CM March 15, 
1996. Vol. II, Number 22

image Whiskey and Ice:
The Saga of Ben Kerr, Canada's Most Daring Rumrunner.

C.W. Hunt.
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995. 200pp, paper, $16.95.
ISBN: 1-55002-249-0.

Subject Headings:
Kerr, Ben, 1884-1929.
Smuggling-Ontario-History-20th century.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Deborah Mervold.



The date is not known, but sometime during his first two years as a rumrunner, Ben Kerr found himself the target of hijackers. As Don Harrison, a former Trenton rumrunner, recalls the story, Kerr was delivering a load on a lonely shore east of Rochester. He had taken his speedboat into shallow water, bow facing out for a speedy exit, engines idling, and was handing bags of ale to a man in a small rowboat, other men had waded out in water up to their waists, and were carrying bags of beer back to shore when "all hell broke loose, bullets were flying everywhere." Kerr grabbed a rifle and immediately began firing in the direction of the rifle flashes. The hijackers' rifle fire had driven the men on shore into the woods and had scattered the men in the water in all directions, but Kerr's highly accurate return fire drove the hijackers away from the shore and gave his associates time to regroup. Kerr then took his boat out, moved about two hundred yards east of the shooting and then landed. He landed with his .45 revolver jammed in his belt, carrying his .303 rifle in one hand and his 12 gauge shotgun in the other. He was able to come up on the rear of the hijackers and, by alternately firing the different guns, create the impression that he had others with him. In the darkness and confusion the hijackers fled the scene, without managing to steal a singe case.

image Why would a promising pianist from a prominent Canadian family choose the risky life of a smuggler? In Whisky and Ice, C.W. Hunt relates how Ben Kerr, pianist and businessman, turned smuggler to become involved in the excitement of the Prohibition struggle in Canada and the United States. The book begins with the mysterious deaths of Kerr and his associate, Len Wheat, on Lake Ontario in 1929. It's a mystery that Hunt leaves open until the final chapter, when he tells of the discover of Kerr's boat, the Pollywog, in 1994 by two sport fishermen.

In between, Hunt tells the story of Kerr, Wheat, the mobster Rocco Perri and his wife, Bessie, and many others who played roles in the dramas of Prohibition. Hunt briefly tells of Kerr's childhood and family background, and outlines the political events that lead up to Prohibition and the Ontario Temperance Act. The epilogue fills in the events and the fate of the other characters after Kerr's death in 1929.


Kerr had courage and daring, often taking excessive risks to outwit the ever-improving Coast Guard. Hunt describes the ten-year period in which Kerr managed to stay ahead of the law, and the dangerous competition, always looking for faster boats and safer harbours. The title, Whiskey and Ice, refers to the Canadian winter and icy conditions that forced a seasonal halt to the water trade.

Hunt, a high school history teacher and Ontario businessman, uses newspaper accounts, personal recollections from family members and friends of those involved, police reports, and court records to construct the story of Ben Kerr. Although this material gives the work authenticity, Whiskey and Ice sometimes lacks a personal viewpoint that would give the reader a better understanding of the people involved. Instead, Hunt concentrates on the chronological record.

Still, Whiskey and Ice is highly readable. It includes useful illustrations and chapter notes, and a selected bibliography. The prologue describes why this book has now been written, and the titles of each of the eighteen chapters help direct the focus of the reader. The well-crafted print and binding make this a good addition to high school and public libraries.

Whiskey and Ice is suitable for a general readership interested in Canadian history or Prohibition specifically.


Deborah Mervold is a Teacher/Librarian in Shellbrook, Saskatchewan.

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Copyright © 1996 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364