While it was on the cards for a number of years, and was a decades long project championed by abolitionists (of booze, not slavery – though they were often one and the same), the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution came into existence one hundred years ago, and lasted an unlucky thirteen years, before being removed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment (also the name of an excellent bar in San Francisco). It’s still the only instance in which a constitutional amendment has been introduced purely to nullify one of its predecessors.
It all started in January 1920, so that by the Fall of that year the authorities would have had a fair idea of how it was all going to pan out. The answer was, not that well really. The so-called ‘Noble Experiment’ was one of those idealistic and simplistic American solutions to complex political conundrums (‘Hey, let’s invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam Hussein’. ‘Hey let’s invade Libya and get rid of Gaddafi’ – you probably get the picture). In this case the problem was the undoubted affinity of many Americans to their fellow citizen ‘Mr. John Barleycorn’. (And I know that we Irish are in no position to be sanctimonious about that particular vice).
The widespread consumption of alcoholic liquor was responsible for the phenomenon described in the USA as ‘Blue Monday’ – not, in this instance, the biggest selling 12” single of all time by the Manchester band, New Order. The expression referred to the Monday after a weekend drinking binge. In addition to the many moralistic arguments advanced by abolitionists, the economic case was made that the introduction of Prohibition would bring ‘Blue Monday’ to an end and benefit the economy because of increased productivity.
So, where did the move to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages start?
With a plethora of 19th century Temperance movements, like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Prohibition Party. These included the Knights of Father Mathew. The Tipperary-born, Cork-based Capuchin friar spent two and a half years in the USA from 1849-51. He visited 25 states, was entertained in the White House, and organised the Knights in St. Louis before he left the USA to return to Ireland.
This early manifestation of the temperance movement managed to force prohibition in the State of Maine in 1851 – a move copied by a dozen other states – but those bans mostly didn’t survive the Civil War. There was an interesting footnote to the Maine ban – if you’re a Premier League soccer fan. There was a strong temperance movement in the city of Manchester in the mid 19th century and when the US state of Maine passed a law banning alcohol, the Manchester Temperance movement, which owned land in what was then known as Dog Kennel Lane, insisted on the name being changed to Maine Road, which, from 1923-2003 was the home of one of the city’s two professional football teams (the one in light blue).
After the American Civil War the Temperance movement made a major comeback in the 1880s. One of its most colourful champions was a woman named Carrie Nation (that’s actually her real name). She was a 19th century prohibitionist whose unique selling point was to arrive in a bar with a hatchet and destroy as much of it as she could before she was arrested. This occurred on at least 30 occasions. Ms. Nation obviously had a dark sense of humour as well, because one of the magazines she published was known as The Smasher’s Mail and another was entitled The Hatchet.
But that was all prologue to the serious business of banning the sale of booze in the 20thcentury.
This was brought about by organisations like the Anti Saloon League (very capably led by the politically adept Wayne Wheeler). The ASL campaigned vigorously for the introduction of prohibition, making considerable progress in legislative circles by the end of the first decade of the new century. When the USA entered World War 1 in April 1917 a law was introduced prohibiting the brewing or distilling of alcoholic beverages more than 1.3% proof – the official aim being to save wheat supplies for bread production. But, it was also a dry run (pun intended) for the ’Noble Experiment’ of Prohibition. The legislation was not finally enacted until well after the Armistice after 11/11/1918! So, you would assume it was redundant by then, but it was still enforced even though the war was over. It came into force on 30 June 1919, with 1 July 1919 thereafter being known as the ‘Thirsty-First’.
The move to make alcohol production unconstitutional (it was already illegal in a number of ‘dry’ states and counties) also began in 1917. The required 36 states had ratified the 18thAmendment to the US Constitution by January 1919. Later that year Congress passed enabling legislation (written by the Anti-Saloon League) in the name of one of the champions of prohibition, Andrew Volstead, Minnesota Republican and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. The Democratic Party President, Woodrow Wilson, vetoed the legislation after it passed both houses of Congress, but there were enough votes in the Senate and the House, from Democrats and Republicans (two thirds of both assemblies) to override the Presidential veto. The legislation provided that ‘No person shall … manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor …’ The bar was set very low too. The Volstead Act defined ‘intoxicating liquor’ as anything higher than 0.5% proof. The 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was repealed by the 21st Amendment when Utah (irony of ironies) became the 36th State to ratify in December 1933.
The campaign to expedite the introduction of prohibition was very evangelical Protestant in its origins, with a lot of Methodist and Baptist input. So much so that even religions which disapproved of alcohol did not get too involved in the campaign, but it was something over which northern WASPs and Southern ‘Jim Crow’ racists could unite. It also involved far more women than was the norm in any political activity outside of the parallel campaign for female suffrage.
