WHY PROHIBITION

 

     Demon Rum. That was the moniker given to alcohol by temperance groups and clergy long before the nation’s Prohibition Law went into effect. Drinking wasn’t the problem but drunkenness was and it was looked at with disapproval as far back as the founding of our country. In America’s early years, alcohol was an acceptable drink as water was often contaminated, juice was seasonal and milk would not keep. [1] Alcohol was also used for medicinal purposes, business transactions and for celebrations but many could not or would not practice restraint. Temperance groups calling for moderation and self- control (the true meaning of temperance) began taking root in the 1700’s, and with the backing of the church, they blamed unrestrained consumption of alcohol for social evils such as immorality, abuse and idleness. The term teetotaler came into being at this time as those who supported temperance placed a letter “t” by their name on temperance rosters to indicate their “total belief” in temperance. The term teetotaler would later become synonymous with anyone who abstained from drinking. By 1830, Americans, on average, were consuming 1.7 bottles of hard liquor per week.[2] The cry for prohibition increased. Radicals such as the hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation took to saloon busting. Women’s suffrage groups gathered in front of saloons singing hymns, holding prayer vigils and petitioning saloon keepers to shut down their “Dens of Inequity.” A number of states passed prohibition laws but these were not enforced and with neighboring states calling prohibition unconstitutional, the movement could not get off the ground. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the nation became preoccupied with war and the movement towards prohibition was abandoned.

     After the war, American consumption of alcohol grew to quantities that have not been equaled since.[3] Organizations such as the national Prohibition Party and the Women’s Christian Temperance Society were born. The WCTS took on more than demon rum, they also championed social reforms such as women’s rights, labor reforms, and the Americanization of immigrants who were flooding into the country. Their focus of concern was mainly urban and industrialized settings. In small towns and rural America, Americans were becoming concerned about the influx of immigrants and growing urban power. The Prohibition Party found supporters in these areas and the pulpit was used to reinforce the evils of demon rum. It would not be until the powerful Anti Saloon League, formed in 1895 and born out of the Prohibition Party, would the pressure for a national prohibition of alcohol gain momentum. Henry Ford and other industrial giants jumped on board and advocated the ban of alcohol citing squandered paychecks, domestic abuse and workplace idleness. Ford was so adamant that he sent social workers to his employees’ homes to evaluate their home life, and if drunkenness, abuse or alcohol use was witnessed or even suspected, an employee would be fired.

     So powerful became the pressure for a nationwide ban of alcohol, the 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919. It prohibited the manufacturing, transportation and selling of alcohol. Only sacramental wine and alcohol (mainly whiskey and brandy) for medicinal use was exempt and one would need a prescription for that. In order to enforce the law, the Volstead Act was passed on October 28, 1919. An outcry followed. Many considered the law unconstitutional. How do you legislate morality they cried? Some felt the law was an affront to returning WW1 veterans who had fought for democracy. Others felt it was class discrimination because the wealthy would have the means and money to acquire the banned alcohol but the working class would not. And immigrants took it as a personal attack on them as alcohol was part of their culture (Italians-wine, Irish-whiskey and Germans-beer). Never the less, the law went into effect the following year on January 16, 1920 and within an hour of its effect, two train boxcars loaded with alcohol were robbed at gunpoint at a Chicago rail yard.[4]  

     Americans, rebellious by nature, found ways to skirt the law. Some made homebrew for personal use. After all, the law did not say it was illegal to drink alcohol. Others feigned illness to get medicinal whiskey or brandy from the local druggist who had a stack of doctor signed blank prescriptions for alcohol “medicine.” Prescriptions flew off the pad as willing druggists made at least $3.00 on each alcohol prescription and at least another $3.00 on the “medicine.”[5] Moonshiners flourished, selling home brewed corn-based alcohol and giving rise to the bootlegger and speeding automobile on dusty roads. But there was a market for top grade alcohol and smugglers responded to the need, crossing borders- especially Canada’s, to bring first-rate brand alcohol to the thirsty. A man with a small motorboat loaded with alcohol obtained from a mother ship across the border could resale an $8.00 case of purchased scotch for $65.00.[6] It just wasn’t bandits or gangsters breaking the law, now it was every day people becoming criminals to make extra money to supplement their modest or low incomes.

     Gangs and gang warfare erupted. Hijacking alcohol cargo became common place. Innocent people became victims of mistakes or crossfire. Enforcement of the law was like “an old cat catching a young mouse.”[7] Crime was rampant. The latter half of the 1920’s saw money pour into law enforcement. Federal agents were added and their firepower updated. The number of Coast Guard vessels were increased and upgraded for speed. Atlanta’s Rum Row was soon busted, but Great Lakes smuggling remained out of control.

     In the latter half of the twenties, Al Capone was a celebrity. The cocktail, born to camouflage bad alcohol, was popular. Football’s Red Grange was a sports star and controversy still raged over the “long count” in the Dempsey-Turney fight. Babe Ruth hit his 60th homerun and the nation was engrossed in the Sacco and Vanzetti murder trial. Buster Keaton was still getting laughs and Greta Garbo was smoking the big screen. The Twenties were losing a little of their roar as daring hemlines became a little longer and flappers began to fade, but speakeasies boomed and gangland crime intensified.  This is where the story Rum Run begins. And for some, Blue Skies and S’Wonderful were not always the case.

    

 

 

 

[1] Wayne Lewis Kadar, “The Prohibition Era: 1920-1933,” Great Lakes Heroes & Villains (Gwinn, Michigan: Avery Color Studios, Inc., 2009) 133.

 

[2] David Von Drehle, “The Demon Drink. How Prohibition Turned Tipplers into Criminals, Teetotalers into Lobbyists- and Remade U.S. Politics,” Time, 24 May 2010, retrieved 27 May 2014 <http://www.content.time.com/time/magazine/article/o,9171,1989146,00.html>.

 

[3] William A. Meredith, “End of Prohibition: What Happened and What Did We Learn?” The Great Experiment: Thirteen Tears of Prohibition 1920-1933, graph: “Per Capita Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages (Gallons of Pure Alcohol) 1910-1929,” 29 April 2005, retrieved 15 April  2014 <http://www.albany.edu/~wm731882/future1_final.html>.

 

[4] Frederick Stonehouse, “Rum Running,” Great Lakes Crime: Murder, Mayhem, Booze & Broads, (Gwinn, Michigan: Avery Color Studios, Inc., 2004) 41.

 

[5] Stonehouse, 42.

 

[6] Stonehouse, 43.

 

[7] Wayne Lewis Kadar, “The Prohibition Era: 1920-1933,” Great Lakes Heroes & Villains, (Gwinn, Michigan: Avery Color Studios, Inc., 2009) 151.

 

RUM RUN is published by MOONSHINE COVE PUBLISHING.

 

Copyright 2014 R.C. Durkee