Blast from the Past With a Photo of a Moonshiner’s Still Explosion, Harbor City, Los Angeles, November 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the failed experiment from 1920 to 1933 that was Prohibition, the attempt through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to ban the manufacture, sale, distribution and, in many local jurisdictions, the added ban on possession of alcoholic beverages, the operative phrase was generally that the law was “honored in the breach.” The illicit beer, liquor and wine black market was widespread as the Department of Justice and other federal agencies waged war fruitlessly against the enormous demand for alcohol across much of the country.

In an oral history conducted about a quarter century ago, Jack Romero, whose father, Joe, was the ranch foreman and driver for the Temple family at the Homestead, stated to me that the elder Romero outfitted a Locomobile with a rear seat that contained a hidden storage area underneath for the concealment of all manner of illegal beverages. One anecdote Jack shared was how his father narrowly evaded law enforcement as he raced down Valley Boulevard from Los Angeles to the ranch with a cache of hooch.

Los Angeles Herald, 5 December 1909.

In the La Puente Valley, as well as many other areas of Los Angeles County where rural isolation well served the purposes of moonshiners, bootleggers and their clientele, the Temples were among many who took advantage of the condition to sidestep the law and enjoy the beverages available to them. This included quite a few locals who provided product in ready access, as one recent post here noted.

The highlighted object from the Museum’s holdings for this post is a November 1926 photo of an obliterated house in the Harbor City/Lomita area of the South Bay close to the Port of Los Angeles where an earth-shattering explosion occurred because of a moonshiner’s still set up in the frame dwelling which was ripped to splinters by the blast. While the incident, which took place on the 17th, was certainly dramatic, especially because it led to the death of a man involved in the distilling, it was one of many reports during that month relating to the illicit alcohol trade.

Los Angeles Express, 19 April 1912.

Actually, there were a couple of notable references to moonshine on Halloween. Dr. Philip M. Lovell, in a lengthy Los Angeles Times exposition in his health column, linked illegal alcohol to “infantilism,” or the stunted development of children that led to “subnormal” adults. The next day’s Whittier News reported on a bust of a holiday party held at the residence of Guadalupe Hidalgo and where “high-powered moonshine” was said to be consumed in large quantities. Five other Latinos were arrested and pled guilty before a local judge, also a Latino.

Another Halloween celebration was interrupted in Inglewood, where a squad of officers passed by the house of Ernest Brown, who, it was reported by the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, also of 1 November, readily let the police in, telling them “I am just doing a little work in my study.” Espying a trash can filled with paper, the officers rummaged through and discovered a half-dozen bottles of moonshine whisky, leading a judge, after imposing a $150 fine on Brown, to comment, “I must say you kept the liquor where it belonged.”

Whittier News, 1 November 1926.

The Long Beach Press-Telegram on the 2nd reported on the arrest of Morgan Loomis, a resident of the hamlet of Hynes, now Paramount, who drank “moonshine so powerful that it would ‘make a rabbit spit in a bulldog’s face'” while in a café. The proprietor purportedly protested Loomis’ imbibing, which was followed by his tripping on the feet of an orchestra musician and crashing into tables and chairs, being evicted and then seeking readmittance by banging on the establishment’s doors and windows. Police arrived and hauled the drunk away and he was handed a sentence of a $100 fine or 50 days in the lockup.

Three days later, the Los Angeles Record wrote of Mrs. Refugio Medrano and her being fined $200 after officers unearthed several bottles of moonshine in her yard. When she professed surprise at the discovery, claiming she had no knowledge of the bootleg boozed, her six-year old daughter piped up with:

What do you mean by digging up that whiskey? Mama told me not to touch it because she didn’t mean to dig it up for two or three weeks!

In Manhattan Beach, the Times of the 9th recorded, Dick Moore was caught with 30 gallons of moonshine and six barrels of mash along with a 25-gallon still after an officer reported that he got a strong whiff of liquor while passing by. In rendering a 90-day jail sentence, the judge told the court that “a fine was no more than a heavy license fee and that hereafter bootleggers brought before him were to receive the stiffest sentences which the law provides.”

Monrovia News, 9 November 1926.

The same day, the Monrovia News noted that two men from that town and another from neighboring Duarte were in the county jail for possession of moonshine and the material to manufacture it after deputy sheriffs and local officers conducted a raid. One man had 40 pints of liquor stashed in his garage, while another had 1 1/2 gallons of liquor and 3 of wine along with 100 gallons of mash, and the last was caught with a portable still of 5 gallon capacity and two gallons and a pint of “alleged whiskey.”

In its edition of the 15th, the Venice Vanguard reported on a $30,000 haul confiscated by the sheriff department and federal agents on a raid at a vacant store building near Culver City and across from the well-known Plantation Club. A man giving his name as Sam Slack, but who was identified as Joe Ortega, was nabbed. Nearby, close to where the Columbia Studios, formerly that of the late Thomas Ince, was situated and now is Sony Studios, Anna Allen was hauled in for possessing 30 pints of hooch. It was added that sheriff’s deputies raided locales in Compton and Clearwater (next to Hynes and now Paramount) and took possession of three cars, marijuana valued at hundreds of dollars and 100 gallons of moonshine.

