The federal crime, that is…
It is, today, a quiet residential neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
A Google street view image shows some modest single family homes.
A small apartment building or two.
Driveway basketball hoops. Sideyard grills. Picnic tables and chairs.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
But, in the spring and summer days of 1928, almost 90 years ago, things were anything but ordinary.
Reader Judy Palmquist says her family story is that her mother — about eight years old at the time — was sent with her siblings to Chicago to live with an aunt when her grandmother, Alice Louise Sullivan, was sent to jail.
And the family home there in that quiet residential neighborhood?
By the police.
Judy’s research turned up newspaper articles that appear to describe her grandmother’s offense as nuisance:
• On the 27th of June 1928, in the Minneapolis Star, an abatement action against 613 Fourth Avenue East — one of “17 places … raided by prohibition enforcement officers in the past few months.”1
• On the 28th of June, in the Morning Tribune, “Action is sought against a residence at 613 Fourth avenue southeast, raided March 27…”2
• And on the 14th of October that same year, in the Sunday Tribune, “Thirteen defendants in liquor law violations … were given sentences … by Judge John B. Sanborn … Louise E. Sullivan, sale and nuisance, 30 days in jail for sale, and one year for nuisance, but placed on probation for three years…”3
She’s going to be following up with the usual on-the-ground research here but… but… but…
Judy struggled with that word.
What the heck is nuisance?
And why would anybody face jail time for nuisance?
The answer, of course, is in the law. In this case, a particular law, called the Volstead Act. Otherwise known as the law that made prohibition enforceable.
The 18th amendment prohibited production and sale of intoxicating liquors, but didn’t define the term or set penalties. It left it up to Congress to act. The statute was passed in 1919, vetoed by President Wilson on technical grounds, and the veto overridden within 48 hours.4
Section 21 of the Act provided, in relevant part:
Any room, house, building, boat, vehicle, structure, or place of any kind where intoxicating liquor is manufactured, sold, kept, or bartered in violation of this title, and all intoxicating liquor and property kept and used in maintaining the same, is hereby declared to be a common nuisance, and any person who maintains such a common nuisance shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof shall be fined not more than $1,000 or be imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.5
And section 3 was roughly the same: “Any room, house, building, boat, vehicle, structure, or place of any kind where intoxicating liquor is sold, manufactured, kept for sale, or bartered in violation of the War Prohibition Act, and all intoxicating liquor and all property kept and used in maintaining such a place, is hereby declared to be a public and common nuisance, and any person who maintains or assists in maintaining such public and common nuisance shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be fined not less than $100 nor more than $1,000, or be imprisoned for not less than thirty days or more than one year, or both.”6
Now that may not sound like much — declaring the crime to be a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a year in jail. But the fact was, the nuisance punishment was the toughest penalties provided for in the law. Even manufacturing or selling liquor only carried a fine and a maximum of six months in jail for a first offense.7
Moreover, the courts were given the power to say a room, house, building, structure, boat or vehicle used as a common nuisance couldn’t be occupied or used for a year after the nuisance was abated. The judge could allow use or occupancy but the owner had to post a bond of at least $500 conditioned on no further violations.8
So nuisance in the Volstead Act was a big deal — and it looks like Judy’s Sullivans may have gotten swept up in it.
So… where does she look for the court records?
Because these are federal court records, the records of the prosecution will be in the National Archives, in Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States. Records of the court in Minnesota, Fourth Division, Minneapolis, 1890-1983, are held by the regional facility of the National Archives at Chicago.
Start by sending an email inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org with all of the information: the name of the defendant (Louise E. Sullivan), the date of the sentencing (13 October 1928) and the name of the judge (Hon. John Benjamin Sanborn, U.S. District Judge), and see what the archivists can advise about records availability. (Note: Chicago NARA says the criminal cases are at Kansas City, so, for other researchers, try email@example.com.)
Maintaining a nuisance ended up being much more than just a nuisance for this family… and there should be lots of records to chase to fill in the gaps in what Judy already knows.
- “17 Abatement Actions Begun,” Minneapolis Star, 27 June 1928, p. 1, col. 7-8; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 13 Feb 2017). ↩
- “Move Started to Padlock 17 Places Here,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, 28 June 1928, p. 11, col. 1; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 13 Feb 2017). ↩
- “Long Terms Given Rum Law Breakers,” Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, 14 October 1928, p. 5, col. 7-8; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 13 Feb 2017).
Judy’s not entirely certain the Louise of the article is her grandmother, whose name she knew as Alice Louise Sullivan, not Louise E. Sullivan… but the stories fit, the time frame fits even though not exactly, and the address is the right one for the family and even close to where the family lived in rental housing in 1930.[4. 1930 U.S. census, Hennepin County, Minnesota, Minneapolis, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 27-14, page 2226 (stamped), sheet 5A, dwelling 51, family 84, Alice L. Sullivan; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 13 Feb 2017); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 1089. ↩
- See Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Volstead Act,” rev. 13 Feb 2017. ↩
- §21, “An Act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries,” (the “Volstead Act”), 41 Stat. 305, 314 (28 Oct 1919). ↩
- Ibid., §3, 41 Stat. at 309. ↩
- Ibid., §29, 41 Stat. at 316. ↩
- Ibid., §22, 41 Stat. at 314. ↩