Temperance and Prohibition
“Whiskey is all right in its place – but its place is hell,” truer words were never spoken than these by Reverend Billy Sunday. Not to be confused with the Navy diver from the movie Men of Honor, the Reverend Billy Sunday that I quote was an American evangelist during the early twentieth century. In these days before the advent of PA systems tent revivals were very common and Sunday was one of the best and most talented of his time. The Reverend Sunday preached against all manner of vice, however he equated alcohol with being the devils juice. The first prohibition movement started in the Americas before we were even a country. As Colonial America was becoming more industrialized, workers and the poor moved into towns. These workers, many of whom were recent immigrants, brought with them little money and the love of alcohol. With few ordinances and nothing in the way of a modern police force, these early American workers were viewed as a problem to many in polite society. The first temperance association was founded in Connecticut in 1789 with the goal of banning the manufacture of whiskey. Soon other organizations formed, many of which were being led from either the pulpit or from the Masonic type fraternal organizations which were popular at the time. By 1825 our young country had its first national organization known as the American Temperance Society (ATS). This society was founded on February 13, 1826 in Boston Massachusetts. Within five years the society had grown to having over 2,000 local chapters and having close to 200,000 members, all of who had taken a pledge to not drink alcohol. The ATS in addition to being our nation’s first temperance movement was also our nation’s first national social movement. The ATS enjoyed large support in the north and embraced a reform platform that promoted the abolition of slavery, expanding women’s rights, temperance and societal improvement. By the mid 1830’s over a dozen independent temperance journals were being published, and true to its roots the temperance movement found support in the Second Great Awakening and the following Social Gospel movement. To be truly effective however the message of temperance needed to be moved to those who did not regularly attend a protestant church service and this was the goal of two crusading women in the 1870’s.
Julia Coleman and Mary Hunt were both former teachers who believed that to make national prohibition possible that they must influence the minds of the youth of America and they attempted to do this through The Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions (WCTU) Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in Evanston, Illinois in 1873. It is currently the oldest continuing non-sectarian women’s organization worldwide. Early members would enter saloons and sing hymns and pray with the patrons all the while urging saloon keepers to stop selling alcohol. The WCTU in its early days was a promoter of social change and called for reform of labor, prostitution, public health, sanitation, woman’s suffrage and of course prohibition. The Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction (DSTI) was the educational reform arm of the WCTU and both Coleman and Hunt put pressure on school boards as well as state legislatures to adopt the teaching of “Scientific Temperance Instruction.” This was a novel approach which honestly was quite effective and in just a few years they had compulsory temperance education being taught in public schools thereby indoctrinating a whole new generation which would be adults by the time that prohibition was passed through the eighteenth amendment. Although the content of many textbooks was criticized by scientists and educators by the mid 1890’s, for almost 20 years publishers had difficulty selling textbooks that were not approved by Mary Hunt. During these twenty years students were taught that alcohol was a dangerous and seductive poison that once imbibed would create an unnatural appetite for more, it was also taught that it was not a very large step from drinking liquor to committing crime. The ending of compulsory “Scientific Temperance Instruction” came from the Committee of Fifty in 1893 (Mezvinsky, 1961). This committee of scholars and scientists from the American Physiological Society used contemporary social scientific research to study the claims of the temperance movement and Scientific Temperance Instruction once moralism was removed from the equation. After looking at the findings of the Committee of Fifty the American Physiological Society began investigating the tactics used by Mary Hunt and the WCTU. They found that the textbooks had been deliberately written to frighten children with both half-truths and false claims. They found that those who opposed the scientific temperance propaganda were often pressured with being voted out of office or losing their job. Though the WCTU and its Scientific Temperance Instruction were taught to all children in school it still did not stop people from drinking. In fact Annual consumption of alcoholic beverages increased between 1880 and 1920 which coincides with the beginning of the WCTU’s efforts at Scientific Temperance Instruction and Federal Prohibition.
Much like all legislation attempting to illegalize a substance, Alcohol prohibition was supported by the fringe hate groups. One of the largest supporters of prohibition in 1915 was the Ku Klux Klan which was “revived in Atlanta in 1915 to defend Prohibition which existed in Georgia at the time” and “Enforcement of Prohibition, in fact, was a central, and perhaps the strongest goal of the Ku Klux Klan.” (Norberg, 2004) The KKK was not the only hate group or even group compelled by racial or national origin bases. Mary Hunt, who had controlled the pedagogy of American education for a generation said in 1897 that she had concern over “the enormous increase of immigrant population flooding us from the old world, men and women who have brought to our shores and into our politics old world habits and ideas [favorable to alcohol].” (Hanson) This strong anti-foreign prejudice during World War I was especially turned on immigrants from Germany and it was argued at the time that the alcoholic beverage industry consumed needed grain from the war effort. After decades of Scientific Temperance Instruction being pounded into the heads of children at school, and with a fear of drunken foreigners, and the belief that the alcohol making industry was using up needed grains for the war effort, the United States was ready to pass the Eighteenth Amendment.
