A superb 2004 master’s thesis completed in the University of Idaho’s history department by Donna Krulitz Smith examines how prohibition – first at the statewide level, imposed on January 1, 1916, and later, nationwide prohibition, imposed on January 17, 1920 – played out in the rough-and-ready environs of the Coeur d’Alene Mining District of Idaho’s northern panhandle.(1) The core sections of Smith’s narrative tell the story of two important trials. The first prosecuted town officials and other involved parties from Mullan, a village just six miles west of the Idaho-Montana border; the second prosecuted a like group of defendants from Wallace, Shoshone County’s county seat, six miles west of Mullan on U.S. Hwy 10 (now Interstate-90). Both sets of city leaders were accused of condoning, protecting, and illegally benefiting from illicit liquor trade during prohibition. An alleged conspiracy conducted by these defendants imposed illegal taxes, fines, or fees on bogus “soft drink” establishments and other alcohol-vending businesses, including the district’s ample supply of sporting houses. But there was an important twist to the story: The tribute system in Mullan and Wallace – unlike the sprawling graft and corruption schemes spawned by prohibition in the nation’s large urban centers – did not find municipal officials personally profiting from the arrangement. Instead, all revenue thus derived went straight into the two cities’ respective treasuries.
Defense attorney C.H. Potts’ summation drew upon the deeper historical roots of Mullan’s special cultural circumstances. Potts argued that the village’s origins as a mining camp, peopled with prospectors “who follow adventure, with their free-and-easy life and desire for entertainment” provided the relevant context for the town’s special relationship to prohibition. Smith added regarding Potts’ special plea: “After a long, dangerous day a thousand feet underground miners sought amusement, and to accommodate them, establishments with liquor, gambling, and prostitutes catered to their needs. How, he asked, could the present officials be responsible for these conditions?” (p. 143). In the end, however, it was all to no avail. Ray won his treasured convictions. One tacit message thus sent by the jury was that supportive community sentiment so prevalent in the mining district was not also available in the City of Coeur d’Alene, 56 miles westward. This sort of localism was evidenced in other ways as well. When Ray’s subsequent prosecution convicted a similar array of defendants from Wallace, Spokane’s newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, described the mining town as a “modern Sodom” (p. 180). Spokane, it seems — some 85 miles west of Wallace and even though it was the beneficiary of the mining district’s massive historical contribution to the region’s wealth — had little moral support to offer besieged Wallace. Shoshone County citizenry reacted angrily to the slur. A resolution in The Wallace-Press Times noted that 100 local businessmen in the county “voted to stop subscriptions to Spokane newspapers and boycott Spokane businesses that supported the dailies” (p. 180). A separate resolution out of the Shoshone County Board of Trade shot back at the Spokesman-Review and Spokane as well:
In this period of adversity we have learned something about our neighbors. We have found that a great community, built and supported largely by the wealth which our pioneers and their sturdy successors have uncovered in the hills of the Coeur d’Alenes, is not our friend in this hour, but rather in its fanatical adherences to the principle of making men righteous by law has rejoiced in our misfortune and been ready to heap opprobrium upon us. (quoted in Smith, p. 181)
Yet Ray’s vigorous prosecutions ultimately unraveled. The convictions of some Wallace defendants were reversed on appeal, causing Ray, magnanimously, to free the other convicted Wallace defendants as well. The convictions of Mullan defendants Sheriff Weniger and Deputy Bloom were overturned in 1931. Prominent district figures sent letters to President Hoover urging pardons for all. Smith noted that even national WCTU president, Ella A. Boole, wrote the U.S. Attorney General in 1931 requesting that ‘“if there are any extenuating circumstances that justify the pardon of these politicians” to let her know’ (p. 206). The blessing of full pardons was finally delivered by President Roosevelt on August 16, 1934.
The tale Smith recounts so beautifully left a lasting imprint on Shoshone County’s mining district, with implications and effects that stretch far beyond the turbulent era of alcohol prohibition. Because local sentiment backed the “license by fine” system, the prosecutions, convictions, and incarcerations of prominent and respected members of the community left an enduring imprint that even today still shapes local culture and attitudes toward outsiders, whether relatively nearby in Coeur d’Alene City or Spokane, or farther off in Washington, D.C. Donna Krulitz Smith’s well told and richly documented account nicely bridges the gap between the 1929 trials and Shoshone County’s larger cultural disposition. Incidentally, Smith’s concluding chapter notes that the Coeur d’Alene Mining District’s situation in relation to prohibition was by no means unique. Many small communities around the West with natural resources-based work forces evolved similar tribute systems with similar popular support and makeshift legitimacy. These also on occasion fell victim to federal prosecutions, with varying results, as Smith recounts.
In a recent email exchange about Smith’s thesis with local historian and retired judge, Richard Magnuson, (3) he offered the following observation:
It is no wonder we are entranced by the stories of the people who walked the gulches of our mining district. They were a special breed, which are hard for outsiders to understand. [Yet] their history seems so logical to us.
Warmest thanks are due local historians Dick Caron and Tom Harman for bringing Smith’s thesis to my attention and for making a copy on loan from the University of Idaho library available to me.
(1) Donna Krulitz Smith, “It Will All Come Out in the Courtroom”: Prohibition in Shoshone County, Idaho, Master’s Thesis, History, University of Idaho, Moscow, 2004. (I was saddened to learn that Smith passed away in December, 2009.)
(2) Sarah Hand Meacham, Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
(3) Richard G. Magnuson, Coeur d’Alene Diary: The First Ten Years of Hardrock Mining in North Idaho, Portland, OR: Binford & Mort Publishing, 1968/1983.