Prohibition in Iowa: Iowans wanted It to Work

I. Outlook was Bright

Prohibition in Iowa seemed destined for success.  The state had led the way to Prohibition. It was one of the three most strongly pro-Prohibition states in the union. It had its own state-wide prohibition in 1916. That was four years before National Prohibition. It was also the home of several national leaders of the prohibition movement.


I.   Outlook was Brifgt

II.  Problem

III. Die-Hard Supporters

IV.  Repeal

V.   Resources: Prohibition in Iowa

Iowans strongly supported Prohibition. They thought it would improve society. They were convinced that alcohol was the cause of virtually all crime. On the eve of Prohibition, at least one town in the state sold its jail. That was a mistake. Crime and violence increased greatly during Prohibition.

II. Problems

Making moonshine became big business, especially on farms across the state. However, much moonshine contained toxins such as lead, creosote and even embalming fluid. Those who drank it sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness, and painful death.

Bootleggers typically had to bribe police and public officials. To bootleggers it was a business expense. To corrupt officials it was “easy money.” To the public it was immoral corruption.

prohibition in Iowa

Prohibition in Iowa was a disappointing failure.

Some law officials worried that Des Moines might become a “little Chicago.” Al Capone controlled most alcohol distribution in the Midwestern states. Charlie “Cherry Nose” Gioe oversaw Capone’s liquor and other illegal operations in the Des Moines region.

Prohibition caused widespread serious problems. This led more and more Iowans to believe it was harmful on balance. Voters strongly supported Repeal.

III. Die-Hard Supporters

But some Prohibition leaders carried on the fight long after Repeal.  One was John Brown Hammond. He believed in direct and even violent action. This included wrecking speakeasies, much in the style of Carry Nation. He mellowed with age, but strongly promoted a return to Prohibition. Several months before his death in an Iowa nursing home he was working to organize “The Eighteenth Amendment Rescue Association.”

Similarly, Prohibition leader Smith Wildman Brookhart insisted until he died that “liquor is a poison and drinking it is a crime.”  Ida B. Wise was the head of the national Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and former head of the Iowa WCTU. She continued to lead efforts to return both the state and nation to Prohibition throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s.

IV. Repeal

But most Iowans came to a different conclusion. They came to believe that Prohibition didn’t improve health but threatened it. That it didn’t reduce crime but increased it. That it didn’t raise public morality but corrupted it. And they strongly supportrd Repeal.

Bottom line. Prohibition in Iowa and the nation was based on good intentions but had bad results.

V. Resources: Prohibition in Iowa

Bauer, B. Gentlemen Bootleggers: the True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots.  Chicago: Chicago Rev Press, 2014.

Covert, V. and Baker, C. Others had it Worse. Sour Dock, Moonshine, and Hard Times in Davis County, Iowa.  Iowa City: U Iowa Press, 2013.

Day, K. Capone’s Whiskey. The Story of Templeton Rye.  Des Moines: Mod Am Cinema, 2011. (DVD)

Iowa. General Assembly. Journal of the State Convention on Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Des Moines: 1933

Longdo, D., et al. Coming up Dry. Postcards of the Temperance Movement and Prohibition.  Ottumwa, IA: PBL, 2007.

McCann, L. Prohibition in Eastern Iowa. Des Moines:  Iowan, 2014.