Bill Von Rissen

Family history

William “Bill” Von Rissen, our paternal grandmother’s uncle, is the subject of much family lore.  He was born in Cincinnati on the 21st of February, 1888, and as a young man was a clerk and a teamster (that is, he drove a team of horses).  In 1912 he married Lillian Pruitt.  They adopted a son and named him William Von Rissen, Jr.

The movement to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages began in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to solve the problem of alcoholism in the home and workplace.  The Prohibitionists were finally successful nationwide in 1920 with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the sale of alcohol except for medical and industrial uses.  In the succeeding 13 years, until the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, many people got rich making bathtub gin and smuggling liquor in from Canada and elsewhere, to satisfy the nation’s craving for alcohol.  They were called ‘bootleggers’, purportedly because illicit liquor was sometimes hidden inside the seller’s boots.

Uncle Bill Von Rissen was a bootlegger during Prohibition, and well known on the west side of Cincinnati.  We did not realize how well known he was until about twenty years ago. Grandpa Tully and our Aunt Jane had taken Grandma Tully to the hospital for an outpatient procedure. While they were in the waiting room they talked about a book they had both read about George Remus, a notorious Cincinnati bootlegger.  But they couldn’t remember his name.  “I know it begins with R,” one of them said. An elderly man who was also in the waiting room said, “Are you talking about old Bill Von Rissen?” No, no, Aunt Jane said, looking around to see if Grandma had walked in—Grandma was a little sensitive about the source of Uncle Bill’s money.

One day Grandma had opened up about him—just a little. She said that when she was a little girl, Uncle Bill would store bootleg liquor in the basement of his house on Grand Avenue. Uncle Bill would smuggle it in from Canada, using a Star automobile with a false floor under which the booze would be hidden.  “Help your Uncle Bill bring in the pop,” her parents would say, and they would all lug the cases downstairs.

Surprisingly, there is very little mention of Uncle Bill in the newspapers—so evidently he was successful! There was a series of articles about his wife Lillian and their son, William Von Rissen, Jr.  In May 1931, Lillie was arrested for possessing whiskey—79 pints of it, “said to be the best liquor seized by police in years,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.  But the charge was dismissed in June when it was discovered that the affidavit authorizing the raid on the Von Rissen home had not been signed.

The day after the dismissal, Bill and Lillie’s son William was arrested by Federal prohibition agents on a charge of possessing and transporting liquor. William was doing so, however, at the behest of Judge George Tebbs, who had directed him to take the liquor seized from his mother’s home to a Cincinnati hospital. According to a June 27, 1931 Enquirer article, “Federal agents had been “urged on” to make the seizure of the liquor from the young man by police who were “sore” because the case against the mother had been thrown out of Court by Judge Tebbs due to a defect in the affidavit.” The case against William, Jr. was subsequently dismissed.

Lillie Von Rissen passed away in 1938, and Bill Von Rissen passed away in 1958.  Their son William lived until 1991, and we remember him for his lakeside property in Delhi.

1926 Star Scorpio, by DeFacto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

About Pat Tully

Librarian exploring effective leadership, local history and community service.
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