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The Road to Prohibition

“In 1790, United States government figures showed that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for everybody over fifteen amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine.” (history.org)

the temperance movement


March 20th, 2019   |   By Kester Chau

By the 1850s, the average person was still drinking five gallons of alcohol a year – nearly five times as much as an American today. How did this love of imbibing and the struggle to find balance begin?

Colonial Times
In Europe in the 1600s, public sources of water were often contaminated and could kill. Fermented beverages were safe to drink, and the beer and wine flowed freely to all ages. It wasn’t uncommon for adults and children to have a beer or ale with every meal. When the Puritan settlers came to America, they brought more beer than water on the Mayflower. Colonists imbibed to treat illnesses, celebrate life and mourn death, at weddings, at trials and just about any occasion.

“Many started the day with a pick-me-up and ended it with a put-me-down. Between those liquid milestones, they also might enjoy a midmorning whistle-wetter, a luncheon libation, an afternoon accompaniment, and a supper snort. If circumstances allowed, they could ease the day with several rounds at a tavern” (history.org).

This love of spirits was shared by the founding fathers. Samuel Adams ran his father’s brewery, John Adams had a love of cider and Thomas Jefferson had a passion for wine after his service in France. John Hancock even smuggled wine past the American Board of Customs in opposition to the British government and their taxes. He used his wealth and influence to plant the seeds of the American Revolution. “Hancock came into direct conflict with the British in 1768, when one of his merchant ships, the Liberty, was seized in Boston Harbor by British customs officials who claimed Hancock had illegally unloaded cargo without paying the required taxes. Hancock was a popular figure in Boston, and the seizure of his ship led to angry protests by local residents. In the ensuing months and years, Hancock became increasingly involved in the movement for American independence” (history.org).

Before the Revolutionary War, Rum ruled in the colonies. It was made from molasses imported from sugar plantations on the Caribbean Islands and became the foundation of international and intercoastal trade. It was exported to Britain, Africa and southern Europe. The Molasses Act of 1733 was protested by the colonists, as it put taxes on molasses, sugar and Rum imported from non-British foreign colonies. The British West Indies could not produce enough molasses for the colonies and it was thwarted with the rise of smuggling.

Because of the shortage of Rum’s raw material, Whiskey would grow in popularity during and after the Revolution. It gave Americans a new sense of identity separate from the Crown. The new distillers tended to be Scottish-Irish immigrants who used corn and rye. They had settled in many states, but it was Bourbon County, Kentucky that would become infamous for this new spirit.

Ironically, Congress, under President Washington, would pass a tax on alcohol to help relieve the massive war debt of the newly liberated colonies. The Whisky Rebellion of 1791 was in response to these taxes, and the violence that ensued over the years led to the Whiskey tax being repealed in 1803. The repeal was short-lived, however, as a new Whisky tax was instituted to fund the government during the Civil War. To avoid these taxes, distillers known as “moonshiners” began hiding and working in the backwoods, in the light of the moon.

temperance movement

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

American Temperance Movement
From the early days of the colonies, not all Americans considered drinking in excess as acceptable. Puritan leaders saw drinking as necessary, but attacked drunkenness and called for moderation. The idea of alcohol and addiction didn’t exist for much of America’s first 150 years. Dr. Benjamin Rush saw alcoholism as a disease with the only cure being abstinence. His theories played a role in shaping the temperance movement.

“In the late 1700s, Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, became fascinated with mental illness. Today, he is considered the father of American psychiatry. He took a special interest in alcoholism and penned a work on the topic, Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, published in 1785” (history.org).

The early temperance movement was mainly pushed forward by women and religious groups. Spousal and child abuse, and even drunkenness among children, was rampant. They blamed this abuse as well as poverty, crime and health problems on alcohol. Most “dry” religious groups were Protestant Christians such as Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterian, and the “wet” were Catholics. Spurred on by religious organizations, many states enacted their own prohibition laws over the years, with Tennessee being the first in 1838. Maine followed in 1851, but their law was repealed four years later. By the late 1800s, temperance groups had become a powerful political force on state and federal levels. Kansas was the first state to outlaw alcoholic beverages, and it did so by amending its constitution in 1881.

