There were many negative effects of Prohibition (1920-1933). In fact, that’s what led to Repeal. But at the beginning of Prohibition it was highly popular.
- The Promise
A strong woman’s movement believed that Prohibition would benefit children and the family. At the same time, most Protestant churches began to preach that drinking alcohol was undesirable. Even that it was sinful.
In fact, the combination of the women’s and religious movements was powerful. By the time Prohibition went into effect, most people supported it.
I. The Promise
The effects of prohibition were far from what temperance activists promised. They insisted it would usher in a richer, healthier, and safer. Furthermore, that it would be a more moral society with less crime and violence.
As it went into effect, the famous evangelist Billy Sunday extolled the expected effects of Prohibition in glowing terms. He preached that “The reign of tears is over.” Sunday said “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and jails into storehouses.”1
Indeed, they were so certain that alcohol was the cause of crime that some towns actually sold their jails.2
Many churches promised that the effects of prohibition would be higher morals and a more honest citizenry. And some economists and industrialists believed that the workforce would become much more productive and prosperous.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) promised that Prohibition would be a boon. After all, it would lead to a happier home life and a better environment for children.
II. Reality: Effects of Prohibition
Unfortunately, the beautiful dream soon turned into a nightmare. Simply put, Prohibition failed to prevent drinking. But it also led to, or even made worse, many serious problems.
Here are 18 negative effects of prohibition:
1. The Speakeasy.
Prohibition led to the rapid rise of speakeasies. These are sometimes called blind pigs or blind tigers.
In any case, speakeasies owned by gangsters replaced neighborhood bars. Instead, they promoted heavy drinking, gambling and prostitution.
The head of New York City police said it was home to thirty-two thousand drinking places. That was double the number of saloons and illegal joints in the pre-Prohibition era.3
The clip joints were much worse than the speakeasies. These were drinking places for victimizing patrons. Employees extorted customers for money. If they refused, bouncers beat, robbed, and threw them out.4
2. Organized Crime.
For example, the price of liquor (distilled spirits) rose 24%. And that of beer jumped 700% during Prohibition.5 Organized crime made enormous profits. In turn, this gave gangsters great political power.
Al Capone made $60,000,000 in untaxed income each year. At that time the average industrial worker made less than $1,000 per year.6
At the same time Prohibition led to the growth of widespread corruption of public officials by organized crime. This enabled gangsters to conduct their illegal operations.
The extent of the corruption was a national scandal. Thus the New York Times reported several typical cases over a brief period. They illustrate the problem.
- Marshalls arrested for conspiracy in Ft. Lauderdale the sheriff, deputy sheriff, and assistant chief of police. They also arrested over a dozen others, including police officers.
- A jury convicted the former county prosecutor of Morris County, New Jersey, of taking bribes from Prohibition violators.
- A jury convicted a city magistrate in Philadelphia for taking $87,993 in bribes in only ten months.
- Also convicted of conspiracy in Edgewater, New Jersey, were the mayor and the chief of police. But also a US customs inspector, two detectives, a New York police sergeant, and eight others. A bootlegger admitted that he had paid them $61,000 to help him bring in one million dollars worth of alcohol.
- A federal grand jury indicted a number of officials in South Jacksonville, Florida, on charges of corruption. They were the mayor, chief of police, fire chief, city commissioner, and president of the city council. It also indicted almost the rest of the entire city administration.7
Of course people should have known that Prohibition would cause corruption.
Prohibition led to a rise in crime. That included violent forms such as murder.
During the first year of Prohibition the number of crimes committed in 30 major cities in the U.S. increased 24%. Arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increased 21%. And arrests for drunken driving jumped by 81%.
During the first ten years, the murder rate climbed 78% across the country.8 In Chicago, almost 800 gangsters died.9 Nationally, the homicide rate per 100,000 people rose almost two-thirds during Prohibition.10
Actually, Prohibition created more crime. It did so by destroyed legal alcohol jobs. In turn, this created a black market over which criminals violently fought. It also diverting money from the enforcement of other laws.
