Prohibition: The Noble Experiment

  • So convinced were they that alcohol was the cause of virtually all crime that, on the eve of Prohibition, some towns actually sold their jails. 1
  • During the early 1800's, temperance societies offered two pledge options: moderation in drinking or total abstinence. After those who pledged the preferred total abstinence began writing "T.A." on their pledge cards, they became known as "teetotalers." 2
  • Although the temperance movement claimed Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745/46-1813) as one of its primary inspirations, he actually promoted moderation rather than prohibition. The temperance movement often had difficulty getting facts right. 3
  • Early temperance writers often insisted that because of their high blood alcohol content, "habitual drunkards" could spontaneously combust and burn to death from inside. 4
  • A temperance publication wrote of drinking parents who gave birth to small children with a "yen for alcohol so strong that the mere sight of a bottle shaped like a whiskey flask brought them whining for a nip." 5
  • One temperance "scientific authority" implied that inhaling alcohol vapors might lead to defective offspring for at least three generations. 6

Because the temperance movement taught that alcohol was a poison, it insisted that school books never mention the contradictory fact that alcohol was commonly prescribed by physicians for medicinal and health purposes. 7

Temperance Leader Lucius Manlius Sargent tried to get secondary schools, colleges and universities to eleminate all references to alcoholic beverages in ancient Greek and Latin texts. 7a

Because the temperance movement taught that drinking alcohol was sinful, it was forced to confront the contrary fact that Jesus drank wine. Its solution was to insist that Jesus drank grape juice rather than wine. 8

In this Currier and Ives print of 1848, George Washinton bids farewell to his officers with a toast in his hand and a supply of liquor on the table.
George Washington toasts

Reflecting the power of the temperance movement, a re-engraved version in 1876 removes all evidence of alcohol. Gone is the glass from Washington's hand and the liquor supply is replaced with a hat.
George Washington empty handed

During Prohibition, temperance activists hired a scholar to rewrite the Bible by removing all references to alcohol beverage. 8.a

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) strongly supported Prohibition and its strict enforcement. 8.b

The Bible says to "use a little wine for thy stomach's sake" (1 Timothy 5:23). This admonition caused serioius problems for temperance writers, who argued that alcohol was a poison and that drinking it was a sin. So they insisted that the Bible was actually advising people to rub alcohol on their abdomens. 8.c

Prohibitionists often advocated strong measures against those who did not comply with Prohibition (1920-1933). One suggested that the government distribute poisoned alcohol beverages through bootleggers (sellers of illegal alcohol) and acknowledged that several hundred thousand Americans would die as a result, but thought the cost well worth the enforcement of Prohibition. Others suggested that those who drank should be:

  • hung by the tongue beneath an airplane and flown over the country
  • exiled to concentration camps in the Aleutian Islands
  • excluded from any and all churches
  • forbidden to marry
  • tortured
  • branded
  • whipped
  • sterilized
  • tattooed
  • placed in bottle-shaped cages in public squares
  • forced to swallow two ounces of caster oil
  • executed, as well as their progeny to the fourth generation. 9

The Real McCoy

Bill McCoy was a bootlegger well known for selling quality imported goods: the original "real McCoy." 10

Women's Christian Temperance Union

A major prohibitionist group, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) taught as "scientific fact" that the majority of beer drinkers die from dropsie. 11

The WCTU suggested that school teachers put half of a calf’s brain in an empty jar into which alcohol should be poured. As the color of the brain turned from pink to gray, pupils were to be warned that a drink of alcohol would do the same to their brains.12

Lips that Touch Liquor Shall Not Touch Ours

The president of the WCTU, upon learning that government agents had clubbed a suspected bootlegger then shot down his unarmed wife as she ran to his aid, responded "Well, she was evading the law, wasn't she?" 13

The WCTU is far from dead or inactive; it currently boasts a membership of 25,000 and is very active politically. 15

Prohibition agents routinely broke the law themselves. They shot innocent people and regularly destroyed citizens' vehicles, homes, businesses, and other valuable property. They even illegally sank a large Canadian ship. 14

