Prohibition in America: Timeline

The temperance movement began as a smoldering fire. Then it became a bonfire. During the 20th century it grew into a rageing forest fire. It finally led  to Prohibition in America (US).

At first, local areas and a few states voted for their own prohibition. But the pace quickened early in the 20th century. By the time National Prohibition went into effect (1920), over half the population lived in dry (prohibition) areas.

This timeline covers major events during ratification of the 18th Amendment. That amendment established National Prohibition in America (US). The timeline continues to the end of that societal experiment. Then a mighty storm arose and torrential rains subdued the fire. But they didn’t extinguish it.

Prohibition in America


Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment occurred quickly. It began on January 7, when OH and OK ratified. On the afternoon of January 16, NE became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. That gave it the three-fourths majority needed for enactment.’1

These were the exact dates in that month for each state.2

    • January 7th, OH & OK.
    • 8th, ID & ME.
    • 9th, WV.
    • 13th, CA, TN & WA.
    • 14th, AR, KS, IL & IN.
    • 15th, AL, CO, IA, NH & OR.
    • 16th, NE, NC, UT, MO & WY.
    • 17th, MN & WI.
    • 20th, NM.
    • 21st, NV.
    • 29th, NY & VT.3

PA ratified on February 25 and CT did so on May 6, 1919. NJ ratified it two years after it went into effect.4

Three states did not ratify the Amendment.

They were IL, IN, and RI, and AK. HI was not yet a state. So it couldn’t ratify.

Prohibition went into effect one year later. It banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. and its possessions. Contrary to common belief, Prohibition in America did not prohibit the purchase or consumption of alcohol. See more at What Did Prohibition Prohibit?

The Volstead Act

prohibition in America
Andrew Volstead
  • The National Prohibition Act of 1919  (the Volstead Act) made it possible to implement the 18th Amendment. Congressman Andrew J. Volstead led it through Congress.5
  • President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act on October 28. He cited both moral and constitutional objections. But Congress overrode his veto the same day.6
  • The Anti-Saloon League formed The World League Against Alcoholism. Its goal was to create prohibition throughout the world.7 Note that the League’s name refers to alcoholism. This reflected the view of temperance activists. They tended to see any drinking as alcoholism.
  • The Central Trades and Labor Council of New York threatened a general strike to exempt beer from Prohibition. About 500,000 union workers endorsed the idea. Labor leader Samuel Gompers squelched it with great difficulty.8


 prohibition in America
Samuel Gompers
  • Samuel Gompers made a keen observation about the Eighteenth Amendment. It was the first time the U.S Constitution actually denied rights instead of granting them.’9 He strongly opposed it.
  • National Prohibition in America went into effect January 16, 1920. It lasted until December 5, 1933. Thus, it existed for almost 14 years.
  • Prohibition reversed a historic pattern. Distilled spirits took the place of beer. It contributing about two-thirds of total alcohol consumption by the end of the 1920s.10 The reason is simple. Spirits are more compact and easier to conceal than beer or wine.11


  • Hypocrisy was widespread during Prohibition. The director of Prohibition enforcement for northern California admitted in public that he did drink occasionally. The director also served liquor to his guests because he was a gentleman and “not a prude.”
  • The U.S. Attorney General (the highest law enforcement official in the country) was implicated in alcohol corruption.
  • The Prohibition director for the state of PA conspired illegally to remove 700,000 gallons of alcohol from storage. He also controlled a $4,000,000 slush fund used to bribe Prohibition agents and officials.12
  • Andrew Volstead, of Volstead Act fame, drank alcohol.
  • Congress had its own bootleggers. They included “the man in the green hat.”
  • The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives owned and operated an illegal still.13
  • Warren Harding voted for Prohibition as a senator. As President, he kept a stock of bootleg alcohol in the White House.14

