Walter C. Findlay seemed like the perfect guy to enforce the “dry laws” when Prohibition came into effect in B.C. in 1917.
Findlay was the secretary of the People’s Prohibition Movement, one of the most prominent organizations fighting to rid the province of alcohol.
When B.C. Attorney-General J.W. Farris asked “the Prohibition people” who should be commissioner of the Prohibition act, they recommended Findlay. So he got the job.
Imagine the shock, then, when the masses picked up their newspapers on Dec. 12, 1918 and found Findlay was in the hoosegow for importing whiskey.
“Prohibition Commissioner Findlay Arrested Last Night,” said the banner headline in the Vancouver Daily Sun. “Charged with Illegally Importing Liquor Into the Province — Car of Rye Whiskey Missing.”
It was a juicy scandal. Findlay was arrested at the Blaine border crossing at midnight on Dec. 11 after he tried to skip the country.
His downfall came after a boxcar full of booze arrived in Vancouver. The CPR had overcharged $42, and sent a refund to the provincial treasury. But the government didn’t know anything about the shipment, which had been sent to a warehouse leased by Findlay.
Findlay was in charge of a government liquor store and warehouse that had been set up to sell booze for “medicinal” purposes. Shipments were supposed to be addressed to the government liquor store, but in this case, 700 cases of Gooderham and Worts whiskey were addressed to Findlay.
The Sun smelled something fishy. It noted that during the recent Spanish flu epidemic, “boot-leg” whiskey was selling for $8 to $10 a bottle, but now whiskey “carrying a well known brand” could be purchased on the black market for $2 a bottle.
“That a whiskey ring has been operating and that carloads of whiskey brought in from the east, ostensibly for shipment to the Orient, have been deflected to the local market, seems evident from the facts,” said the Sun.
On Dec. 16, Findlay pled guilty to illegally importing liquor, and was fined $1,000. He then moved to Portland, Ore.
But public outrage led to a royal commission being appointed to find out what was going on. Findlay was talked into coming back to Canada, which he would regret.
The case dominated Vancouver’s front pages for months, but the most lurid story was in the Toronto Telegram, which claimed to have the inside scoop. On Jan. 16, 1919, The Vancouver World ran parts of the Telegram story, which alleged a vast conspiracy among evildoers making a fortune off illicit booze.
“There were meetings in Shaughnessy Heights, as well as in Chinatown and the underworld, all intent upon avoiding the consequences of further disclosures,” said the Telegram story.
“Through those mysterious channels which operate in such cases Findlay was assured of support. ‘Keep your mouth shut and all will be well’ was the word which he received, and the intrigue and whispering reached every phase of Vancouver life.”
Findlay refused to talk to the royal commission, but the Telegram claimed he had spilled the beans to friends from his church.
“Findlay says he thinks he brought in about 25 (rail) cars of liquor illegally, and the profit of each was about $10,000 to the ring (of his associates),” said the story. “Findlay says he got about $2,000 as his share.”
The booze came from eastern Canada. Bizarrely, distillers were allowed to manufacture alcohol in Ontario, even though the province had brought in Prohibition in 1916.
“It was a veritable carnival of crime, surrounded by oceans of illicit liquor,” said the Telegram. “From Ontario and Quebec came the shipments. Those addressed to the Prohibition commissioner did not have to be camouflaged, but more came in concealed as oil, can goods, cider, vinegar and every conceivable form.”
Findlay was charged with the theft of 75 cases of government liquor that had gone missing. The case was dismissed at a preliminary hearing, but the attorney-general brought the charge a second time and Findlay was found guilty. On June 10, 1919, he was sentenced to two years in jail.
After doing his time, he moved back to Portland, where he died on Nov. 27, 1946 at the age of 55.
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