5. Dangerous Moonshine.
Prohibition led to often toxic moonshine. Surprisingly, many stills used lead coils or lead soldering. This gave off acetate of lead. That’s a dangerous poison. In addition, some bootleggers added iodine, creosote, or even embalming fluid.11
This sometimes caused paralysis, blindness and even death. In 1927 alone, almost 12,000 people died from drinking toxic bootleg alcohol. In 1930, U.S. public health officials estimated that fifteen thousand persons had “jake foot.” This was a debilitating paralysis of the hands and feet.12
It was legal to distill industrial alcohol. But it was fairly easy to divert for illegal use. As a result, people drank at least one-tenth of all industrial alcohol produced.13
6. Government Poisoned Alcohol
The Prohibition Bureau tried to make industrial alcohol undrinkable. That required adding foul tasting things such as soap. But the practice did not stop there. Many Americans died from intentional poisoning by the federal government.
Federal officials were frustrated that people continued drinking alcohol. Therefore, they decided to try a different approach. Surprisingly, they ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. These were regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits.
The idea was to scare people into giving up drinking. However, it didn’t work. Nevertheless, the poisoning continued until Repeal in 1933. Instead of stopping people from drinking, the feds were simply killing people. Perhaps murdering people would be a bette term. When all is said and done, by some estimates, the feds had killed at least 10,000 people.14
The poisons used included wood alcohol, benzine, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, and ether. Also formaldehyde, chloroform, carbolic acid, acetone, and brucine. The latter is similar to strychnine.
Equally important, the intentional poisoning of drinkers by their own government should be in the above section. That is, on crime. It may have been the most horrible crime of all. This was perhaps the most shocking of the effects of Prohibition. Yet few people know about it.
7. Job Loss.
The closing of breweries, distilleries and saloons led to the loss of many jobs. There was also loss of jobs among truckers, barrel makers, glass workers, hospitality workers, and many others. After all, it was the eighth largest part of the economy! These were personally painful effects of Prohibition.
8. Tax Loss.
With Prohibition that revenue disappeared. Prohibition cost the federal government $11 billion in lost tax revenue. On the other hand it cost over $300 million to enforce. So from then on, most states and the federal government would increasingly rely on income taxes. As a result, higher taxes are an effect of Prohibition.15
Prohibition led to widespread hypocrisy. And it reached the highest levels of government. It appalled Alice Roosevelt Longworth. She wrote that
“Violation of the Eighteenth Amendment was a matter of course in Washington. But it was rather shocking to see the way President Harding disregarded the Constitution he was sworn to uphold…. One evening…a friend of the Hardings asked me if I would like to go up to the study…. No rumor could have exceeded the reality…. Trays with bottles containing every imaginable whiskey stood about.”17
Even Congress had its own bootleggers! The best-known was ‘the man in the green hat.’18 There were many reports of cocktails in the halls of Congress between sessions. Sessions discussing Prohibition and its enforcement. In fact, the Speaker of the House had an illegal still.19
The head of Prohibition enforcement for Pennsylvania was guilty. He conspired to take 700,000 gallons of alcohol from storage. In addition, he operated a slush fund of $4,000,000 to bribe Prohibition agents.20
The head of Prohibition enforcement for northern California made a surprising public admission. That “he did drink occasionally because San Francisco is a wet community.” Also that “he also served liquor to his guests because he was a gentleman and ‘not a prude.”’ Another of the ironic effects of Prohibition.21
10. Disrespect for Law.
Prohibition led to a pervasive disrespect for law. New York City mayor LaGuardia sent instructions on winemaking to his constituents.22 Of 7,000 arrests in New York between 1921 and 1923, only 27 resulted in convictions.23 Note that this was a conviction rate of only one for every 260 arrests.
