Prohibition in New York State and Its Repeal

Prohibition: The Promise

Many residents had thought that Prohibition in New York State (1920-1933) would reduce crime. They thought it would improve health and safety, promote economic prosperity, and increase public morality. However, experience would prove the Noble Experiment to fail on all counts.

Prohibition: The Reality

Mob-controlled liquor quickly replaced legitimate tax-paying alcohol producers and retailers. Gangster-owned speakeasies replaced neighborhood drinking establishments. Within five years after Prohibition was imposed, there were over 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone by some estimates. So many speakeasies operated that New York was known as the “City on a Still.”

Prohibition in New York

Prohibition in New York caused serious problems.

Corruption

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

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy was endemic. A raid on one of the city’s most famous speakeasies caught a number of its politicians and other leading residents. The most famous and successful 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: beers and cocktails.

Bootlegging

Organized smuggling of alcohol from Canada and elsewhere quickly developed after Prohibition became the law. A “rum row” developed off the coast of New York City where ships lined up just beyond the three mile limit to off-load their cargoes onto speed boats under the cover of darkness.

In northern New York State, bootlegging was especially rampant across the St. Lawrence River separating the state from Canada. Murder and hijacking were common in the dangerous but lucrative bootlegging business.

Violence

An increase in often deadly violence 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.

Federal Prohibition Bureau officials inadvertently promoted Repeal by announcing that effective enforcement in the state would require hiring several thousand more Prohibition agents. The state legislature’s reaction was to pass a law calling for a constitutional convention to overturn the disastrous “experiment in social engineering.” Residents had come to the conclusion that Prohibition in New York State was not only impossible to enforce, but that it also created rather than solved problems.

Repeal

After Congress approved the 21st Amendment for states to ratify if they wished, 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 banning Sunday alcohol by allowing stores to open any six days, including Sunday, benefiting time-pressed consumers as well as retailers who now have the ability to operate like every other business in this 21st century economy. The success of the stores that opened on Sundays led the legislature to pass permanent seven day sales. New York also repealed an archaic ban on spirits auctions. Slowly, the remaining vestiges of Prohibition appear to be disappearing in New York.

Learn more about Prohibition in New York

Coffey, J. A Political History of the Temperance Movement in New York State, 1808-1920.  Pennsylvania State U, 1976.

Davis, M. Jews and Booze. Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition.  NY: NYU Press, 2012.

Everest, A. Rum across the Border. The Prohibition Era in Northern New York.  Syracuse: Syracuse U Press, 1978.

Lawson, E. Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws. New York City and Prohibition.  Albany: Excelsior, 2013.

Lerner, M. Dry Manhattan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 2008.