Carry A Nation

Carrie Nation with her hatchet and Bible. Photo from American Stock Archive

The American Temperance Society, established in Boston in 1826, was the first formal movement in the U.S. to promote abstaining from drinking distilled spirits. More than 1.5 million people took the pledge over 10 years within 8,000 local groups. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in Cleveland in 1874. It became one of the most influential women’s groups of the century when Frances Willard took over in 1879. Many individuals left their mark on the movement, including Carry Nation who felt it was her duty to destroy saloons. She would storm into saloons quoting scripture and singing hymns, and then smash the bar and the bottles to bits with a hatchet. She would pay her jail fines with sales of souvenir hatchets and lecture tour fees.

“Prohibition Party, oldest minor U.S. political party still in existence: It was founded in 1869 to campaign for legislation to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors, and from time to time has nominated candidates for state and local office in nearly every state of the Union. Rural and small-town voters affiliated with Protestant evangelical churches provided most of the party’s support. The Prohibition Party reached the peak of its national strength in the elections of 1888 and 1892, in each of which its candidate for president polled 2.2 percent of the popular vote. After 1900 its strength was effective mainly on the local and county levels” (britannica.com).

The Anti-Saloon League was a national organization in the 1890s with its first offices in Columbus, Ohio. It was a non-partisan group with the singular focus of complete prohibition at a federal level. Partnered with many temperance organizations and especially the WCTU, “the League in 1916 oversaw the election of the two-thirds majorities necessary in both houses of Congress to initiate what became the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” (history.org).

prohibition

LEFT: Prohibition agents uncover about $300,000 worth of liquor concealed in a pile of coal when they boarded the coal steamer Maurice Tracy in New York harbor on April 8, 1932. The inspectors shoveled coal for about an hour before they discovered the 3,000 bags of bottled beverages (AP photo). RIGHT: Estelle Zemon shows the vest and pant-apron used to conceal bottles of alcohol to deceive border guards during the U.S. alcohol prohibition on March 18, 1931 (AP photo).

Prohibition
The 18th amendment was a nationwide, constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, and was in force from 1920 to 1933. Though it was vetoed by President Wilson, Congress voted the National Prohibition Act (known informally as the Volstead Act) through to provide enforcement for the 18th amendment. Drafted by a member of the Anti-Saloon League, this act defined the process and procedures for banning alcoholic beverages, as well as their production and distribution.

Some Americans were so convinced that crime was a result of alcohol that many jails were sold right before the law went into effect. The Reverend Billy Sunday preached that the prisons would be turned into factories and jails into storehouses, as the reign of tears would come to an end. “The amendment worked at first: liquor consumption dropped, arrests for drunkenness fell, and the price for illegal alcohol rose higher than the average worker could afford. Alcohol consumption dropped by 30 percent and the United States Brewers’ Association admitted that the consumption of hard liquor was off 50 percent during Prohibition” (archives.gov).

However, there was a growing disobedience toward the law and law enforcement, which was compounded by the fact federal and state authorities lacked sufficient resources to enforce the law. The limited officers available were no match for the inventiveness of those who wanted to keep drinking. Hip flasks and hollowed-out books and canes were rampant. Capitol Hill was one of the “wettest” spots in the nation, with four out of five senators and congressmen privately partaking. By 1925 in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs. The Los Angeles mayor and police were bootlegging through the city’s tunnel system. Life in America became more violent and organized crime more prevalent. Easily the most disrespected law in history, the 18th amendment incited a national war between the government agents and moonshiners, rumrunners, speakeasies and bootleggers. The death rate spiked with 12,000 people being murdered every year.

prohibition

TOP RIGHT: Rae Samuels holds the last bottle of beer that was distilled before Prohibition went into effect in Chicago, Ill., Dec. 29, 1920. The bottle of Schlitz has been insured for $25,000 (Library of Congress). TOP LEFT: The largest distillery ever uncovered in Detroit was raided, and Prohibition officers are seen inspecting tanks and vats in one part of the plant, on Jan. 5, 1931. Each of these vats had a capacity of 15,000 gallons and there were 13 on this floor alone (AP photo). CENTER LEFT: People applying bumper stickers advocating for the repeal of the 18th Amendment. (Minnesota Historical Society). BOTTOM LEFT: Authorities unload cases of Whiskey crates labeled as “green tomatoes” from a refrigerator car in the Washington yards, on May 15, 1929. The grower’s express cargo train was en route from Holandale, Fla., to Newark, N.J. (AP photo). CENTER RIGHT and BOTTOM RIGHT: Celebrating the repeal of the 18th Amendment (Time.com).

