Downtown San Diego, home to 19th-century saloons and today’s Gaslamp Quarter, has always liked to keep visitors well lubricated.
The Prohibition era dried things up, but cops would often look the other way if a big convention was in town. The law was the law, of course. But soused tourists liked to spend money, and a wink and a nod wouldn’t hurt anyone unless someone squealed.
In the waning days of the Roaring Twenties, someone did.
The resulting scandal put the mayor and police chief on the hot seat, embarrassed the American Legion and sent a bunch of men into the welcoming arms of the county jail warden. It’s a story of crime and alleged corruption that’s not unlike from those told in the widely acclaimed new Ken Burns/PBS documentary about the violent and surprisingly boozy years of Prohibition.
The tale begins in August 1929, nine years into Prohibition’s almost-total ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The American Legion, a veterans organization formed 10 years earlier after World War I, was coming to town for a convention.
The ex-soldiers wanted to imbibe, so an “irrigation committee” was formed. According to testimony, its purpose was to see that the “boys got good liquor.”
It’s not clear where they got it, but it wasn’t impossible to find booze in or near San Diego at the time. Mexico — Tijuana and Agua Caliente in particular — were hot spots for liquor seekers, and rumrunners brought liquor from Canada and elsewhere to the West Coast via the sea. (In 1930, in fact, a speed boat would be found in Coronado with a cargo of 138 cases of booze and two dead rumrunners.)
The committee contacted a bootlegger and set up a deal for 3,500-4,000 gallons of liquor, according to testimony. The bootlegger assumed the San Diego cops wouldn’t make a fuss. “I knew it was customary for the authorities to relent at times of conventions,” he later testified.
That may have been true. Other testimony suggested that both the San Diego mayor and the police chief indicated they wouldn’t interfere. “I am not going to bother the conventions, particularly the American Legion convention,” Police Chief Arthur Hill allegedly told a member of the liquor ring.
In this case, though, things didn’t go according to plan.
“Somebody got sore” at the American Legion, according to testimony, and tipped off a cop about a cache of liquor in a building on Seventh Avenue. The policeman launched a raid — it wasn’t clear what role, if any, the police chief played — and the gig was up.
The agents confiscated $27,000 worth of liquor, equal to more than $340,000 today. And it wasn’t just any old rotgut: a chemist later found it was 44-58 percent alcohol, the equivalent of up to 116 proof, enough to make a legionnaire forget Prohibition (or the Great War, for that matter) ever existed.
Then things got even more complicated. The day after the raid, a confab was held in room 209 at the U.S. Grant Hotel, featuring some of the liquor ring members along with the mayor, the police chief and, for some reason, the coroner. The topic at hand: What now?
According to the coroner, Mayor Harry C. Clark had a plan to restore the booze to its proper place: “I’ll go down and see if I can get it returned.” This allegedly came after a reminder about who had helped pay for his campaign.
The booze was not returned. The authorities would keep it, although alcohol from somewhere reportedly resulted in several attendees at the Grant Hotel meeting being “stewed.”
But the mayor’s alleged words would return to haunt him. Months later, the coroner would recount them in front of a federal jury that was pondering the fate of 14 alleged members of the liquor ring. The coroner’s charge against the mayor — that Clark tried to get the booze back where he thought it belonged — would be blared across the top of the front page of The San Diego Union.
Ultimately, the federal prosecutors won. A jury convicted six of nine defendants charged in the liquor ring. Five more pleaded guilty, including the bootlegger. The convicted men were each sentenced to up to six months in county jail.
The mayor and the police chief weren’t charged. In fact, the federal prosecutor went out of the way to suggest they were being wrongly maligned.
After the mess was all over, everybody involved surely needed a stiff drink. But it was surely tougher to get one in a town that had learned a hard lesson about the risks of hospitality.
Note: This story is based on news accounts from the time in The San Diego Union.