by Leon W. Kania
Post civil war, America was booming, brawling, brash, bigoted and full of booze. Immigrants flooded our shores and across the plains and mountains to the Pacific. Mines, mills and railroads absorbed men in a rough and tumble world where job advertisements often ended with "No Irish need apply." They worked hard and they played hard. Saloons sprang up like weeds, often one for every 150 people in the cities. As the social ills grew and more and more people recognized that we had a national drinking problem, the temperance movement gained momentum.
Emanating from the pulpit and initially supported mainly by women (who could not vote) the temperance movement would have a profound affect on American history. As they began to sway public opinion toward temperance, they became a political force to be reckoned with. This in turn fostered political awareness in American women and planted the seeds of the Woman's Suffrage Movement.
From a host of grass roots temperance groups, national ones evolved, such as The Women's Christian Temperance Union, The Anti-Saloon League and The Lincoln-Lee Legion. The latter's pledge reads, "Whereas, the use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage is productive of pauperism , degradation and crime; and believing it our duty to discourage that which produces more evil than good, we therefore pledge ourselves to abstain from the use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage.
As with any noble cause, we had zealots for whom the end justified the means. Carrie Nation, who liked to wade into saloons swinging an axe, was a sweet gentle lady in comparison to others. I won't go into some of racial, religious, ethnic and pseudo science arguments, but Hitler might have used some of their material in "Mein Kampf." To cite just a few examples, there were those who advocated government distribution of poisoned booze, torture, branding, exclusion from all churches, forbidding marriage, exile to concentration camps in the Aleutian Islands, genocide unto the fourth generation, dynamiting saloons and as technology advanced, dangling drinkers by their tongues beneath airplanes and flying them around as examples. Thankfully, more moderate heads prevailed and the movement focused on political action aimed at prohibition, regionally, nationally and eventually worldwide as The World League Against Alcoholism with branches in 50 nations on six continents.
The battle between the "wets" and the "dry" went on for years with the "drys" winning many regional victories, but with never enough strength to score on a national level. Special interest groups like brewers, distillers, churches, industrialists; campaign finance and the use of the media were brought into play like never before. The First World War gave the final edge or key to victory. With American involvement in the war imminent, the "drys" tailored their propaganda to link patriotism with abstinence, anti-German sentiment against breweries, most of whose owners were of German descent and food for victory by not wasting precious grain for distilling and brewing purposes. It worked, at first.
The Great Experiment
The Volstead Act became the law of the land as the 18th amendment to the constitution on 28 October 1919. It banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The "Drys" rejoiced. Some town sold their jails, sure that they had eliminated the cause of virtually all crime. The Federal Council of Churches issued a statement that said in part, "individual liberty must be controlled in the interest of public welfare."
There were some problems from the start. First, the law did not make consumption of alcohol illegal and a large part of the population wanted to consume. Second, the government's excise tax had pushed the price of booze up to eight times the price the manufacturers needed to make a profit so not only did the federal government lose the tax revenue, but they had created an artificial profit margin of over 800% for anyone with the nerve to make or import illegal whisky. Third, some states like Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New York and Wisconsin flatly refused to enforce prohibition, others only did so half-heartedly. The road to hell had been paved with good intentions from sea to shining sea and traffic soon picked up.
The combination of popular demand and high profit potential led to widespread disrespect for the law. Corruption among public officials, including law enforcement officers became rampant. Organized crime and violence grew enormously and many people died, were blinded or otherwise harmed by illicit booze.
Some statistics illustrate the magnitude of the phenomenon. New York City alone had 30,000 speakeasies. In Chicago alone, Al Capone made $60,000,000 per year, tax-free and by the time prohibition ended in 1933, nearly 800 gangsters had been murdered in that city. One of the stills discovered by Elliot Ness and his "untouchables" took up several floors of a phony paint company. Its production was piped to tank cars on a nearby siding. It had produced an estimated 480,000 gallons in six months and netted the mob around $1,000,000 profit. Since medicinal use of alcohol was legal, millions of prescriptions were written every year. The Chicago mob established breweries as fast as "The Untouchables" could raid them; standard production design was 100 barrels per day! Per capita, liquor consumption in Canada soared from 9 to 102 gallons, most of which was smuggled in to the U.S. 700,000 stills were seized between 1921 and 1925 which led to a brilliant remark by a government official; "This means that a great many people are distilling." In 1929 the "Secret Six" group of men who had recruited Elliot Ness and his "untouchables" estimated that the Chicago mobs income for 1928 was $120,000,000 and that $25,000,000 was being paid for graft and protection per year in Chicago. Fiorella H. LaGuardia, a prominent New York City politician testified to congress in 1926 that 7.50 to $12.00 a case was paid in graft on liquor brought in over the 12 mile limit, dependent on the greed of the public officials in charge. In 1925 the U.S. Coast Guard was augmented with twenty Naval destroyers to stop the flow of booze into the country, but the measure proved inadequate.
Pogo said it, "We have met the enemy, and he is us!"
By 1933, the country was weary of it all. The VCL (Voluntary Committee of Lawyers) formed by nine New York lawyers in 1927 with the declared purpose "to preserve the spirit of the constitution of the United States by bringing about the repeal of the 'so-called' Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment" did it! We were in the midst of a depression, the government needed the revenue, and the people needed jobs, hope and a nice cold beer.