July 12, 2023

Research uncovers the role jitneys played in rum running

Professor of History Ed Slavishak continues his research into the criminal infrastructure that emerged with the advent of cars – this time looking into the role jitney busses and drivers played in rum running.

Jitneys were a type of unlicensed mass transportation that sprang up in the early 20th century. They drew their name from the Creole French word jetnée for five cents or a nickel – the fare typically charged.

“The craze over jitneys was the result of a perfect storm,” said history major Daniel Malsch ’24. “There were many secondhand Ford motorcars and an industrial depression, which left many working-age men unemployed, and a public that was exhausted with the electric streetcar companies’ monopoly over public transportation. What this results in is an extremely cheap and readily available form of public transportation.”

As jitneys became heavily regulated by the government – mostly due to the influence of streetcar companies that wanted to maintain market dominance – they entered a kind of gray area legally.

“The most surprising thing I found out is how quickly the government regulated the jitneys,” Malsch said. “Jitneys ate into a substantial portion of the streetcar’s profits. So, it seems like a case of the government supporting large corporations over the wishes of the public.”

Jitney drivers would avoid licensing fees by just “giving rides.” There were no established pick-up or drop-off locations, like a bus stop. Jitney drivers also became expert backroads drivers, which made them perfect for rum running.

Jitney drivers, as Slavishak explained, would often begin by “purchasing” a car with a down payment, one they never intended to make good on. They would then use their detailed knowledge of the back roads that branched off newly laid highways to smuggle and hide alcohol. When the drivers were caught, police would try to capitalize off the value of the car to recoup investigatory expenses. Drivers might spend six months or so in jail, usually doing hard (cheap) labor on the very crews that were laying the nation’s new highways.

And the beat goes on… or so they say.

“You have this revolving door of people using these new roads to rum run, getting caught and helping to build the roads that, once they’re out of jail, they return to for rum running,” Slavishak said. “There is this cat-and-mouse game going between the jitney drivers who are trying to make a living and the police who have made a huge investment in enforcing Prohibition and the state who needs to build highways. It is fascinating to uncover.”

Learn more about Susquehanna’s Department of History.