The Anti-Saloon League still exists; it is now (combined with the American Temperance League) known as the American Council on Alcohol Problems and actively attempts to influence public policy. 6

The Speakeasy

"Bathtub gin" got its name from the fact that alcohol, glycerine and juniper juice was mixed in bottles or jugs too tall to be filled with water from a sink tap so they were commonly filled under a bathtub tap. 17

The speakeasy got its name because one had to whisper a code word or name through a slot in a locked door to gain admittance. 18

Prohibition led to widespread disrespect for law. New York City alone had about thirty thousand (yes, 30,000) speakeasies. And even public leaders flaunted their disregard for the law. They included the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, who owned and operated an illegal still. 19

Some desperate and unfortunate people during Prohibition falsely believed that the undrinkable alcohol in antifreeze could be made safe and drinkable by filtering it through a loaf of bread. It couldn't and many were seriously injured or killed as a result. 20

In Los Angeles, a jury that had heard a bootlegging case was itself put on trial after it drank the evidence. The jurors argued in their defense that they had simply been sampling the evidence to determine whether or not it contained alcohol, which they determined it did. However, because they consumed the evidence, the defendant charged with bootlegging had to be acquitted. 21

When the ship, Washington, was launched, a bottle of water rather than Champagne, was ceremoniously broken across its bow. 22

National Prohibition not only failed to prevent the consumption of alcohol, but led to the extensive production of dangerous unregulated and untaxed alcohol, the development of organized crime, increased violence, and massive political corruption. Amazingly, some people today insist that Prohibition was a success! 23

Although Prohibition was repealed seven decades ago, there are still hundreds of dry counties across the United States today. 24

The human body produces its own supply of alcohol naturally on a continous basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Therefore, we always have alcohol in our bodies. . . and no one waits until the age of 21 before producing this alcohol. 25

Our current age-specific prohibition (age 21 minimum age legislation) has had numerous negative effects and at least one bizarre consequence: an 18 year old woman reported that she married a 21 year old man solely because he could legally purchase alcohol beverages! 26

Prohibition clearly benefited some people. Notorious bootlegger Al Capone made $60,000,000...that's sixty million dollars...per year (untaxed!) while the average industrial worker earned less than $1,000 per year. 27

But not everyone benefitted. By the time Prohibition was repealed, nearly 800 gangsters in the City of Chicago alone had been killed in bootleg-related shootings. And, of course, thousands of citizens were killed, blinded, or paralyzed as a result of drinking contaminated bootleg alcohol. 28

The “Father of Prohibition,” Congressman Andrew J. Volstead, was defeated shortly after Prohibition was imposed. 30

Repeal occurred at 4:31 p.m. on December 5, 1933, ending 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours and 32.5 minutes of Prohibition.

"What America needs now is a drink" declared President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the end of Prohibition. 31

Prohibitionists didn't give up easily. They even tried to enforce Prohibition for as long as ten years after its repeal by the Twenty-first Amendment. 29


  • 1. Anti-Saloon League of America. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook. Westerville, Ohio: American Issue Press, 1920, p. 8. Cited by Mulford, Harold A. Alcohol and Alcoholism in Iowa, 1965. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa, 1965, p. 9.
  • 2.Mendelson, J. H., and Mello, N. K. Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America. Boston, Massachusetts: Little Brown, 1983, p. 34.
  • 3.Lender, Mark E. and Martin, James K. Drinking in America. New York: Free Press, 1982, pp. 36-39.
  • 4.Hanson, David J. Alcohol Education: What we Must Do. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1996, p. 13.
  • 5.Furnas, J. C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1965, p. 194.
  • 6.Ploetz, Alfred J. The Influence of Alcohol Upon the Race. Westerville, OH: American Issue Press, 1915, p. 29.
  • 7. Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control Westport, Ct: Praeger, 1995, Chapter Three.
  • 7a. Burns, Eric. The Spirit of America: The Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004, p. 69.
  • 8.Ibid. p. 6.
  • 8.a.The American Mix, 2001, 1(1), 4.
  • 8.b.Moore, L.J. Historical interpretation of the 1920's Klan: the traditional view and the popular revision. Journal of Social History, 1990, 24 (2), 341-358.
  • 8.c.Edwards, G. Alcohol: The World's Favorite Drug. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, p. 167
  • 9.Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1962, p. 26; for other suggestions see Tietsort, Francis J. (Ed.) Temperance - or Prohibition? New York: New York American, 1929, ch. 8.
  • 10.Lender, Mark E. and Martin, James K. Drinking in America. New York: Free Press, 1982, p. 144.
  • The Real McCoy