Venice Vanguard, 15 November 1926.

The same day’s Times observed that it had some sage advice for the denizens of “Rum Row” when it came to supplying contraband product: “if you expect to deliver illicit liquor to Joe, be sure you know him when you see him.” This was because Willis Galmon arrived at the intersection of Central and Slauson avenues in the South Park area of South Los Angeles and asked a fellow if he was “Joe.” After an affirmative answer, Galmon handed over a gallon of moonshine and, when given $9, asked for three more, but was promptly shown the badge of a deputy sheriff and taken to the hoosegow.

Amid all this activity in the first two weeks of November, there was the sensational explosion at a house on 253rd Street, the remains of which were shown in the featured photo and which was described as being in Harbor City, though it might have been in neighboring Lomita. Both of these communities are little-known outside of the South Bay area, but were developed by the prominent real estate firm of W.I. Hollingsworth Company of Los Angeles.

San Pedro Pilot, 17 November 1926.

With another period of major regional growth in the first years of the 20th century, this region just north of San Pedro and near the rapidly expanding Port of Los Angeles was ripe for development, though it had long been, because of the runoff of inland water through local rivers and creeks, an area of wetlands and sloughs, including the Bixby and one called N—-r because the early African-American resident Joshua Smart owned land in that section—the name was later changed to Dominguez Slough.

Having secured the San Pedro/Wilmington harbor and port as the main one for the area during the so-called “Free Harbor Fight” of the 1890s in which the Southern Pacific and its Santa Monica wharf were fended off in that contest, Los Angeles, moving aggressively into annexation for its growth, looked to absorb those previously independent communities—this was achieved in 1909 by voters in both approving the move.

Long Beach Press-Telegram, 17 November 1926.

Lomita was established in 1907 on about 1,500 acres with the prospect of it being largely colonized by Dunkards, a common name for German Baptists organized as the Church of the Brethren and who were best known locally for the creation of Lordsburg College in the eastern Los Angeles County town of that name, but now the University of La Verne. While the concept at Lomita did not become realized, there was a new effort by Hollingsworth in late spring 1909, including advertising the community as the “Gateway of the San Pedro Harbor District” as well as the amenities of plenty of water and fertile soil and its being adjacent to the “shoestring” that connected Los Angeles to its newly annexed harbor towns. It was not until 1964, though, that Lomita, which has about 21,000 residents, was incorporated.

As for Harbor City, plans for it were announced early in February 1912 as a 125-acre tract (part of 500 acquired by the Hollingsworth company and subdivided into quarter-acre and half-acre sites outside the little town) situated between Lomita and Wilmington and “most of which is in the Shoe String strip and consequently within the limits of the City of Los Angeles.” It was noted that significant frontage for the development was to be along “Weston” Avenue—this actually meant Western Avenue—while a streetcar line connecting Gardena to the north to San Pedro on the south passed through it along what is now Normandie Avenue, Vermont Avenue and Gaffey Street and more frontage was along the Bixby Slough to the east and south.

Los Angeles Times, 18 November 1926.

With regards to the blast, the San Pedro Pilot of 17 November ran a big headline reading “MAN DEFIES BURNS FOR HOURS, DIES,” and its coverage gave the address as 2329 253rd Street in Harbor City, though there is no such street number, the closest being at the west end of Lomita near the Torrance border. In any case, the account continued that “Dalles Whitcoat,” age 35, and said to be a “seafaring man” died at the San Pedro Hospital from burns contracted from t disaster. It added that “the fire originated in the explosion of moonshine whiskey ignited by an electric needle used in aging it.”

The article went on to observe that,

The case was the most spectacular and interesting in which the San Pedro police have been involved in many months, involving as it did flying bullets, liquor and the peregrinations of a dying man who could not be located for some time.

At 1:30 that morning, a neighbor, wife of a Harbor City police sergeant, was startled to hear the honking of geese and “crack of discharging [gun] cartridges” as well as the glowing flames. As bullets burst from the burning dwelling and firefighters could not attend to it, they directed their attention to saving the police officer’s house. Returning to the structure which exploded and then burned to the ground, they searched for a body, finding nothing, though two 5-gallon containers of moonshine were extricated from the smoldering ruins.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 18 November 1926.

Later, officers found that “Whitcoat” was at the San Pedro Hospital, having been driven there from the Metropole Hotel in that community and where he’d registered under the name “McGuire.” Yet, the day before the fire, under “Whitcoat,” the man took up the rental of the Harbor City house, obviously to begin his work as a bootlegger. When law enforcement personnel got to the hospital, “they found Whitcoat . . . suffering intense pain from terrible burns but seated in a chair” though “he refused to allow anyone to touch him, walked out to the ambulance and seated himself upright.” When the ambulance arrived, “he walked unaided inside and collapsed.”