“Prohibition was difficult to enforce, despite the passage of companion legislation known as the Volstead Act. The increase of the illegal production and sale of liquor (known as “bootlegging”), the proliferation of speakeasies (illegal drinking spots) and the accompanying rise in gang violence and other crimes led to waning support for Prohibition by the end of the 1920s” (history.com).

Government agents didn’t stand a chance against moonshine drivers. Although appearing ordinary on the outside, these souped-up cars and exceptional drivers could make their way through the routes even with no headlights. When they weren’t smuggling, they spent time racing other runners. This would eventually lead to the organization of NASCAR, post Prohibition.

Many speakeasies rejected the unsafe and foul-tasting local alcohol and turned to rumrunners to import the real deal right off the boats from Europe, Canada and the Caribbean. William “Bill” McCoy was a pioneer rumrunner on the East Coast as he discovered he could anchor off shore and let small contact boats take the illegal cargo in. The smaller boats easily outran the Coast Guard. This was the start of “rum row” and as he gained a reputation for pure spirits, so did the saying, “it’s the real McCoy.”

Agents could only apprehend about 5 percent of the 800 million gallons of illegal liquor flowing through the country each year. Americans had even turned to drinking industrialized booze. Government agents and chemists put in wood alcohol that couldn’t be burned off, to make it undrinkable, and mob chemists worked unsuccessfully to remove it. It was lethal and it’s estimated that 10,000 people died from the toxic batches. A 1927 survey of the liquor confiscated by agents showed that 98 percent of it contained poisons. This betrayal by the government was the beginning of the end.

Three hundred million dollars were spent trying to enforce Prohibition and $11 million in tax revenues were lost. The 18th amendment would become the only one in U.S. history to be repealed. The 21st amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1933, bringing an end to the era of national prohibition of alcohol.

“Prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A Prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded” (Abraham Lincoln).

Notorious Gangsters of the Prohibition Era (pace.edu)

Al Capone
The most renowned gangster of the time, Capone was considered “Public Enemy Number One.” At one point in his career, Capone made $100 million a year from booze smuggling, gambling, racketeering, prostitution and other illegal trade. Capone was never convicted of illegal smuggling but was convicted of tax evasion by the Internal Revenue Service.

Lucky Luciano
Luciano imported Scotch, Whisky and Rum directly from Scotland, Canada and the Caribbean, respectively. Prohibition helped Lucky establish a base for becoming the richest gangster in the world during his time. In 1936, he was convicted of running the largest prostitution ring ever in history.

Meyer Lansky
With his partner Bugsy Siegel, Lansky headed one of the most violent gangs during the Prohibition era. He was the person responsible for Lucky Luciano’s rise to power in 1931. Lansky preferred to keep a low profile and was mostly engaged as a financial advisor to Luciano.

Johnny Torrio
Torrio created the empire that Al Capone took over. During Prohibition when Torrio’s boss refused to take up booze smuggling fearing cop intervention, Torrio had him murdered at his own restaurant. Torrio is considered to be one of the founders of modern organized crime in America.

Arnold Rothstein
Arnold Rothstein was the only gangster who cashed in just when the Prohibition era was beginning. He was also the only gangster who tried to take the violence out of a business situation. Rothstein was a hardcore gambler and was murdered after reneging on a $300,000 loss.

Bugs Moran
Archrival of Al Capone and Johnny Torrio, Moran was willing to go to any lengths to prove his mettle. He murdered Capone’s associates and ruled for almost a decade.

Enoch “Nucky” Johnson
Running Atlantic City for 30 years, he allied himself with Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Johnny Torrio and others to make Atlantic City one of the largest hot spots for booze smuggling. Nucky controlled people through both his fear and his charm. He had enormous stature in the Republican Party and used his political clout to his business advantage.

Bugsy Siegel

Siegel was a preferred hit man for his clean hits. Around the 1930s, he began to build ties with Lucky Luciano and eventually rose up to a decent membership post in the Mafia families. Siegel had ties with the construction industry and was able to procure material from the black market.

About the author

Kester Chau

Kester Chau

Kester Cockrell Chau is the Creative Director for in the Mix's print magazine, website and social media sites. She's also the on-camera hostess for MixTV, our new media medium. In addition to graphic and web design, she has a background in journalism as a writer and editor.