The Noble Experiment
1. Accompanying the lawlessness of the anti-foreigner movement and the Ku Klux Klan was an even more widespread lawlessness caused by what was supposed to be a reform. Although an attempt to alter the personal habits of millions may seem the opposite of liberalism, a large number of Progressives supported the prohibition movement. Disgusted by the alliance between the liquor trade and corrupt politics, these reformers believed that prohibition would advance the cause of good government. But the crusading zeal required to add the 18th amendment to the
constitution had been provided largely by evangelical Protestants.
2. In 1919 the Volstead Act was passed to implement the 18th amendment. The act set January 16, 1920, as the date for prohibition to begin. National prohibition began silently, and with little resistance, but it soon became obvious that the law would be difficult to enforce. As soon as it became certain that prohibition would pass, Americans began to drink up existing stock with genuine enthusiasm. Much of it was bought up by the wealthy. As proof that at least some Ivy League schools had foresight, the Yale Club bought up enough liquor to last fourteen years. Of
course, most people could not afford to hoard so much even if it had been available.
3. Over Christmas season 1919 the country went on a last great spree before prohibition. By this time liquor was already so scarce that more than 100 people died drinking adulterated whiskey made from wood alcohol. This was not a happy augury for the 18th amendment.
4. Farewell parties to legal liquor were held over the country and they were lugubrious affairs. At a New York bar all the women at the “grave of drink” were given compacts in the shape of a coffin.
5. But some of the funerals were joyous affairs. Evangelist Billy Sunday held a happy funeral at which he buried the corpse of “John Barleycorn.” Thousands of churches celebrated the end of “Demon Rum.” Their rejoicing was premature.. Already the first drops of the deluge of illegal liquor had fallen.
6. In the first three months before the 18th amendment became effective, liquor valued at half a million dollars was stolen from government warehouses. The number of guards was increased, but it continued to disappear.
7. The price of liquor was so high many were tempted into the bootleg trade. By June 17, 1920, the federal courts of Chicago were hopeless congested. with prohibition cases. There were some 600 liquor trails pending. Within two months after prohibition two prohibition agents were indicted for corruption, and the lawless had hardly begun.
8. The Prohibition Bureau was established to enforce the law, and without much success. It is doubtful that national prohibition can be enforced even under a dictatorship. Alcoholic drinks have been made in every civilized society in history, and few things are more easily made than alcohol. So the job of the Prohibition Bureau was to enforce the almost impossible. But probably it could have done a better job of this impossible task of chasing down the foul and adulterated alcohol of the country. In the minds of many, the Prohibition Bureau attempting to stop the sale
of illegal liquor was a case of the unspeakable in full pursuit of the undrinkable.
9. The Prohibition Bureau was always the tool of national and state politics. The members were frequently political hacks–not well trained and not well paid.. And they were often corrupt. Moreover, the Bureau was continually kept short of men, money, and supplies by an economy minded congress. Certain methods of the Bureau gave it still more disrepute. Methods of collecting information such as bribery and wire tapping did not make the country think better of it. And the Bureau’s approval of putting poisons in industrial alcohol, which might be diverted into the bootleg market, made them seem accomplices in murder.
10. But worst of all was the direct killing of innocent citizens by prohibition agents. The life of an agent might be short. It was a dangerous position. Unfortunately, they made mistakes, too. In shoot outs with bootleggers they accidentally killed women and children, which made them loathed in many part of the country.
11. The Bureau eventually became more effective, but the fact that every year the number of illegal stills seized increased–282,122 in 1930–seemed to show the futility of trying to stop the sale of alcohol. President Herbert Hoover estimated that it would be impossible to come even near enforcing prohibition with a police force of less than a quarter of a million men. It was obvious that prohibition was not prohibiting, for example, statistics on arrests for drunkenness in Philadelphia.
1919 23,740 arrests for drunkenness (before prohibition)
12. In 1925 there were more than a thousand arrests per week for intoxication in Philadelphia when the United States was nationally dry. In large cities such as St. Louis, Missouri, it was frankly admitted that no politician could be elected unless he declared his opposition to prohibition. But in Missouri at large to be elected to important state office it was necessary to be a dry. Humorists Will Rogers remarked: “If you think this country ain’t dry, just watch ‘em vote; if you this country ain’t wet, just watch ‘em drink. You see, whey they vote, it’s counted, but when they drink it ain’t.”
13. In the depths of dry Texas, conditions were so bad in towns such as Galveston, with its open houses of prostitution, gambling halls, and saloon, that a prominent law officer shrugged off the town as being outside the United States.
14. There were five main sources of illegal liquor 1) imported liquor, 2) diverted industrial alcohol, 3) moonshine 4) illicit beer, and 5) illicit wine. The first two sources supplied most of the decent liquor available in the early twenties. If this condition had continued into the late twenties there might have been some hope of adequate enforcement. But the production of moonshine and beer and wine in the home decentralized the making of illegal liquor to such an extent that enforcement became virtually impossible. When bootleg liquor was made in half the homes in the
United States, there was no stopping the flood.
