Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do
SIX CHAPTERS IN SEARCH OF A SHORTER BOOK
PROHIBITION: A LESSON IN THE FUTILITY (AND
DANGER) OF PROHIBITING
- PROHIBITION (19201933 R.I.P.) was known as The Noble Experiment. The results of the experiment are clear: innocent people suffered; organized crime grew into an empire; the police, courts, and politicians became increasingly corrupt; disrespect for the law grew; and the per capita consumption of the prohibited substancealcoholincreased dramatically, year by year, for the thirteen years of this Noble Experiment, never to return to the pre-1920 levels.
- You would think that an experiment with such clear results would not need to be repeated; but the experiment is being repeated; it's going on today. Only the prohibited substances have changed. The results remain the same. They are more devastating now than they were then.
- Let's take a look into that not-too-distant-mirror.
- Prohibition did not strike suddenly; zapone day you could get a drink and the next day you could not. It settled on the country gradually, county by county, state by state, for the better part of a century. National Prohibition in 1920 was simply the final turn of the spigot.
- Alcohol was consumed in all the colonial settlements in America. No one was particularly against drinkingeven the Puritans enjoyed it. What they frowned on was drinking to excess: generally known as drunkenness. This was of practical concern in the smaller communities: there were crops to plant, fish to catch, animals to trap, and a wilderness to be tamed. If one's excessive drinking got in the way of these activities, the community as a whole might suffer; thus, drunkeness was frowned on and this frowning found its way into some early laws.
- The first of them, in Virginia in 1619, through New Hampshire's law of 1719 were against drunkenness, not against drinking. The first law limiting liquor sales with a religious base was passed in New York in 1697; it ordered that all public drinking establishments be closed on Sunday because, on the Lord's day, people should be worshiping the Bible not the bottle. In 1735, the religious had a prohibition law enacted for the entire state of Georgia. The law was a complete failure and was abandoned in 1742.
- For the most part, however, during the 1700s and early 1800s, those opposing liquor on religious grounds used sermons and persuasion rather than politics and laws to make their point. These persuasive efforts were known as the Temperance Movement, and its goal was to get everyone to voluntarily temper use of spirits.
- By 1820, complete abstinence from all alcoholic beverages was a basic rule of most evangelical churches. The intense revivalism of the 1820s and 1830s preached that alcohol was a tool of the devil and that Satan himself was in every drop. Moral campaigns to spread the truth about "demon rum" and other Lucifer Liquids raised huge amounts of money.
- Never mind that Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. Never mind that Jesus and his apostles drank wine at the Last Supper. Never mind that Jesus promised to drink wine again with his disciples in Paradise.
- For anyone who had the impertinence to actually read the New Testament and question why wine (which was obviously not condemned by Jesus) should suddenly become such a wicked, evil thing, the preachers explained that the word for wine in the language Jesus spoke could also mean "grape juice" or "grape jelly." Jesus trafficked only in these, the preachers would say, not in wine. Those who doubted that Jesus turned water into grape juice at the wedding feast or that grape jelly was served at the Last Supper were condemned to the fires of eternal perdition.
- The rhetoric about drinking heated and became increasingly sentimental in the 1840s as former drunkards "saw the light," telling in pamphletand speech and at financial profitthe harm alcohol did to themselves and to the innocent members of their families. Booklets such as The Reformed Drunkard's Daughter told the heart-rending story of a man who had not seen a sober moment in fifteen years. He perceived the error of his ways when, one cold, wintry day, his little daughter Hannah pleaded, "Papa, please don't send me for whiskey today." Yes, drinking was a crime, not just a crime against God and a crime against decency, but a crime against innocent wives and children.
- By the late 1840s, everyone who was going to be convinced by persuasion or fear of hell fire had already signed a temperance pledge. Some fanatics decided that this was not enough: everyone had to be sober all the time for their own good and the good of all. Temperance turned to prohibition and prohibition meant politics.
- For some, alcohol was a problem. Some found the solution to their drinking through God, others through reason, others through medicine (Dr. Benjamin Rush, the Surgeon General of Washington's Continental Army, prescribed complete abstinence). But how to keep alcohol away from the rest? The answer: make it illegal to all. Put the full force of law behind it. Those who did not have a problem with drink, who could take it or leave it, were asked to leave itpermanentlyfor the glory of God and the greater good of all.
|H. L. MENCKEN|
- Maine went completely dry in 1851 and, by 1855, so had New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York. In some states, prohibition was declared unconstitutional; in others, it went virtually unenforced, but the primary setback to prohibition after 1855 was the Civil War.
- It's hard to keep alcohol away from troops in time of war. Thanks to the prohibitionists, whiskey in the U.S. Army was eliminated in 1830, but field commanders, at their discretion, could issue a "ration" of whiskey to each manabout four ounces. Private purchase and consumption of alcohol by military personnel, even in dry states, was condoned, and only drinking while on guard duty, on maneuvers, or just prior to battle was punished.
