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

Prohibition era dry laws in New York State fluctuated frequently. Some were strongly supportive of Prohibition. Others were not. This is the story of dry laws in New York during National Prohibition.

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 individual freedoms. He pressed the passage of the Walker-Gillette bill in 1920 (the first year of National Prohibition). 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, failed to pass by one vote. However, 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 .

Nevertheless, 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 difficult. Passage of the federal Jones Act of 1929 made violations of Prohibition laws a felony rather than a misdemeanor. It also increased maximum penalties. Nevertheless, 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 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.

Sources for Prohibition Era Dry Laws in New York State

Note: Not altered is the quirky capitalization and punctuation (or lack thereof) of  the New York Times.

BRONX GRAND JURY URGES THE REPEAL OF STATE DRY LAW; Blames Mullan-Gage Act for “Unprecedented Violence” and Increased Drugs Use. REPORT COMMENDS POLICE But Says Task Imposed Upon Them by Federal Government Is an Impossible One. DENOUNCES HOME RAIDS Attacks “Bands of Men Akin to Pirates” Who Break Into Respectable Houses Seeking Rum. New York Times, Oct 15, 1921.

8,975 DRY ACT ARRESTS; 141 Autos, 180 Stills Seized Under Mullan-Gage Law. New York Times, Oct 19, 1921.

Everest, A.  Rum Across the Border: The Prohibition Era in Northern New York. Syracuse: Syracuse U Press, 1991. (Covers dry laws in New York.)

Gambino v. United States, 275 U.S. 310 (1927) 275 U.S. 310.
GRAND JURIES ASK DRY LAW REPEAL; Two Bodies Declare Mullan-Gage Act “Ineffective and Financially Burdensome. “PROHIBITION IS ATTACKED Kings County Inquisitors Declare Liquor Not a “Proper Subject for Legislative Interference.” New York Times, Dec 30, 1922.

LEGISLATIVE POLL SHOWS CITY EAGER TO ALTER DRY LAWS; Up-State Membership is Less Willing to Express Stand, but in the Main Opposes. MAY DODGE REPEAL ISSUE New Body Is More Likely to Memorialize Congress Than Void Mullan-Gage Act. 93 MEMBERS GIVE VIEWS 51 Senators and Assemblymen for State Law Repeal–58 Favor a Wine and Beer Resolution. New York Times, Nov 20, 1922.

LIQUOR REFERENDUM PLANNED BY SMITH; Governor-Elect Wants to Take Prohibition Question Out of Politics. MAY GUIDE OTHER STATES Precedent Is Seen in Popular Vote on Bill for Creation of Bronx County. New York Times, Nov 25, 1922.