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A Bootlegging Mother

A newspaper article about a mother who made and sold illegal liquor out of necessity.

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Summary

LONG TERM GIVEN MOTHER OF SIX AS SELLER OF LIQUOR
Husband Had No Part in Law Violations, She Tells Court
Mrs. Mary Toia, 582 Saratoga street, mother of six children, assumed full responsibility Tuesday for sale and possession of liquor in her home, and appealed to the United States Judge Wayne G. Borsch not to sentence her husband, charged jointly with her for selling liquor but to permit him to “stay out” and care for the children. Mrs. Mary Toia is a wife and mother of six children. On Tuesday she pled guilty to selling and possessing alcohol in her home.
Mary asked the judge not to charge her husband. She wants her husband to stay out of jail and take care of the children.
She admitted also that she was a third offender in violating the National Prohibition Act. “My husband had nothing to do with the liquor. He works all right, but we didn’t have enough money to care for the kids—so I just kept on selling it. I knew I would get caught again, sooner or later,” she said. Mary admitted this is the third time she has broken the National Prohibition Act. She stated her husband was not involved. They needed the money so she kept selling alcohol.
The court sentenced her to a year and a day in the women’s industrial reformatory at Alderson, W. Va., $300 fine and 12 months’ suspended sentence and suspended imposition of sentence on the husband, Vincent Toia. Mary was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison. She must also pay a $300 fine. Her husband was not charged.

“Long Term Given Mother of Six as Seller of Liquor,” May 4, 1932, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

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Background

The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol in the United States. This was commonly known as Prohibition. As soon as Prohibition started, so did bootlegging. Popular media of the time often portrayed bootleggers as mobsters or glamorous speakeasy matrons. While such people existed, most bootlegging happened on a much smaller scale.

For working-class families, particularly at the start of the Great Depression, selling alcohol provided a necessary second income. Women were active participants in this home-grown industry. While men were outside the home working, women could manage a liquor enterprise while completing their other at home responsibilities. Some women distilled liquor in their homes on a small scale; others sold liquor acquired through larger smuggling operations.

It is difficult to quantify how many women participated in small-scale bootlegging. However, the number of women arrested under Prohibition laws suggests it was a widespread practice. More women were charged with federal crimes than ever before. A federal women’s prison was built in West Virginia in response to the so-called crisis.

The growing number of people imprisoned for selling alcohol contributed to Prohibition’s repeal. By the early 1930s, many Americans believed that the Eighteenth Amendment did more harm than good. Congress passed the Twenty-First Amendment repealing Prohibition in February 1933, and it was ratified in December of that year.

About the Document

This newspaper article from the New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune describes the case of Mary Toia, who was charged with the illegal sale of liquor for the third time. The Times-Picayune regularly published articles about women and men charged with bootlegging, suggesting that many New Orleans families needed the additional income illegal liquor sales provided.

Vocabulary

  • bootlegging: The illegal production and sale of alcohol.
  • Eighteenth Amendment: An amendment to the Constitution that prohibited the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol.
  • liquor: Alcohol.
  • National Prohibition Act: A national law that enforced the Eighteenth Amendment. Also known as the Volstead Act.
  • reformatory: Prison.
  • Twentieth Amendment: An amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealing the Eighteenth Amendment.

Discussion Questions

  • Why was Mary Toia arrested? What was her motivation for breaking the law?
  • How did Mary respond to the charges? Why was her initial focus on her husband?
  • Mary acknowledges that she knew she would be caught a third time. Why did she continue to bootleg? What does this say about her family’s economic situation?
  • What does this article tell you about bootleggers? How does this compare with the romanticized view of mobsters and speakeasy owners?
  • What was the judge’s decision? Do you think it was fair? Why or why not?
  • How might Mary Toia’s case serve as an argument for the repeal (or end) of Prohibition?
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Themes

WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY

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