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Prohibition Era
The History Cat Classroom
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The Temperance Movement


In 1873, Dio Lewis, a medical doctor and big-time supporter of the temperance movement—who had dedicated itself since the early 1800's to banning the sale of alcoholic beverages— rolled into the small town of Hillsboro, Ohio. Hillsboro was your typical 19th-century American town. It only had 5,000 people but could boast of having 13 saloons, 4 hotels, and 4 drug stores, all places where you could buy your hooch. Lewis was there to give a speech about women’s physical fitness but he managed to slip in a line urging women to take up the cause of temperance for the sake of their families.


Lewis told a story about his own alcoholic father and the unusual way his broken-hearted mother saved her family. Mrs. Lewis and her friends stood outside the saloon where her father drank and prayed. Day after day she did this until the saloon owner agreed to shut down— either because he had a change of heart or more likely he couldn’t sell alcohol with a bunch of women attracting all that unwanted attention. Dr. Dio’s story inspired the women of Hillsboro to do the same, and soon women all over the country were praying outside of saloons. Seriously, ladies, we're trying to drink away our paychecks in peace here! Inside, the saloon owners and customers were outraged; the reception that these women received ranged from cold politeness to being physically assaulted with eggs and rocks.


The Temperance Movement was a collection of characters with their own motivations and methods for wanting the sale of alcoholic beverages banned in the United States. These folks, known collectively as prohibitionists, believed that when people got into the sauce (alcohol), all sorts of evils caused by drunkenness, such as crime, poverty, disease, insanity, and broken families, were the result.

The Temperance Movement was gaining steam by the late 1800s and becoming better organized. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) focused on teaching young people the dangers of the drink. They lobbied the school boards to include lessons that taught students about the effects of “dallying with Demon Rum”. Many young people took abstinence pledges vowing never to drink once they were legally allowed to do so. Those who signed pledges added a T next to their name showing their total commitment to prohibition. Eventually, they became known as teetotalers, referring to anyone who abstains from drinking alcohol.



Fight for the Eighteenth

By the turn of the 20th Century, a few things were coming together that would bring about the 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Getting an amendment added to the Constitution has never been an easy task. Two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states have to approve it. Still not impressed by the difficulty? Consider this: in the 134 years since the Bill of Rights had been created and 1917, only four new amendments had successfully been added.

Prohibition organizations, like the WTCU and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), raised millions of dollars from churches and businessmen to put “dry” candidates in office. Henry Ford was one of the ASL’s biggest contributors. In fact, Henry Ford was such a staunch prohibitionist that he fired workers who drank, even in the privacy of their own homes. To ensure they weren’t secretly hitting the bottle, Ford hired an army of private detectives to spy on them. The ASL aggressively campaigned to pass laws wherever it could to ban alcohol. By 1914, one-third of Americans were living in a city, county, or state that was dry. But most of these places were in rural areas where people already supported prohibition. At least half of Americans lived in cities where saloons and bars were everywhere. Without the support of city-dwellers, an amendment to make America dry was dead in the water.


Teetotaling Gains Steam

 In the early 1900s, America had seen an immigration boom like nothing else in its history. Millions of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany poured in. Many of these folks were poor, unskilled, and liked to drink. Most immigrants ended up in the slums because they were too poor to go anywhere else. These slums were notorious for their filth, their street gangs, and their saloons— which were dives with sawdust floors and cheap booze. While most Americans bought into the stereotype of the Irish as drunks with low morals, this wasn’t enough to convince Americans to become Prohibitionists.


World War One happened. Then, in 1917, the Temperance Movement got an unexpected Ally when America was drawn into the war with Germany and its allies. With World War One in full swing, a wave of Anti-German feeling swept the nation and turned temperance into a patriotic cause. Beer was a big part of German culture.  Prohibitionists ruthlessly used this to their advantage. They ran campaigns that said that breweries were unpatriotic and didn’t care about the war effort or America. They also said that breweries were selfishly distilling grain that could be used instead to feed the troops.  The campaign worked. Congress even launched an investigation into German organizations for “un-American activities”.