Doctors found that “his entire body was seared with third-degree burns . . . the flesh in many places threatening to drop from his bones” and the paper added that how he managed to make it all the way from Harbor City “is beyond the ken of the hospital surgeons.” The physicians pronounced the matter “as a feat of superhuman endurance.” All that was known of Whitcoat/McGuire was that “he was discharged recently from [the Navy and had been assigned to] the U.S.S. Colorado,” a battleship launched in 1923 and decommissioned nearly a quarter century later (being turned into scrap in 1959).

Illustrated Daily News, 18 November 1926.

The Long Beach Press-Telegram gave the man’s surname as “Whitcraft” and a slightly different address of 2377 and also reported that he “burst from the flaming doorway, dashed through the throng of firemen and volunteer workers and disappeared” and flagged down a motorist who took him to the hospital, a former house known as the Hillside Hospital and which was razed after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. Otherwise, this account provided considerably less information and much varied from its San Pedro counterpart.

The following day’s Los Angeles Times stated that “fear of the police outweighed that of an agonizing death in the mind” of “Dallis Whitfelt, alias McBride, alias McGuire” as he was said to have scampered from the blast scene and that his reason for doing so was because he’d left the hotel for the Harbor City house became police officers were on his bootlegging trail. The paper went on that he fled “in his night garments, and, carrying his trousers in one hand and his hat in the other, ran a mile to a filling station,” where he asked an attendant to drive him to the San Pedro hostelry.

As the gas station employee headed that direction, “suffering horrible agony, Whifelt then asked to be taken to a hospital” in a private ambulance and that the police not be called. It was noted that “on the way to the hospital, the suffering man sat upright, as his burned skin would be torn from his body if he reclined” and that he “remained conscious for hours.” The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News published a photo of the charred ruins of the bootlegging house and its short article largely echoed the account of the Times.

All that was located subsequently was that the deceased’s true name was Arthur L. McGuire and that local officials wired Washington, D.C., presumably the Department of War, for information of next of kin somewhere in the eastern states. The identity of McGuire was confirmed by a former shipmate from the Colorado, but nothing else could be located about what transpired afterward or before the explosion. Notably, there were at least fifteen reported blasts from illicit liquor stills in Los Angeles County between 1920 and 1926, even if that involving McGuire at Harbor City/Lomita was the most spectacular. Meanwhile, we’ll look to feature more Prohibition-related posts, including about illicit distilling, bootlegging and moonshining, so look out for those.

3 thoughts

  1. I find most interesting the case of; “Mrs. Refugio Medrano and her being fined $200 after officers unearthed several bottles of moonshine in her yard.”

    As I understand it, the Volstead act did not outlaw the possession or consumption of alcohol but rather just the manufacture, buying/selling and transport of alcohol.

    If a person had bottles in their house (or buried in their yard) for a violation to occur, it would have to proven that she had purchased the alcohol (after prohibition became in effect in January 1920) or that she had transported it.

    If someone gave it to her (no purchase) and they had delivered it to her home, then I don’t think that she had committed any crime. Although the person who transported it to her would have violated the law.

    Perhaps upon discovery she confessed to buying (or making?) the liquor?
    Interesting. I love studying about prohibition so much is applicable to today, but the era is so understudied and very misunderstood.

  2. Hi Jim, thanks for the comment. There is the 18th Amendment and its enabling legislation through the Volstead Act, as well as California’s Wright Act of 1922, which was the Golden State’s concurrent law, the fourth section of which notes that the statute did not limit the power of cities and counties to prohibit possession. So, our understanding is that raids often included federal agents as well as county sheriff’s deputies or city police officers to cover both enforcement provisions. In other words, the feds were there for the manufacture, sale and distribution elements and local authorities present on the possession side. You’re right that there is much more to know and understand about Prohibition specifically and lower-case prohibition broadly—then and now.

  3. Fascinating, laws against the possession of alcohol . . . .

    My understanding was that when Woodrow Wilson left the presidency in 1921, Congress gave him an exemption that allowed him to transport the contents of the White House wine cellar to his new residence in Washington DC. (without the exemption the transport would have made him a criminal) He continued to possess the alcohol and serve it to his guests and this would not have been a criminal act.

    But if possession of alcohol was illegal in California, then somebody with a well stocked wine cellar in 1919 might have become a criminal in 1920. I think I need to go back and read up on the Wright act.

    The prohibition era experiences are 100% transferable to all the debates, discussions and new laws that are being proposed today. The legalization of marijuana, decriminalization of powerful recreational drugs (as in Oregon) the recent attempt in California to allow psychedelic mushrooms and the continued talk about gun control and confiscation.

    If you want to understand how these modern proposals would play out, just look to the past. The details might change, but the patterns are predictable.
    It is good to study history.

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