On Blind Tigers

Yesterday’s @ncnewspapers headline, from the Charlotte News in 1911, read “Alleged Blind Tiger Seized.” For those of you unfamiliar with Prohibition-era jargon, the story was not about a sightless jungle animal: a “blind tiger” was another name for a speakeasy, or any place where untaxed liquor (often homemade) was sold.

I first ran across the term in the title of a fascinating pamphlet in the North Carolina Collection, “The Life of George L. Smith, North Carolina’s Ex-convict: Boldest and Bravest Blind Tiger Man, Who Has Run Blind Tigers in Nearly Every Town in North Carolina.” Smith was a compulsive bootlegger who was rarely able to evade the law, but despite frequent arrests he nearly always ended up back at the still.

I was curious about the use of the term “blind tiger” and looked through the North Carolina Newspapers collection for examples. The phrase was definitely in use well before Prohibition. The earliest example I could find was in the Elm City Elevator from April 4, 1902, which referred to a “blind tiger wagon” selling “liquor for sale by the keg, often very cheap.” The term appeared frequently in the Charlotte News from 1911 (North Carolina enacted statewide prohibition in 1908), as well is other papers from around the state during the same period. The latest use of it I found was 1945, in an issue of the Raeford News-Journal.

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