This seemed to reflect jurors’ disrespect for law rather than the facts in the cases. Breaking the law, even flaunting it, also became exciting and popular. This was especially the case among young people. There was a great increase in drinking among them.
11. Disrespect for religion.
The conduct of many religious leaders of Prohibition was often shocking. Therefore, it tended to discredit both religion and Prohibition. Methodist Bishop James Cannon, Jr., was once the most powerful Prohibition leader in the country. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote the following about him. “Congress was his troop of Boy Scouts and Presidents trembled whenever his name was mentioned.’24
However, his power ended after a number of scandals. Cannon had to defend himself before the U.S. Senate on charges of financial irregularities as a lobbyist. He also had to defend himself before the Methodist Church. That was on charges of immoral conduct.
Additionally, he had to defend himself before a federal grand jury. It was on charges of violating the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. That and his sexual affair with his secretary destroyed his power.
Opponents of Prohibition had long argued that many prohibitionists were hypocrites. The blatant hypocrisy of this major leader hurt the entire prohibition movement.25
12. Glorification of Gangsters.
The news widely followed major criminals. The public often admired them. Many people idolized John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd. They also eagerly followed Machine Gun Kelly, Bugsy Siegel, Bugs Moran, Dutch Schultz, and Ma Barker and her gang.
In essence, gangsters became stars.
13. Criminal Justice System Overburden.
Prohibition overburdened the criminal justice system. New York State passed the Mullin-Gage law in 1921. However, it repealed it in 1923. It it had paralyzed the courts with alcohol cases.26 For example, the prison population of Sing Sing prison jumped 45% in the first three years of Prohibition.27
Finally, President Hoover created the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. It’s known as the Wickersham Commission. He asked it to study law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Hoover’s concern was largely problems that Prohibition laws caused.
What the Commission found was not surprising. ‘The courts are cluttered with prohibition cases to an extent which seriously affects the entire administration of justice.”28
14. Further Stigmatization of Alcoholics.
Prohibition further stigmatized alcoholics. This hindered the acceptance of treatment rather than jail for alcoholics. Doctors and others formed the American Association for the Study and Cure of Inebriety in 1870. They believed that ‘inebriety is a disease.
14. Popularization of the KKK.
Surprisingly, Prohibition led to popularization of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Specifically, the KKK reemerged in Georgia in 1915 to defend the state’s prohibition law.31 ‘The Klan’s resurgence in the 1920s largely stemmed from their role as the extreme militant wing of the temperance movement.’32
There was much overlap in membership between the Klan and other Prohibition groups.33 Indeed, ‘One of the major KKK activities in the 1920s was rooting out bootleggers and breaking up speakeasies.’34
16. Increase in Illegal Drug Use.
The Noble Experiment led to increased use of illegal drugs. Bootleg alcohol was sometimes toxic and increasingly expensive. This led many drinkers to switch to opium, cocaine, and other dangerous substances. Thus, Prohibition popularized the use of illegal drugs. So that’s another of the surprising effects of Prohibition.35
17. Increase in Drinking.
Another of the ironic effects of Prohibition was the increase in drinking. It dipped during the first year of Prohibition. But it rose about 63% from the year before Prohibition to 1929.36 Prohibition also popularized drinking among new groups. Alcohol became a luxury item. And it was a symbol of wealth and status.
Before Prohibition, men of higher status tended not to drink. And women rarely did. But with Prohibition, it was higher status men and women who heavily patronized bootleggers and speakeasies.37 Prohibition played a major role in changing morals in the 1920’s.
18. Binge Drinking.
The pattern of drinking changed greatly during Prohibition. Earlier, men tended to drop by a saloon on the way home from work to have a beer.
But things changed when alcohol was illegal. ‘People did not take the trouble to go to a speakeasy, present the password, and pay high prices for very poor quality alcohol simply to have a beer.’38 In reality, people went to speakeasies to become drunk.
