bar on August 12, 1948, situated at the northwest corner of Main and State Streets in Jacksonville, Florida, and the deceased and his brother, Edmund Wood, went to the saloon for a drink of beer and when there were served by the appellant. A conversation ensued between the two Wood boys and the appellant about some criminal cases of county-wide interest previously tried in Duval County, to wit: the Hyslers, Melvin or Smitty cases. It appears that a fight occurred between Frank E. Wood, the deceased, and the appellant-defendant, during which the appellant shot Wood in the shoulder and the pistol ball ranged backward severing his spinal cord. The shot rendered Wood immediately helpless and he fell to the floor, as his body below the place of severance of the spinal cord was paralyzed.

After being found guilty of first-degree murder, Skimp Tillman was electrocuted on June 5, 1949.

William Ostner:  Father of the Six Pack

What would a Prohibition-era story be without mentioning the brewmaster who brought a full-scale brewery to town?  Jax Beer was said to be the beer of the common man and the woman who smoked menthols, of the bon-vivant in a blue collar and the siren in Evening in Paris.

This brewery's start dates back to Moncrief Park, a full decade before Prohibition.  In 1910, Moncrief Park's horse racing track drew spectators from all over the country.  One of those spectators was William Ostner, a German-born brewmaster living in St. Louis.

The Jax Brewing Company facilities in 1959. Image courtesy of

Soon, Ostner would move to Jacksonville and set up the Jax Brewery Company on 16th Street, only to see the racetrack close and Prohibition enacted.  During Prohibition, the company's name would change to Jax Cold Storage Company.  In 1933, a week after the repeal of Prohibition, brews were rolling off the production line once again.  After World War II, the Ostners bought 100,000 durable stacks from Towers Hardware, emblazoned Jax Beer on them, and sold beer six to a sack, and the concept of the six-pack is history.  In 1957, the company was sold to Jax Brewing of New Orleans and the plant was converted into a major cold storage warehouse.

Article by Ennis Davis.

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