The temperance movement has a long tradition in Delaware. Much of the state had already become dry before National Prohibition in 1920. By referendum, Kent and Sussex counties had adopted their own prohibition as early as 1907. New Castle followed. Only the city of Wilmington was still wet when Prohibition was imposed across the country. But problems caused by Prohibition in Delaware would soon grow quickly.
Most residents of Delaware clearly wanted the “Noble Experiment” to be successful. Residents had hoped that Prohibition would reduce drinking, improve health, increase public safety, protect youth, and raise morality. They thought that with nationwide Prohibition, those who wanted to drink would no longer be able to go to Wilmington or cross state borders to get alcohol. Their hopes were soon dashed. Prohibition caused many serious problems.
“Three Gun” Wilson
To enforce the law, Delaware created the state Department of Prohibition. Its deputy director was Harold D. Wilson. He became known as “Three Gun” Wilson. Described as a fanatical dry, Three Gun Wilson was determined to stamp out all drinking. To do so he would use whatever means were necessary.
The Prohibition enforcer actually conducted a sensational raid on a party honoring the governor of the state. Some of his raids were motivated by departmental power struggles as well as the desire for publicity. To Wilson, preventing drinking was more important than legalities and the rights of citizens. He was accused of illegal search and seizure and he was also found guilty of contempt of court.
In spite of the enthusiastic efforts of Three Gun Wilson and many other law enforcement personnel, bootlegging expanded. Consumers of dangerous moonshine sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness or even death.
Public safety decreased as mob violence mushroomed. Going to speakeasies became fashionable, especially among young men and women. Corruption became widespread among law enforcement officers. Even entire departments were corrupted. Respect for law decreased as law enforcement officers often violated individual rights.
There was a long tradition of support for prohibition. But the many serious problems caused by Prohibition in Delaware led to growing disillusionment and opposition. Pierre S, Irenee, and Alice du Pont became active leaders in the Repeal movement. When it came, the popular vote was overwhelmingly in favor of Repeal.
In the decades following following Repeal in 1933, Delaware has made some progress in modernizing its alcohol laws. In 2003, the state struck down its Blue law banning Sunday alcohol sales. This brought consumers greater convenience. It brought the state more revenue. And it brought retailers the ability to operate like other business in the 21st century.
But Prohibition attitudes still remain especially with regard to tax policy. In fact, state legislators have considered a 50 percent tax increase on alcoholic beverages. This would be a regressive tax that would especially harm lower-income consumers.
Legislators try to justify the increase by calling it a “sin tax” – a Prohibition-era notion. The fact is that alcohol is legal and a normal part of a healthy adult lifestyle. This sort of short-sighted policy undercuts the state’s hospitality and tourism industry.
Prohibition and the Physician in Delaware. Wilmington: Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, c. 1930.