The Seattle Times tells the tale of an attempt to smuggle liquor into the United States on a circus train on August 4, 1933.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 1/06/2012
  • Essay 10002

On August 4, 1933, The Seattle Times publishes a humorous article written by reporter Doug Welch (1907-1968) about an attempt to smuggle liquor from Canada into the United States at Blaine on a circus train.  There are any number of creative and entertaining stories about smuggling liquor during Prohibition (in effect from 1916 until 1933 in Washington state), and this essay talks about three of them, including Welch's story.

A Slippery Scheme

The circus train crossed the Canadian border at Blaine, edged up to the town's train station, and squealed to a stop. It was midnight, the depot was dark, but customs inspectors were there and waiting.  Several men casually sauntered out and began walking the length of the train.  A circus manager on the train, equally casual, hopped down to the depot's platform, fired up a cigarette, and waited.    

A customs man eyed the circus boss. "I suppose you haven't any liquor on this train," he said laconically.  "Hell no," affirmed the circus man with faux innocence. "We know better than that" ("Snakes In Whiskey").  

The inspector didn't think so. Climbing into a baggage car, he opened a trunk that appeared to contain scraps of old clothes. He slid his hand underneath the clothes -- and out popped the head of an angry rattlesnake from a corner of the trunk.  Screaming, the inspector whipped out his .45 revolver and fired off a couple of rounds at the snake.  The circus baggage master then owned up that there were a dozen more snakes in the trunk. The inspector ordered him to take them out. The carny refused. The inspector offered to shoot the rest of them. The carny changed his mind. Out came the snakes, and lo, what was there but twelve quarts of whiskey hidden underneath their lair.    

Lions and Tigers and … Laughing Hyenas

More customs inspectors swarmed the train. They noticed a tiger was pacing restlessly in his cage and seemed to be having problems lying down.  Then they found why:  A case of rum had been shoved under his straw, making an uncomfortable bulge in his bed. Two more cases of rum were uncovered in the lion's cage. The ocelot cage yielded brandy, while the laughing hyena cage turned up beer.  The inspectors took away a carload of liquor, fined the circus management several hundred dollars for their trouble, and sent the train on its way.

Welch shared a few more smuggling stories in his article. One of the better ones was related to him by F. V. Wilcox, a customs guard captain. Wilcox told the tale of a customs inspector who was hanging out by the Lenora Street ferry terminal one summer night, watching passengers get off a ferry that had just arrived from Canada. It was an especially warm night, so the inspector was wary when he spotted a man in a top coat buttoned up to his chin.  He saw the gentleman was walking oddly, almost like a duck, and had his hands jammed into his pockets. He greeted the man, who carefully -- almost robotically -- turned toward him. The inspector asked him to unbutton his coat. Turned out the voyager was carrying two gallons of whiskey underneath.  


Sometimes the smugglers snuck their goods across the border only to do the double-cross once the goods were safely on American soil. In 1925 The Seattle Times reported a cautionary tale of four area businessmen who swung a deal with the wrong guy to smuggle 276 cases of liquor from Canada for $10,000. The liquor was loaded on a freight car in British Columbia and successfully slipped across the border -- but then the crafty con artist diverted the train to Granite Falls, where he and his pals removed all but six cases of the liquor. The train was then sent to West Seattle.  

Filled with righteous indignation, the victimized businessmen actually reported the theft to the authorities. It didn't take much sleuthing to determine that the whiskey had been unloaded at Granite Falls and diverted to bootleggers in Everett, who candidly admitted that the hooch came from the hijacked load. Shrugged the newspaper, "Whether anyone would prosecute the fugitive hijacker if he is caught is not known" ("$10,000 Rum…").

These three stories just scratch the surface.  There are lots more out there. And remember that for the unfortunate few that got caught (or conned), more didn't. 

Sources: "$10,000 Rum Hijacker Plot Revealed Here," The Seattle Daily Times, September 24, 1925, p. 1;  Doug Welch, "Snakes In Whiskey," Ibid., August 4, 1933,  pp. 1, 8. 

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