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History Of Prohibition
  • Appendix
  • History Of Prohibition

    Prohibition and the KKK

    The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) strongly supported Prohibition and its strict enforcement.

    (Moore, L.J. Historical interpretation of the 1920's Klan: the traditional view and the popular revision. Journal of Social History, 1990, 24 (2), 341-358.)

    The strong anti-foreign (especially anti-German) prejudice during World War I, the argument that the alcohol beverage industry diverted grain needed for the war effort, the lack of organization on the part of the wets, the effective organization of the drys, and political intimidation all combined with the effects of decades of temperance propaganda to make possible the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment establishing national prohibition (Kobler, 1973, ch. 9; Kerr, 1985, ch. 6).

    For decades, alcohol had been blamed for almost all human misery and misfortune. Salvation Army General Evangeline Booth summarized this belief:

    Drink has drained more blood,
    Hung more crepe,
    Sold more houses,
    Plunged more people into bankruptcy,
    Armed more villains,
    Slain more children,
    Snapped more wedding rings,
    Defiled more innocence,
    Blinded more eyes,
    Twisted more limbs,
    Dethroned more reason,
    Wrecked more manhood,
    Dishonored more womanhood,
    Broken more hearts,
    Blasted more lives,
    Driven more to suicide, and
    Dug more graves than any other poisoned scourge that ever swept its death-dealing waves across the world. (Seldes, 1960, p. 106)

    Not surprisingly, for decades prohibition had been touted as the almost magical solution to the nation's poverty, crime, violence, and other ills (Aaron and Musto, 1981, p. 157). On the eve of prohibition the invitation to a church celebration in New York said "Let the church bells ring and let there be great rejoicing, for an enemy has been overthrown and victory crowns the forces of righteousness" (Asbury, 1968, p. 154). Jubilant with victory, some in the WCTU announced that, having brought prohibition to the United States, it would now go forth to bring the blessing of enforced abstinence to the rest of the world (Asbury, 1968, p. 143; McCarthy and Douglas, 1949, p. 31). The leading prohibitionist in Congress confidently asserted that "There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail (Merz, 1969, p. ix).

    The famous evangelist Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral for John Barleycorn and then preached on the benefits of prohibition. "The rein of tears is over," he asserted. "The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and comcribs" (Asbury, 1968, pp. 144-145). Since alcohol was to be banned and since it was seen as the cause of most, if not all, crime (Odegard, 1928, pp. 58-60), some communities sold their jails. One sold its jail to a farmer who converted it into a combination pig and chicken house while another converted its jail into a tool house (Anti-Saloon League of America, 1920, p. 28).

    Unfortunately, hoping or even fervently believing would not make prohibition anything other than a great illusion. The actual consequences ranged from unfortunate to disastrous and deadly. Widespread disregard for law was obvious. Within a week after the Eighteenth Amendment was imposed, small portable stills were on sale throughout the country (Asbury, 1968, p. 157). California's grape growers increased their acreage about 700 percent during the first five years of the noble experiment and production increased dramatically to meet a booming demand (Feldman, 1928, pp. 278-281). Grape juice was commonly sold as "bricks or blocks of Rhine Wine," "blocks of port," and so on along with a warning: "After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine" (Aaron and Musto, 1981, p. 159). One grape block producer was not quite so coy when it advertised:

    Now is the time to order your supply of VINE-GLO. It can be made in your home in sixty days-a fine, true-to-type guaranteed beverage ready for the Holiday Season. VINE-GLO ... comes to you in nine varieties, Port, Virginia Dare, Muscatel, Angelica, Tokay, Sauteme, Riesling, Claret and Burgundy. It is entirely legal in your home-but it must not be transported. (Cashman, 1981, p. 213)

