Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City

Few scholarly studies of local resistance to Prohibition  exist. This book deals with New York City as the nation’s greatest liquor market at the start of Prohibition.  Supporters of the Eighteenth Amendment looked forward to “drying up” New York City as their greatest triumph.  Instead, the city remained the nation’s greatest liquor market with the help of smugglers, bootleggers, and scofflaws.

Coast Guard records in the National Archives include 90 archival boxes with information on boats seized for smuggling liquor  from 1920-33. Lawson examines for a history of Rum Row which emerged off Nantucket and Long Island during Prohibition. Here foreign ships  supplied the New York liquor market.  The book looks at smuggling from Rum Row to the southern coast of Long Island, Long Island Sound, northern Jersey, Manhattan, and  up  the Hudson and East Rivers.  (The first chapters on smuggling include extensive photographs from the archives, many never before published.)

Next the book examines the emergence of three major smuggling syndicates in Manhattan: on the Lower East Side;  West Side;  and in Little Italy. These syndicates eventually merged into the Broadway Mob based in midtown Manhattan.

Further, the book studies New York City’s scofflaw population — natives and tourists who  “scoffed at the law” in an estimated 30,000 speakeasies and 500 nightclubs. The city produced anti-Prohibition politicians with national reputations. These included Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, Mayor James “Jimmy” Walker, Columbia University’s President Nicholas Murray Butler, socialite Pauline Morton Sabin, and Governor Al Smith.

New York City’s smugglers, bootleggers, and scofflaws resisted the 18th Amendment and actively asserted  the right to drink alcohol for enjoyment. This puts them squarely  in the American tradition of  fighters for liberty. Their persistence was key to the unprecedented  repeal of a constitutional amendment ending Prohibition.

Published by State University of New York Press, 2013, 160 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-4384-4816-9 paperback and as an ebook.

To order, call toll free  at 1-877-204-6073 or e-mail

 This is a scholarly book with extensive footnotes, bibliography, primary documents,and  index as well as narrative and photographs. The book was designed for  use at the college level as supplementary reading. If you are an instructor,  you may order an examination copy to decide if you want to adopt it. There is a  $10 processing fee. To order an examination copy, go to or click here.

Order an Examination Copy Here

Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City is now available on kindle or paperback at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

The Hudson Valley Review

Timothy Houlihan, St. Francis College

In popular culture, Prohibition apears to have been more of an experiment, or a quirk, than a subject for close scholarly inspection. But in her new book Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws, Ellen NicKenzie Lawson mines a fantastic trove of little-used sources to detail the experience of Prohibition for three distinct but related groups of then-criminals in New York City. Over the course of her book, Lawson builds a credible, detailed argument for the serious study of resistance to Prohibition.

“…Ellen NicKenzie Lawson tells the story of how New York City, the greatest liquor market before Prohibition, retained its title… Enlightening and entertaining.”

David Ferreiro, Archivist of the United States, National Archives

Free Downloadable Photos

View Images

Primary Documents in Appendix to Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws

l. Letter to Asst. U.S. Attorney from relative of sailor lost on smuggling ship.

2. Anonymous letter to Dept. of Justice on corruption in community on Long Island.

3. Letter to U.S. Treasury on smuggling to eastern end of Long Island.

4. Anonymous letter To U.S. Treasury with tip on smuggling in northern New Jersey.

5. Anonymous letter on smuggling to Fulton Fish Market in East River.

6. Coast Guard telegram on smuggling to Fish Market.

7. Coast Guard Division Commander’s letter on Fulton Fish Market.

8. Statement of crewman aboard smuggler to Long Island.

9. Seized letter of bootlegger in Havana to friend in New York City.

10. Letter of father in Sicily to captain of smuggling ship to Long Island.

11. Selected Congressional testimony by U.S. Attorney for Southern District of New York.

12. Selected Passages from speeches on Prohibition by New York Congressman Fiorello La Guardia