Prohibition Agents

  • People widely criticized Prohibition agents for using excessive force. One of the most violent may have been agent William Harvey Thompson (Kinky Thompson).15
  • The federal government and the states shared responsibility for enforcing Prohibition. Maryland was the only state in the union never to pass any legislation to enforce the law.16
  • In one year alone, Nevada’s approximately 90,000 residents obtained about 10,000 prescriptions for “medicinal alcohol.”17

Innocent People Harmed

prohibition in the US
Sen. Frank Greene
  • A stray bullet in a shoot-out between police and bootleggers wounded Sen. Frank Greene of Vermont. The police rather than the bootleggers turned out to have fired the stray bullet that paralyzed the senator.18
  • Agents shot a  19-year-old man they were chasing on suspicion of rum running in Vermont. Officers reported that he died when his car hit a tree. However, an autopsy revealed bullets in the back of his head and in his shoulder blade.19  
  • Prohibitionists advocated increases in the federal income tax. The taxes were to replace revenue lost from taxes on alcoholic beverages.20
  • Most alcohol producers failed to survive National Prohibition. However, a few did.21

Survival Methods

  • A few distilleries survived by producing whiskey for medicinal use and alcohol for industrial use.
  • Some wineries survived producing sacramental wine and grapes.
  • Some breweries survived by producing “near beer.” That’s beer with  less than one half of one percent alcohol. They also made ice cream, malt, porcelain goods and other products.
  • prohibition in AmericaNear beer brands included these.22
      • Bevo by Anheuser-Busch.
      • Vivo by Miller.
      • Lux-O by Stroh.
      • Famo by Schlitz.
      • Pablo by Pabst.
  • The LaMontages brothers were four high society bootleggers during Prohibition.107

The 1920s

  • “Unlike the saloons they replaced, speakeasies were patronized by both sexes.”23
  • “Cocktails spread from the public [speakeasies] to the private [home] sphere during Prohibition.”24
  • In Williamson County. IL, battles between speakeasy owners and the ‘dry’ Ku Klux Klan killed 14 people in 1924-25.25 The Ku Klux Klan strongly supported Prohibition and its very strict enforcement.
  • Grape acreage in California increased seven-fold in the first five years of Prohibition in America. There was a booming demand for grapes. People used them for home-made wine.26

Dried grapes commonly sold as “bricks or blocks of Rhine Wine,” “blocks of port” and so on. They carried 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.”47

KKK Battled Bootleggers

  • The state militia occupied Marion, Illinois. That was because the Ku Klux Klan fought  bootleggers in organized battles. The Klan opposed the lack of enforcement by local officials. That may have been corrupted.27
  • Temperance groups often put pressure on public libraries. Some succumbed and removed all books on how to make alcohol.28
  • Some towns thought that alcohol was the cause of virtually all crimes. So they sold their jails on the eve of Prohibition!29


Prohibition in America went into effect on January 16. That day the New York Daily News explained what it thought people could and couldn’t legally do.30 

It thought these were legal –

      • Drink intoxicating liquor in your own home or in the home of a friend.
      • Buy intoxicating liquor on a bona fide medical prescription of a doctor. You can buy a pint every ten days.
      • Consider any place you live permanently as your home. If you have more than one home, you may keep a stock of liquor in each.
      • Keep liquor in any storage space for the exclusive use of yourself, family, friends or guests.
      • Get a permit to make liquor when you change your residence.
      • Manufacture, sell or transport liquor for non-beverage sacramental purposes provided you obtain a Government permit.

It though these were illegal –

      • Carry a pocket flask.
      • Give away or receive a bottle of liquor as a gift.
      • Take liquor to hotels or restaurants and drink it in the public dining rooms.
      • Buy or sell formulas for home-made liquor
      • Ship liquor for beverage use.
      • Manufacture anything above one-half of one percent in your home.
      • Store liquor in any place except your own home.
      • Display liquor signs or advertisements on your premises.
      • Remove reserve stock from storage.

