When dashing Oliver Garrett was in charge of it during Prohibition, the Boston Police vice squad made 25,000 raids and 17,000 arrests in nine years.
It didn’t get any harder to find a drink.
The mayor of Boston, England, visited the city in 1930 and proclaimed upon his return, “You can swim in liquor … you can drown in it.”
It didn’t take long for a crusading journalist to find out why: Oliver Garrett was on the take.
Feared by Bootleggers
Oliver Garrett was born Oct. 14, 1894 in Mechanic Falls, Maine. He served in World War I and joined the Boston Police Department in 1919, three months after Gov. Calvin Coolidge broke the police strike.
He rose through the ranks to head the vice squad in just a few years. There was plenty of vice since the Prohibition took effect in 1920. By 1928 there were 4,000 speakeasies in Greater Boston, including four on the same block as the central police station. Fifteen thousand people were engaged in selling liquor, 5,000 of them full-time bootleggers.
Oliver Garrett quickly made a name for himself, leading raids himself, jumping from roof to roof and climbing through skylights. He seriously injured his hand in a raid in 1924. He was knocked unconscious and broke his nose in 1927 when he broke up a fight in the South End. Chinese gangs put a price on his life when he broke up an opium smoking den in 1928.
The Boston Globe proclaimed, “No man was more feared by bootleggers than Garrett.”
Suddenly in 1928 Oliver Garrett was demoted to ordinary patrolman.
Journalist Walter Liggett offered an explanation in an article, “Bawdy Boston,” which appeared in the January 1930 issue of a highbrow magazine called Plain Talk. Liggett had spent a month in Boston investigating his favorite theme: The hypocrisy and crime spawned by Prohibition.
Bootlegging is the largest and best paying racket in Boston at the present time…To give some idea of the graft involved it merely need be mentioned that now, after ten years of so-called Prohibition, the people of Boston are spending at least $60,000,000 a year for illicit hooch…
Boston is literally honeycombed with speakeasies. There hardly is a building in town that does not contain at least one office where bottle liquor may be had. Most of these speakeasies are camouflaged as brokers’ offices, wool dealers or real-estate firms…Stylishly dressed women frequently purchased bottled booze over the counter while policemen lazily lounged in the front door.
It was an attack on Mayor Malcolm Nichols and politicians who allowed crime to flourish. Wrote Liggett,
Many of the Cape-Codders who assisted the rum-runners are the direct descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. There is a certain grim humor in tracing the operations of a statute which makes lawbreakers of these people.”
The magazine sold out in Boston in one day despite efforts to ban it.
In “Bawdy Boston,” Liggett tagged Oliver Garrett ‘The Million-Dollar Cop.’ Though Garrett earned only $40 a week but owned a farm, a racing stable, a closet full of $150 suits and a Cadillac, a Marmon and a Chrysler. Liggett claimed he was a bagman for higher-ups who dumped him because they weren’t satisfied with their share of the spoils.
Garrett, insulted, claimed he was injured in an auto accident and resigned. Police Commissioner Herbert Wilson granted him his pension, setting off a firestorm of controversy. During the hearing that followed, the manager of the Ritz-Carlton testified that Garrett had forced him to hire a hatcheck girl to accept payoffs to Garrett. In May 1930 he was indicted on charges of extortion. After several trials he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in the Deer Island prison. Rumors flew that he had a motorboat to come and go as he pleased and that he had season tickets to the Red Sox.
Garrett got out of prison in 1933 and tried a career as a nightclub master of ceremonies. It didn’t go well. He sued the city for his pension and was awarded $4,567 in 1952 – in exchange for a promise that he’d never sue the city again.
Oliver Garrett died Nov. 14, 1979 in Yacolt, Wash. He is buried in Vancouver, Wash., with his wife Althea.
With thanks to Drinking Boston by Stephanie Schorow and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley by Jack Beatty.