Prohibition in New York State and Its Repeal (Discover 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. Therefore, it was not easy to achieve Prohibition in the state. 

          Overview

I.   Prohibition’s Promise

II.  Reality of Prohibition

III. Repeal

IV. Resources

But Prohibitionists worked long and hard. And powerful organizations spearheaded the effort. They included major Protestant churches, the Anti-Saloon League, and 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

Many residents thought that Prohibition in New York State 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.

II. Reality of Prohibition

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. In addition, Corruption during Prohibition extended to the highest levels of government.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy was endemic. For example, 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. That is, beers and cocktails.

Bootlegging

Organized smuggling of alcohol from Canada and elsewhere 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 across the St. Lawrence River separating the state from Canada. Murder and hijacking were common in the dangerous but lucrative bootlegging business.

Violence

prohibition in new yorkAn 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.

Then Federal Prohibition Bureau officials announced that the state would need to hire several thousand more agents to enforce Prohibition. That announcement actually promoted Repeal.     That’s because the state legislature passed a law to end Prohibition. Specifically, the law called for a constitutional convention to overturn the disastrous “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

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. This helped time-pressed consumers. It also helped retailers. They then had the ability to operate like other business in the 21st century.

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 auctions. Slowly, the vestiges of Prohibition in New York appear to be disappearing.

IV. Resources about Prohibition in New York

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