One of the puzzles to a modern audience is the nature of the coalition that forced the Volstead Act through. If prohibition were to happen today it would probably be an entirely evangelical conservative Republican phenomenon. But, in the first decades of the 20thcentury it was a Democrat-Republican/progressive-conservative coalition that managed to garner enough support to force the measure through. It was also an urban-rural conflict at a time when the urban USA was not as demographically significant and dominant as it is now, and when corrupt urban machine politics was often associated with city saloons and bars where voters were bribed, murky deals were done, and city ‘bosses’ made their plans to siphon off millions of taxpayer dollars
The cause of the so-called ‘Noble Experiment’ united an unbelievably disparate group – from the Ku Klux Klan on the far right to leading members of the women’s suffrage movement on the left (the legendary Susan B. Anthony was a 19th century supporter, for example) and included ultra-conservative evangelical preachers like Billy Sunday, as well as African-American labour activists in liberal New York. This was how the supporters of prohibition managed to override the Presidential veto in Congress – it was the sort of ‘hands across the aisle’ movement that would be unthinkable today.
Did the Volstead Act introduce a total ban on alcohol?
Not quite. Wine was still legal for bona fide religious purposes (so, consumption of altar wine soared!). Some alcohol could still be manufactured and sold for medical reasons (doctors made a lot of money prescribing whiskey ‘purely for medicinal purposes, you understand officer’ ). The domestic consumption of alcohol was not illegal so you could make your own wine or cider at home, but not beer or spirits. Or you could stockpile your supplies in advance of prohibition being introduced, assuming you had the money. President Warren G. Harding (1921-23), for example, even brought his own stockpile to the White House!
The California wine industry could have been completely gutted but for the fiction that much of the raw material produced by the industry was being consumed in fruit salads as grapes. Also, the production and consumption of grape juice/concentrate was legal, despite the fact that if you let grape juice ‘sit’ for long enough it would ferment into 12% proof wine!
So, what happened to the booze business when the Volstead Act went into force?
Breweries either began to produce beer that was virtually non-alcoholic or they closed. After the supplies that people had been hoarding for months finally ran out it was happy days for brewers and distillers in Canada and Mexico. The practice of ‘rum-running’ began early and in earnest, and this was where criminal elements started to exploit prohibition. They sourced booze across the US border, north and south, and transported it to where there was a huge market, mostly in American cities. The ‘bootlegger’ became an American folk hero. As the dominant Chicago gangster and racketeer, Alphonse ‘Scarface’ Capone put it, ‘I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand’.
It was the era of the illegal drinking den, the ‘speakeasy’ (not an American Prohibition-originated expression BTW – it first appeared in Australia in the 1830s and in the USA in the 1880s). There were an estimated 50,000 of these illegal drinking establishments in greater New York alone, 5,000 of those on the island of Manhattan. Prohibition trebled the number of drinking establishments in Chicago. They ranged from sleazy dives to the sophisticated and well-protected establishments of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (himself a bootlegger – Gatsby, not Fitzgerald) and of Hollywood 1930s movies.
Speakeasies came in all shapes and sizes. You can even have a drink in one if you visit San Francisco. It’s the Cirque, a reopened bar in the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill that once operated as a speakeasy. That’s about as good as it got when it came to illegal drinking dens in San Francisco. The other side of the coin would have been the dives that dotted what was known as the Barbary Coast area of the city – the red-light district. Most of those were pretty vile and were closed down during prohibition, completely changing the nature of the neighbourhood.
As the era went on, and as more and more speakeasy owners took out ‘insurance policies’ ensuring that the authorities ignored their activities, the speakeasy tended to become more open and sophisticated – virtually indistinguishable from the modern nightclub. The famous Delmonicos in New York served its time as a speakeasy, as did the Krazy Kat Club in Washington DC. The ‘Irish’ New York gangster Owney Madden (who was actually from Leeds!) was part-owner of the famous Cotton Club, and while the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Fats Waller were performing there Madden’s bootleg hooch was being sold, at a sizeable mark-up no doubt, to the patrons. Madden must have fallen behind in his payments because the Cotton Club was closed briefly in 1925 for, shock/horror, selling liquor– that never happened again. The closure I mean.
The speakeasy also changed the nature of the cocktail – this was because all sorts of liquids had to be added to bootleg cocktails to disguise the fact that patrons were basically drinking rough and ready moonshine. Speakeasies were frequented by the great and the good – mayors, senators, police chiefs, and film stars. When raids occurred, it was often at the behest of Federal law enforcement officers. Municipal police forces were ‘bought’ early and often by rum runners, bootleggers and speakeasy owners, and preferred to turn a blind eye.
What steps did the Federal government take to enforce the Volstead Act?