- Then there was the aspect of alcohol that, due to its later abuses, we usually laugh about today: its "medicinal value." At the time of the Civil War, alcohol was one of the most frequently prescribedand most effectivemedicines known to doctors. (The Native Americans had some useful herbal concoctions, but the natives were not consulted.) No one quite knew why whiskey worked; they just knew it did. It was poured on external wounds to prevent infection. It cured any number of internal maladies, including one that swept throughout the Northern troops dubbed "the Tennessee Quick Step" (later called "Montezuma's Revenge" by visitors to Mexico and "the Pharaoh's Curse" by visitors to Egypt). Eventually, the germ theory would scientifically explain the antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic nature of alcohol.
- During the Civil War, the use of anesthesia was in its infancy. At makeshift battlefield hospitals, ether and chloroform were in short supply. Alcohol was not. Many an operation was performedand a life savedwhile the patient was heavily under the influence. Then there was the basic, overall good feeling produced by spirits, and the healing effect they could have on what we now call psychosomatic illness. If nothing else, in some cases alcohol eased the pain while nature did the healing.
- Soldiers returning from the Civil War, many of whom were exposed to alcohol either recreationally or medicinally for the first time during the war, wanted none of this talk about temperance. They had lived through hell and didn't want some "Bible thumper" telling them what they could and could not drink. There were also far more important issues to deal with in both the North and the South than who drank what where. Prohibition was put on the back burner.
- The cause came back to life in the 1880s. Women joined the fight, becoming politically active for the first time. A broad range of social reforms was demandedbanning tobacco, closing all theaters, labor laws, women's suffrage, and even socialismbut the only one that caught on was the proposal to close the saloons.
- Saloons were seen as hotbeds of corruption, contagion, and vice. These male-only (except for "dance-hall girls") establishments were, to the pious, positive hell holes. Drinking, gambling, prostitution, tobacco smoking, tobacco chewing (and its natural by-product, spitting), dancing, card playing, and criminal activity of all kinds were all traced to the saloon. Saloons were irresistible temptations to the otherwise righteous and virtuous men of the community. Invited there for a social drink by the "recruiters of Satan," the young men of the community found themselves hopelessly caught in a spider's web of immorality, lust, and depravity. Alcohol (a.k.a. the devil) was the spider at its very center. The Anti-Saloon League was formed, "an army of the Lord to wipe away the curse of drink."
- One of the anti-saloon monthly magazinesvery popular with evangelical churchesoffered the following:
"Come in and take a drop." The first drop led to other drops. He dropped his position; he dropped his respectability; he dropped his fortune; he dropped his friends; he dropped finally all prospects in this life, and his hopes for eternity; and then came the last drop on the gallows. BEWARE OF THE FIRST DROP.
- If people were not afraid for their own lives and the eternal damnation of their immortal souls, they should at least fear for the children. "In this age of cities, temptations about our youth increase, such as foul pictures, corrupt literature, leprous shows, gambling, slot machines, saloons, and Sabbath breaking. We are trying to raise saints in hell." To these bulwarks of Prohibition ("Satan is drink" and "save the children"), the evangelical reformers added two familiar fears: racism and fear of "foreigners."
- Stories of newly freed slaves drinking their first alcohol and raping white women were repeated again and again. Meanwhile, prohibitionists exploited the fear and hatred of immigrants felt by many "Americans." The millions of "wretched refuse" and "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" brought with them the drinking habits of their homelands. Irish loved whiskey; Germans loved beer; Italians loved wine. That they were primarily Catholics in this primarily Protestant country only made the prejudice worse. If one could just get the bottle (or the beer stein or the wine glass) out of their hands, the immigrants would have a spiritual awakening, see God's true purpose for them, become Protestants and, ipso facto, good citizens.
- As Paul Sann pointed out in his book, The Lawless Decade,"The Drys invariably found a way, however slick, to air the view that it was the immigrant much more than the 100% American who needed the splendid discipline of Prohibition."
- By the 1890s, prohibitionists were prominent on school boards. Anti-alcohol material flooded the school house. Young children were asked to memorize this pledge:
I promise not to buy, sell, or give
Alcoholic liquors while I live;
From all tobacco I'll abstain
And never take God's name in vain.
- High school biology books showed the physiological ruin a single drink caused the human body. Most of these children grew into staunch Prohibitionists. A few needed a drink.
- By the turn of the century, more than half the state legislaturesdominated by rural Protestantshad declared their states "dry." The wet people within the dry states did not complain too much, howeverthere were loopholes. The primary loophole was this: since interstate commerce was regulated by the federal government and not by the individual states, one could order liquor by mail. As state after state became dry, the parcel post wagon jingled, jangled, clinked, and sloshed with increasing wetness.