15. Prohibition began midnight January 16, 1920. Twenty-four hours later the public received its first enforcement news. Four stills, two in Detroit and two in Hammond, Indiana, were raided the first day. Ten days after prohibition began prohibition agents raided a still near Pelham, Georgia, with a capacity of 500 gallons daily.
16. Prohibition was especially profitable to our neighbor, Canada, The migration of thirsty Americans across the border was a great boon to the Canadian economy. (Now people are going to Canada for cheaper prescription drugs). Soon Canada was also exporting one million gallons of spirits a year to the U.S.
17. Much of the bootleg liquor was bad. People went blind, went crazy, were paralyzed, and died due to adulterated liquor. Reputedly, dead rats and pieces of rotten meat were sometimes found in moonshine liquor. One bootlegger said mash from which moonshine was distilled was composed of sugar, water, yeast, and garbage–“The more juicy the garbage, the better the mash and the better the ‘shine’.”
18. Bad alcohol killed 25 men in three days in New York City in October 1928. There was a plague of “jakitis,” “jakefoot,” or “giner foot” that swept the Southwestern states in 1930. The disease was caused by drinking Jamaica Ginger (a flavoring extract) with its high alcoholic content. Large amounts of the extract caused the toes and feet to be paralyzed. Other people drank vanilla extract, and medicines with high alcohol content. The Prohibition Bureau estimated that in 1930 there were 8,000 cases of jakitis in Mississippi alone.
19. Huge numbers of people entered the illegal liquor trade. A, perhaps, typical case of small time bootlegging was Jennie Justo, the “Queen of bootleggers” in Madison, Wisconsin. She worked her way through the University of Wisconsin selling bootleg wine. Eventually she set up a speakeasy (illegal bar) for herself and students. Even though she spent six months in the Milwaukee House of Corrections for bootlegging, she considered it a respectful way of making a living and of fulfilling a community need.. So did many others.
20. Perhaps. The most alarming result of prohibition was to foster organized crime. Lawless gangs had operated in American cities for many years, plundering the community through robbery, extortion, gambling houses, etc. But prohibition enormously increased the personnel and power of organized crime. It opened a new criminal occupation, with less risk of punishment, with more certainty of gain, and with less social stigma than the usual forms of crime such as robbery, and larceny.
21. The simultaneous coming of the automobile, Thompson machine guns, and telephones allowed local gangsters to extend their control over entire cities and states. To do this they needed a steady income. This income was provided by national prohibition.
22. Organized crime found its capital in Chicago where “Scarface” Al Capone amassed a fortune estimated at $20 million. Some 10,000 speakeasies contributed to Capone’s profits. He commanded a private army of several hundred thugs ready at an instants notice to bomb businesses which refused to pay protection money or to kill rival gangsters. Some 500 gang murders occurred in Chicago in the 1920s and most of them went unpunished. By the mid-20s Capone had gained complete control of a Chicago suburb, Cicero, and had installed his own mayor. Other cities had crime problems scarcely less severe.
23. The immunity which gangsters seemed to enjoy gave testimony to the tie between organized crime and corrupt politics–part of the huge profits were used to bribe policemen, prosecutors, mayors, and judges. In Chicago at one time the Terrible Gennas gang had 5 police captains, and 400 policemen on their payroll
24. In New York speakeasies paid protection money to Dutch Schultz who was allied with Tammany Hall (Democratic Organization) powers like Jimmy Hines. But it was more than gangs. Prohibition seemed to foster a general indifference to lawlessness.
25. President Hoover appointed the Wickersham Commission (1929-31) to study enforcement problems. It revealed the inability of the Prohibition Bureau to control illegal liquor. One man testifying before the commission spoke for many law-abiding citizens when he said of the racketeers:
“Today there is not any feeling of resentment against them, because they are looked upon as being part of a trade to satisfy a social want. There is not a feeling of prosecution on behalf of the law even for the most vicious crime committed. It is all a reflection on the social mind. We seek by law to tell people you can not do so and so, when the people are not in that frame of mind. . . .They want their liquor. They do not care what chances the other fellow takes as long as they don’t take the chance.”
26. The concept of the honest bootlegger, making a living out of a trade just as other people did, was a common rationalization of respectable men to excuse their patronage of criminals. This attitude even extended to children. In one survey a group of school children voted that the bootlegger took first place in community activities.
27. Criminals themselves were encouraged by the patronage of the respectable to think that they were equally good members of society. Al Capone asked? “What’s Al Capone done, then? He’s supplied a legitimate demand. Some call it bootlegging. Some call it racketeering. I call it a business. They say I violate the prohibition law. Who doesn’t?”
28. Effective steps were not taken to curb lawlessness until the FBI took up the problem in the early 1930s. Capone was finally arrested and sent to prison not for violating the prohibition law, but for evading federal income tax.
29. Prohibition became less and less popular. On December 5, 1933, a sufficient number of states ratified the 21st amendment to repeal the 18th, and the prohibition experiment came to an inglorious end.