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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Fair
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Prohibition sparked crime, corruption and cross burnings in Madison
Dry times were not good times
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About 200 Klansmen, many of them police officers, march to a King Street funeral home for the services of a policeman gunned down in a Greenbush ambush in 1924. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Wisconsin Historical Society

Prohibition brought bad times to Madison: the first, and still worst, sustained violence the city's ever known, cops in the Ku Klux Klan, even a dirty judge in hock to bootleggers. For more than a decade in the 1920s and '30s, the criminalization of alcohol took a terrible toll.

Madison's story wasn't unique, as evidenced in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Prohibition, airing Oct. 2-4. But it was our story.

It took place mainly in the Greenbush area, a neighborhood composed primarily of Italian immigrants and roughly bordered by Park, Regent and West Washington streets, where almost all of the city's illegal alcohol was made, consumed and delivered.

There were some speakeasies on State Street, a few on the east side for the area's factory workers, and roadhouses on the outskirts of town, east and west. The elite had discreet suppliers and upscale resorts like the Waubesa Country Club.

But generally, if you wanted alcohol, you went to the Bush, to Jennie Justo's well-appointed speakeasies just south of campus, to the Belvidere or any of the scores of anonymous joints (including 10 in just one block of Murray Street).

In the 1960s, it became the Triangle Urban Renewal Area; back then, it was known as "Little Italy," sometimes "Columbus Park."

There were hundreds of honest, hard-working, loving families, minding their gardens and their own business. But there was also an intersection commonly called "Death Corners," where between 1922 and 1928 five men were shot to death. Located where Murray Street and Desmond Court once met, it's now part of the parking ramp at 1 South Park St.

Madison has long struggled with alcohol, for reasons both fine (health, safety, welfare) and foul (race, class). Some of our greatest liberal leaders have been zealous prohibitionists, including venerated University of Wisconsin-Madison President John Bascom, city parks founder John Olin and Capital Times editor/publisher William T. Evjue. We're still struggling.

In the pre-Prohibition years, there was an annual citywide referendum on whether to license taverns. This didn't matter much to the Italians; even before Prohibition, the city had never granted tavern or liquor licenses for the Bush.

But in 1917 and 1918 the "dry" vote prevailed, temporarily shutting licensed taverns even before the federal ban in 1920. So the Fauerbach Brewery on Williamson Street and Hausmann's Capital Brewery on the southwest corner of State and Gorham streets simply opened warehouses in Middleton, paving the way for early improvements to University Avenue. Only the Fauerbach would survive Prohibition, brewing the non-intoxicating Fa-Ba near beer.

Prohibition-related crime in the Bush also opened the door for the Ku Klux Klan. The neighborhood had become a breeding ground for violence and vice, and patriotic white Protestants were eager to fight back.

Three groups of Italian immigrants had begun to immigrate to Madison shortly before the turn of the century. Sicilians of Greco-Albanian stock, like the Parisi and Licali clans, settled on lower Regent Street. The Milton Street area east of Park was the stronghold of pure Sicilians, like the Amato and Fiore families. Another few dozen families from the northern province of Lombardy found homes on West Washington Avenue.

In 1900, there were about 15 Italians living in the Bush; two decades later, there were about 1,500, most of them young, single males. Only a few of the Italian families were bootleggers or moonshiners, of course, but almost all the bootleggers and moonshiners were Italians.

They made rotgut booze and "Dago Red" wine, brewed beer and smuggled real whiskey. They ran soda shops, pool halls and clubs throughout the neighborhood.

Sometimes the moonshine was poisonous industrial alcohol. There were several drinking deaths, including an 18-year-old frat boy from Chicago and a middle-aged Scandinavian woman from Few Street.

Ancient rivalries and modern turf wars would mark the era. From 1915 to 1933 there were 11 fatal shootings in the 10-block area, with victims including three patrolmen and a two-year-old, and numerous bombings, all due to illegal alcohol or family vendettas. Most of the murders were done at close range with sawed-off shotguns, making for a loud and bloody crime.

An ironic, immediate effect of constitutional prohibition in 1920 was a spike in arrests for drunkenness. In 1919, Madison police arrested 50 people for drunkenness. In 1920, they arrested 122, and in 1922, 298; arrests peaked in 1931 at 1,104.

Prosecutions were slight. In a three-month period in late 1922, there were 26 convictions for illegal sales; all resulted in only light fines. "Time to Send Somebody to Jail!" the ardently prohibitionist Capital Times screamed in a front-page editorial.

Over the next two months, police staged 75 raids in the Bush, making 41 arrests and seizing 4,000 gallons of bootlegged whiskey and homemade moonshine - enough alcohol to give each of the city's 45,000 residents a drink a day for a week. More raids followed in April, August and November.

Prices rose, and quality stock dried up. But only for a while.

University students and alumni were a ready and willing clientele. In 1923, the Daily Cardinal denounced the excessive drinking at homecoming. "Fourth wettest campus in the country," proclaimed the authors of a 1931 college drinking survey. A 1932 essay published by the UW's Experimental College noted there were about 75 speakeasies within the immediate campus area, where faculty and students frequently conversed "in a manner which is more agreeable than that of the classroom."

