Algoth Johannes Niska, born in Viipuri, Finland in 1888 led the life of a true adventurer and maverick, perhaps best remembered in Finland as the most famous of the “liquor kings” during prohibition in the 1920-30’s. However, there was a lot more to Algoth Niska.
After his father died in 1903, the family moved to Helsinki. In his youth, he became a successful athlete who, among other things, played in the Finnish football team at the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, where they finished 4th overall.
In 1914 he graduated as a helmsman in Helsinki. During the Civil War of 1918, he participated on the side of the whites and is said to have shown much bravery and courage in the conquest of Helsinki.
In 1919, prohibition came into force in Finland and Algoth began to smuggle alcohol. Although no doubt attracted by the opportunity to make quick money, it was surely the prospect of taking risks and correcting a wrong (like many others, he felt that prohibition created more problems than it solved) that attracted Algoth to this way of life. As Algoth explained later, the smuggling profession was “not at all suitable for lazy or fearful people because the best conditions for smuggling prevailed in autumnally dark and stormy seas”.
As business grew, Algoth bought his own boat and led the smuggling operations himself as the boat’s commander, whilst most of his contemporaries preferred to stay on land far away from any danger.
Over the years he used various tricks to dodge police boats, and sometimes also their bullets, but he never returned fire. Ironically however, he was eventually found guilty of “violent resistance”, a charge he always denied. To avoid his sentence, Algoth fled to Sweden from where he continued his operation. Finally, he was captured and extradited to Finland, but not without making a daring escape from the guards, diving into the sea near Aland. The escape was not successful but because of the boldness of the attempt, it attracted much attention.
After release, Algoth ceased alcohol smuggling. The repeal of the Prohibition Act drastically reduced the profitability of smuggling and new surveillance systems made it easier to be caught. This was unlikely to have disappointed Algoth however, as he had already expressed a desire to help law enforcement agencies in alcohol-related crimes.
Algoth spent the latter part of the 1930’s in Germany, where he helped more than 150 Jews to escape via various devious routes through the Netherlands and Estonia using forged and stolen passports. Algoth did not take payment for his services but felt obliged on humanitarian grounds to help his fellow human beings escape unjust persecution.
When his network was exposed in 1939, Algoth fled to Estonia but found the Soviet Union had occupied the country, so he continued his journey to safety by rowing approximately 85 kms across the Gulf of Finland at night – a very risky journey!
Algoth worked as a helmsman on Swedish tankers and in the mid-1940’s, he tried to finance the building of a new boat by giving interviews about his life. In 1951 he went through surgery in Antwerp but could not pay the bill as he was in serious debt. In 1953 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and lost his speech and power of movement.
Algoth was married and divorced twice and had two children. The well-known Finnish musician Ikka Lipsanen is his grandson. He spoke Finnish, Swedish, German and English and wrote two books, Yli vihreän rajan (Over Green Borders) and Mina äventyr (My Adventures).
The TIDLÖS team salutes the forgotten hero, Algoth Johannes Niska who died in May 1954. Although some will know him as a smuggler of liquor, he was far more than this, a true adventurist and maverick whose bravery and courage enabled him to do what he believed was right, even if it meant breaking the law.