Massachusetts had been among the very first states to ratify National Prohibition (1920-1933). For decades the abolition of drinking had been touted as the solution to the nation’s problems. That included poverty, ill-health, crime, violence and other ills. On the eve of its implementation, most Bay Staters were optimistic. The dream of Prohibition in Massachusetts was coming true.
Famous evangelist Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral in Boston for “John Barleycorn.'” The “mourners” threw alcohol bottles into his symbolic casket. Sunday then extolled the benefits of Prohibition. “The rein of tears is over,” he said. “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and jails into storehouses.”
It was a beautiful dream that soon turned into a nightmare. With its deeply indented coastline, the state soon became a center of bootlegging.
A “rum row” existed off the coast of Massachusetts just beyond the three mile limit. Ships off-loaded their cargoes onto speed boats. Murder and hijacking were common. It was a dangerous but lucrative business.
Vast sums of untaxed money were made. Police were routinely bribed. Entire law enforcement offices were corrupted to the very top. Politicians were also widely on the take. The revelations of such corruption lowered respect for the law, which was widely violated.
Decades after Prohibition ended, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard described the ingenuity of a moonshiner in his neighborhood. “One old guy peddled moonshine out of a baby carriage. My aunt used to say, ‘That lovely little man, he’s always wheeling his little child along the street.'”
Prohibition led to the many problems. They included the establishment of thousands of speakeasies. The consumption of sometimes toxic bootleg alcohol. The corruption of law enforcement officers and politicians. The lowering of public morality. Disrespect for law. And increased violence.
In 1924, the Constitutional Liberty League of Massachusetts took action. It joined with the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the American Federation of Labor. They created the Joint Legislative Committee. That group led the effort to have the first congressional examination of Prohibition.
In 1930, voters repealed state enforcement of Prohibition. Later, Massachusetts ratified Repeal of National Prohibition.
Prohibition in Massachusetts had been a nightmare.
Over the decades since 1933, Massachusetts has made some progress in modernizing its alcohol laws. In 2003, the state struck down its Blue law banning Sunday alcohol sales. This benefitted consumers. It also benefitted retailers. They can now operate like every other business in the 21st century.
Learn more about Prohibition in Massachusetts
Duis, P. The Saloon. Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920. Urbana: U Illinois Press, 1983.
Stoddard, C. and Woods, A. Fifteen Years of the Drink Question in Massachusetts. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, c. 1929.
Woods, A. Social Effects of Prohibition as seen in Boston and Massachusetts. Boston: Massachusetts Anti-Saloon League, c.1920.