Californians largely welcomed the start of Prohibition. Temperance sentiment had long been strong in the state. It had elected the only Prohibition Party member of Congress. It had also given the Prohibition Party‘s presidential candidate the largest popular vote in history.31

During National Prohibition, some temperance leaders hired a scholar to rewrite the Bible by removing all references to alcohol beverage.58

Many Prospered from Prohibition

  • Edward Donegan was an odd-job laborer in 1919. He became a millionaire within about the first four months of Prohibition. The fortune came from his bootlegging.32
  • Within the first six months of Prohibition in America, over 15,000 doctors and 57,000 druggists applied for licenses. These were to either prescribe or sell alcohol. They made a lot of money doing so. At that point, the AMA refused to confirm its 1917 resolution discouraging  medical use of alcohol.33
  • The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) expanded its campaign of Scientific Temperance Instruction. It wanted to ensure the success of Prohibition in America.34


prohibition in America
William McCoy
  • William (Bill) McCoy pioneered “rum-running.” He sailed a boat with 1,500 cases of alcohol from the Bahamas to the U.S. It wasn’t moonshine but was “the real McCoy.”35
  • Richmond Pearson Hobson formed the American Alcohol Education Association. It was a temperance group.36
  • New York State passed the Mullin-Gage Prohibition enforcement law. The State repealed it in 1923 because it paralyzed the courts with so many alcohol cases.37
  • Brewers produced three hundred million gallons of “near beer” that year.38
  • The WCTU had about 12,000 chapters or “unions” in 53 states and territories. Its membership was 345,949. That was a large increase from the 248,343 members 11 years earlier.39


prohibition in America
Molly Pitcher
  • M. Louise Gross formed the Molly Pitcher Club. It was a woman’s anti-Prohibition group. The Club opposed federal interference with personal behaviors that it thought should not be criminal.41
  • A nation-wide poll conducted by The Literary Digest found that 38% of respondents favored enforcement of Prohibition. But 41% favored modification, and 21% favored its repeal.40
  • The Woman’s National Committee for Law Enforcement was a federation of Protestant women’s groups. Organizers formed it to promote vigorous enforcement of Prohibition.42

Anti-Prohibition Congress

  • The Anti-Prohibition Congress was in Brussels. Politicians from Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland came. It failed to get “the active support of a hundred million European advocates” to repeal Prohibition in America.43
  • Voters in MA rejected a law requiring the state to enforce Prohibition. They did so by a vote of 75%.44
  • NJ finally ratified the 18th Amendment on March 9. This was long after Prohibition in America went in effect.45
  • Local officials were indifferent to enforcing Prohibition. So two hundred KKK members burned down saloons in Union County, AR. They were trying to enforce it themselves.46


  • Law enforcers frequently violated laws in enforcing Prohibition. A U.S. Coast Guard boat off South Florida had orders to capture a rumrunner in international waters. This was in clear violation of international law. It opened fire on the rumrunner beyond the three mile limit to capture it illegally.48
  • Officials arrested the four high-society bootlegging LaMontages brothers. The siblings had been increasing their fortunes by $2,000,000 per year during Prohibition.49
  • U.S. attorneys in Minneapolis devoted over 60 percent of their time prosecuting cases involving alleged violation of Prohibition laws.50
  • NV passed a Repeal Act. It petitioned for a repeal of Prohibition. The federal government ignored the plea.51


  • Investors formed the National Distillers Products Corporation. It began buying the alcohol stock of defunct distillers. It owned over half of the aged whiskey in the country at the repeal of Prohibition in America.5
  • Police arrested bootlegger Roy Olmsted. The former Seattle Police Department Sergeant had become one of Puget Sound’s largest employers. On his payroll were office workers, bookkeepers, collectors, and salesmen. Also dispatchers, warehousemen, mechanics, drivers, and rum running crews. Of course, there were lawyers.53

    prohibition in America
    Roy Olmstead while a police sergeant.
  • There was public outcry after police invaded a home in Portland, Oregon. They used an illegal search warrant based only on an “anonymous tip.” The  governor said that time had changed the belief that people’s homes were their castles. They were no longer sanctuaries. So Oregonians should keep their homes such that “visiting” Prohibition agents would be welcome at any time.’54

