President Herbert Hoover’s described Prohibition as “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.”1 In short, the Noble Experiment of Prohibition.
Yet the Noble Experiment of Prohibition in the U.S. failed miserably. Even worse, it not only failed but was counter productive. That is, it was worse than doing nothing.
But the story of Prohibition is fascinating. Perhaps it can teach us something useful about both the present and the future.
This is part of a series: Alcohol in America
- Alcohol in Colonial America
- Alcohol in Early America: Changing Views
- Beginning of the Temperance Movement in the U.S.
- Temperance Beliefs & Temperance Teachings
- Educators Evaluated Scientific Temperance Instruction
- The Noble Experiment of Prohibition in the U.S.
- Temperance Movement Today in US: Neo-Prohibitionism
III. Tide Turns
I. Background: Noble Experiment of Prohibition
For decades, many people blamed alcohol for almost all human misery and misfortune. Salvation Army General Evangeline Booth summarized this belief in a poem.
Drink has drained more blood,
Hung more crepe,
Sold more houses,
Plunged more people into bankruptcy,
Armed more villains,
Slain more children,
Snapped more wedding rings,
Defiled more innocence,
Blinded more eyes,
Twisted more limbs,
Dethroned more reason,
Wrecked more manhood,
Dishonored more womanhood,
Broken more hearts,
Blasted more lives,
Driven more to suicide, and
Dug more graves than any other poisoned scourge that ever swept its death-dealing waves across the world.2
II. The Noble Experiment of Prohibition in the U.S.
And for just as many decades people touted prohibition as the almost magical solution to all these ills.3 So on the eve of Prohibition the invitation to a church celebration in New York was clear. “Let the church bells ring and let there be great rejoicing, for an enemy has been overthrown and victory crowns the forces of righteousness.”4
The leading prohibitionist in Congress asserted that the Noble Experiment of Prohibition was here to stay. He said “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”6
The famous evangelist Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral for John Barleycorn. He then preached on the benefits of prohibition. “The rein of tears is over,” he said. “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and com cribs.”7 Since alcohol was the cause of most, if not all, crime,8 some towns really sold their jails.9
But hoping would not make Prohibition anything other than a great dream. The actual results ranged from unfortunate to deadly. Widespread disregard for law was obvious. Small portable stills were on sale throughout the country within a week after Prohibition began.10
California’s grape growers increased their acreage about 700 percent during the first five years of the noble experiment. Production increased greatly to meet a booming demand.11 Marketers sold dried grape juice as “bricks or blocks of Rhine Wine,” “blocks of port.” Included was a warning. “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”12 One grape block producer was not quite so coy in its ad.
Now is the time to order your supply of VINE-GLO. It can be made in your home in sixty days – a fine, true-to-type guaranteed beverage ready for the Holiday Season. VINE-GLO … comes to you in nine varieties, Port, Virginia Dare, Muscatel, Angelica, Tokay, Sauteme, Riesling, Claret and Burgundy. It is entirely legal in your home – but it must not be transported.13
The mayor of New York City even sent instructions on winemaking to his constituents.14 There was also wort. Brewers halted beer in the manufacturing process and didn’t add yeast. The buyer added yeast, let the wort ferment, and then filtered it. Since retailers sold wort before it contained alcohol, it was legal and openly available across the country.15
Often, the entire family would be involved in the production of home brews for illegal sale, as this suggested.
Mother’s in the kitchen
Washing out the jugs.
Sister’s in the pantry
Bottling the suds.
Father’s in the cellar
Mixing up the hops.
Johnny’s on the front porch
Watching for the cops.16
Mother makes brandy from cherries.
Pop distills whisky and gin.
Sister sells wine from the grapes on our vine.
Good grief, how the money rolls in!17
Organized smuggling of alcohol from Canada and elsewhere quickly formed. “Rum rows” existed off the coasts of large cities. Ships lined up just beyond the three mile limit to off-load their cargoes onto speed boats. Murder and hijacking were common in this dangerous but lucrative business. One of the most successful operators was Bill McCoy. He enjoyed a reputation for smuggling high quality beverages – the “real McCoy.”18
Organized bootlegging was a serious problem. The country’s scourge led to massive and widespread corruption of politicians and police. This helped finance powerful crime syndicates. In addition, there was an ever more common cause of death and disability caused by bootleggers.