By 1917, Prohibitionists had succeeded in putting a majority of congressman, governors, and state legislatures. When the Volstead Act (aka the 18th Amendment) was put to a vote, it easily passed in both houses of Congress. Over the next 12 months, wets and drys battled it out in the states. With a speed never seen before or since from a Constitutional amendment, the Eighteenth Amendment won the 34 states it needed to pass. The law “forever” prohibited the sale, manufacture, and transport of intoxicating liquors. On January 17, 1920, the United States became a dry nation. Prohibitionists celebrated the birth of a new era free from drunkenness, crime, and battered families. Breweries and saloons closed their doors. Americans everywhere stocked up.

In the first three months before the 18th amendment became effective, liquor valued at half a million dollars had been stolen from government warehouses.  The number of guards were increased, but it continued to disappear.

Prohibition Years


Turns out that “prohibition forever” which came about in 1920 in the form of the Eighteenth Amendment was fated to last just 13 short years until 1933 when the amendment was repealed as a total failure. Ironically, the driest decade in American history was also known the Roaring Twenties, characterized by a new attitude of freedom, flappers, jazz music, and of course plenty of illegal booze. The Prohibitionists were about to learn a hard lesson. It is one thing to outlaw something, but something entirely different to try to enforce it. That task fell to the Prohibition Bureau. Underfunded and its agents poorly paid, it was doomed from the start.

The months before the Eighteenth Amendment took effect, Americans stocked up on any legally purchased liquor they could get their hands on. The law said it was illegal to manufacture or sell it, but having a drink in your home would still be allowed. Oddly enough, it was also legal to sell the equipment to manufacture beer, wine, and liquor. Many stores did brisk business throughout the 20's selling home distilleries. Of course, making your own homebrew–known as hooch–was the hard part. Most of the liquor made in peoples’ homes was foul tasting stuff that burned your throat and tasted (according to most sources) like laundry soap. This "bathtub" gin was made from low-grade grain alcohol. Often the Prohibitionists figured that people would rather quit drinking than drink laundry soap moonshine. They were wrong.


Grocery stores also began to get creative by selling raisin cakes which were dehydrated blocks of fruit–usually grapes. People bought the cakes legally for making pies and cakes. However, fruit, if allowed to ferment, turns into alcohol. So, to be helpful, grocers would hire attractive women to demonstrate how not to turn the raisin cakes into wine. Their demonstrations always ended with a warning that if you don’t want your raisin cake to become an alcoholic avoid doing these very specific step-by-step instructions.

One of the exceptions to the ban on alcohol was for use in religious rituals. This led to one of the biggest scams of Prohibition where fake Jewish rabbis began serving sacrament wine to their Jewish "congregation". Thousands of others converted to Judaism in order
to get their drink on.

Rum Runners


Prohibition put saloon owners, bar tenders, and distilleries out of business. But it created new (illegal) jobs for those who wanted to make fast money as a rum runner. Alcohol could still be purchased in our neighbor to the north. Many ambitious folks couldn’t resist the chance to make fast money by transporting illegal booze from Canada.


The favorite spot for rum runners to cross was the narrow gap between Detroit and the Canadian city of Windsor. The Detroit River was only a mile wide in some parts and the whole water way filled with convenient inlets to hide. Armed with canoes, row boats, and high speed motor boats rum runners tried to outsmart the police patrolling the Michigan border. “Rum Rows” existed all over the country. Bootleggers bought their liquor from Canada and the Caribbean. They sailed through international waters off the Atlantic or Pacific coastline. Because they were in international waters, the American government could do nothing but wait for them to try to make it to the coast.


However, these ships were targets for gangsters and pirates who found the rum runners easy targets. To make even faster money, the booze was watered down and food coloring was added to make it look like the real thing. For this, willing drinkers paid up to ten times the price.

The city of Detroit played an important role during Prohibition. It was one of the busiest points of entry for illegal liquor in the United States.

The Speakeasy 

Prohibition did work. America’s consumption of alcohol dropped in some places by as much as 60%. Not until the 1970's would Americans return to drinking like they did before the Eighteenth Amendment. However, Prohibition made possible the era of the speakeasy and the organized gangster.