- This infuriated the Drys and in 1913, the Interstate Liquor Act, prohibiting the shipment of alcohol into dry states, was passed over President Taft's veto. This was a major coup for the Drys. Still not content, they used the anti-German feelings surrounding World War I and the association of Germans with beer ("the Kaiser's mightiest ally") to press for all-out national prohibition. In 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was proposed.
- The Prohibitionists got an unexpected boost from a strange quarter: disease. The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed 20 million people worldwide. This was more than twice the number of people killed worldwide during the four years of World War I; 548,000 died of the flu in the United States, the equivalent today of 1,500,000 people dying in a single year. Guess what the preachers blamed for this disaster? Sin, of course. God was punishing a wicked nation for straying from the path of righteousness. Only a great moral crusade could save the nation. Alcohol, as usual, was high on the hit list.
- If the evangelicals had simply tempered their intemperance, they might have, over time, gotten more of what they wanted. By 1920, thirty-three states encompassing 63% of the country had already voted themselves dry. The Prohibitionists probably could have closed every saloon outside big cities and, by continuing to control the curriculum in the schools, might have created generation upon generation of teetotalers and moderate drinkers. If they had allowed people their mail-order hooch, beer, and wine, the Prohibitionists would have come closer to controlling alcohol use. But they got greedy.
- As with all reformers who are aiming for "the perfection of mankind," one success is only the foundation for another campaign designed to perfect humans even further. That success leads to yet another campaign, and a series of unbroken successes leads inevitably to excess. Prohibition was one such excess. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified by the necessary number of states on January 29, 1919; and, on January 29, 1920, Prohibition became the law of the land. The final turn of the screw came with the Volstead Act.
|JOHN KENDRICK BANGS|
- The Eighteenth Amendment only prohibited "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors . . . for beverage purposes." Although this was the "supreme law of the land," it still required an Act of Congress to make it enforceable. Enter the super-dry, ultra-religious congressman from Minnesota, Andrew J. Volstead.
- Many who supported the Eighteenth Amendment took the term "intoxicating liquors" to mean liquor: whiskey, rum, and other distilled spirits. Most liquors were at least 40% alcohol ("eighty proof"); some, particularly of the "greased lightning" variety, were as much as 90% alcohol. Surely beer, with its three to seven percent alcohol content, and wine, with its less-than-fifteen percent alcohol content, would be permittedwith certain restrictions and regulations, of course.
- Much to people's surprise, Volstead, backed by the triumphant evangelicals, defined "intoxicating liquors" as any beverage containing more than one-half of one percent alcohol. Using the momentum of the anti-German, anti-beer bias, Volstead was able to pass his National Prohibition Act over President Wilson's veto. Understandably, many supporters of the Eighteenth Amendment felt betrayed.
- Also feeling betrayed were many of the veterans returning home from World War I. Like the Civil War veterans, they had fought a brutal and bloody war. In Europe, particularly in France, they had seen that moderate daily alcohol consumption and ordinary life could co-exist. Many learned that what they had been taught about the inherent dangers of alcohol was simply not true. Although expressed lightheartedly in songs such as "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm after They've Seen Paree," the disillusionment over what they had been taught versus what they had experienced ran deep. Coming home to find that the evangelicals, reformers, prudes, and blue noses had won a total victory embittered the veterans even more.
- Oblivious to the discontent of many (or simply chalking it up to "the devil's last grumblings" on the issue), the Drys celebrated. "Hell will be forever for rent," declared evangelist Billy Sunday, who looked forward to an America "so dry, she can't spit." The Anti-Saloon League claimed, "Now for an era of clear thinking and clean living." A Long Island church leaflet crowed, "An enemy has been overthrown and victory crowns the forces of righteousness."
- A religious belief had become the law of the land. Never mind that if Jesus tried turning water into wine in the United States, he could have been arrested for bootlegging, or that the Last Supper might have been raided by federal Prohibition agents. In exchange for giving up one of their basic freedoms, the people of the United States were promised great things by the reformers. The great things never came. As Herbert Asbury described in his book, The Great Illusion:
The American people had expected to be greeted, when the great day came, by a covey of angels bearing gifts of peace, happiness, prosperity and salvation, which they had been assured would be theirs when the rum demon had been scotched. Instead they were met by a horde of bootleggers, moonshiners, rum-runners, hijackers, gangsters, racketeers, triggermen, venal judges, corrupt police, crooked politicians, and speakeasy operators, all bearing the twin symbols of the eighteenth amendmentthe Tommy gun and the poisoned cup.
- Prohibition began easily enough: the people who drank stocked up on liquor before it was illegal; those who planned to give up drinking treated January 28, 1920 as though it were New Year's Eve, and the following day their New Year's resolutions began. The poor, who couldn't afford to stock up, were catered to by saloon keepers who, rather than closing voluntarily, stayed open until they were shut down. It would take months to close them all down, and, after they were closed, many bought new booze and opened again. In an attempt to keep them from reopening, the federal authorities began destroying not just the liquor, but bars, fixtures and furnishings.
