Prohibition Era Dry Laws in New York State: Learn the Story

Prohibition era dry laws in New York State changed often. Some were strongly supportive of Prohibition. Others were not. This is the story of dry laws in New York during National Prohibition. It existed 1920-1933.

Alfred E. Smith

dry laws in New York
Alfred E. Smith

Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York was a strong advocate of states’ rights and personal freedom. He pressed the passage of the Walker-Gillette bill in 1920. It legalized 2.75% beer in clubs, restaurants, hotels, and in grocery stores for home consumption. However, two weeks later the U.S. Supreme Court effectively nullified the law.

Nathan L. Miller

dry laws in New York
Nathan L. Miller

Nathan L. Miller defeated Al Smith in 1921. He then sponsored a series of bills collectively called the Mullan-Gage Act. It incorporated the federal Volstead Act into state law.  (The Volstead Act was legislation to enable enforcement of National Prohibition.) The Mullan-Gage Act also included many intrusive provisions as well.

For example, it empowered law enforcement officers to search for alcoholic beverages whenever and wherever they wished. They did not need either probable cause or a search warrant. This was the strictest of the dry laws in New York State history.

The Mullan-Gage Act also empowered individuals to sue an intoxicated person for damages. They could do so if they suffered injury, their property damaged, or their means of support reduced. And Governor Miller substantially increased the number of State Police to enforce Prohibition.

Al Smith Returns

Al Smith defeated Nathan Miller in 1922. Smith not only opposed Prohibition but personally bought illegal bootleg alcohol himself. A measure to repeal Mullan-Gage, known as the Dunnigan bill. It failed to pass by one vote. But he soon signed into law a measure known as the Culliver bill.

Culliver Law

The Culliver law replaced the Mullan-Gage Act. Then the federal prohibition director asked state troopers and local law enforcement officers to help arrest Prohibition violators .

Yet repeal of Mullan-Gage resulted in greatly diminished New York participation in Prohibition enforcement. That job largely fell to Prohibition Bureau officers.

Declining support for Prohibition made obtaining convictions increasingly hard. Passage of the federal Jones Act of 1929 made violations of Prohibition laws a felony rather than a misdemeanor. It also increased maximum penalties. But the penalties actually imposed in both New York State and the rest of the nation remained low.

Prohibition Support Collapsed

Federal Prohibition officials inadvertently promoted Repeal. They did this by announcing that effective enforcement in the state would require hiring a one hundred-fold increase in the number of Prohibition agents.

The state legislature reacted by passing a law calling for a constitutional convention. The purpose was to overturn the disastrous “experiment in social engineering.” New York State residents decided that was impossible to enforce Prohibition.  They also believed that it created rather than solved problems.

Congress approved the 21st Amendment for states to ratify if they wished. New Yorkers voted almost eight to one in favor of Repeal.

Resource: Prohibition Era Dry Laws in New York State

Everest, A. Rum Across the Border: The Prohibition Era in Northern New York. (Covers dry laws in New York.)