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



The term “bootlegging” came into use in the West during the 1880s. It was the name used for the practice of concealing flasks of liquor in boots when going to trade illegally with the Indians. Two early references to bootlegging come from Kansas in 1889. Both the Attorney General of Kansas and the Probate Judge of Anderson County, Kansas referred to bootlegging. While the term was widely used throughout the West, it didn’t come into common usage in the rest of the country until prohibition was enacted in 1920. During Prohibition, bootleggers smuggled illegal liquor across the Canadian and Mexican borders. They were more likely to hide the liquor in concealed compartments in their cars rather than in their boots, since they transported large quantities. But the old name of “bootlegging” remained popular.

Although North Dakota had been dry long before Prohibition, those who had a taste for alcohol found ways to get around that inconvenience. Prior to Prohibition, liquor was legal in Minnesota. Moorhead bars provided carriages called “jag wagons” to transport Fargo drinkers to the Minnesota side of the Red River. These wagons ran 24 hours a day.

In 1895, a change in North Dakota law called the Druggist Permit Amendment allowed physicians and drug store owners to administer alcohol for medicinal and sacramental purposes. But doctors and pharmacists could often be enticed to hand over alcohol for a fee, and not all the liquor so dispensed was for legal purposes.

In 1923, 640 gallons of alcohol disguised as hair tonic was seized at the Northern Pacific freight depot in Moorhead.

On this date in 1927, the Cass County sheriff arrested a man who claimed to be the first “real bootlegger.” E.J. Moran was jailed after a search turned up several quarts of a home brewed beverage concealed in two pairs of boots in his garage. This resulted in his comment that he was the first real bootlegger ever caught.

The arrest took two searches. The first search of a garage was unsuccessful, since Moran had led the sheriff to a neighbor’s garage claiming it as his own. But discovering the deception, the Sheriff did a second search, this time of Moran’s property, resulted in the liquor’s discovery. Moran was charged with engaging in liquor traffic and bootlegging. He pleaded not guilty.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Sources: "" Accessed 27 October, 2015.

English Language and Usage. "" Accessed 27

Fargo History.
Accessed 27 October, 2015.

Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “Jailed When Liquour Is Found In Boots, Fargoan Claims He Is First ‘Real Bootlegger.’ 28 November, 1927