Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Providence Mob

Prohibition and a Murky Beginning

Rhode Island map (AP)
Rhode Island map (AP)

"If ever there was a state that gleefully thumbed its nose at Prohibition, it was Rhode Island," a reporter wrote. "Throughout the Roaring Twenties, Rhode Island was probably the most anti-Prohibition state in the union."

Rhode Island and Connecticut were the only two states not to ratify the 18th Amendment to the Constitution commonly referred to as Prohibition. The unpopular law, outlawed alcohol for 14 years and helped give birth to organized crime in America, also fueled the wild times that became known as the "Roaring '20s."

Politicians, the government and law enforcement agencies knew as early as 1922 that Prohibition was a failure and that the Volsted Act was impossible to enforce. While many states battled bootleggers who produced beer and bathtub gin, Rhode Island, with its 400 miles of open coastline, was a haven for rumrunners bringing in the "real stuff" from Canada and the Bahamas using speed boats and other vessels. Those who couldn't afford the imported hooch made their own with a variety of home recipes, of which the ingredients could be easily purchased at local stores.

The law's unpopularity could be seen in the aftermath of the death of three rumrunners who were cut down by members of the Coast Guard on December 29, 1929. A Newport reverend told his congregation, "The deaths of these men must bring to us a little more clearly the horrible price we are paying in attempting to enforce laws which are fundamentally un-American and un-Christian."

In February 1930 state legislators scheduled a referendum, which was held the following November. The vote for repeal of Prohibition was 172,545 for, 48,540 against. In Providence, as in the rest of the state, the large Catholic population saw the law as a WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) order to impose their values on them. The city never accepted it. The referendum vote showed that, "On Providence's Federal Hill, a bastion of Italian immigrants, the tally against Prohibition in one voting district was 2,005 to 3."

In Providence, during the "Dry Era," federal agents joined the regular thirsty crowds at one of the city's popular restaurants. Described in a 1999 article, a reporter revealed:

"A haunt called Marconi's Roman Garden where Camille's is now on Bradford Street on Federal Hill was patronized by Prohibition agents. Wine cost $1 a bottle or 30 cents by the glass. Scotch, rye, and gin were delivered gratis by Prohibition agents who, in return, ate all the Marconi food and drank all the Marconi wine they wanted, always in the cellar with other favored guests."

One of the state's more colorful bootleggers was Daniel L. "Danny" Walsh. By the mid-1920s Walsh had put together a fleet of planes, boats and cars and earned the reputation of being one of "the most daring rum-runners on the East Coast." Walsh considered himself a "gentleman farmer" and spent his money on prize horses for his Charleston farm, and two plush apartments he kept in Providence. In 1928 the government went after him for back taxes. Charging that he owed the Internal Revenue Service $350,000 in back taxes and penalties, the government agreed to settle for "something far less."

On February 2, 1933, Walsh waved goodbye to several associates after dining at a Pawtuxet Village café. He was never seen again. Several days after his disappearance a ransom note arrived for Walsh's brother Joseph demanding $40,000. Joseph traveled to Boston, paid the demand, but Danny was never returned. It was reported that four of Walsh's former associates were seen digging a hole near an abandoned building on Danny's horse farm, and poring an unknown powder, rumored to be lime, into it. Nothing ever came of the investigation into this incident.

An inquiry was held after his disappearance in federal court. One associate said that Walsh made payoffs and held conferences in New York with an Atlantic Coast rum-running syndicate known as the "Big Seven." The one rumor, which was prevalent, was that Walsh "was stuffed into a barrel of cement and taken out on a rum boat and his remains dumped into the sea off Block Island."

As the years passed it was reported that "any time a suspicious corpse was found in the Massachusetts or Rhode Island woods or a skull turned up in a fishing net off Block Island, police checked it against Danny Walsh's dental records." In the decades that have passed Walsh's body has never been recovered.

 

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