- After a year or so, the reserves (and resolves) were depleted, and people got thirsty againincluding some people who had never been thirsty before. The fact that alcohol was now prohibited made it somehow irresistible. There's always something tantalizing about forbidden fruitin this case, the fruit of the vine.
- Once people wanted to drink, nothing could stop them. Good old American ingenuity came to the fore. By 1923, finding ways to "beat the feds" had surpassed even baseball as the national pastime.
- The saloons went underground and became speakeasies. There were lots of them. The 16,000 saloons in New York City, for example, became (depending on whose estimate you believe) from 32,000 to more than 100,000 "speaks." Unlike the saloons, which were men-only institutions, the speak-easies welcomed women, and the women came.
- Supplying the speakeasies with the necessary beer, wine, and liquor required organization. It was also a crime. Hence, the birth of organized crime. Paying off the local, state, and federal authorities required some organization tooand no small amount of money. Due to the outrageously inflated alcohol prices caused by Prohibition, money was no problem. In one year, Al Capone made $60 million (the equivalent of about $2 billion today) in liquor sales alonea regular Bill Gates.
- Mexico was wet, and Canada was far from dry. The border towns, both north and south, were well supplied with Jos Cuervo and Canadian Club.
- Anchored just outside the three-mile limit, lining both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, were ships laden with spirits from other lands. (In all history, the only country to ever even attempt complete prohibition was the United States.) Some of these boats catered only to the professional bootlegger, but many would sell liquor by the case to the amateur rumrunners who either owned or rented boats. The rental of pleasure boats increased sharply during Prohibition.
- Beer brewing, wine making, and distilling became common practices in the home. An enterprising home brewer could make enough liquid refreshment to give as gifts or even sell. (When selling, of course, one had to be careful: one did not want to be caught by the feds or, worse, by the mob.)
on viewing the Statue of Liberty
Grain alcohol was legal when sold for "industrial use only." With the right alterations, however, it became safe to drink and, with the right recipe, occasionally palatable. One could mix up a batch of this in the bathroom; hence, bathtub gin. The California grape growers, no longer permitted to make wine, produced a grape juice product known as Vine-Glo. The Vine-Glo literature carefully instructed buyers what not to do, because, if they did those things, they would have wine in sixty days. The demand for grape juice grew dramatically. In 1919, 97,000 acres were devoted to growing grapes for "juice." By 1926, it was 681,000 acres. In 1929, the U.S. government loaned the grape growers money to expand even further. Beer with an alcohol content of less than one-half-of-one percent (named "near beer," although many claimed that those who gave it that name were lacking in depth perception) was legal. In order to make it, however, one had to make regular beer and then boil off the alcohol. Every so often, somebody forgot to take that last step and real beer accidentally wound up for sale in speakeasies (Oops). All you had to do to stay entirely within the law was get sick. The Eighteenth Amendment only prohibited alcohol for "beverage purposes." Medicinal alcohol was perfectly legal and, for some unknown reason, doctors began prescribing more and more of it during the 1920s. In addition, various elixirs, tonics, and other patent medicines available over-the-counter without prescriptions relied heavily upon the medicinal qualities of alcohol. (Very heavily.)
- In a little more than a decade, the holy war called Prohibition was lost. In 1920, John F. Kramer, the first commissioner charged with enforcing Prohibition, somberly stated, "The law says that liquor to be used as a beverage must not be manufactured. We shall see it is not manufactured, nor sold, nor given away, nor hauled in anything on the surface of the earth or under the earth or in the air."
- By 1931, it was all but over. A presidential committee reported the obvious: Prohibition was not working. By 1932, both presidential candidates, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, favored repeal.
- After his presidential victory, Roosevelt had Congress amend the Volstead Act to permit beer with a 3.2% alcohol content. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution officially repealed the Eighteenth Amendmentthe only time in the history of the United States that an amendment has been repealedand Prohibition was history.(*FN)
[FN* The Twenty-first Amendment allowed the states to choose for themselves whether or not they would be dry. Kansas chose to stay dry until 1948, Oklahoma until 1957, and Mississippi until 1966.]