Speakeasies disguised themselves as private houses or restaurants. To escape being shut down by the fuzz (the police), speakeasies used alarm systems, secret doorways, and trap doors to hide their illegal stash. A flashing light would warn patrons to quickly drink up. The speakeasy was not your typical saloon. It catered to the wealthy and middle-class drinkers– who were the only ones that could afford the outrageously high priced drinks. One bottle of watered-down champagne cost $330 (in today’s money)! Some of the biggest celebrities went to the hottest speakeasies, like New York’s 21 Club. Patrons expected more than just high priced drinks.

Speakeasies–which get their name from the passwords required to gain entry–were places to get a gourmet meal, listen to a live jazz band, or dance. The speakeasy was also the scene for a new type of American woman. The 19th amendment gave women the right to vote. World War One had put women in the factory. The Roaring Twenties saw the rise of the flapper, who was doing things that no respectable 19th-century woman would have dared: she smoked and drank in public. To show her new liberated attitude, their hairstyle and their skirts got scandalously short. They wore too much jewelry and in almost every way bucked the traditions of what a “proper lady” should be.


Because speakeasies were illegal operations the old saloon rules no longer applied. In the days before prohibition saloons were all-male joints where men stood around at a bar and drank. Forget what you might have seen in those bad western films. Saloons had no live music, no tables, and no entertainment. 


But prohibition was coming at the same time as women's lib and the jazz age. The American bar scene would never be the same. Women began to drink into the speakeasies and they needed something more than just overpriced booze to keep them entertained. The new speakeasy now featured tableside service and live jazz bands playing the latest tunes. 

The Original Gangsters

Bootlegging and speakeasies made way too much money to escape the attention of organized crime bosses. In fact, Prohibition created organized crime, more commonly known as "The Mob". Street gangs have always been involved in prostitution, gambling, or any other illegal activity that could make money. But these were small-time slum operations. The new gangsters began dividing up and fighting for control of the black market liquor business. Every city had its own gangs that took over as rum runners, distilling illegal hooch, and running speakeasies. Some of the most notorious gangsters of the 20's went by amusing monikers (nicknames) like Jake “Greasy Thumbs” Guzik, Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, and George “Bugs” Moran. The most notorious of the notorious was a Chicago mobster by the name of Alphonse “Scarface” Capone.

“Big Al” was a born New York City street thug. The son of Italian immigrants and a product of the Five Points slum, Capone moved to Chicago in 1919 to escape the New York City police on suspicion of murder charges. In Chicago Capone quickly proved to be a ruthless and shrewd businessman. Psychologists would likely label him a sociopath.


America's All Wet Again

In no time he took over the Windy City’s bootleg business. Capone had his fingers in everything. He extorted “protection money” from restaurant owners, he ran houses of prostitution and gambling, but the real money was in bootlegging. Capone murdered his rivals and at the age of 26 found himself in control of an empire raking in $60 million each year (that's almost $820 million today). With 1,000 hired gunmen at his command and a host of dirty cops on his payroll, Capone operated dozens of speakeasies throughout Chicago. As the murder rate soared, the city newspapers began calling him “Public Enemy Number One”.


The citizens of Chicago really began demanding that the city take action after Capone had his hired guns-- disguised as policemen-- ruthlessly murder, seven members of the rival “Bugs” Moran Gang on February 14th, 1929. The infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre brought national attention to America's gang problem and many people were quick to point the finger at Prohibition for causing all the violence.


The law finally caught up with Capone in 1933 when he was sentenced to eleven years in Alcatraz (the allegedly escape-proof prison). Ironically, Capone wasn’t convicted of racketeering, murder, bootlegging, or extortion–but tax evasion.


After nine years people were fed up with prohibition. The law was seen as an unenforceable failure. Even its supporters called it the noble experiment. To its opponents, it was an example of unwanted government involvement in people’s private lives and the cause for rising gang violence. Then in 1929, the Roaring Twenties came to a grinding halt as the Stock Market crashed and the country was thrown into the Great Depression.  The new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt had no love for prohibition and, with the economy in the dumps, taxing liquor was a great way to raise badly needed funds. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment became the first time a constitutional amendment had ever been repealed.

Sneaky Smugglers:


During Prohibition bootleggers found some pretty creative ways to smuggle alcohol. 

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