People drank less often than earlier. But when they did drink, they tended to do so to excess. So promoting abusive drinking was another of the ironic effects of Prohibition.
III. Summary: Effects of Prohibition
The unintended and tragic effects of Prohibition have left a continuing legacy. It continues to harm the country even today.
The Noble Experiment serves as an excellent example of a public policy based on hopes and desires. Not on logic and common sense. We should test the effectiveness of every existing and proposed policy. And also for the absence of unintended consequences.
We should never forget the many negative effects of Prohibition.
Web pages on Effects of Prohibition
- Behr, E. Prohibition. NY: Arcade, 1996.
- Burns, K., et al. Prohibition. DVD video. Culver City: PBS, 2011.
- Dunn, J. Prohibition. Juv readership. Detroit: Lucent, 2010.
- Nishi, D. Prohibition. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2004.
- Hintz, M. Farewell, John Barleycorn. Juv read. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1996.
- Okrent, D. Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: Scribner, 2010.
- Peck, G. The Prohibition Hangover. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 2009.
- Slavicek, L. The Prohibition Era. NY: Chelsea, 2009.
1. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion. NY: Greenwood, 1968, pp. 144-145. Details some of the effects of Prohibition.
2. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook. Westerville OH: Am Issue, 1920, p. 28.
4. Asbury pp. 198-199.
5. Thornton, M. Prohibition was a Failure. Wash: Cato, 1991, p. 3.
6. Schlaadt, R. Alcohol Use and Abuse. Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1992, p.16. Also Fite, G. and Reese, J. Economic History of the US. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959, p. 579.
7. Asbury, p. 187.
8. Thornton, p. 6.
9. Behr, E. Prohibition. NY: Arcade, 1996.
10. Census Bureau. Historical Statistics of the United States. Wash: GPO, 1975, Part 1, p. 414.
11. Asbury, pp. 272-273, 283
12. Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. Alcohol. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985, p. 87.
13. Sinclair, A. Prohibition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962. pp. 200-201. Describes the effects of Prohibition.
14. Blum, D. The chemist’s war. Slate website, Feb 19, 2010, p. 2.
15. Lerner, M. Prohibition. PBS website.
16. Esteicher, S. Wine. NY: Algora, 2006, p. 115.
17. Cayton, A., et al. America: Pathways to the Present. Needham, MA: Prentice Hall, 2007, p. 467.
18. U.S. House Rep. The infamous House bootlegger known as the Man in the Green H. Wash: The House, n.d.
19. Jennings, P. World News Tonight. ABC-TV, Jan 29, 1999.
20. Hill, J. Prohibition. Detroit: Omni, 2004, p. 59.
21. Gately, p. 379.
22. Aaron and Musto, p. 159
23. Lender and Martin, p. 154
24. Hohner, R. Prohibition and Politics. Columbia: U SC Press, 1999, p. 287.
26. Gately, p. 380.
27. Towne, C. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: Macmillan, 1923, p. 162
28. Nat Comm. Law Observ Enforce. Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States. Wash: The Comm,1931, vol. 2, p. 90.
29. Blumberg, L. The American Association for the Study and Cure of Inebriety. Alc Clin Exper Res., 1978, 2(3), 235-240.
30. White, W. Significant Events in the History of Addiction.
31. Statement from Brehm on Benton Mural. Bloomington: IN U. press release, March 25, 2002.
32. Johnson, B. John Barleycorn Must Die! Little Rock, AR. Old State House Museum exhibit.
34. Smith, R. History 124. U Calif Berkeley.
35. Thornton., p. 4.
37. Burnham, J. New perspectives on the prohibition ‘experiment.’ J Soc Hist., 1968, 2(1), 51-68. p. 63.
38. Zinberg, N. and Fraser, K. The Role of Social Setting in the Prevention and Treatment of Alcoholism. In: Mendelson, J. and Mello, N. (eds.) The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1985, pp. 457-483. P. 468.