Highly toxic wood alcohols found their way into much of the available bootleg liquor. When denatured industrial alcohol was not sufficiently diluted, or was consumed in large quantities, the result was paralysis, blindness and death. In 1927, almost twelve thousand deaths were attributed to alcohol poisonings. Many of these among the urban poor who could not afford imported liquors. In 1930, U.S. public health officials estimated that fifteen thousand persons were afflicted with “jake foot.” It’s a debilitating paralysis of the hands and feet brought on by drinking denatured alcohol flavored with ginger root.19
A contemporary writer described “jake foot” or “jake paralysis.”
The victim of “jake paralysis” practically loses control of his fingers. The feet of the paralyzed ones drop forward from the ankle so that the toes point downward. The victim has no control over the muscles that normally point the toes upward. When he tries to walk his dangling feet touch the pavement first at the toes. Then his heels settle down jarringly. Toe first, heel next. That’s how he moves. “Tap-click, tap-click, tap-click, tap-click,” is how his footsteps sound. The calves of his legs, after two or three weeks, begin to soften and hang down. The muscles between thumbs and index fingers shrivel away.21
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) strongly supported Prohibition and its strict enforcement.20
Many stills used lead coils or lead soldering, which gave off acetate of lead, a dangerous poison. Some bootleggers used recipes that included iodine, creosote, or even embalming fluid.22 The resulting problems caused financial burdens to the nation. but bootleg, being illegal, deprived the treasury of revenue.
Federally Mandated Poisoning
It was legal to produce alcohol for industrial uses. But it was fairly easy to divert it to illegal beverages. Therefore, the Prohibition Bureau tried to make it undrinkable by requiring the addition of one of 26 denaturants. Some, such as soft soap, were harmless, but others such as iodine, sulfuric acid, and wood alcohol, were poisonous. People drank at least one-tenth of all industrial alcohol.23
The New York legislature called on Congress to prohibit the use of harmful denaturants. But the Anti-Saloon League, the WCTU, and others defended it. Temperance leader Wayne Wheeler was adamant. “[T]he government is under no obligation to furnish people with alcohol that is drinkable when the constitution forbids it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide.”24
Corruption of Public Officials
The widespread corruption of public officials became a national scandal. Several rather typical cases reported by the New York Times in a short period shows the problem.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida Arrested on charges of conspiracy were the sheriff, the assistant chief of police, and seventeen others. They included policemen and deputy sheriffs.
Morris County, New Jersey Found guilty of accepting bribes from liquor-law violators was the former county prosecutor.
Philadelphia A city magistrate got six years in prison for accepting $87,993 in liquor graft. He got all that money during his ten months in office as a magistrate.
Edgewater, New Jersey A court found guilty of conspiracy the mayor, chief of police, and two detectives. That, in addition to a U.S. customs inspector, a police sergeant, and eight others. A rum-runner confessed that he had paid them $61,000 to help land liquor worth one million dollars.
South Jacksonville, Florida A federal grand jury indicted almost the entire city administration. The action included the mayor, chief of police, president of the city council, city commissioner, and fire chief.25
Such was the Noble Experiment of Prohibition.
Convictions Difficult to Obtain
Public support for the law and its enforcement eroded greatly. So it became very difficult for prosecutors to get convictions.26 For example, of 7,000 arrests in New York between 1921 and 1923, only 27 resulted in convictions.27 That is a conviction rate of only one for every 260 arrests.
In addition to being ineffective, prohibition was counter-productive. It encouraged the heavy and rapid alcohol drinking. Even worse, it did so in secretive, nonsocially controlled ways. “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. When people went to speakeasies, they went to get drunk.”28
Interested in more about speakeasies? Then discover blind pigs, blind tigers and striped pigs.
Zinberg and Fraser29conclude this. “Removing the alcohol from the norms of everyday society increased drinking problems. Without well-known prescriptions for use and commonly held sanctions against abuse, prohibition drinkers were left almost as defenseless as were the South American Indians in the face of Spanish rum and brandy.” They suggest that prohibition “may have curtailed the growth of the responsible drinking practices that had emerged during the 25 or so years preceding Prohibition.”30
Many Women began to Drink
Near the end of prohibition an observer wrote this. “Since 1920 [beginning of prohibition] the changed attitudes of women toward liquor has been one of the most influential factors in the encouragement of lawless drinking. Drinking in 1910 was a man’s game.” He explained that “Drinking today is a man – and – woman’s game. In all former times the man got drunk and came home to his disgusted and long-suffering wife. Today they sometimes get drunk together and try to slip into the house as quietly as possible, so as not to wake the children.”31
Some drinking establishments were not as respectable as the illegal and unregulated speakeasies. They included the “clip joint.”