- It may have been history, but the effects of Prohibition lived on; some of them are still with us today. Here are the results of our country's "great social and economic experiment":
- 1. It created disrespect for the law. Never before had so many otherwise law-abiding citizens broken the lawand had so much fun doing it.(*FN) If this law was so enjoyable to break, what other laws might be worth ignoring too? Many also concluded that all laws regarding alcohol must be worthless. "Who said I shouldn't drive when I'm drunk? I think I drive better after a few drinks. And who set these repressive speed limits anyway?" That was the sort of dangerous thinking fostered by Prohibition.[*FN The violations were astonishing. The flouting of the law had an auspicious beginning in 1920 with a still found on the farm of Senator Morris Shepard. It was producing 130 gallons of whiskey a day. Senator Sheppard was the author of the Eighteenth Amendment. Midway through the experiment, federal law enforcement officers set up their own speakeasy in midtown Manhattan. It took them nine months to get caught, and when they were, they simply claimed they were "investigating." By the end of Prohibition, a San Francisco jury drank the evidence and declared the defendant not guilty.]
- 2. It eroded respect for religion. God and the Bible were used to justify Prohibition and, as Prohibition failed, it seemed to some as though the failure was God's. Did the evangelicals who caused the suffering and chaos admit they had made a mistake? No. Prohibition's failure was simply a sign that "Satan never sleeps," and they were off prohibiting other thingsdrugs, prostitution, and "isn't it time we did something about these scandalous motion pictures? Have you seen the latest Mae West? Disgusting!"
- 3. It created organized crime. Prior to Prohibition, organized crime was nothing to speak of. Prohibition made the gangster not just well paid, but well liked. These aren't real bandits, the public thought, these are Robin Hoodlike charactersblockade runnerswho sidestep the law to bring us what we want. They were given cute nicknames like "Pretty Boy," "Legs," and "Scar Face." By 1927, Al Capone controlled not only all illicit commerce in Illinoisfrom alcohol to gambling to prostitutionbut also the majority of the politicians, including most police commissioners, the mayor of Chicago, and the governor. By the end of the decade, organized crime was so organized they had a national convention in Atlantic City. Who could forget Dutch Schultz from New York? Solly Weissman from Kansas City? The Purple Gang from Detroit? Even when the chairman of the board, Mr. Capone, took an enforced vacation in 1931 (jailed for income tax evasion) and Prohibition ended in 1933, the "company" did not go out of business. It simply found new merchandise and services to market.
- The syndicate did not differentiate between crimes with and crimes without innocent victims. Once outside the law, their stock in trade became doing anything illegalfor a price. The "protection" racket preyed on honest, independent business people. When the mob was asked to "enforce" a contract (people in the underground seldom have access to the court system and, when they do, seldom have patience for, as Shakespeare called it, "the law's delay"), the enforcers rarely investigated to see whether or not the claim they were enforcing was fair. They took their money and made their hit, which could be anything from a threat to a murder.(*FN)[*FN Henry Ford hired hundreds of mobsters to pose as workers, infiltrating his plants, and spy on other workers, some of whom were attempting to organize a trade union. It was an open secret that the fellow worker you were talking to on the assembly line might be a syndicate member working directly for Henry Ford. This scare tactic worked for some time and, when the fear wore off and union organizing continued, organized crime was ready, willing, and able to express Mr. Ford's displeasure of organized labor in a more persuasive way. Only when the union organizers made a few deals with the mob did the auto union finally succeed.]
- Some organized crime went legitimate, but their sales techniques were not necessarily those Dale Carnegie would approve. After Prohibition, the mobsters had a lot of unused trucks and warehouses. Some got into trucking and warehousing. Try as they might to stay legitimate, once one is used to strong-arm tactics to sell one's products, settle disputes, or wipe outuh, successfully overcome the challenges ofthe competition, it can be difficult not to backslide.
- When organized crime takes over even a consensual crime, such as drugs, innocent victims suffer because the mob doesn't observe the same controls or restraints as legitimate businesses. The scene from the movie The Godfather in which the heads of the five families gather to discuss the future of drug distribution (One of them says, "I want it regulated! I don't want it sold near schools or playgrounds.") is, well, fiction. Organized crime is famous for its democratic approach to money: all dollars are created equal and a nicety such as the age of the person bringing the dollars is not a concern.
- In short, Prohibition created an organized criminal class which is with us to this day.
- 4. Prohibition permanently corrupted law enforcement, the court system, and politics. During Prohibition, organized crime had on its payroll police, judges, prosecutors, and politicians. If mobsters couldn't buy or successfully threaten someone in a powerful position, they either "wiped him out" or, following more democratic principles, ran a candidate against the incumbent in the next election. They put money behind their candidate, stuffed the ballot box, or leaked some scandal about the incumbent just before the election (or all three). The important thing was winning, and more often than not, someone beholden to organized crime rose to the position of power.
- After more than twelve years of purchases, threats, and elections, organized crime had "in its pocket" the political and governmental power structure of most medium-to-large cities, and several states.
- After Prohibition, some organized crime bosses made a fortune wielding this power. As good capitalists, they sold police protection, court intervention, and political favors to the highest bidder. Some of these bidders, it turns out, were guilty of crimes that had innocent victims or received government approval for schemes that victimized many. The police, courts, and politicians didn't differentiate between crimes with or without innocent victims any more than organized crime didand if an official had a sudden fit of morality, it was too late: after years of corruption, the syndicate added blackmail to its list of persuasive techniques.