Upon passage of the Eighteenth Amendment the evangelist Reverend Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral for John Barleycorn and preached on how great prohibition would be. He said, “The rein of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and comcribs” The strange thing is that many Americans actually believed all of this. Some communities sold off their jails since alcohol, which was deemed to be the only crime happening in those communities, was illegal. The Eighteenth amendment made the making or selling of alcohol illegal, it however did nothing about the possession of alcohol. For one year after prohibition was passed, people were still able to horde liquor. Within a week of the passage of prohibition Sears began selling portable alcohol stills through their catalog as it was perfectly legal to sell things to make alcohol, just not legal to sell alcohol. During this time California’s grape producers saw growers increase their acreage over 700 percent as there was a huge demand to buy grapes to make homemade wine. A very interesting article appeared in the August 6, 1928 edition of Time Magazine which talks about unique ways that mail order companies were selling wine making paraphernalia. (“Prohibition: Wine Bricks”) Under Section 29 of the Volstead Act there is a clause that allowed farmers to continue to make his own applejack or berry wine as long as it was non intoxicating fruit juice for home consumption. A company called Virginia Dare Vineyards began shipping grape juice that they said would ferment into champagne in the home. A group of California grape growers formed Fruit Industries Inc. and made an all in one kit where the consumer just had to pull the bung on the wine cask and wait for the grape juice inside to ferment. A final grape producer, called Vino Sano, began selling what became known as wine bricks, these are the origins of the famed bath tub sherry. The flavored brick of grapes came with the following warning: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not add three cups of sugar, do not shake twice daily, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine”
The Eighteenth Amendment was passed on August 1, 1917. (Roth, p. 202)While the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the production or sale of “intoxicating liquors” it did not define what was meant by the term “intoxicating liquor.” The statute that would define what this term meant was called the Volstead Act and even though it was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, his veto was overridden by the House of Representatives on the same day it was vetoed and by the Senate the following day. The Volstead Act had three distinct purposes. The first was to prohibit intoxicating beverages. The second was to regulate the manufacture, production, use and sale of high proof spirits for other than beverage purposes. The third purpose of the Volstead Act was to insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries and practices including religious events and rituals. In addition to the above the Volstead act said that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized by this act.” The effects of Prohibition could not have been predicted by anyone. Once legitimate businesses controlled the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages, now this was the providence of criminal gangs, backyard brewers, and pharmacies.
“When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality,” so said Al Capone one of the most notorious of prohibition gangsters. Each city during prohibition had its share of gangsters. The traditional Italian Mafia often did not want to become involved in a racket so maligned by much of the public. In fact it is estimated that of the twenty four families across the United States that less than half conducted any business at all in the sale of bootlegged liquor, though it is known for sure that they procured liquor for their own use. Of the five families of New York: Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese, only three of the families are known to have dealt bootleg liquor to the public. Charles “Lucky” Luciano was the king of booze for the Mafia during this era. As a friend of the Genovese Family, Lucky used Frank Costello’s trucking company as a front to import Scotch directly from Scotland, rum directly from the Caribbean, and whisky from Canada. After killing Salvatore Maranzano Luciano established The Commission which put an end to war and brought the Italian Mafia into the modern era. Luciano could not have done it without his Russian Jewish buddy Meyer Lansky. Lansky had a lot of brains and preferred to stay in the shadows, he acted as a financial advisor and was most like a partner for Lucky Luciano. It was through Lansky’s advisorship that the Genovese Family became phenomenally wealthy and was able to expand their legitimate operations to hotels in Florida and to gambling in the newly founded Las Vegas and Cuban casinos. Lansky was so smart that he was recruited by the Office of Naval Intelligence in World War II for their Operation Underworld. Operation Underworld was a two part mission the first of which the five families of New York provided security for the ship yards in New York and secondly looked for any German spies that were looking to sabotage or spy on these yards. The second part of the operation involved Lucky Luciano signaling Don Cologero Vizzini the most powerful Mafia boss in all of Sicily. Through Luciano’s signals Vizzini climbed onto the lead American tank and traveled on top of the lead tank for six days through enemy territory, being greeted and protected by the local population and leading Patton’s Third Division into the heart of Italy. For all of his help for the war effort Lucky Luciano was forced, as part of a plea