Campus also had the powerful and elite Ku Klux Klan intra-fraternity honorary society. Members included future civic leaders Walter Frautschi - father of Overture philanthropist Jerry Frautschi - Thomas E. Brittingham Jr., 1960s school superintendent Philip Fox, longtime Memorial Union director Porter Butts and the actor later known as Fredric March. At UW, he was called by his real name, Fred Bichel. They didn't wear sheets and hoods, but they named themselves after people who did.

In 1921 the Klan-friendly students conducted surveillance in the Bush, made liquor buys, swore out complaints and joined in a nighttime sweep that netted 300 gallons of liquor and eight arrests. The group changed its name a few years later when an actual Klan-affiliated fraternity began organizing.

Adult Klan activity peaked during the "Rum Wars" of 1924, arguably Madison's worst year for crime ever.

In March of that year, after two back-to-back Bush murders, about 20 robed and hooded Klansmen held Madison's first cross-burning and public initiation of new members. On March 16, Anton Navarra, a leading Italian businessman, was assassinated in his West Washington Avenue grocery store by the Milton Street squad, probably because he posted bonds for the Regent Street crew.

Two weeks later, about 400 Klansmen marched around the Capitol Square and down to Brittingham Park for a cross-burning rally. On July 1, a huge fiery cross drew a throng of 2,000 to Miller's Park south of the city; on Oct. 4, an even larger crowd.

On Dec. 1, rookie patrolman Herbert Dreger fell in a shotgun ambush at Death Corners, the first officer to die on duty. Two hundred masked Klansmen, including several with a police badge and gun, marched down King Street to the funeral parlor. Two Italians were identified and tried, but later freed by a jury.

In late December, Mayor Milo Kittleson and Police and Fire Commission President E.H. Drews (believed to wear the hood himself) secretly deputized about 30 men they knew to be Klansmen, to join seven officers on a pre-Christmas raid. They didn't tell Police Chief Thomas Shaughnessy, who had just announced his retirement after 26 years on the force. After brief debate, the city council paid the Klansmen for their services.

But it was a fighting district attorney named La Follette who really cleaned things up, if only for a while.

Like his father, Robert, Phil La Follette was an honest and hard-working DA. Phil fulfilled his legacy, staging the first successful raid in years of the Bush barely a month after taking office in January 1925. "Little Italy Stunned By Law's Turn," the Capital Times headline blared after 16 were arrested and held on the highest bail ever imposed.

La Follette himself was later stunned to learn that the judge who agreed with his high bail requests, the Hon. Ole Stolen, had "borrowed" $2,500 - more than half his annual salary - from bootlegger "Little Pete" La Bruzzo in a 1924 meeting at Navarra's grocery. Stolen, who was being blackmailed over using perjured testimony when he was the pardon attorney for a man who had murdered an 11-year-old girl, resigned and was disbarred.

Every year there was a raid or two, another flurry of wishful thinking. And people kept drinking. Even as DAs like Fred Risser - Sen. Fred Risser's father - kept trying to stop them.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised Happy Days during the 1932 presidential campaign, and there was soon a date to celebrate - April 7, 1933, the legalization of light wine and beer with 3.2% alcohol. Eight months later, the 18th Amendment was repealed, and Prohibition was over.

Midnight on April 7, 1933. Five thousand thirsty Madisonians throng Williamson Street around the city's only remaining brewery, the Fauerbach. They crowd the bar and sing beer-garden songs as the first cases are handed out.

At seven that morning, thousands more flock to the 120 taverns and restaurants licensed since the end of Prohibition, drinking beer with an enthusiasm never seen before or equaled since.

Officials said $100,000 was spent that first weekend of legalized 3.2 beer. Groceries were also cleaned out of cheese and rye bread.

Some things didn't change, though. Moments after midnight Friday, as the crowds were surging at the Fauerbach, someone firebombed Frank Genna's car in his Greenbush garage.

But there was one important advance. For the first time ever, the city granted alcohol licenses for taverns and groceries in Little Italy.

Licenses also went to seven convicted bootleggers, including one sentenced to a year in federal prison. These licensees were named Rogers, Gannon and Quinlan; men named Di Martino and La Bruzzo were not so favored.

Lawlessness didn't end with partial legalization, as police were given new powers to search and arrest for unlicensed activity. Arrests and convictions would continue.

History was made in the Rathskeller on Oct. 13, 1933, when the UW became the first public university to sell beer in 13 years. Even after the legalization of stronger beer that December, the Regents kept the cap at 3.2 and didn't allow anything more potent at the Rathskeller or Lakeshore dining halls until September 1967.

After the Summer of Love, a month before the police riot at the Commerce building, 5% beer was the least of its worries.

Madison didn't handle the final chapter of Prohibition very well. Even after hard liquor was legalized on Dec. 5, 1933, Madison maintained its ban for more than a week - the only large city in the state to do so. The council had easily agreed to license strong beer and liquor but couldn't decide on terms for hard liquor. It took four meetings - and a do-over vote - to agree on liquor sales in 57 taverns, 15 restaurants, 10 liquor stores, all hotels, clubs and licensed drugstores.

And then an alderman on the alcohol licensing committee admitted pressing tavern keepers to buy required surety bonds through his insurance company.

A fitting end to the era.

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