Customs in Madawaska

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In winter, smugglers usually transported their clandestine cargoes on the Saint John River because the ice was thick enough to support this weight. But one December, the weather was too warm to take the risk. The only option was to cross the bridge in front of the customs officers. But how? One of assistant bosses suggested getting dressed as a priest. The boss would wear the long black cassock of a bishop and they would cross in a sleigh, with bearskins covering their laps. So they loaded the canisters in the sleighs and climbed in.

Upon arriving at Customs in Madawaska, they stopped to report as required. The customs officials, seeing this “Bishop”, asked him where he was going. He simply answered, “I am going to visit Father So and So, a colleague of mine from the seminary.” Customs officials, believing that he was truly a Catholic bishop, welcomed him to the United States and allowed him in without further formalities.1

This scenario occurred repeatedly during the prohibition. The first illegal alcohol traders, the “bootleggers”, made their appearance towards the end of the First World War. The U.S. ban on alcohol, called the American Prohibition and effective on January 1, 1920, greatly increased their already flourishing business.2 Indeed, it was at this time that the illegal alcohol trade started to get organized in the Madawaska area. An elaborate network for the production, distribution and sale of bootlegged alcohol was set up. Maxime Albert and Alfred Lévesque were two of the most active in this network.3

Some made moonshine, which they called “bagosse”, at their house in home-made stills, while several others bought distilled alcohol from the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Bought in two and a half gallon canisters, this alcohol, the “Hand Brand”, was first diluted and then resold to make double the profit.4

Gradually, thanks to its geographical location, Edmundston became an important center for liquor trafficking within a network that served eastern Quebec, Maine and the Madawaska area. Shipped from Saint-Pierre and Miquelon to Gaspé, the “Hand Brand” was first unloaded into rowboats by local farmers. Next, smugglers would transport the goods by car to the outskirts of the town of Edmundston, where it was hidden in barns. Thereafter, it was taken to illegal establishments or sold to clients from Maine.5

All kinds of trickery were used to cross the Canadian-American border. Some traffickers dressed as priests; others hid the alcohol containers in apple barrels and in coffins.

Some crossed the Saint John River at night in canoes, etc. The smugglers always ran risks, but the profits generated by the sale of alcohol were enough, in the majority of the cases, to pay the resulting fines. As for the retailers, they made interesting profits running their business from home while incurring few risks.6

The customs agents sometimes seized cargoes of liquor that they transported to the basement of the customs office. Custom controllers from Ottawa would come to inspect the confiscated alcohol once a year and would destroy the articles seized during the year. It seems that some area customs officers were fired for “breach of duty” with regards to the seized goods.7 The “bootleggers” continued to call the shots until 1933. The repeal of the Prohibition Laws in the United States eventually marked the end of their “reign” in the Madawaska area.8

Nicole Lang


  1. J. Maurice Ouellet, Sur le sentier de la vie; Témoignage d'une époque, Éditions d'Acadie, Moncton, 1985, pp. 43-44.
  2. New Brunswick passed a prohibition law in 1916 which was put into force in 1917. In the United States, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which came into force on January 1, 1920, stipulated that the manufacture, sale or transportation of spirits (intoxicating liquor) to be used in drinks in the United States and all territories under their jurisdiction, as well as their import and export were banned. See: BJ Grant, When Rum Was King: The Story of the Prohibition Era in New Brunswick, Fiddlehead Poetry Books, Fredericton, 1984, pp. 3-26. FL Schoell, Histoire des États-Unis, editions of Roseau, Montréal, 1985, p. 372.
  3. B.J. Grant, op. cit., pp. 23-24-64-99-100-172 and 173.
  4. J. Maurice Ouellet, op.cit., p. 41. For more information about the making of "bagosse" or "moon-shine" see : Line Fournier, "Le Moon-Shine", Revue de la Société historique du Madawaska, vol. IX, nos 3-4, September-December 1981, pp. 31-33.
  5. J. Maurice Ouellet, op. cit., pp. 41-42. The author maintains that no fewer than fifty clandestine drinking establishments existed in Edmundston.
  6. For other amusing stories, see: Lina Madore, Petit Coin Perdu, Tome I, Les entreprises Castelriand Inc., Rivière-du-Loup, 1979, chapter 13, pp. 57-60.
  7. They were accused of having consumed seized alcohol. J. Maurice Ouellet, op.cit.. pp. 44-45.
  8. In New Brunswick, a new law: "The Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1927" ended the prohibition. This law provided for the opening of nineteen liquor stores under the control of the Provincial Liquor Commission. In our region, two stores opened their doors: one in Edmundston and the other in St. Leonard. “La prohibition est une chose du passé”, Le Madawaska, September 8, 1927, p.1. In the United States, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, in force on December 5, 1933, repealed the 18th Amendment therefore ended the prohibition. F. L. Schoell, op. cit., p. 372.
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