Advertisement
  1. Life & Culture
  2. /
  3. History

A drunk pigeon and other animals of organized crime in the 1950s

Tales from the Vice Squad | Birds played a role in the cat and mouse game between law enforcement and moonshiners.
In this undated  photo possibly taken during prohibition the late-Ellis Clifton, far left, the head of the Hillsborough County Vice Sqaud the 1950s,  John Hawrsk, a state beverage agent during that time, an unidentified man, and a pigeon pose with several jugs of moonshine.  [Photo courtesy of the Hillsborough county Sheriff's Office]
In this undated photo possibly taken during prohibition the late-Ellis Clifton, far left, the head of the Hillsborough County Vice Sqaud the 1950s, John Hawrsk, a state beverage agent during that time, an unidentified man, and a pigeon pose with several jugs of moonshine. [Photo courtesy of the Hillsborough county Sheriff's Office]
Published Jan. 20

When Tampa was a hotbed of organized crime from the late 1800s through mid 1900s, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office charged the Vice Squad with cleaning up what the federal government deemed one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. The Tampa Bay Times has obtained a cache of Vice Squad reports from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into their investigations and what they were up against.

TAMPA — It seems like it was tradition for Tampa law enforcement officers in the 1950s to pose with the moonshine they confiscated.

There are more than a dozen of such photographs in news archives of Ellis Clifton, the head of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Vice Squad at that time.

But one has always stood out to his family.

“The pigeon picture,” son David Clifton said. “It’s my dad and two other men and there is a pigeon sitting on a jug of moonshine. We always wondered why the pigeon is just sitting there.”

He has his answer.

“It was drunk,” laughed Dale Bertoni, the daughter of John Hawrsk, the state beverage agent who is the middle of the three law enforcement agents in the photograph. Ellis Clifton is to his left. “My dad used to tell us stories of that time, but that pigeon was his favorite.”

Chickens were also part of his stories of the cat and mouse game between law enforcement and moonshiners.

Reports of moonshiners hiding illicit liquor in chicken coops are sprinkled throughout the Vice Squad files obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

One such file from January 1955 includes a transcript of Hawrsk questioning a man about moonshine for which he was arrested. He admitted to purchasing it from a wholesaler who hid moonshine in chicken coops behind Hillsborough High School.

He might not have been the only moonshiner who did business so close to a school.

Civil rights attorney Del Stewart, 86, said that when he was a teenager it was rumored that the one-armed moonshine kingpin of the Black community known as Big Tiff hid his supply behind Middleton High School.

“There were chicken coops behind a fence we could see from the school,” Stewart said. “Supposedly that was where all the shine was.”

John Hawrsk, second to the right, and other law enforcement officers pose with moonshine they confiscated in this Tampa Tribune picture taken in 1952.
John Hawrsk, second to the right, and other law enforcement officers pose with moonshine they confiscated in this Tampa Tribune picture taken in 1952. [ Times (1952) ]

Chickens that were part of a moonshine operation would be confiscated by law enforcement.

Hawrsk was known for looking after the birds. He fed them with the scratch feed, also known as “mash,” taken from stills. That feed was moonshine’s main ingredient.

“He is looking for a real still to smash to get mash for his birds which he allegedly keeps behind the county jail in an alleged yard there,” The Tampa Times wrote of Hawrsk in 1952.

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Read inspiring stories about ordinary lives

Subscribe to our free How They Lived newsletter

You’ll get a remembrance of Tampa Bay residents we’ve lost, including heartwarming and amusing details about their lives, every Tuesday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

That did not shock his daughter.

“He was known as the animal lover of Tampa,” Bertoni said. “We had all sorts of animals he was always bringing home. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the chickens we had were from” a moonshine raid.

They had a retired racehorse that her father took home from work.

“He picked up extra money guarding the horses at the racetrack,” Bertoni said. “The mafia would try to drug horses they wanted to lose.”

As for that pigeon, Bertoni said, the photograph was taken after they’d broken up a still.

Her father noticed the pigeon dipping its beak into the moonshine jugs.

The pigeon did not fly away when they lined up for their customary picture to celebrate the bust.

“It was too drunk to do anything,” Bertoni said. “Look at the picture. Ellis Clifton and the other officer are staring at it wondering what’s going on. My daddy in the middle isn’t smiling. He is laughing because he knows.”

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge