Prohibition in West Virginia was Popular but Doomed to Failure

I. Prohibition Popular at First

Prohibition in West Virginia was popular at first.  West Virginians 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, increase safety, and reduce crime and violence. That it would improve the economy, raise morality and protect the family and youth.

              Overview

I.   Prohibition Popular at First

II.  Problems

III. Repeal of Prohibition

IV.  Resources

Some employers viewed Prohibition as a way to increase the efficiency of their work force, especially their immigrant workers. One of the strongest supporters of Prohibition 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

prohibition in West VirginiaBut not everyone supported Prohibition. Organized labor tended to oppose it.  It believed 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 West Virginia 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 alcoholic beverages.

II. Problems

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.

Corruption

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 with a meal.  They went to guzzle alcohol while they could.

Dangerous Bootleg

Bootleg alcohol was carelessly made. It often contained lead toxins.  Creosote was added if color was needed.  Embalming fluid was occasionally 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

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 prohibiting the Sunday sale of distilled spirits. This is despite the fact that Sunday is the second busiest shopping day of the week.

Perhaps West Virginia will continues its push into the 21st Century by abolishing the final relics of Prohibition.

IV. Resources:  Prohibition in West Virginia

Anti-Saloon League of West Virginia. American Issue. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 1910-  (Magazine)

Hawes, H. Prohibition Index-manual, Virginia and West Virginia.  Charlottesville, VA: Michie, 1930.

Office of the State Commissioner on Prohibition. Eighth Biennial Report.  Charleston: The Office, 1930.

The Temperance Star. Charleston, WV: Crouch. (Newspaper)

West Virginia WCTU, The White Ribbon.  Fairmont, WV: Movement (Newspaper).