- A great many famous mennames we recognize and respect todaywere said to have "underworld connections." Those men sometimes used organized crime and its connections to obtain certain political favors: favors to help their businesses, conceal family indiscretions, orspoiled as rich people often aresimply get their way. In addition to those directly under the thumb of organized crime, Prohibition created a class of police, judges, prosecutors, and politicians who were, in a word, buyable. When Al Capone went away in 1931, some of his corrupt elected officials sold their services to the highest bidder. There were, of course, plenty of bidders and, because of Capone's thoroughness, plenty of sellers.
- Not only were honest citizens unprotected from schemes the government was supposed to protect them from, but dealing with a dishonest city governmentfrom getting a permit to an unbiased day in courtoften required a payoff. In some cities, corruption went from top to bottom, and it was the citizenry who suffered. There were plenty of corrupt politicians before Prohibition, just as there were criminals, but the sheer volume of money (and, consequently, corruption) that Prohibition brought with it created what might be called organized corruption on local and state levels. The new police, judges, prosecutors, and politicians were told to look the other way as the graft passed by, and some succumbed to the easy money they saw being made all around them. Some popular beliefs (and, in some cases, truths) about law enforcement, politics, and government in general ("You can't fight City Hall." "The rich get away with murder." "You can't change the system.") were not necessarily created by Prohibition's political corruption, but it certainly supported them in people's minds.
- Prohibition forced a number of citizens to conclude that government cannot be trustedan unfortunate point of view with even more unfortunate consequences.
- 5. Prohibition overburdened the police, the courts, and the penal system. Even with only token enforcement, Prohibition violations overburdened the police, clogged the court system, and filled the jails. The honest police, judges, and prosecutors found it impossible to do their jobs; there wasn't enough time, personnel, or money. On March 3, 1923, Time reported that "44% of the work of the United States District Attorneys is confined to Prohibition cases." By 1928, there were more than 75,000 arrests per year. In 1932, there were 80,000 Prohibition convictions (not just arrests, but convictions).
- 6. People were harmed financially, emotionally, and morally. The basic inequity of Prohibition was astounding. Prohibition caused a direct hardship on hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people. First, there were those who, in 1919, were legitimately involved in the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol. They either lost their jobs or were forced to become criminals. (If what you've been doing your entire professional life becomes illegal and you keep doing it, you become a criminal.) Brewing, distilling, and wine making are artsprofessions that have been practiced and refined over thousands of years. What are people to do when their profession, honored and respectable, suddenly becomes a crime? With few options, some turned from brewmaster to bootlegger overnight. Others couldn't stand the idea of being a criminal and took far lower paying and less fulfilling jobs.
- And what about the people who owned the breweries, distilleries, and wineries? Many had invested their lives and savings in equipment, research, and good will. Overnight, through no fault of their own, their businesses were destroyed and investments wiped out. If it was a publicly held company, the stockholders, (many of whom were small investors) found their stock suddenly worthless.
- Then there were the tens of thousands of workers employed in honest jobsor who came back from the war looking to be rehired at their jobsmaking, bottling, packaging, distributing, selling, delivering, serving, and growing the raw materials for alcoholic beverages. Imagine if the industry in which you worked was declared "immoral" by a powerful religious faction and it suddenly became illegal. What would you do? The negative propagandamuch of it grossly exaggerated or downright dishonestdisseminated by the evangelicals tainted the entire alcoholic beverage industry and everyone who worked in it. It was hard for these people to find jobs in other industries. Saying, "I worked in a brewery" or "I worked in a liquor store" had a tinge of disrespectability. Many of these people, out of economic necessity, were forced into a life of crime, doing precisely what they did before it became a crime.
- Then there were the tens of thousands of people who worked in bars, restaurants, beer gardens, hotels, resorts, and related businesses that went out of business as a direct result of Prohibition. Yes, the speakeasies could hire some of these peopleif they became criminals. Others, in order to keep their jobs, had to look the other way. Although hotels, for example, had sternly worded signs warning that drinking alcohol in hotel rooms was a federal crime and that violators would be prosecuted, the sight of a bellman carrying a tray with nothing but glasses, ice, and a bottle or two of ginger ale was common. The bellman in this instance, in order to keep his job, had to become an accessory to a federal crime. Such difficult choices corrupted the morals of millions.(*FN)[*FN In George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Henry Higgins asks Alfred P. Doolittle,"Have you no morals, man?" to which Doolitle calmly replies, "Can't afford 'em." A lot of people, some of whom may have favored Prohibition, found themselves in similar situations: the farmer selling grain or grapes to a known bootlegger, the landlord renting a basement knowing it might become a speakeasy, the entertainer or musician offered a job playing in a speakeasy.]
