Prohibition: Speakeasies, Stills, and Organized Crime

By MCHS Staff
January 19, 2021

Much like the rest of the U.S., Morris County felt the effects of Prohibition following the ratification of the 18th amendment and passage of the Volstead Act in 1919. Restaurants and bars had to either change their stock or close their doors. Here, the production of alcohol, however, had a long and deep-rooted history so, while some supported prohibition, others found ways around the law. Despite regulations, alcohol flowed and speakeasies blossomed.

The Canary Cottage
Ralston Cider Mill today

In Morristown, a large percentage of speakeasies were speculated to be along or near Speedwell Ave.1 Since their illicit nature made them difficult to trace, it wasn’t until two expertly designed, brick-lined tunnels complete with 10,000 gallon vat and wine casks were discovered during the local urban renewal project in 1971, that both their existence and abundance were confirmed. Similarly, in Mendham, an extremely well-concealed distilling operation existed between Ralston Cider Mill (top photo) and “Sammy’s,” the unassuming ‘restaurant’ across the street. The most swinging of local speakeasies, however, was the Canary Cottage in Florham Park. Located on the 300-acre private estate of Carnot Ward, a man who ‘mysteriously’ failed to home for dinner one evening, it was a well-known safe house for organized crime affiliates such as “Lucky” Luciano, Willi Moretti, and “Longy” Zwillman by 1927.

1931 Mugshot of Charles “Lucky” Luciano

In Morris County, as throughout the nation, Prohibition brought about a massive decline in tax revenue and marked increase in organized and petty crime as officials were continually outwitted and alcohol production and consumption continued. Corruption grew rampant as law enforcement and public officials, alike, accepted bribes to “look the other way.” For instance, Morristown Mayor Clyde Potts suspended Police Chief Herbert C. Wildey after ignoring the mayor’s call for raids on all establishments selling illegal alcohol, including one operating inside the former police headquarters.7

On December 5, 1933, Prohibition was repealed; the “noble experiment” failed to provide the wholesome atmosphere and economic prosperity supporters envisioned.8 Instead, the nation found itself in the grip of the Great Depression, people and businesses everywhere were struggling. With the renewed ability to sell and consume alcohol legally, some local businesses were able to stay afloat and adults could escape their troubles, at least temporarily.

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1 Prohibition Didn’t Dampen Spirits in Morristown. Daily Record. Fred Snowflack. Sept. 29, 1988.
2 Morristown: A Military Headquarters of the American Revolution. John W. Rae. 122-124.
3 Ibid.
4 Snowflack, Prohibition Didn’t Dampen Spirits
5 Lerner, Michael, “Prohibition: Unintended Consequences.” pbs.org Dec. 17, 2020
6 Mrs. Cora Welsh Dies Suddenly After Meeting. Morristown Daily Record. Dec. 12, 1942
7 Action Follows Two Raids; Roff Temporarily Named. Morristown Daily Record. Sept. 28, 1933.
8 Law of the Land. Spencer Howard. National Archives. https://hoover.blogs.archives.gov/2016/04/06/law-of-the-land/