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 also began to preach that drinking alcohol was undesirable, even sinful.
The combination of the women’s and religious movements was powerful. By the time Prohibition went into effect, the vast majority of 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, safer, 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, even virtuous, citizenry. 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. It would also lead to happier home life and a better environment for children.
II. Reality: Effects of Prohibition
Unfortunately, the beautiful dream soon turned into a nightmare. Prohibition failed to prevent drinking. But it also led to, or even made worse, many serious problems.
Here are 17 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. They promoted heavy drinking, gambling and prostitution.
The New York City police commissioner estimated 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 spirits rose 24%. And that of beer jumped 700% during Prohibition.5 Organized crime made enormous profits. This gave gangsters great political power.
Al Capone made $60,000,000 in untaxed income annually. At that time the average industrial worker made less than $1,000 per year.6
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. The New York Times reported several typical cases over a brief period. They illustrate the problem.
- Arrested for conspiracy in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, were the sheriff, deputy sheriff, and assistant chief of police. Also arrested were over a dozen others, including police officers
- Convicted of taking bribes from Prohibition violators was the former county prosecutor of Morris County, New Jersey,
- Convicted for taking $87,993 in bribes in only ten months was a city magistrate in Philadelphia.
- 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 included 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
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
Prohibition created more crime. It destroyed legal jobs and 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. Many stills used lead coils or lead soldering. This gave off acetate of lead. That’s a dangerous poison. 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. People drank at least one-tenth of all industrial alcohol produced.13
Government Poisoned Alcohol
The Prohibition Bureau tried to make industrial alcohol undrinkable. It required the addition of foul tasting things such as soap. But the practice did not stop there. Many Americans died from intentional poisoning by the federal government.
Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols that were regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.14
The intentional poisoning of drinkers by their own government should probably appear in the above section 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.
6. Job Loss.
The closing of breweries, distilleries and saloons obviously led to the loss of an enormous number of jobs. There was also loss of jobs among truckers, barrel makers, glass workers, hospitality workers and many others. These were personally painful effects of Prohibition.
7. 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. That’s one of the enduring effects of Prohibition.15
Prohibition led to widespread hypocrisy. 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
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! The Speaker of the House of Representatives had an illegal still.19
The director 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 director 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
9. Disrespect for Law.
Prohibition led to a pervasive disrespect for law. New York City mayor Fiorello 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 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. Hence there was a great increase in drinking among them.
10. Disrespect for religion.
The failed promises and often shocking conduct of many religious leaders of Prohibition tended to discredit both religion and Prohibition. Methodist Bishop James Cannon, Jr., was for a period the most powerful Prohibition leader in the country. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote that “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 had to defend himself before the Methodist Church on charges of immoral conduct.
Additionally, he had to defend himself before a federal grand jury. It was on charges of conspiracy to violate 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
11. 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 eagerly followed Machine Gun Kelly, Bugsy Siegel, Bugs Moran, Dutch Schultz, and Ma Barker and her gang.
In essence, gangsters became stars.
12. Criminal Justice System Overburden.
Prohibition overburdened the entire criminal justice system. New York State’s legislature passed the Mullin-Gage law in 1921 and repealed it in 1923. It it had paralyzed the courts with alcohol cases.26 The prison population of Sing sing prison jumped 45% in the first three years of Prohibition.27
President Hoover created the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement or 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
13. Further Stigmatization of Alcoholics.
Prohibition criminalized and further stigmatized of alcoholics. This hindered the acceptance of treatment rather than imprisonment 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.
Prohibition led to popularization of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This is one of the surprising effects of Prohibition.
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
15. 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, hair tonic, sterno or “liquid heat,” and other dangerous substances. Thus, Prohibition popularized the use of illegal drugs. So that’s another of the surprising effects of Prohibition.35
16. 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. It was a symbol of affluence 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 the revolution of morals and behaviors of the 1920’s.
17. 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 People went to speakeasies to become intoxicated.
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
Popular Readings on Prohibition
- Behr, E. Prohibition. Thirteen Years that Changed America. 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. Prohibition in the US. Juv read. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1996.
- Okrent, D. Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: Scribner, 2010.
- Peck, G. The Prohibition Hangover. Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 2009.
- Slavicek, L. The Prohibition Era. Temperance in the US. NY: Chelsea, 2009.
1. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion. NY: Greenwood, 1968, pp. 144-145. Details some of the many negative 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. Washington: Cato, 1991, p. 3.
6. Schlaadt, R. Alcohol Use and Abuse. Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1992, p.16. 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. Washington: 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 many of the effects of Prohibition.
14. Blum, D. The chemist’s war. Slate website, February 19, 2010, p. 2.
15. Lerner, M. Prohibition. PBS website.
16. Esteicher, S. Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century. 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 Hat. Washington: The House, n.d.
19. Jennings, P. World News Tonight. ABC-TV network, Jan 29, 1999.
20. Hill, J. Prohibition. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 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 Com. Law Observ Enforce. Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States. Washington: The Commission,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, Treatment and Recovery in America. W. White Papers website.
31. Statement from Chancellor Brehm on Benton Mural. Bloomington: Indiana 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’ of the 1920’s. 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.