bargain, to leave his beloved America forever, living out the rest of his days in his hotel in Cuba. Alfonse Scarface Capone was not as noble or as lucky as Luciano. Al Capone was born in Brooklyn to Southwestern Italian immigrants. After joining the Five Points Gang he moved to Chicago in 1921. Capone made an estimated $100 million a year for his gang called The Outfit with the largest earner being liquer, though he also operated both prostitution and gambling networks. Capone formed a smuggling network which distributed alcohol to the East Coast and supplied The Purple Gang of Detroit. These young gangs are often refered to as the “Young Turks” and they did not respect the ways of the older and traditional Italian mafia often refered to in the era as Mustache Pete’s. The old Sicilian way was to work in the confines of the Itallian and immigrant communities, while the Young Turks were more interested in working with Jewish and Irish gangs and trying to get millions from the public at large. Capone used these Jewish and Irish gangs to his full advantage. He would deal with anyone as long as they had the cash. After a long turf war with an Irish gang known as Bugs Moran’s North Side gang, Capone became very upset with having his booze trucks hijacked and massacred Bugs Moran’s crew. This massacre has become known as the worst gangland killing of the century where Seven members of the Moran gang were lined up and executed by Capone’s gang disguised as police officers. Because of the increasing violent nature of his crimes the federal government tried creative ways of indicting Al Capone and finally succeded when Eliot Ness provided the evidence necessary for tax evasion charges. Capone served the next fifteen years in jail where his syphilis rotted his brain and destroyed him physically, after being paroled from Alcatraz in 1939 he was no longer able to run his crime family and died eight years later from a heart attack ironically in his bathtub while drinking gin. Capone was not the only person who was harmed by the combination of gin and the bathtub.
During prohibition the most common thing for your average American to buy was either moonshine or grain alcohol. Much like todays grain alcohol Everclear the moonshine or grain alcohol of the prohibition era was close to 190 proof which equates to 95% alcohol. The cocktail first really emerged in popularity during prohibition because most people before this time had consumed whiskey, rum, or gin which was usually only 80 proof or 40% alcohol and tasted much better allowing it to be drank straight or with a splash of water. The high potency moonshine and grain alcohol was sometimes mixed in a cocktail with juice, tea, or coffee, or some would fill a tall pot (too tall to fit in the sink) with their moonshine or grain alcohol, then add at least an equal part if not much more water, and then add juniper berries which could be found on juniper bushes throughout many metropolitan areas. This is actually almost how modern gin is made except that it goes through a charcoal filtration process to remove any impurities and it also was made correctly which many of the moonshine during prohibition were not, leading to severe illness and sometimes death. Another source of severe illness occurred during this time especially in the south. Blues musicians of the 1930’s sang about Jake Leg and many people today and in fact at the time believe that Jake Leg was caused by drinking poorly made moonshine. This is not the truth however and actually Jake Leg is a medical condition caused by drinking a patent medicine common in the 19th century known as Jamaican Ginger Extract.
Jamaican Ginger Extract was a patent medicine which like many patent medicines was actually a convienant way for pharmacies to sell small bottles of “medicine” which were actually about 140 proof or 70% alcohol. The US Department of Agriculture found that Jamaican Ginger Extract tasted too good and that people might want to drink a whole lot of it so they said that it was against Prohibition laws and that the makers would have to add so much ginger as to make the Extract not pleasant to drink. Since the department issued an order that so many solids would have to be present when the Jamaican Ginger Extract was boiled down the two chemists importing the extract had a great idea, they would put plasticizer in the extract and that way it would have the correct weight when boiled down and pass the US Department of Agricultures requirements. The only problem is that the plasticizer that they used known as triotolyl phosphate is today known as a powerful neurotoxin that damages the nervous system and causes nerve damage to the spinal cord. Between 30,000 and 50,000 victims of Jake Leg are thought to have received permanent disability from drinking Jamaican Ginger Extract in the three months that the plasticizer was put into the extract. After learning about their horrible mistake the owners changed the name to Walkers Pure Jamaican Ginger Extract and added the large amounts of ginger that they needed to pass the governments test. Most of the afflicted victims of Jake Leg never recovered.
Hanson, D. J. National Prohibition of Alcohol in the U.S. Retrieved from http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/controversies/1091124904_6.html
Mezvinsky, Norton. (Mar., 1961). Scientific Temperance Instruction in the Schools. History of Education Quarterly, Vol.1, No.1.
Norberg, D. (2004). Ku Klux Klan in the Valley: A 1920’s Phenomenon (January 2009 ed.). White River Journal.
Prohibition: Wine Bricks. (1928). Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,742105,00.html
Roth, M. P. (2005). Criminal Justice in the Progressive Era. In Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System (1st ed., p. 202). Belmont California: Thomson Wadsworth.