    The mayor of New York City even sent instructions on winemaking to his constituents (Aaron and Musto, 1981, p. 159). There was also wort, or beer that had been halted in the manufacturing process before the yeast was added. The purchaser added yeast, let the wort ferment, and then filtered it. Since wort was sold before it contained alcohol, it was legal and openly sold throughout the entire country (Asbury, 1968, p. 235). Often, the entire family would be involved in theproduction of home brews for illegal sale, as suggested by the following:

    Mother's in the kitchen
    Washing out the jugs;
    Sister's in the pantry
    Bottling the suds;
    Father's in the cellar
    Mixing up the hops;
    Johnny's on the front porch
    Watching for the cops.(Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 86)


    Mother makes brandy from cherries;
    Pop distills whisky and gin;
    Sister sells wine from the grapes on our vine-
    Good grief, how the money rolls in!
    (Sinclair, 1962, p. 209)

    Organized smuggling of alcohol from Canada and elsewhere quickly developed. "Rum rows" existed off the coasts of large cities where ships lined up just beyond the three mile limit to off-load their cargoes onto speed boats. Murder and hijacking were common in this dangerous but lucrative business. One of the most well known operators was Bill McCoy, who enjoyed a reputation for smuggling high quality beverages-the original "real McCoy" (Lender and Martin, 1982, p. 144).

    There was also the notorious and ever-present organized bootlegging. The country's scourge led to massive and widespread corruption of politicians and law enforcement agencies and helped finance powerful crime syndicates. In addition to the murders of law enforcement officers there was an ever more common cause of death and disability caused by bootleggers:

    highly toxic wood alcohols found their way into much of the available bootleg liquor. When denatured industrial alcohol was not sufficiently diluted, or was consumed in large quantities, the result was paralysis, blindness and death. In 1927, almost twelve thousand deaths were attributed to alcohol poisonings, many of these among the urban poor who could not afford imported liquors. In 1930, U.S. public health officials estimated that fifteen thousand persons were afflicted with "jake foot," a debilitating paralysis of the hands and feet brought on by drinking denatured alcohol flavored with ginger root. (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 87)

    A contemporary writer described "jake foot" or "jake paralysis":

    The victim of "jake paralysis" practically loses control of his fingers. . . . The feet of the paralyzed ones drop forward from the ankle so that the toes point downward. The victim has no control over the muscles that normally point the toes upward. When he tries to walk his dangling feet touch the pavement first at the toes, then his heels settle down jarringly. Toe first, heel next. That's how he moves. "Tap-click, tap-click, tap-click, tap-click," is how his footsteps sound.... The calves of his legs, after two or three weeks, begin to soften and hang down; the muscles between thumbs and index fingers shrivel away. (Shepherd, 1930)

    Many stills used lead coils or lead soldering, which gave off acetate of lead, a dangerous poison. Some bootleggers used recipes that included iodine, creosote, or even embalming fluid (Asbury, 1968, pp. 272-273, 283). The resulting problems caused financial burdens to the nation, but bootleg, being untaxed, deprived the treasury of much needed revenue.

    Alcohol for industrial purposes could be legally produced. However, it was relatively easy to divert to illegal beverages. Therefore, the Prohibition Bureau tried to make it undrinkable by requiring the addition of one of 26 denaturants. Some, such as soft soap, were harmless, but others such as iodine, sulfuric acid, and wood alcohol, were poisonous. At least one-tenth of all industrial alcohol was ultimately drunk (Sinclair, 1962, pp. 200-201).

    The New York legislature called on Congress to prohibit the use of harmful denaturants. But the Anti-Saloon League, the WCTU and others defended the use of wood alcohol and other poisons. Said one temperance leader, "the government is under no obligation to furnish people with alcohol that is drinkable when the constitution forbids it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide" (Asbury, 1968, p. 279).

