Prohibition in New Jersey: Its Rise and Fall

The Promises of Prohibition

New Jersey residents welcomed Prohibition at first.  Many residents thought it would reduce crime, improve health, increase safety and raise public morality. But New Jersey quickly became a hotbed for illegal alcohol or moonshine. The promised benefits of Prohibition never occurred. It actually created more problems.

Ira Reeves

prohibition in New Jersey

Col. Ira Reeves

Enter army hero Col. Ira Reeves. He became head of the New Jersey district for federal Prohibition enforcement. Reeves was determined to make Prohibition work. The teetotaler energetically led raids all over the state. He shut down speakeasies, roadhouses, stills, breweries, and bottling plants. Reeves confiscated bootleg shipped by car truck, train and boat. He was indefatigable.

But Reeves quickly became disillusioned. Virtually everyone around him drank with impunity. Under political pressure, he had to promise not to raid the state legislature’s annual dinner. But worse was the pervasive corruption of law enforcement officers and entire departments.

Corruption

The chief of police in Trenton had Reeves’ agents arrested for carrying concealed guns without a permit. That’s when they tried to shut down a brewery. In Essex County police showed up to protect a still. Reeves then discovered that his own agents had been accepting bribes.

prohibition in New JerseyJudicial bribery also hindered prosecution. Bootleggers were caught red-handed unloading moonshine from a barge in the Rancocas Creek. Yet prosecutors dropped all charges for supposed “lack of evidence.”

The Colonel came to believe that his ceaseless efforts had been in vain. He thought that Prohibition could never be made to work. Reeves resigned after eight months in office.

Organized Crime

Reeves realized that Prohibition actually promoted organized crime. That it led to political and law enforcement corruption. That it created widespread disrespect for the law. That the sometimes toxic moonshine endangered health and safety. And that Prohibition and lowered public morality.

The Crusaders

This led the former Prohibition Bureau administrator to become active in The Crusaders. This was a Repeal organization. He wrote speeches, articles and a book about his experiences. This helped promote Repeal.

Reeves had the strength of his convictions. He saw that Prohibition was not only failing but creating serious problems. His work helped bring about the end of Prohibition with Repeal.

Prohibition in New Jersey had been a disaster.

Learn more about Prohibition in New Jersey

Dodd, P. and Pike, H. The Spirited Ladies of Liberty Street. A Story of Liberation and Liquor in Prohibition. Denver: Outskirts, 2009.

Field, V.  New Jersey Coast Guard Stations and Rumrunners.  Charleston, SC : Arcadia, 2004.

Linderoth, M. Prohibition on the North Jersey Shore.  Charleston, SC : Hist Press, 2010.

Sinclair, D.  “Demon Rum.” A Bibliography of Publications about Liquor and New Jersey, 1779-1932. New Brunswick: Rutgers U, 1996.