Prohibition in New York State and Its Repeal (The Facts)

Prohibition in New York State lasted from early 1920 through 1933. A large proportion of the state’s population was in New York City. They tended to oppose it. So it was not easy to achieve Prohibition in the state. 

But Prohibitionists worked long and hard. And powerful groups led the effort. They included major Protestant churches. The Anti-Saloon League.  And, of course, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

The most important name in promoting Prohibition in New York State was William H. Anderson. His story both remarkable and fascinating.


I.   Prohibition’s Promise

II.  Reality of Prohibition

III. Repeal

IV. Resources

Prohibition in New York State

I. Prohibition’s Promise

Many residents thought that Prohibition in New York State would reduce crime. They thought it would improve health and safety. That it would promote the economy. And that it would increase morality. But the Noble Experiment would fail on all counts. Indeed, it caused many serious problems.

II. Reality of Prohibition

Mob-controlled liquor quickly replaced legitimate tax-paying alcohol interests. Speakeasies owned by gangsters replaced neighborhood drinking venues. Within five years after Prohibition was begun, there were over 100,000 speakeasies in New York City. So many speakeasies existed that New York was known as the “City on a Still.”


Mobsters opened large nightclubs with elaborate floor shows. They featured popular bands. Speakeasies, blind pigs, and nightclubs flourished. That’s because police were widely bribed. In essence, the speakeasies and nightclubs bought “protection.” But it was from the very people paid to enforce the law. Also, Corruption during Prohibition extended to the highest levels of government.


Hypocrisy was endemic. A raid was done on one of the city’s most famous speakeasies. It caught a number of its politicians and other leading residents.

The most famous Prohibition agents in the state were “Izzy” Einstein and Moe Smith. They enjoyed relaxing after a hard day enforcing Prohibition. Then they sat back and enjoyed their favorite beverages. That is, beers and cocktails.


Organized smuggling of alcohol quickly developed. A “rum row” formed off the coast of New York City. There, ships lined up just beyond the three mile limit. They then off-load their cargoes onto speed boats under the cover of darkness.

In northern New York State, bootlegging was especially rampant. It was across the St. Lawrence River. That separates the state from Canada. Murder and hijacking were common in bootlegging. Yet it was highly lucrative.


prohibition in new yorkThere was an increase in often deadly violence. This eroded support for Prohibition. Imprisonment reached a high after it became a felony to violate Prohibition. The number of violators sent to jail doubled. And the federal prison population in the state jumped from 5,000 to 12,000.

Then Federal Prohibition Bureau said the state would need to hire several thousand more agents. That was to enforce Prohibition. That statement actually promoted Repeal. That’s because the state legislature passed a law to end Prohibition. That is, the law called for a constitutional convention. It was to overturn “experiment in social engineering.”

Residents had come to believe that Prohibition in New York State was impossible to enforce. They also believed that it created rather than solved problems.

III. Repeal

prohibition in New York
Prohibition in New York caused serious problems.

Congress approved the 21st Amendment for Repeal. States could ratify it if they chose. New Yorkers voted almost eight to one in favor of Repeal.

Over the decades, New York has made progress in modernizing its alcohol laws. In 2003, the state struck down its Blue law. A new law allowed stores to open any six days. That included Sunday. This helped time-pressed consumers. It also helped retailers. They then had the ability to operate like other business.

The success of the stores that opened on Sundays led the legislature to pass permanent seven day sales. New York also repealed an outdated ban on spirits (liquor) auctions. Slowly, the vestiges of Prohibition in New York appear to be disappearing.

IV. Resources

Books: Prohibition in New York
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