- 7. Prohibition caused physical harm. When "safe" alcoholic beverages were no longer available (that is, beverages in which the purity and alcoholic content were regulated by law), people began assembling all sorts of concoctions, either for their own use or for sale. Some worked; some didn't. Some killed. Alcohol made from fruits, vegetables, or grainseither fermented or distilledtends to be safe. Alcohol distilled from wood products ("wood alcohol") is not. Wood alcohol, nonetheless, smells like alcohol, tastes like alcohol, and gets you high.
- Some desperate people tried to find ways of making wood alcohol safe to drink; some despicable people repackaged it and sold it as "the real thing." Some used the less expensive wood alcohol to cut the more expensive grain alcohol to make it go further. During the Noble Experiment, more than 10,000 people died from wood-alcohol poisoning, 1,565 in 1928 alone.
- With "cutting" becoming a common practice in bootlegging and tens of millions of people drinking each day, the only reason this figure wasn't higher was because of a peculiar characteristic of wood alcohol: before you died from it, you would go blindpermanently, irreversibly, blind. While drinking, if one's vision began to go, the drill was clear: stop drinking and upchuck as much as you could, as fast as you could. If people acted quickly enough, sometimes they would not end up with complete blindness, but with impaired visionplus permanent kidney, liver, and brain damage.
- Rather than having a little "Christian charity" for these people who, if alcohol had been legal, would have had nothing more than a hangover, the evangelicals proclaimed that people harmed by drinking wood alcohol "had it coming" for breaking both God's law and the law of the land.
- In addition, there were the various beatings, stabbings, shootings, and killings between the bootleggers and the feds, the feds and the bootleggers, and the bootleggers amongst themselves. Along the way, any number of innocent people were caught in the crossfire, saw something they shouldn't have seen and were eliminated, or were rubbed out due to "mistaken identity."
- 8. Prohibition changed the drinking habits of a countryfor the worse. Prior to Prohibition, almost all drinking took place outside the home. Somemostly recent immigrantshad beer or wine with meals; some of the rich had a little brandy or port after dinner; but, for the most part, alcohol consumption in the home was "for medicinal purposes only." Because the public drinking places closed, people (especially the poor: speakeasies tended to be expensive) began drinking at home more and more. With liquor now conveniently stored at home, people could drink more often.
- Another phenomenon was drinking to get drunk. Prior to Prohibition, alcohol consumption was secondary to eating or socializing. With Prohibition, people gathered with the primary intention of getting drunk. ("I got a new bottle, just off the boat. Come over tonight and we'll drink it.") Although some speakeasies served food, people didn't go to the speakeasies to eat; they went to drink.
- Prohibition also forced people to drink more than they usually would: if caught with a bottle, one could be arrested, so, before traveling, one tended to finish it. This got people into the habit of drinking more. If it was illegal to carry a bottle with you and you weren't sure there would be liquid refreshment at your destination, you might drink enough for the entire evening prior to leaving home. This got Americans in the habit of driving drunk.
- The open and increasingly fashionable flouting of Prohibition caused drinking to become a public occurrence. The hip flask became a symbol of rebellion. It was used everywhere: football games, theaters, at work. People carried booze in hollow canes, hot water bottles, even garden hoses wrapped around their waists.
|Robert Benchley's list of infallible symptoms of intoxication in drivers: When the driver is sitting with his back against the instrument panel and his feet on the driver's seat. When the people in the back seat are crouched down on the floor with their arms over their heads. When the driver goes into the rest-room and doesn't come out.|
- Prior to Prohibition, women drank very little and almost never drank distilled spirits. Some women had a little elderberry wine, some a little sherry. That immigrant women drank beer or wine was considered an outrage to the guardians of (Protestant) morality, and keeping this evil habit from spreading to the pure womanhood of (Protestant) America was one of the Prohibitionists' most persuasive arguments. Prohibition, in fact, had just the opposite effect. Saloons, which were all-male preserves (except for bar maids, entertainers, and ladies of the evening), gave way to the speakeasies, which were decidedly coeducational. Outside the speakeasy, the passing of the flask included women as well as men. At home, men included their wives (and sometimes wives included themselves)in imbibing. Now that alcohol had to be stored at homean uncommon practice prior to Prohibitionwomen decided to take a taste and find out what all the fuss was about. They found out.
- Another necessary invention of Prohibition made alcohol far more popular: the cocktail. People turned to hard liquors during Prohibition because, drink for drink, it was cheaper to produce and easier to transport than beer or wine. In the same amount of space it took to transport eight ounces of beer, one could transport eight ounces of alcohol, which became the basis for eight drinks. In addition, the quality of unaged distilled alcohol was, to say the least, harsh. ("Sippin' whiskey," brandies, and other liquors designed for direct consumption are aged for years to mellow the flavor and take the edge off.)
