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     Prohibition was a failure. It brought out the rebel, the criminal and the crooked side of the American public. It was said that it was “harder to find a drink before Prohibition than during it.”[1] Even Presidents Wilson and Harding had prohibited alcohol in the Whitehouse. Harding, ironically, voted in favor of Prohibition as a senator.

     When the law first went into effect, alcohol consumption fell but it steadily rose to pre-Prohibition levels. People wanted not just to drink, they wanted the right to drink and the forbidden fruit of alcohol became all the more desirable. Only now people were drinking hard liquor as bootleggers favored hard liquor over beer because profits were higher and it was easier to import. Consequently, the higher alcohol content of hard liquor made people drunker than they would have been on beer.[2]

     Law enforcement, undermanned and underfunded, became impossible as gangsters became crime syndicates and law abiding citizens became criminals for chasing the Demon Rum. Corruption at local, state and federal levels grew either through bribes or smuggling by law enforcers themselves. A thousand dollar bill hidden under a speakeasy’s bar glass could buy a corrupt cop’s silence; a brewery’s bribe of a couple hundred thousand dollars could make an agent look the other way. In one city, the Prohibition Bureau captain called together his officers and promptly fired those wearing diamond rings knowing that an agent could not afford diamonds on an agent’s wages.[3] One newspaper editor asked in his editorial, “who’s watching the Coast Guard while the Coast Guard is watching the coast?”[4] Bootlegging became the largest business in the country and everyone involved was making money except the government who lost out on alcohol taxation.

      Despite Prohibition advocates' predictions that crime would decrease, prisons overflowed, courts were overloaded and trials became backlogged for years. Not until the appeal of the 18th Amendment would the numbers fall back to pre-Prohibition levels.

     With a new administration in 1927, Secretary of Treasury Lincoln C. Andrews at a Senate committee hearing on crime, testified that bootleggers and rum runners were hauling an estimated $3 billion a year while the government confiscated only 5%. Upon hearing this, President Calvin Coolidge committed $30 million in equipment and manpower to combat bootlegging and related crime.[5] It helped to a degree but it was like closing the barn door after the horses had already escaped.

     Alcohol became lethal. The harder it was to find top shelf alcohol had people turning to substandard alcohol. It was dubbed bathtub gin, monkey rum, needled beer and jake (tainted Jamaican Ginger) among other names. Wood (methyl) alcohol, acid compounds and the neurotoxin TOCP were just some of the poisons intentionally added by bootleggers and moonshiners to cut or add kick to the drink. Without any regulations, cutting liquor with dangerous chemical and distilling and storing liquor in filthy conditions (often with dead rats and snakes found in stills and barrels) was not uncommon.  The result was blindness, paralysis and even death for those who drank the contaminated alcohol. During Prohibition, it is estimated that 30,000-50,000 people died as a result of adulterated alcohol. But the biggest shock was the deaths caused by the government poisoning alcohol allocated for industrial, medical and scientific use in an effort to prevent people from obtaining and drinking it. The tainted alcohol was responsible for killing 400 people and sickening 1200 in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1926. Despite outcries from the medical community to halt the addition of methyl alcohol to the alcohol, the government continued to contaminate and 700 more died the following year. Figures estimate that 10,000 died from this poisoning alone during the course of Prohibition.[6] People grew wary not just of law enforcement, but of the government.

     Meanwhile, innocent people were being killed by crossfire, mistaken identity and drive-by shootings. Organized crime, rooted in Prohibition, ran and controlled gambling, prostitution, drugs and extortion. Headlines of criminal activity splashed newspapers’ front pages. People, weary and skeptical, had had enough.   

     Industrialist, Pierre du Pont- an adamant supporter of Prohibition in the beginning, reversed his stance and called for repeal. In 1926, he and the newly formed AAPA (Association Against the Prohibition Amendment) argued for the repeal of the 18th Amendment. This organization consisted of industrialists (many like du Pont who had originally campaigned for its passing) called Prohibition “sheer lunacy.” Their campaign was joined by another organization for repeal, the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.  After the stock market crash, these and other organizations for repeal argued that the government needed money and men needed work.  Alcohol taxation would create revenue, and breweries, distilleries and the ensuing jobs would create work. The same effort used for the law’s passing was now being used for its repeal.

     Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his 1932 campaign for presidency, pledged the repeal of the 18th Amendment if elected. He won the election. On March 12, 1933, he signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act which legalized the sale and taxation of 3.2 beer and light wine. Upon signing he declared, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” On December 5, 1933, he signed the 21st Amendment proclamation ending national Prohibition. It was said that a carnival atmosphere followed. The “Great Experiment” had failed.


Prohibition was as awful flop,

We like it.

It can’t stop what it was meant to stop,

We like it.

It’s filled our land with vice and crime,

It’s left a trail of graft and slime,

It don’t prohibit worth a dime,

Nevertheless we’re for it.



                                     Franklin P. Adams

                                      Newspaper columnist






[1] Wayne Lewis Kadar, “The Prohibition Era: 1920-1933,” Great Lakes Crime and Villains, (Gwinn, Michigan: Avery Color Studios, Inc. 2009) 171.


[2] Kadar, 171.


[3] Frederick Stonehouse, “Prohibition,” Great Lakes Crime II, (Gwinn, Michigan: Avery Color Studios, Inc. 2007), 150.


[4] Stonehouse, 155.


[5] Schreiner, Jr., Samuel A. May Day! May Day! (USA: Donald I. Fine, Inc. and Canada: General Publishing Co., Limited, 1990).


[6] Deborah Blum, “The Chemist’s War: The Little Told Story of How the U.S. Government Poisoned Alcohol During Prohibition with Deadly Consequences,” Slate, 19 February  2010, retrieved 27 May 2014 <>.






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