Daisy Douglas Bar

prohibition in the US
WKKK Imperial Empress Daisy Douglas Barr
  • Daisy Douglas Barr, a Quaker minister, was a leader in the WCTU. She was also head of the Women’s Ku Klux Klan (WKKK) in Indiana and seven other states. Barr led about 250,000 members. She and the Grand Wizard of the IN KKK helped elect a Klan-friendly governor in 1924. However, some Klan members charged that Rev. Barr had made a fortune from the dues of Klansmen. The Klan replaced her in 1926.55
  • William H. Anderson, the “Dry Warrior,” was convicted of forgery in the financial records of the Anti-Saloon League. The judge gave him two years in prison.56
  • In the city of San Francisco alone, there were 2,500 Prohibition cases awaiting trial. The courts finally offered “bargain days.” Those accused could plead guilty in return for low fines or sentences.57


  • IN passed the Wright Bone Dry Bill. It greatly increased penalties for possessing illegal alcohol. Described as “one of the most repressive” laws ever passed in the state, enforcing it was very hard.59
  • The sheriff of one AZ county reported having seized 152 stills. He arrested 183 people for violating federal alcohol laws and 80 for violating state alcohol laws. This was all within a period of only three months.61
  • Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote that “Five years of prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect. They have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. Not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”60

Al Capone

prohibition in America
Al Capone
  • Al Capone said “I make my money by supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. Everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a businessman.”62
  • Over five million children had signed the total abstinence pledge cards promoted by the Lincoln-Lee Legion.63
  • Researchers made a study of curricula across the US. They found that temperance education “is our nearest approach to a national subject of instruction; it’s our one minimum essential.”64
Izzy and Moe
Prohibition in America
Izzy and Moe in disguise

The most famous Prohibition agents in the country were Isidor (Izzy) Einstein and his fellow Prohibition agent, Moe Smith. Izzy and Moe made 4,932 arrests of bartenders, bootleggers and speakeasy owners. They had a 95% conviction rate.

After a busy day enforcing Prohibition, the famous agents relaxed and enjoyed their favorite beverages. They were beer and cocktails!80

On one very busy day, they raided 48 speakeasies. Their boss called them to Washington. He said “You get your name in the papers all the time … whereas mine is hardly ever mentioned. I need to ask you to remember that you are merely a subordinate, not the whole show.” After their names appeared again they were dismissed “for the good of the service.”106


prohibition in America
Dr. Raymond Pearl
  • Dr. Raymond Pearl published Alcohol and Longevity.  He had found that moderate drinkers outlived both abstainers and heavy drinkers.65 Dr. Pearl’s findings were during the middle of Prohibition and got little attention. But over time, more and more research has supported his findings.
  • Members of Congress were criticizing the de facto head of the Anti-Saloon League, Wayne Wheeler. They were doubting the legality of the League’s spending in congressional races. He then soon retired from the League. Under his direction, the League had developed pressure politics.66
  • MT residents voted to stop enforcing Prohibition.67
  • Voters in CA, CO, and MO rejected repealing state Prohibition enforcement laws.68
  • NV voters approved by seventy-five percent a request that Congress call a convention. It was to either repeal or modify the 18th Amendment.69


prohibition in America
Eliot Ness
  • Eliot Ness joined the Bureau of Prohibition in 1927. He later formed a team of Prohibition enforcement agents known as The Untouchables. They combatted gangster Al Capone.71 Yet we now know that at least one of the supposed untouchable agents was corrupt.
  • Powerful Anti-Saloon League leader Wayne Wheeler died. Bishop James Cannon, Jr. was chair of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals. He emerged as the most powerful leader of the temperance movement. Journalist H. L. Mencken said of Cannon that “Congress was his troop of Boy Scouts and Presidents trembled whenever his name was mentioned.”