The typical clip joint was staffed by a bartender, two or three waiters who doubled as strong – arm men. A tough floor manager, a singer and a piano player, a half-naked cigarette girl, and from two to ten hostesses, depending upon the size of the place. The sucker was usually brought to the clip joint by a taxi driver or sent there by a hotel clerk.
When he arrived he was immediately importuned to buy drinks for one or more of the hostesses. They intimated that they would be available for more interesting activities “after we get through work.” If he got helplessly drunk, he was simply robbed and dumped into the gutter a block or so away from the clip joint.
If through some miracle he remained fairly sober and showed a disposition to quit spending, the usual procedure was for one of the hostesses to accuse him of insulting her. Thereupon the floor manager would indignantly tell him to leave and present him with a bill. It was an outrageous compilation which included a large cover charge, a dozen drinks he hadn’t ordered, all those he had already paid for, a bottle or two of liquor, a half dozen packs of cigarettes at a dollar each, and extras. If he paid, he could depart. And he was lucky if a sympathetic hostess didn’t pick his pocket before he reached the door. If he protested, bouncers kicked and slugged him until he was groggy or unconscious. After that they robbed him and threw him out.32
Good Restaurants Crowded Out
Speakeasies, clip joints, and similar drinking venues tended to replace good restaurants. In the latter, people had dined leisurely and enjoy alcohol in a moderation. Instead, they now gulped down untaxed, unregulated, and almost always dangerous alcoholic beverages.
The speakeasy? People had to whisper (speakeasy) a code word or name to a bouncer to get in.33
Some Prohibitionists Adamant
The problems caused by prohibition mounted and the political winds began to shift. Yet drys sometimes became even more adamant in their support. The teetotaller Henry Ford maintained his support. “[I]f booze ever comes back to the United States, I am through with manufacturing. I wouldn’t be interested in putting automobiles into the hands of a generation soggy with drink.”34
The WCTU president defended agents who clubbed a suspected bootlegger and shot his wife as she ran to aid him. She commenting tersely, “Well, she was evading the law, wasn’t she?”35
In response to contests for a solution to the problem of prohibition violators, people offered many suggestions.
- Hang them by the tongue beneath an airplane and carry them over the US.
- Distribute poisoned liquor through bootleggers.
- Exclude wets from all churches.
- Force bootleggers to go to church every Sunday.
- Forbid drinkers to marry.
- Torture, whip, brand, tattoo, or sterilize drinkers.
- Place offenders in bottle – shaped cages in public squares.
- Make offenders swallow two ounces of castor oil.
- Execute drinkers and their posterity to the fourth generation.36
Prohibition clearly benefited some people. Notorious bootlegger Al Capone made $60,000,000 per year. That was while the average industrial worker’s income was less than $1,000 per year.37
III. The Tide Turns
The good news is that cooler heads prevailed. John D. Rockefeller Jr. was a lifelong abstainer. He gave at least $350,000 38 to the Anti-Saloon League. But he announced his support for repeal because of the widespread problems that prohibition caused.39 He explained his change of belief in a letter published in The New York Times.
He expressed deep disappointment with the Noble Experiment. Speakeasies had replaced saloons two-fold if not three-fold. Lawbreaking and organized crime mushroomed. And respect for law plummeted.40
The popular vote for repeal of Prohibition was 74 percent in favor and 26 percent in opposition.41 So by a resounding three to one vote, people rejected prohibition. Only two states opposed Repeal.42 A hummingbird had indeed flown to Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail. The noble experiment of prohibition had failed miserably.
Billy Sunday had proclaimed John Barleycorn’s death at the beginning of Prohibition in 1920. But he was premature.
