National Prohibition in New Mexico seemed to have a great future. Temperance sentiment had a long history in the state. In 1917, Mew Mexican voters approved state-wide prohibition by three-to-one. That was before National Prohibition went into effect in 1920.
There were high hopes that Prohibition would reduce crime, improve health, raise morality, and protect young people. These hopes would never see reality.
Many people refused to give up what they saw as their right to drink. To satisfy the demand, illegal dealers replaced legal ones
A newspaper editorialized a year after Prohibition. “[T]here are a dozen or more moonshine stills in operation in the immediate vicinity of Santa Fe. Everyone knows that more rotgut whiskey is being sold and drunk in Santa Fe than before the days [of Prohibition.]”
Historian David McCullough described one speakeasy.
One of the more notable establishments was housed in a three-story building. The quality of the drinks and the decor of the rooms changed on each floor. The first floor was for ‘poorer people’ who wished to quench their thirst with ‘white mule.’ …The second floor was for those slightly more affluent who ascend to ‘second heaven’… Only those with a ‘fat wad’ could make it to the third floor where good quality booze was sold. One could drink the top-floor liquor ‘without a chaser.’
Moonshiners tended to make their products carelessly. The moonshine often had lead toxins. The moonshiners added creosote if they wanted color. They sometimes added embalming fluid. The results could be distrous. Some consumers had paralysis, blindness, or painful deaths.
Prohibition led to a dangerous drinking pattern. That was drinking less often but much more. People didn’t go to a speakeasy to savor a drink with a meal. They usually went to get drunk.
Illegal operators usually had to bribe law enforcement officials. The widespread corruption and hypocrisy eroded support for Prohibition. For the first time in history, it became fashionable for women and young people to drink.
As time passed, residents concluded that Prohibition in New Mexico was a failure. It even made problems worse. It didn’t reduce crime but increased it. Didn’t improve health but often harmed it. It didn’t raise morality but lowered it. And it didn’t protect young people but threatened their welfare.
So, almost 80 percent of New Mexicans voted to repeal Prohibition. Santa Fe residents voted 2,768 to 201 for Repeal. Even in rural areas there was overwhelming support for abolishing Prohibition.
Learn more about Prohibition in New Mexico
Hill, J. Prohibition Tales from Shakespeare Ghost Town and Southwestern New Mexico. Albuquerque: Hough, 2003.
Springtime and Moonshine [in the Chama Valley during Prohibition.] Chama, NM: Chama Valley Tattler, 1986.