Voluntary Committee of Lawyers

  • A group of highly influential attorneys formed the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers. Its members promoted the repeal of Prohibition.73
  • Catholic moral theologian Fr. John A. Ryan rejected his earlier position. It was that people had to obey laws passed in good faith for good social purposes. He concluded that Prohibition lacked public acceptance. That it excessively restricted personal freedom, was harmful. Therefore it lacked moral validity and was not binding.74

Federal Government Poisoned Alcohol

The government had long required the denaturing of industrial alcohol. That is, adding soap and other substances to make it undrinkable. But bootleggers devised ways of “re-naturing” it.

In reaction, by1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons. There was kerosene, gasoline, benzene, brucine, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, and ether. There was also formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. (Formaldehyde is the major component of embalming fluid.)

The Treasury Department also demanded the addition of more methyl alcohol. It was the last that proved most deadly. During that year alone, 700 people died from the poisoning in New York City alone.75

AMA Hypocrisy

prohibition in AmericaThe American Medical Association (AMA) denounced limits on how much medicinal alcohol doctors could prescribe. It said there should be no laws restricting the use of therapies by physicians.76 Yet ten years earlier the AMA had officially supported Prohibition. It said alcohol’s “use in therapeutics … has no scientific value.” However, doctors found that writing prescriptions for alcohol was highly profitable. Now, the AMA insisted that alcohol was useful in treating 27 separate conditions. They included diabetes, cancer, asthma, dyspepsia, snake bite, lactation problems and old age.77


prohibition in America
Prescription form for medicinal alcohol
  • Doctors made an estimated $40,000,000 annually by writing prescriptions for medicinal spirits.78 That’s equal to over 550 million (over half a billion) dollars today.
  • The American Bar Association called for repeal in 1928. The Voluntary Committee of Lawyers and others had urged it to do so.79


  • The New York City police head said it was home to thirty-two thousand drinking places. That was double the number of saloons before Prohibition.81
  • The mayor of Berlin paid a week-long official visit to New York City. At the end he asked “When does the Prohibition law go into effect?”82 Prohibition had been in effect for nearly a decade!
  • Bootleggers diverted about 10% of denatured industrial alcohol for bootleg liquor.83
  • Prohibition in America
    Pauline Sabin

    Pauline Sabin formed the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WOMPR). The president of the WCTU had said to Congress that “I represent the women of the United States!” Sabin disagreed. She had earlier been a staunch supporter of Prohibition. But over time she came to believe that it was not only ineffective. It was causing very serious problems and making others worse.84

Wikersham Commission

  • President Herbert Hoover formed the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. That is, the Wickersham Commission. Former U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham chaired the Commission. Much of its report was critical of Prohibition in America.85
  • Business executive Fred G. Clark founded The Crusaders.  It was an influential repeal group. Rivalry among bootleggers in Chicago led to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The violence motivated Clark to form the group. The Crusaders chose to devote their efforts at the local level across the country.86
  • The Increased Penalties Act (the Jones Law) turned most violations of the Volstead Act into felonies. They had been misdemeanors. Even seeing a violation of the law and failing to report it became a felony. It was punishable by a three year prison term. The Jones Law was “a vehicle built for punishment, and so severe it seemed powered by vengeance.”87

Prohibition clearly benefited some people. Notorious bootlegger Al Capone made $60,000,000. That’s sixty million dollars… per year. (And he paid no income tax on it.) The average industrial worker earned less than $1,000 per year.70  