The cheerful spring came lightly on,
And showers began to fall
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surprised them all.43
Happy throngs sang “Happy Days are Here Again!” And President Roosevelt would soon look back to what he called “The damnable affliction of Prohibition.”44
But not all were happy. The Anti-Saloon League declared “War … NO PEACE PACT – NO ARMISTICE.” It warned that temperance forces would soon be ready to launch the “offensive against the liquor traffic.”45 It clearly longed for the return of the noble experiment of Prohibition.
The temperance movement never died. Even today, Nearly one in five Americans favors prohibition. But more about that in the temperance movement today.
IV. Resources: Noble Experiment of Prohibition
- Barry, J. The Noble Experiment, 1919-1933.
- Behr, E. Prohibition. Thirteen Years that Changed America.
- Coffey, T. The Long Thirst. Prohibition in America, 1920-1933.
- Fisher, I., and Brougham, H. The “Noble Experiment.”
- Lerner, M. Dry Manhattan. Prohibition in New York City.
- Okrent, D. Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
- Peck, G. The Prohibition Hangover. Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet.
- Herbert Hoover.
- Seldes, G. The Great Quotations, p. 106.
- Aaron, P., and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America. In: Moore, M., and Gerstein, D. (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy, p. 157.
- Asbury, H. The Great Illusion, p. 154.
- McCarthy, G., and Douglass, E. Alcohol and Social Responsibility, p. 31. Asbury, p. 143.
- Merz, C. The Dry Decade, p. ix.
- Asbury, pp. 144-145.
- Odegard, P. Pressure Politics, pp. 58-60.
- Cherrington, E. The Anti-Saloon League Yearbook: 1920, p. 28.
- Asbury, p. 157.
- Feldman, 1928, pp. 278-281.
- Aaron and Musto, p. 159.
- Cashman, S. Prohibition: the Lie of the Land, p. 213.
- Aaron and Musto, op cit.
- Asbury, p. 235.
- Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism, p. 86.
- Sinclair, A. Prohibition: the Era of Excess, p. 209.
- Lender, M., and Martin, J. Drinking in America: a History, p. 144.
- Mendelson and Mello, p. 87.
- Moore, L. Historical interpretation of the 1920’s Klan. J Soc Hist, 24(2), 341-358.
- Shepherd, W. Collier’s Weekly, July 26,1930.
- Asbury, pp. 272-273, 283.
- Sinclair, pp. 200-201.
- Asbury, 279.
- ________, p.187.
- Prohibition was also ineffective and counter-productive in Russia (1916-1917), Finland (1919-1932), and Iceland (1919-1932). (Ewing, J., and Rouse, B. Drinking: Alcohol in American Society, p. 27.) It was also disastrous in Belgium, England, Norway, Austria (Mendelson and Mello, p. 83), and elsewhere around the world. Marshall, M. Beliefs, Behaviors, & Alcoholic Beverages, p. 456. “The only ‘prohibition’ against alcohol consumption that seems to work in human society is that taken on voluntarily. (Marshall, op cit., emphasis in original.)
- Lender and Martin, p. 15.
- Zinberg and Fraser, p. 468.
- ________, p. 470)
- ________, op cit.
- Asbury, p. 159.
- ________, pp.198-199.
- Erdoes, R. 1000 Remarkable Facts about Booze, p. 188.
- Wilklebrand, M. The Inside of Prohibition, p. 34.
- Lender and Martin, pp. 160-161.
- Sinclair, p. 26.
- Schlaadt, R. Alcohol Use and Abuse, p.16. Fite, G. and Reese, J. Economic History of the United States, p. 579.)
- Levine (1985) suggested that Rockefeller contributed over $700,000 to the Anti-Saloon League between 1900 and 1919. Thomton (1991, p. 52) wrote that “unsubstantiated claims place that figure in the tens of millions of dollars.” But even the $350,000 figure represented an enormous sum of money during the early part of the century. For example, the typical head of a household earned $9 to $12 per week (Ziegler et al., p. 61)
- Prendergast, M. A History of Alcohol Problem. In: Holder, H. (Ed.) Control Issues in Alcohol Abuse Prevention, p. 44. Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition, p. 96.
- Kyvig, p. 152. Roizen, pp. 245-246)
- Childs, R. Making Repeal Work, pp. 260-261.
- Merz, p. x.
- Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum, p. 337.
- Blocker, J. Retreat from Reform, p. 242.
- Lender and Martin, p. 135.