    The widespread corruption of public officials became a national scandal. Several rather typical cases reported by the New York Times in a short period illustrate the problem:

    Fort Lauderdale, Florida - The sheriff, the assistant chief of police, and seventeen others, including policemen and deputy sheriffs, were arrested on charges of conspiracy.
    Morris County, New Jersey - The former county prosecutor was found guilty of accepting bribes from liquor-law violators.
    Philadelphia - A city magistrate was sentenced to six years in prison for accepting $87,993 in liquor graft during his ten months in office.
    Edgewater, New Jersey - The mayor, the chief of police, two local detectives, a United States customs inspector, a New York police sergeant, and eight others were found guilty of conspiracy. A rum- runner confessed that he had paid them $61,000 to help land liquor worth one million dollars.
    South Jacksonville, Florida - Practically the entire city administration, including the mayor, the chief of police, the president of the city council, the city commissioner, and the fire chief, were indicted by a federal grand jury. (Asbury, 1968, p. 187)

    It became very difficult to convict those who violated prohibition because public support for the law and its enforcement eroded dramatically. 14 For example, of 7,000 arrests in New York between 1921 and 1923, only 27 resulted in convictions (Lender and Martin, 1982, p. 154). That is a conviction rate of only one for every 260 arrests.

    In addition to being ineffective, prohibition was counterproductive14 because it encouraged the heavy and rapid consumption of alcohol in secretive, nonsocially regulated and controlled ways. "People did not take the trouble to go to a speakeasy, present the password, and pay high prices for very poor quality alcohol simply to have a beer. When people went to speakeasies, they went to get drunk." (Zinberg and Fraser, 1985, p. 468). Zinberg and Fraser (1985, p. 470) conclude: "Removing the alcohol from the norms of everyday society increased drinking problems. Without well-known prescriptions for use and commonly held sanctions against abuse, prohibition drinkers were left almost as defenseless as were the South American Indians in the face of Spanish rum and brandy." They (1985, p. 470) suggest that prohibition "may have curtailed the growth of the responsible drinking practices that had emerged during the 25 or so years preceding Prohibition."

    Near the end of prohibition an observer wrote that "Since 1920 [the beginning of prohibition] the changed attitudes of women toward liquor has been one of the most influential factors in the encouragement of lawless drinking. Drinking in 1910 was a man's game. . . ." He explained that "Drinking today is a man-and- woman's game. ... In all former times the man got drunk and came home to his disgusted and long-suffering wife. Today they sometimes get drunk together and try to slip into the house as quietly as possible, so as not to wake the children" (Asbury, 1968, p. 159).

    Some drinking establishments were not as respectable as the illegal and unregulated speakeasies. They included the "clip joint":

    The typical clip joint was staffed by a bartender, two or three waiters who doubled as strong- arm men, a tough floor manager, a singer and a piano player, a half-naked cigarette girl, and from two to ten hostesses, depending upon the size of the place. The sucker was usually brought to the clip joint by a taxi driver or sent there by a hotel clerk; he was assured that he would find girls galore and lost of good liquor "right off the boat."

    When he arrived he was immediately importuned to buy drinks for one or more of the hostesses, who intimated that they would be available for more interesting activities "after we get through work." The girls usually drank "gin highballs," which were compounded of water and a little orange juice or ginger ale, and for which the sucker drink, was given a double slug of raw alcohol doctored to resemble whiskey. If he got helplessly drunk, he was simply robbed and dumped into the gutter a block or so away from the clip joint. If through some miracle he remained fairly sober and showed a disposition to quit spending, the usual procedure was for one of the hostesses to accuse him of insulting her. Thereupon the floor manager would indignantly tell him to leave and present him with a bill, an outrageous compilation which included a large cover charge, a dozen drinks he hadn't ordered, all those he had already paid for, a bottle or two of liquor, a half dozen packs of cigarettes at a dollar each, and extras. If he paid, he was permitted to depart, although he was lucky if a sympathetic hostess didn't pick his pocket before he reached the door. If he protested, he was kicked and slugged until he was groggy or unconscious, after which he was robbed and thrown out. (Asbury, 1968, pp.198-199)

    Speakeasys (also called blind pigs), clip joints, and similar drinking establishments tended to replace the good restaurants in which people had earlier been able to dine leisurely and enjoy beverage alcohol in a moderate and restrained manner. Instead, they now gulped down highly alcoholic beverages that were untaxed, unregulated, and almost always dangerous to life and health.