- The solution? Simple. The cocktail. Prior to Prohibition there were few mixed drinks. Gin and tonic began as a medicinal preparation during the British colonization of India. To protect against malaria, the British consumed a small amount of quinine mixed in water each day and, to take the bitterness from the quinine, they would add some sugar. To this, gin was added, initially for medicinal purposes. Long after returning to England, and with malaria no longer a concern, the Englishman continued consuming gin and tonics recreationally. Scotch mixed with a little soda or water was acceptable, but not terribly popular. And that was about it. The mixing of alcohol with every known sugar-water combination, soft drink, and fruit juice grew directly out of Prohibition's attempt to make bootleg liquor palatable. Millions of people who didn't like the taste of beer, wine, or hard liquors found cocktails irresistible.
- 9. Prohibition made cigarette smoking a national habit. High on the evangelicals' hit list, second only to alcohol as a substance that had to be prohibited, was tobacco. In 1921, cigarettes were illegal in fourteen states, and anti-cigarette bills were pending in twenty-eight others. The prohibition of cigarettes, promoted by the very people who gave us the prohibition of alcohol, made cigarette smoking almost irresistible. As the experiment of Prohibition failed, the anti-cigarette laws fell. By 1930, they were legal almost everywhere; during Prohibition, the consumption had nearly tripled. Hollywood used cigarettes to indicate independence, sophistication, and glamour.
- 10. Prohibition prevented the treatment of drinking problems. It was stylish, fashionable, trendy, and daring to be drunk. No one had a drinking problem. ("I drink; I get drunk; I fall down. Where's the problem?") With alcohol illegal, there were no social norms for reasonable, moderate alcohol consumption against which to compare one's own drinking. The official social sanction (enforced by law) was complete sobriety. Anything lessfrom one drink per month to ten per daymade one a Wet. Anyone who suggested to a friend, "You may have a little problem here," sounded like one of the preachy blue noses whose moralizing started all the trouble in the first place.
- With the clearly immoderate act of Prohibition, all moderation was abandoned. The only "therapy" recommended by the Drys was jail and prayer. And how could people go for pastoral counseling for a possible drinking problem? People were thrown out of congregations for drinking only once. Imagine what might happen if one admitted to drinking enough times to cause a problem. Alcoholism, unrecognized and untreated, became an epidemic during Prohibition due to Prohibition.
- Within a few years after Prohibition, some people began to realize that they had personal problems that involved drinking and, by the end of the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous was formedthe first of many organizations to point out that drinking for some people is the symptom of an illness, an illness that can be successfully treated.
- 11. Prohibition caused "immorality." Far from Prohibition leading to Great Moments in Morality, as the evangelicals had promised, it led directly to an unparalleled explosion of immoralityas immorality was defined by them. As speakeasies were unregulated, outlawed, underground, and co-educational, they tended to breed unregulated, outlawed, underground, and co-educational activities. Because the sexes mingled freely, the sexes tended to mingle freely. A great deal of the increase in unmarried sexual activity during the 1920s can be directly linked to the potent combination of alcohol and an atmosphere of illicit activity and abandon.
- Prostitution also flourishedalthough professionals complained that some of these newly liberated women were destroying the business by giving it away. Drugs other than alcohol were used by people who never would have come into contact with them were it not for the permissive atmosphere of the speakeasies.
- College, traditionally a center for higher learning, became, for some, the center for learning how to get higher. Alcohol paved the way for seeking "kicks" in other formerly forbidden activities. "Anything goes" became the slogan of an entire generation. Prohibition made the twenties roar.
- All these developments, of course, were soundly denounced in lurid terms by the keepers of moralitybut then, those were the things they said about alcohol, too.
- 12. Prohibition was phenomenally expensive. The exact cost of this thirteen-year experiment is difficult to estimate. Between law enforcement, courts, the operation of jails, and all the rest, some estimates top a billion dollars (and this is a billion dollars when a Ford factory workeramong the highest paid unskilled laborersmade only $5 a day(*FN)). In addition to this cost, let's not forget the taxes on alcohol the government lost because of Prohibition, and the profit denied honest business people and diverted into the pockets of organized crime. The artificially increased price of alcohol hit the poor and working classes hardest of all. It was a very expensive experiment.[*FN Some Ford workers made more. Henry Ford, for example, made $264,000 per day in 1921, about $8.4 milllion in today's dollars.]
- Prohibition had a handful of good effects: Fewer people listened to the ranting of self-appointed moralists; women took an important (albeit wobbly) step toward personal freedom; and lawmakers became slightly more hesitant to prohibit thingsfor a while.
- The effects were, however, mostly negative. For good or for ill, there's hardly an American alive today whose life was not touched by Prohibition.
- George Santayana warned, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If only we would remember the past as often as we remember to quote Santayana.
- Alas, we have forgotten our recent past and are repeating it even now.
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