I. Prohibition Welcomed
Prohibition in Arkansas was welcomed when it began in 1920. Temperance sentiment had been strong in Arkansas even before statehood in 1836. The state permitted local option in 1855. This enabled counties and municipalities to have their own prohibition. Many chose to do so.
I. Prohibitioned Welcomed
The prohibition movement grew steadily after the Civil War. It had strong support, especially from women, African-Americans, and churches.
By the late 1880s there were over 100 anti-alcohol organizations operating in the state. They had hundreds of chapters and many thousands of members.
The president of the powerful Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) traveled the state promoting prohibition. Both she and her message were well-received. The famous hatchet-wielding Carry Nation became actively involved in prohibition activities in Arkansas. She settled in Eureka Springs, where she lived the rest of her life.
By 1914, only nine counties in the state were wet. That is, permitted the sale of alcohol. The next year the entire state was made dry. Alcohol was even prohibited if prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons. In 1916, a referendum to repeal the prohibitive law was rejected two-to-one by voters.
Most state residents strongly supported National Prohibition. They thought it would improve health, increase safety, and lower crime. They thought it would reduce violence, improve public morality, and protect young people. Those beliefs were soon tested against reality.
Many residents weren’t going to let their freedom to drink be denied. It didn’t matter if there was prohibition in Arkansas. Terrain and rurality combined to make the state an ideal place to make moonshine. With easy, untaxed money to be made, police and sheriffs were routinely bribed. Politicians were also widely on the take.
Graft and Corruption
The rampant graft and corruption caused by Prohibition created a deep lack of respect for it. It became fashionable for the first time for women to drink. Many residents became alarmed at the decline in morality.
Prohibition also led to the pattern of infrequent but very heavy drinking. People didn’t go to a speakeasy to have a leisurely drink with a meal. They went to guzzle alcohol while they could.
Bootleg alcohol was quickly and carelessly made. It often contained creosote, lead toxin, and occasionally embalming fluid. Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness and even death. This led some drinkers to switch to hair tonic, sterno, and illegal drugs. They would have been unlikely to use these in the absence of Prohibition.
Prohibition in Arkansas also denied the state tax revenues from alcohol. This, at the very time that it was causing big increases in crime and and resulting criminal justice costs.
The problems caused by Prohibition became increasingly obvious. And a number of other factors helped repeal.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had strongly supported prohibitiobn. But its membership had dramatically declined. The economic Depression of the 1930s caused a sharp decline in tax revenues. People reasoned that legalizing the production and sale of alcohol would generate taxes. And not only on the beverages themselves. Taxes would come from the the materials of production. In turn, that would help farmers, the newly employed workers, and supporting industries. Taxes would also come from company profits.
More and more residents decided that the imagined cure of prohibition was much worse than the disease. They called for the repeal of the Noble Experiment of prohibition.
IV. Resources: Learn more about Prohibition in Arkansas
Hunt, G. A History of the Prohibition Movement in Arkansas. Fayetteville: U Arkansas, 1933.
Johnson, B. John Barleycorn Must Die. The War against Drink in Arkansas. Fayetteville: U Arkansas Press, 2005.
Kelly, D. Arkansas Methodists and the 1912 Statewide Prohibition Campaign. Jonesboro: Arkansas State U, 1970
Knoll, J. A Partial Fruition. A History of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Arkansas. Little Rock: WCTU of Arkansas, 1951.
Strickland, M. “Rum, Rebellion, Racketeers, and Rascals” : Alexander Copeland Millar and the Fight to Preserve Prohibition in Arkansas, 1927-1933. Fayetteville: U Arkansas, 1993.
Wilkerson, J. Little Rock Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1888 to 1903. Little Rock: U Arkansas, 2009.