    The speakeasy got its name because one had to whisper a code word or name through a slot in a locked door to gain admittance.

    (Erdoes, Richard. 1000 Remarkable Facts about Booze. New York: The Rutledge Press, 1981, p. 188.)

    Even as the problems caused by prohibition mounted and the political winds began to shift, drys sometimes became even more adamant in their support. The teetotaller Henry Ford wrote: "For myself, if booze ever comes back to the United States, I am through with manufacturing... I wouldn't be interested in putting automobiles into the hands of a generation soggy with drink" (Willebrandt, 1929, p. 34). The president of the WCTU defended the actions of prohibition agents who clubbed a suspected bootlegger unconscious and then shot his wife as she ran to aid him, commenting tersely, "Well, she was evading the law, wasn't she?" (Lender and Martin, 1982, pp. 160-161). In response to contests for a solution to the problem of noncompliance with prohibition:

    One woman suggested that liquor law violators should be hung by the tongue beneath an airplane and carried over the United States. Another suggested that the government should distribute poison liquor through the bootleggers; she admitted that several hundred thousand Americans would die, but she thought that this cost was worth the proper enforcements of the dry law. Others wanted to deport all aliens, exclude wets from all churches, force bootleggers to go to church every Sunday, forbid drinkers to marry, torture or whip or brand or sterilize or tattoo drinkers, place offenders in bottle- shaped cages in public squares, make them swallow two ounces of castor oil, and even execute the consumers of alcohol and their posterity to the fourth generation. (Sinclair, 1962, p. 26; for other suggestions, see Tietsort, 1929,ch. 8)

    Al Capone

    Prohibition clearly benefited some people. Notorious bootlegger Al Capone made $60,000,000... that's sixty million dollars... per year (untaxed!) while the average industrial worker earned less than $1,000 per year.

    (Schlaadt, R. G. Alcohol Use and Abuse. Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1992, p.16; Fite, G. and Reese, J. Economic History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959, p. 579.)

    Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong abstainer who had contributed $350,00015 to the Anti-Saloon League, announced his support for repeal because of the widespread problems caused by prohibition (Prendergast, 1987, p. 44; Kyvig, 1979, p. 96). 15 He explained his change of belief in a letter published in The New York Times:

    When the Eighteenth Amendment was passed I earnestly hoped- with a host of advocates of temperance-that it would be generally supported by public opinion and thus the day be hastened when the value to society of men with minds and bodies free from the undermining effects of alcohol would be generally realized. That this has not been the result, but rather that drinking has generally increased; that the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit, but probably two-fold if not three-fold; that a vast array of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment; that as an inevitable result respect for all law has been greatly lessened; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree-I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe. (Kyvig, 1979, p. 152; Roizen, 1991, pp. 245-246)

    The popular vote for repeal of prohibition was 74 percent in favor and 26 percent in opposition (Childs, 1947, pp. 260-261). So by a resounding three to one vote, the American people rejected prohibition; only two states opposed repeal (Merz, 1969, p. x). A hummingbird had indeed flown to Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.

    Billy Sunday had proclaimed John Barleycorn's death at the beginning of prohibition in 1920. But thirteen years later:

    the cheerful spring came lightly on,
    And showers began to fall;
    John Barleycorn got up again,
    And sore surprised them all. (Furnas, 1965, p. 337)

    Happy throngs sang "Happy Days are Here Again!" and President Roosevelt would soon look back to what he called "The damnable affliction of Prohibition" (Blocker, 1976, p. 242). But not all were happy. The Anti-Saloon League declared "War ... NO PEACE PACT-NO ARMISTICE" and warned that temperance forces would soon be ready to launch the "offensive against the liquor traffic" (Lender and Martin, 1982, p. 135).

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