Prohibition in West Virginia. What was it like? Was it popular. Opposed? Feared? Let’s take a look.
I. Prohibition Popular at First
III. Repeal of Prohibition
I. Prohibition Popular at First
Prohibition in West Virginia was popular at first. Residents had long favored outlawing alcoholic beverages. They created state-wide prohibition in 1914. Residents widely supported National Prohibition in 1920. They thought it would improve health. It would increase safety. And it would reduce crime and violence. That it would improve the economy. Would raise morality. And that would protect the family and youth.
Some employers viewed Prohibition as a way to increase the efficiency of their work force. Especially of their immigrant workers. One of the strongest supporters was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It insisted that those who opposed it were un-American. It often took enforcement into its own hands. The Klan also worked with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). They were partners in Prohibition.
Organized Labor Opposed
But not everyone supported Prohibition. Labor unions tended to oppose it. They thought it was an attempt to make workers more easily controlled. One of the most powerful union leaders was Samuel Gompers. The 18th Amendment created Prohibition. He complained that it was the only amendment to reduce the freedoms of Americans.
Many people in the state weren’t going to let their freedom to drink be denied. Legitimate tax-paying alcohol producers and retailers were outlawed. But illegal operators moved in quickly. They met the high demand for alcohol.
Tradition and terrain combined to make the state an ideal place to make moonshine. Untaxed money could easily be made. Police and sheriffs were routinely bribed. Politicians were also widely on the take. This was just a cost of doing business.
The widespread corruption caused by Prohibition created a deep lack of respect for it. Flaunting Prohibition was popular. Especially among young people. And, for the first time, it became fashionable for women to drink.
Prohibition also led to the pattern of infrequent but very heavy drinking. People didn’t go to a speakeasy to have a leisurely drink. They went to guzzle alcohol while they could.
Bootleg alcohol was carelessly made. It often contained lead toxins. Creosote was added if color was needed. Embalming fluid was sometimes added for an extra “kick.” Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness and painful death.
This led some drinkers to switch to opium, cocaine, hair tonic, sterno or other dangerous substances. That they would have been unlikely to use them in the absence of Prohibition.
Prohibition denied the state tax revenues from alcohol. And at the very time the it was causing dramatic increases in crime and violence, heavy court workloads, and over-crowded jails.
III. Repeal of Prohibition in West Virginia
Crime and other problems caused by Prohibition mushroomed. More and more residents decided that the cure was much worse than the disease. They called for Repeal.
Prohibition in West Virginia ended long ago. Yet temperance sentiment still endures. For example, West Virginia remains one of the few states still prohibits the Sunday sale of distilled spirits. This is despite the fact that Sunday is the second busiest shopping day of the week.
Perhaps the state will continues its push into the 21st Century. It could do so by abolishing the final relics of Prohibition.
IV. Resources on Prohibition in West Virginia
WV Alcohol Laws. Do you really know them?
Anti-Saloon League of WV. American Issue. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 1910- (Mag).
Hawes, H. Prohibition Index-manual, VA and WVi. Charlottesville, VA: Michie, 1930.
Office of the State Comm on Prohib. Eighth Biennial Report. Charleston: The Office, 1930.
The Temperance Star. Charleston, WV: Crouch. (Newspaper.)
WV WCTU, The White Ribbon. Fairmont, WV: Movement. (Newspaper.)