Eliot Ness

  • Eliot Ness begins in earnest to tackle violators of prohibition and Al Capone’s gang in Chicago.”88
  • A magazine held a nation-wide contest for the best solution to the problems of enforcing Prohibition in America. One entrant suggested that the federal government add poison to alcohol sold through bootleggers. The entrant acknowledged that several hundred thousand Americans would die as a result. Yet the person thought this sacrifice was justified in enforcing the law. Others suggested that people who drank alcohol should be:
      • Tattooed
      • Excluded from any and all churches
      • Forbidden to marry
      • Sterilized
      • Placed in bottle-shaped cages in public squares
      • Branded
      • Whipped
      • Exiled to concentration camps in the Aleutian Islands
      • Tortured
      • Hung by the tongue beneath an airplane and flown over the country
      • Executed, as well as their progeny to the fourth generation.89

The 1930s

prohibition in AmericaStarting in the 1930s, cocktail parties became popular forms of entertainment This is also when the social practice of having a drink (or two or three) before dinner became widespread.”91


  • The Literary Digest conducted a nation-wide poll. It found that 31% of respondents favored enforcement of Prohibition, 29% favored modification, and 40% favored its repeal.92
  • Anti-Saloon League formed the Board of Temperance Strategy. It was a “last ditch” effort to coordinate resistance to the growing public demand for the repeal of National Prohibition. The Board consisted of representatives from 33 major anti-alcohol temperance organizations.93
  • Voters in MA voted to stop the state from enforcing Prohibition.
  • The 34 organizations comprising the National Temperance Council re-organized. They formed the National Conference of Organizations Supporting the 18th Amendment. The goal was to counter the groundswell of opposition to Prohibition in America. Therefore, it strongly opposed any type of referendum on Prohibition. It also opposed supporting any third party (i.e., the Prohibition Party) in the 1932 election.94
  • Prohibition in America
    George Cassiday

    People knew bootlegger George Cassiday as “the man in the green hat.” He later told how he had bootlegged for ten years for members of Congress. He did so in five front-page articles in The Washington Post. Cassiday estimated that eighty percent of congressmen and senators drank.95



  • The Literary Digest made a a nation-wide poll was. It found that 26% of respondents favored continuing Prohibition in America. But  74% favored its repeal.101
  • Sen. John J. Blaine

    On December 6, Sen. John J. Blaine drafted the Blaine Act. It enabled states to ratify the 21st Amendment if they wished to repeal National Prohibition. It quickly passed both houses of Congress and was ratified by the necessary 36 states on December 5, 1933. This ended ending National Prohibition in America.102  But a number of states maintained state-wide prohibition. The last to drop prohibition was Mississippi in 1966. It and many other states would permit local option about the sale of alcohol.103

  • Franklin Roosevelt won election to the presidency on a pledge to end National Prohibition in America.104 His wife, however, had been a strong supporter of Prohibition and did not support Repeal.105
Prohibition Party
  • The Prohibition Party candidate who got the highest vote in an election was Rev. Robert P. Shuler. It was in a 1932 CA race for the US Senate. He received 560,088 votes (25.8% of the total cast). He had long exposed governmental corruption.106

The forces opposing Prohibition in America rose sharply as time passed.

Temperance forces rallied to stop the tide. But more and more people became convinced that Prohibition wasn’t stopping drinking. They came to believe that it was making problems worse. And that it was also creating new problems.


Now let’s continue the story. It’s the Repeal of Prohibition.



DVD Video
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    93. Peck, G.  Prohib in Washington, D.C., pp. 125-133.
    94. Kyvig, p.43.
    95. Am Legion for Prohib Referendum. The Telegraph, Sept 24, 1931, pp. 1 and 5.
    96. Kyvig, p. 123.
    97. United Repeal Coun. Time, Jan 20, 1932.
    98. Al Capone.
    99. End of Prohib.
    100. Gately, p. 398.
    101. Repeal of Prohib.
    102. Yenne, B., and Debolski, T. Beer Trivia, pp. 83-84.
    103. Prohib in Am.
    104. Asbury, H. The Merry Antics of Izzy and Moe. In: Hyde, S. and Zanetti, G. Players, p. 187.
    105. Lit Dig, ibid.