© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Blind Pigger’s Farewell

Prohibition as a historical subject is easy to caricature: shifty bootleggers, dauntless G-men, assumptions of futility. We like the broad strokes of how prohibition, established constitutionally in 1889, went down here in North Dakota. We love to tell the romantic stories of rumrunners along the Canadian border and booze wagons crossing Red River. On the ground, though, the action was fraught with contradiction and complexity.

I learned a lesson about the folkways of prohibition at the grassroots when I discovered, quite accidentally, a ballad about it: “Blind Pigger’s Farewell to Benson County,” as published in the Bismarck Tribune of May 7, 1907. The ballad is signed, but with a pseudonym: “Rye M. Ster,” which is a double or triple entendre. Rye, as in whiskey, of course, but say Rye M. Ster fast and you get, of course, Rhymester, our balladeer.

His subject, however, is no joke. It seems that blind pigs operated in many towns, especially in the western part of the state. A blind pig was an illegal saloon, like a speakeasy, but even more out-in-the-open. Some of them also harbored gambling and other vices.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was an effective educational and political organization, but it could not defeat the blind piggers on their own turf. That task fell to its men’s auxiliary, the Law Enforcement League.

The League, a citizen association, deployed agents known as “spotters” into speakeasy territory to pose as customers and gather information, which would be given to law enforcement. This only worked if you had a state’s attorney and a county sheriff willing to act.

In 1906 the legislature strengthened the state prohibition law; Honest John Burke was elected governor; and Benson County got a state’s attorney named W. H. Thomas, pledged to crack down on the blind piggers. He was allied with Sheriff John S. Aker.

And crack down they did, in early 1907. They shut down the open shipments of beer that came to local depots; arrested blind pig operators; and even stopped the profligate sale of alcohol dealt to prominent citizens with sympathetic physicians and cooperative pharmacists.

To which developments our balladeer responded in verse. And so his rhyme began,

Say Bill, we’re up against it now, I’m going to leave tonight,
Our palmy days are gone for good you’d better fly your kite,
The state’s attorney’s after us, that’s straight from one who knows,
It’s me for Minnesota, where the swift Budweiser flows.

Leeds, Brinsmade, Minnewaukan, Esmond, all were within reach of the long arm of the law — prominent citizens called in for questioning, beer shipments seized, the druggists caving, and the blind piggers, as the ballad details, fleeing the territory. It was remarkable how quickly the booze business collapsed under legal pressure. Key to the enforcement campaign were the spotters of the Law Enforcement League — we should hear more about these gutsy guys next week.

Stay Connected
Related Content