THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT #42: BLACK -JACK and the G-MAN

Genot “Winter Elk” Picor for The Storykeepers Project

Sault Ste MarieI’m going to tell this story to you as I can best recollect the events that took place in the little village above the straits, July 4th, 1930. Like any other hamlet or village, the Great Depression took its toll on communities in these United States. Of course, there were always a few shrewd entrepreneurs who could turn a buck faster than a lake squall turns a heavy chop on Big Bay de Noc. To add misery to the already bleak economic and domestic climate of the times, the great “social experiment” known as Prohibition was in the tenth year of its existence.

While most people scraped to get by, some folks profited from the absence of legally acquired adult beverages. Two such profiteers that prospered during the Era of Prohibition engaged in bootlegging and rum-running; the main difference between the two was that the former ran booze on land, and the latter on the water so I was told.   Either way, people somehow managed to get their spirited beverage of choice in cunning and ingenious ways.

Now far be it from me to mention any full names, but one such character who could deliver the goods was said to be “M. Lamoureaux,” at least, that was the name scribbled onto the wobbly mailbox that leaned out precariously from in front of his modest wood cabin. Above the front door was nailed a hand painted sign that read “Maple Sirop For Sell.” The domicile of the aforementioned proprietor was a tiny bungalow apartment attached to his place of business. An unassuming, rickety tool shed and wood shop stood a few yards back on the property.

“M. Lamoureaux” had what some might call an “occupational moniker,” and that more sinister calling card was “Black-Jack.” Some say he acquired that notorious signature because he enjoyed playing a card game of the same name at which he rarely lost. Others say it was because he carried a black-jack in the back pocket of his dungarees when he went about his “occupational affairs.” Those occupational affairs centered on acquiring and selling the finest Canadian rye-whiskey he could find.

From my description of Black-Jack, your mind might conjure up the image of a brawny brawler of imposing size and musculature, with anvil forearms and fists the size and mass of sledge hammers. That was not the case at all, for I had laid eyes on him many a time. Anybody who didn’t know Black-Jack could easily disregard his unassuming appearance and never think twice.

Black-Jack was diminutive, this is true, which is to say he was 5’4” or 5’5” tall, balding with a wisp of hair combed over to the right side of his head. He rarely looked a person in the eye nor did he ever speak a sentence, unless called upon to do so in reply to a question. Black-Jack did indeed produce and peddle “maple sirop.” He also spent a good deal of time coming and going, day or night while skimming across the water in his skiff. That boat was powered by a hearty, over-sized Evinrude outboard motor; much more power than what was needed for a craft of that size. Black-Jack always wore his official, U.S. Coastguard approved life-preserver when he was out and about on the water, but for all the fishing gear that was laid out in that boat, I never once saw him return with so much as a single yellow perch, smallie or laker to fillet and fry.

During that summer local people were preparing for the July 4th holiday, which fell on a Friday as I recall. This meant nearly three full days of frivolity and leisure on fine Michigan shores. Those who could afford to travel by automobile to Mackinaw City arrived the afternoon of Thursday, July 3 only to find a mile back-up to board the automobile ferry. This meant a four to six hour wait to cross the straits.

But there was one car, a black 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan that considered the idea of waiting in line completely unacceptable. A menacing looking fella walked ahead of that automobile. He approached each successive driver, leaned over and whispered something into his ear. One-by-one the idling cars would pull over to the side to let that fine Caddy pass!   The driver of the Cadillac proceeded straight to the front of the line and boarded the next ferry, and what’s more, no one protested, no one asked any questions and no one seemed to mind one little bit! The fashionable appearance of this carload of strangers was bold and classy; dark, double breasted suits, silk ties and two-toned shoes.   It was as if they were kin to Holy Moses himself, parting a sea of idling vehicles while being dressed in pin-striped suits and wide-brimmed fedoras.

Well no sooner had they ferried across the straits, where do you think they went? Straight to the address of “M. Lamoureaux,” whom I have also called “Black-Jack.” It seems these fellas didn’t have time for pleasantries or booshwash. They walked out of Black-Jack’s establishment as quick as they had come in, and left with three boxes of maple syrup. After placing the goods into the trunk of their Cadillac sedan they sped off to places unknown.

Now it seems a G-Man from the United States Department of Treasury had been tailing those dapper fellas. No one knows for sure who snitched on Black-Jack, but some say it was Mrs. Maingauche. She was the old school-marm and village busy-body. So intrusive and opinionated was the nature of her character, Mrs. Maingauche was the only person I can recollect who had been asked to leave a bible study.

