Prohibition: A Turbulent Time

Leading up to 18th Amendment, a lot of emphasis was placed on alcohol consumption as the root of crime and problems in society

Leading Up to Prohibition

Even in the 1800s, blame was placed on alcohol for disrupting communities. Fueled by religious fervor, a version of “Prohibition Light” was enacted in places such as Massachusetts, Maine, and Ohio. In 1838, a Massachusetts law prohibited the sale of spirits in limited quantities. In 1846, Maine passed a law prohibiting alcohol statewide (it was repealed two years later). In the late 1800s, Ohio attempted to prohibit the sale of alcohol when the Women’s Christian Temperance Union joined forces with the Anti-Saloon League.


Leading the Charge

These two determined groups believed that alcohol use was responsible for society’s problems at the time, such as poverty, violence, and what they deemed immoral behavior. The work of early anti-alcohol groups led to 23 states having anti-saloon laws by 1916. 

Ironically, the 18th Amendment that declared the Prohibition period beginning in 1919 didn’t eradicate crime, poverty, violence, or neglected neighborhoods. What it did do for sure was lead to more sophisticated forms of crime. People got organized and formed operations for illegally manufacturing and selling alcohol. Known as bootlegging, smuggling alcohol became a profitable industry for crime “families” despite the hurdles.

What is Bootlegging?

The term “bootlegging” is believed to date back to the 1880s when white men would hide liquor flasks in the legs of their tall boots. The term carried over to describe any illegal sale or procurement of controlled or stolen items by land. 

Prohibition bootlegging began when Americans smuggled liquor over the Canadian and Mexican borders. Before the Coast Guard started inspecting ships, bootlegged alcohol also came by sea from places including the Bahamas, Cuba, Newfoundland, Miquelon, and Sainte-Pierre. The tactic of obtaining illegal liquor by sea is often referred to as rum-rumming, as rum was one of the least expensive forms of liquor one could obtain during Prohibition.

Prohibition Work-Arounds

Not only could a person caught with alcohol be jailed, but the alcohol itself during Prohibition could be dangerous. Since it was concealed through a variety of methods, some of it was actually unfit for consumption. Bootleggers were known to make their own liquor from corn and included “obnoxious,” or harmful, chemicals in order to be able to claim it wasn’t meant for consumption. 

The methods used to “clean” the liquor on the sly weren’t always successful and could lead to blindness, paralysis, or death. 

During Prohibition medicinal liquor could be obtained via prescription, and these were often forged to work around the law. Drug stores actually dispensed medicinal whiskey to be used as an internal anesthetic or an external antibiotic. This is why mothers from generations past used to rub whiskey on the gums of their babies; it did work to reduce the pain of teething! What else could your real or fake liquor prescription be for?

  • Toothaches
  • Pneumonia
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Depression
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Indigestion

Whether or not medicinal liquor was really helping legitimate medical ailments didn’t matter; drug stores operated by Charles Walgreen (sound familiar?) were doing so much business that the chain grew from 25 to 525 during Prohibition. They either truly believed they were helping people, or they were just taking advantage of ways to make extra money for their business.

While these medicinal prescriptions were understandably questionable, the police were far too busy with organized crime bootlegging alcohol. Plus, with popular drinks and consumer products containing cocaine up until the 1920s, perhaps forged whiskey prescriptions were the least of their problems.

Thankfully, with continued research, we know more about alternative medicines than ever before. And while some, like whiskey prescriptions for babies, have thankfully gone out of style, others have been and continue to be proven as beneficial today.

Prominent Mob Bosses During Prohibition

Politically, prohibition was a huge failure. It’s partially responsible for the boom of organized crime which persisted in cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, East Harlem, and Brooklyn. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 via the 21st Amendment, organized crime continued to operate and instead of bootlegging alcohol, they turned to trafficking narcotics, funding casinos, working as blood-thirsty loan sharks, and more unsavory activities.

Here are some of the most well-known mob bosses who rose to fame thanks to their work during Prohibition in the U.S..

  • Giuseppe “Joe” Aiello
  • Al “Scarface” Capone
  • Moe “Mr. Las Vegas” Dalitz
  • Jack “Legs” Diamond
  • Jack Ignatius Dragna
  • Vincent Drucci
  • Waxey Gordon
  • Meyer Lansky “Mob’s Accountant”
  • George “Bugs” Moran
  • Ollie Quinn
  • George Remus
  • Joseph “Polack Joe” Saltis
  • Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel
  • Stephane “Queenie” St. Clair
  • Oscar “Dutch” Voight

Prohibition and the Roaring 20s

While there is no doubt many Americans were in support of Prohibition, it became clear in the 1920s that many were not. This decade is referred to as the “Roarin’ 20s” for a reason.

During this decade, bootlegged liquor and speakeasies (illegal bars) were popular despite Prohibition. People wanted to celebrate the booming industries of automobiles, aviation, Hollywood, and the rise of the radio. Easier access to music and news gave people reasons to come together in bars and clubs even if what they were selling wasn’t legal. In fact, the era lives on today in films such as The Great Gatsby and modern bars that emulate the Roarin’ 20s style.

Besides good times, the 20s are also known for:

  • Construction booms
  • Growth of electricity use
  • Mass production of goods
  • Sound movies
  • New infrastructure to support transport of goods
  • Women’s Suffrage
  • Art Deco design and architecture (the Chrysler Building was finished in 1930)
  • Expressionism and Surrealism in art
  • Jazz music
  • Dance (foxtrot, waltz, Charleston)
  • Growth in fashion (“flappers” discarded corsets in exchange for drop-waist dresses)
  • Literature (The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Sun Also Rises)
  • Magazines (printed on cheap, pulp paper made it magazines an accessible form of entertainment for more people)

Prohibition and the Great Depression

When the stock market crashed in 1929 on what is now referred to as “Black Tuesday,” the United States entered the Great Depression years. Following the explosion of art and literature in the 20s, advances in women’s rights, and medical discoveries such as penicillin, the 30s were even harder to bear. Jobs were scarce, and the loss of jobs related to the manufacture and distribution of alcohol didn’t help.

If Americans hadn’t yet gathered to officially oppose Prohibition before, they certainly were now. There was the Americans Against Prohibition Association, and a Presidential candidate taking a very public stance. In 1932, part of Presidential hopeful Franklin D. Roosevelt’s platform was a plan to repeal the 18th Amendment and end Prohibition. Roosevelt won the election and by 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. However, it wasn’t until 1966 that all 50 states had abandoned Prohibition.

What Does the 21st Amendment State?

Section 1: 

The Eighteenth article of Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2:

The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United State for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3:

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

This boils down to the new amendment once again making it legal to transport, sell, and consume intoxicating liquors. 

Ways in Which Prohibition was a Success

Sometimes touted as a social experience, Prohibition is credited with some successes despite its political failings. Although it didn’t stop Americans from drinking altogether, it did do the following:

  • Reduced alcohol consumption to 30% less per capita than before Prohibition was enacted.
  • Reduced deaths caused by cirrhosis of the liver between 10 to 20%.
  • Murder rate was reduced by 29% in some regions.

So, before you label Prohibition as nothing but a failed social experiment, look at all that did occur during the 20s regardless.

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