A number of different agencies (including the Internal Revenue Service) were delegated to enforce the law. The most famous of these was the Bureau of Prohibition which waged war on the many gangsters exploiting the ban on alcohol sales. The most famous Bureau of Prohibition agent was Eliot Ness, based in Chicago, who led a unit that became known as the Untouchables. This was because, unlike most Chicago city police, its members were not susceptible to corruption. Ness used a wire-tapping operation to inhibit the notorious Al Capone’s operations. The work of Ness led to an indictment of Capone for more than 5,000 Volstead Act violations, but he ultimately went to Federal prison (Alcatraz) for tax evasion.
Also, in order to prevent the use of industrial alcohol in the production of illegal hooch, the Feds ordered that ethyl alcohol was to be ‘denatured’ by the addition of lethal poison. When the ingenious bootleggers got their chemists to ‘renature’ the alcohol the Feds insisted on even more deadly poisons being introduced. Up to 10,000 people are believed to have died as a result of being poisoned by ‘denatured’ alcohol.
As with a lot of moralistic legislation the inequalities showed up early – wealthy and middle-class Americans could afford to frequent speakeasies or pay inflated prices for booze – working class people could not – this quickly led to the use of portable stills and the manufacture of domestic ‘bath-tub’ alcohol by the less well off. In the first year of operation alone there were over 30,000 cases taken against people for violations of the Volstead Act. That number increased from year to year until 1933.
Prohibition, rather than introducing a more sober United States to itself, and to the wider world, only helped to supercharge the ‘Roaring Twenties’. After the misery of the Great War people were not going to be stopped from partying by the inconvenience of Prohibition. They found many ways around the law and rationalised their implicit/effective support of gangsters in the process.
Culturally did Prohibition give rise to places like The Cotton Club in Harlem, to the music of the Jazz Age, to the Charleston, to songs like ‘Basin Street Blues’, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, ‘Everybody Loves My Baby’ or ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’? Or would they all have happened anyway? Who knows? It is certainly responsible for movies like Little Caesar (based on the career of Capone) and Public Enemy (starring James Cagney) – both released in 1931. It also enhanced the enticing ‘risk factor’ of having a good time (you could, in theory at least, end up in jail) and there was a ‘nose thumbing’ element to the social life of the 1920s. This was encapsulated in the song ‘Chicago’, in the lines …
‘Bet your bottom dollar you lose the blues in Chicago,
The town that Billy Sunday could not shut down’
But part of the mythology of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ is definitely and legitimately associated with organised crime and homicidal gangsterism – with the rise of ‘Scarface’ Al Capone in Chicago —partly achieved by his brutal slaying of the senior members of the rival ‘Irish’ Bugs Moran gang in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on 14 February 1929—and the emergence of the Five Families of the Sicilian Mafia in New York (supplanting Irish and Jewish gangs there) in the 1930s. By 1931 the Sicilian Mafia was already well organised in New York (helped by the money being made from supplying liquor) and was drawing up its own ‘rules’ and establishing a governing ‘Commission’.
Prohibition is difficult for us to get our heads around in the 21st century – today we wonder ‘could you not have seen what was going to happen if you made alcohol illegal? – criminal elements would inevitably flood in and fill the vacuum.’ But there is a lot of ‘backwards history’ about that line of reasoning, We now know what actually happened (Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Dion O’Bannion, Dutch Schultz et al) and we can draw parallels today with the illegal manufacture and sale of narcotics. But there are many historians who insist that there is insufficient evidence of massively increased crime statistics between 1920-33, and that there is plenty of evidence that the health (physical and mental) of Americans dramatically improved during that period. So, they argue, Prohibition wasn’t all bad.
Undoubtedly the USA did have a huge problem with alcohol abuse in the 19th and early 20thcenturies. Interestingly between 1830-2010 American consumption of alcohol declined by 66%. The Temperance Movement, Prohibition, and advances in Public Health information have all contributed to that reduction.
So, why did Prohibition eventually end?
1) Increasing disillusionment as to its achievements, even on the part of former supporters. It appeared to trail in its wake it even more ‘moral’ issues than it addressed.
2) The detrimental effect on state and federal government revenues of the non collection of taxes on the sale of alcohol. This became even more crucial after the Wall Street Crash, as the Federal and State administrations urgently needed additional sources of revenue, and FDR needed to pay for his Keynesian New Deal policies (most of which, however, were funded by Federal borrowing).
3) The perception of the growing lack of respect for the law among ordinary citizens who were flouting the Volstead Act in their millions in speakeasies and had rather too much sympathy for the ‘ordinary decent criminals’ manufacturing, distributing and flogging booze.
4) The grip of ‘Bootlegging’ and the ills that accompanied the rapid growth of organised crime (though the extent of this has been questioned by some revisionist historians – but perception is just as important as reality)
5) The need to end the corruption of politics and policing brought about by the rampant bribery of officials, politicians at all levels and police forces. (So, how did that one go?)
Although he eventually fell victim to his own success, let’s leave the last word with one of the brutal success stories of the Prohibition era, Al Capone.
‘You can get much further with a kind word and a gun then you can with a kind word alone.’