Mrs. Maingauche lived not far down the road from Black-Jack. There was a good chance she had witnessed the brevity of his transaction with those nefarious looking gentlemen. Completely by chance, that aforementioned government agent had been canvassing the locals, and that’s how he came about to record the testimony of Mrs. Maingauche. On the afternoon of July 4th, that government agent arrived at Black-Jack’s home and place of business, attended by a few local officers of law enforcement.

“Mr. Lamoureaux, my name is Special Agent Raymond Goodhope from the United States Department of Treasury. I have with me a legally obtained warrant, signed by a local judge which grants me permission to search these premises.”

Special Agent Goodhope thrust the legal document out at arm’s length which verified his statements. Black-Jack squinted and leaned forward, wrapped his wire glasses around his ears and pretended to read the document presented before him. Special Agent Goodhope continued his interrogation.

“Sir, did you sell the occupants of a black 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan three boxes of alcoholic beverage yesterday afternoon?”

Black-Jack peered up from the document and looked at the G-Man.

“No,” he quietly replied.

“Mr. Lamoureaux, how many pint-bottles of maple syrup do you pack into a box?” asked the Agent.

“Twelve,” was Black-Jack’s reply.

“Well, don’t you find it strange that someone would buy thirty-six bottles of maple syrup?” asked Agent Goodhope.

Once again, Black-Jack replied “No,” but this time, he elaborated.

“Doze fellas doan tell me how tuh box my bottles an’ I doan tell dem how much flapjacks ‘day spozed tuh eat.”

Special Agent Goodhope sneered at the little man.

“Search the place!” he commanded to the officers of the law, who reluctantly followed his order.

They searched every inch of that store, apartment, tool shed and wood shop but came up with nothing except bottles of maple syrup, some empty and some full! No hooch was to be found anywhere on the premises. Agent Goodhope was in a state of disbelief. What that G-man didn’t know would have lurched him to the core. Some of those attending officers of the law were Black-Jack’s customers! After about 45 minutes into the search, Sheriff McCauley intervened.

“Ray, that’s enough. The place is clean. Now if you’ll excuse us, we have to get ready for the fireworks show tonight and you got nothin.’ Close it down and be on your way.”

That disgruntled G-man finally left after about 45 minutes of snooping around. He was so frustrated with the absence of evidence, he even busted up some bottles of maple syrup, for which Black-Jack was eventually reimbursed by the U.S. government after submitting the required paperwork.

Special Agent Ray Goodhope’s last words were prophetic to some degree.

“What you people need is a bridge instead of a ferry boat to get across them waters.”

Sheriff McCauley laughed. “That’ll never happen….north wind’s too strong and the channel’s too deep!”

Prohibition officially ended in 1933, and only after Black-Jack had passed on did the secret of how he obtained, bottled and hid his cache of booze come to light. Black-Jack had a cousin from his mother’s side who was enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. He was seen from time to time fraternizing with workers at the liquor warehouse on the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River. I guess some legal minded individuals might call that a “conflict of interest,” since that very same individual would eventually end up aiding and abetting the same people he was supposed to be arresting!

Black-Jack’s cousin would stuff the pint-bottles of whiskey into the canvas float pockets of official U.S. Coastguard life preservers! Black-Jack would motor out to some secluded cove near Sugar Island in his skiff, meet up with his cousin, trade the now empty life preservers from their previous rendezvous and transport the new shipment back to town. He’d poor the whiskey into identical bottles he used for maple syrup. Even up close, people couldn’t tell if a bottle contained maple syrup or rye-whiskey.

It seems Black-Jack was also a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker. A customer seeking to purchase whiskey would enter his store, ask to buy some syrup and scratch the right side of his nose. This would signal his intentions. Black-Jack would reach behind a trap door under the counter and present the customer with a pint of whiskey disguised as maple syrup. Behind Black-Jack’s counter stood a wall with a recessed cabinet and shelves. On the shelves stood bottles of maple syrup arranged into neat, tidy rows. Unknown to anyone, the cabinet hung from a track that slid back and forth like a sliding door. Black-Jack hid the whiskey behind the wall and under the sliding cabinet, which was locked into place. The cabinet could only be released by a concealed trigger mechanism. Pure genius!

When Black-Jack passed on, long after Prohibition had been repealed, local people toasted him with a splash of maple syrup in a glass of rye-whiskey at his wake. For many years thereafter, the locals called that drink a “Black-Jack!” And that’s how our story comes to an end.

As Told By Genot “Winter Elk” Picor From “Stories that Mimi and Pipi Told” © Genot Picor, 2017. Published on Voyageur Heritage with Permission.

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