  • An alternative explanation is that it derives from a brand of whiskey. The phrase "the real McKay" referring to a brand of whiskey by that name, appeared in 1856. It was officially adopted as an advertising slogan by G. MacKay and Company of Edinburgh, Scotlan, in 1870. In the U. S., it became "the real McCoy."
  • 11.Kobler, John E. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973, 143.
  • 12.Ibid, p. 140.
  • 13.Lender, Mark E. and Martin, James K. Drinking in America. New York: Free Press, 1982, pp. 160-161.
  • 14. Jeffers, H. P. High Spirits. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1997, p. 20; "Demon Rum" PBS documentary, 1995.
  • 15.Fischer, Carolyn A., and Schwertz, Carol A. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Associations. New York: Gale Research, 30th ed., 1996, p. 1621.
  • 16.Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, p. 88.
  • 17.Lender, Mark E. and Martin, James K. Drinking in America. New York: Free Press, 1982.
  • 18.Erdoes, Richard. 1000 Remarkable Facts about Booze. New York: The Rutledge Press, 1981, p. 188.
  • 19.Jennings, Peter. World News Tonight. ABC-TV network, January, 29. 1999.
  • 20. Erdoes, Richard. 1000 Remarkable Facts about Booze. New York: Routledge Press, 1981, p. 189.
  • 21. The New York Times, January 7, 1928.
  • 22. Behr, E. Prohibition. New York: Arcade, 1996
  • 23.Engelmann, Larry. Intemperance: The Lost War Against Liquor. New York: Free Press, 1979; Asbury, Herbert. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1950, ch. 9-14; Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973, ch. 10-13; Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1962, ch. 9-15; Nelli, Hubert S. American Syndicate Crime: A Legacy of Prohibition. In: Kyvig, David E. (Ed.) Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985; Grant, Marcus, and Ritson, Bruce. Alcohol: The Prevention Debate. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983, p. 21; Everest, Allan S. Rum Across the Border. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1978.
  • 24. Brewers Almanac 1996. Washington, DC: Beer Institute, 1996.
  • 25. Lindiger, W., Taucher, J., Jordan, A., and Vogel, W. Endogenous production of methanol after the consumption of fruit. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 1997, 21, 939-943; Phillips, M., Greenberg, J., and Martinez V., Ostrovsky, Y. M. Endogenous ethanol -- its metabolic, behavioral and biomedical significance. Alcohol, 1986, 3, 239-247.
  • 26. Jenny Jones television program. January 13, 1999.
  • 27. Schlaadt, R. G. Alcohol Use and Abuse. Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1992, p.16; Fite, G. and Reese, J. Economic History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959, p. 579.
  • 28. Behr, E. Prohibition. New York: Arcade, 1996
  • 29. United States v. Chambers, 291 U.S. 217, 222-26 (1934); Ellerbee v. Aderhold, 5 F. Supp. 1022 (N.D. Ga. 1934); United States ex rel. Randall v. United States Marshal for Eastern Dist. of New York, 143 F. 2nd 830 (2d. Cir. 1944).
  • 30. Andrew Volstead: The Father of Prohibition.; Kizilos, P. The man behind the act (Andrew J. Volstead). American History, 2001, 35(6), 50; Andrew Volstead. Spartacus Educational (Education n the Internet & Teaching History Online),; James, C.L. Andrew J. Volstead: A Survey of Research. St. Paul, MN: C.L.James, 1978. Demko, P. Getting to the bottom of Minnesota’s liquor laws. City Pages, 2003, 21(1201),, 12-10-03.
  • 31. Burkhart, Jeff. Something to celebrate: Repeal of Prohibition. Marin Independent Journal, December 7, 2007.

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